The European perception of the geopolitical situation in the Far East in recent decades has been predominantly polarized by China's economic and military growth. A growth guided by an increasingly assertive, provocative and muscular policy that is projected onto the waters of the China Sea, worrying the other coastal states (read article "The Chinese maritime strategy").
The growing threats represented by an increasingly aggressive China on the western Pacific, with the many disputes relating to maritime borders and dominance over some islets, are forcing the Navies of the other coastal countries to reinforce their naval devices. (read article "Hong Kong, Beijing and the South China Sea”) In this context, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force can count on an important military budget and cutting-edge industrial capacity to protect its interests in the North-Western Pacific.
In this context, it seems most appropriate to analyze the international context in which Japan operates and what its actions are in the maritime field, a sensitive sector for its economy and its international relations.
The geopolitical framework
The Asia Pacific area is characterized by a situation of ongoing widespread conflict, also favored by the absence or scarce relevance of collective security organizations that go beyond consultative meetings, which almost always end with generic declarations of intent and where national interests ultimately prevail. In short, meetings that rarely succeed in agreeing or imposing effective solutions. A situation that has led the Asia-Indo-Pacific area to be the one where the greatest world growth in purchases of heavy weapons has occurred, in which the six major countries (India, China, Australia, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea) accounted for 50% of the global growth in arms purchases. In this context it should be remembered that as many as five countries in the area are equipped with nuclear weapons.
Added to these are the temptations in the same direction of Japan and South Korea, worried about the growing threats to their own security, represented by China and North Korea.
From a diplomatic point of view, it is useful to remember that the area is characterized by the lack of peace treaties which, when respected, are able to contribute to stability. This is also due to the lack of mutual trust, a residue of conflicts that have not yet been fully resolved.
In this context, two different approaches continue to oppose each other. The US one is based on the slogan "pivot to Asia" and takes as its basis the alliance system inherited from the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War period. This is an approach contested by China, which aspires to build a regional system based on the slogan "Asia for Asians", which excludes the presence of foreign actors. By promoting a model that includes only Asian countries and an alternative to the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC) in fact believes it can gradually prevail on the continent. These are two models which, according to those who support them, would make it possible to contribute to the stability and development of the area.
From a military point of view, Washington's vast superiority on the aeronautical level is still decisive, which, however, has recently been affected by the technical difficulties of maintaining an overall projection on the Asian continent, much easier for Beijing. The USA are therefore trying to make up for the difficulties of penetrating the continent with the transfer of military power to the Indo-Pacific theatre, through a change in the level of the air-naval presence which is expressed with the strengthening of the local command and the increase of bases and landing points made in some allied countries, reinforced by continuous joint exercises. The aim is also to increase the perception and sense of security produced by the permanent presence of the American device in friendly coastal countries.
Certainly Chinese policy does not positively influence any attempts at confidence building in the area, having one of the main stated objectives the aspiration to reunify China, with clear reference to Taiwan (read article "Beijing and Taipei”), Hong Kong's continuing dominance of political life and the reassertion of its "historical rights" over much of the North and South China Sea. A clear and explicit affirmation of its new expansive goals also in terms of external projection, which represents an explicit threat to the interests of the other coastal countries.
All of this needs to be put in a system with the problems originating from North Korea's nuclear power ambitions and its constant threats to the security and stability, not only of neighboring countries. Unlike his father, who intended to acquire a nuclear capability as a negotiating tool to increase his bargaining power in the international arena, for Kim Jong Un nuclear power represents an absolute commitment, to the achievement of which he sacrifices every other internal objective, including the primary needs of its population. Pyongyang, therefore, annually allocates to the project about a quarter of its GDP and today it is committed to building a dissuasion arsenal decidedly disproportionate to its defense needs, but above all an offensive arsenal that wants to be capable of directly threatening the United States, supported by a constantly improving missile system.
Even if North Korea does not seem to have solved some important technical problems yet, the threat is still in the attention of neighboring countries. Including China and Russia, traditional supporters of that regime (especially now that Moscow seems to be receiving military aid from Pyongyang to continue the war in Ukraine), which however do not hide their perplexities regarding the North Korean attitude and a certain irritation at the multiplication of missile exercises in waters that are, after all, restricted and that could represent the trigger for a more decisive intervention against the North Korean regime by the threatened countries, and not only. Emotions that mix with the equally ill-concealed satisfaction with how Kim's attitude is causing concern in the United States, representing a direct threat to their interests in the area.
