Japan Worries About China – Later

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Workers are seen on the deck of China's first aircraft carrier at the port of Dalian after it finished its maiden sea trial last month. Photo / Reuters

TOKYO – For the second time since taking office this month, Prime Minister Yoshihoko Noda has warned about China’s military ambitions in the Far East.

“I am concerned about their reinforcement of national defense power, which lacks transparency, and their acceleration of maritime activities,” Noda said during debate in the Diet Wednesday.

Maybe he should worry about something else – for all its bellicosity, it will be a decade at least before China could pose a credible military threat to Japan or US forces in the region.

True, China says it plans to spend about $90 billion on defense this year. That’s the most ever. Analysts say that with hidden costs, the actual amount is closer to $400 billion, second only to the United States.

China is already developing a more modern military. It began sea trials last month on its first aircraft carrier, began construction of its second, and is flight-testing a stealth fighter plane.

What’s more, China’s been increasingly assertive in backing claims to nearly all of the South China Sea as well as disputed islands near Japan and Korea.

Undated photo of a Chinese J-20 stealth fighter in Chengdu / Reuters

Relations still haven’t recovered from last September, when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed — or was rammed by, depending on who tells the story — two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near islands administered by Japan but claimed by China.

The Japanese arrested the trawler captain, but released him under heavy diplomatic pressure from China.

“China’s frictions with the United States, Japan and India are likely to persist and intensify. As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict,” concludes a June report by The Lowy Institute, a think-tank based in Sydney, Australia.

Or, possibly not.

It’ll likely take China 10 years or more to finish testing the new stealth aircraft, produce them in significant numbers and deploy them with properly trained crews. The aircraft carrier that eased off the docks this summer is an obsolete leftover, purchased second-hand from the Ukraine and refurbished.

“When the Chinese finally deploy an operational aircraft carrier — and there is a big distinction between sea trials and becoming fully operational — the proper US response should be to congratulate Beijing on finally achieving the status of the Soviet — or Ukrainian — navy, circa 1984,” says Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum CSIS, in Honolulu.

Though not advertised, Japan already has one of the most potent militaries in the world, bristling with F-15 and F-2 fighter planes and sleek, modern warships. Earlier this year, it began shifting ground forces, aircraft and surveillance units to its southern islands, nearest China.  Presumably, just in case.

Noboru Yamaguchi, Director of the Center for National Security & Crisis Management at Japan’s National Defense Academy, says China poses no threat in the short term.

“Military capability is what you have accumulated over the past 20 or 30 years. It takes a long time,” says Yamaguchi, who was a special advisor to the Kan administration.

“The question we should ask now is, Whether we should really be concerned about China. I don’t think we know the answer yet. But we shouldn’t go into a panic — we have 20 more years,” he says.

Zhiqun Zhu, an East Asia specialist at Bucknell University, says China couldn’t confront the US or Japan militarily even if it wanted to. As late as 1990, he says, China’s ground forces still relied on “human wave” attacks.

“Even if China has invested more in the military, its capability is still about 20 to 30 years behind that of the US, except in certain areas,” says Zhu.

If Prime Minister Noda really is truly concerned, he’s not acting like it. After taking office this month, he appointed as his new defense minister a virtually unknown politician who had spent 25 years in the Agriculture Ministry.

The new minister, Yasuo Ichikawa, describes himself as  “an amateur” on defense issues.

Perhaps that’s something for Noda to be concerned about.