Nonetheless, the two countries have formally joined the UN sanctions against North Korea, excluding those concerning energy supplies, as they could undermine Kim's regime, making it difficult for him to control the country, especially its Armed Forces, or even cause it to fall. This would probably cause a massive exodus of the population towards Beijing's territory or even the reunification of the two Koreas under US influence, certainly not desirable by Xi Jinping.
Japan and new naval projects
Relations between Japan and the countries bordering that stretch of the Pacific Ocean are still influenced by the events of the Second World War, although each maintains formal diplomatic relations with the others. The problems of a historical and psychological nature that persist in political circles, in fact, continue to hinder attempts to definitively normalize reciprocal relations.
The Ukrainian events, for example, have exacerbated the frictions and claims relating to some northern Japanese islands occupied by the Russians after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (four of the southern Kurils, two of them little more than rocks, very close to the coast of the large island of Hokkaido ).
Although belonging to the same geopolitical alignment, with South Korea there are still open controversies, sometimes in an acute form, on the forced recruitment of Korean workers in the Korean and Japanese industrial centers during the Japanese occupation, on the enlistment in the Japanese army imposed on 5.000 Korean students, on prostitution imposed on Korean women during the war (comfort women) and, again, a territorial question, albeit not prevalent, of the Korean occupation of an islet claimed by Japan (Dokdo for the Koreans, or "lonely island", Takeshima for the Japanese, Liancourt Rocks for the USA). It is no coincidence that under the seabed around that islet there is a reserve of natural gas estimated at between 600 million and 2 billion tons, equal to South Korea's needs for 30-100 years. All of this, as mentioned, affects formal relations between the two countries and forces Washington to perform delicate balancing act, also due to the North Korean threat currently represented by Kim Jong Un's regime.
With China, beyond commercial relations, since 2012 there have been territorial disputes regarding Japanese sovereignty over the archipelago of Senkaku (Dayoutai for the Chinese), which extend from southern Japan to Taiwan. The archipelago was once called Ryu Kyu, a small tributary oceanic kingdom of China but which, in the second half of the eighteenth century, entered the sphere of one of the great Japanese feudal families, the Shimazu, and then became part of the Japanese Empire. In Okinawa, very close to the southern Japanese coast, the bulk of US troops are stationed in the area. The main value of Senkaku consists not only of the economic value, related to significant fishing interests or research of resources in the related seabed, but above all by the geopolitical implications connected to maritime communications in the East China Sea, crucial for the deployment of the strategic and logistic device in the Pacific of the front which opposes Chinese expansionism, or for China's access to the Pacific.
Having said that, let's analyze which are the most interesting Japanese naval projects.
The new "Mogami" class units (photo) mark a clear change in Tokyo's naval strategy, distinguishing more decisively between heavy destroyers and lighter units. A clear distinction that allows today to build two frigates a year instead of a fighter, as previously. A change in trend that began in the early 2000s, when Japan thought of replacing "older" frigates and destroyers, specifically designed for anti-submarine warfare, with more modern and flexible-use surface units. The program, baptized 30DX and then renamed 30FFM started in October 2019.
In November 2020, the frigate was launched kumano, second unit set up, then entered into service on March 22, 2022. The class leader Mogami (photo) however, it entered service about a month later, on 28 April. The third unit of the class, the Noshiro, entered service on 15 December 2022.
The new class has a displacement of 5.500 t, a length of 133 m, a beam of 16,3 m and a draft of 9 m. She is characterized by particularly fluid and clean lines, which allow a low radar signature (profile stealth), for the high automation and for the only 90 crew members. Added to this are the low acoustic and infrared signatures.
The combined TAG and diesel propulsion allows you to easily reach speeds above 30 knots.
The units are multipurpose. Optimized for antisubmarine warfare, in fact, they can effectively carry out patrolling and mine warfare missions (the minesweeper sensor is a multifrequency sonar), including the laying of minefields.
As far as armament is concerned, they are equipped with two Mitsubishi Type 17 (SSM-2) quadruple active radar-guided anti-ship missile launch systems with a range of about 400 km, the evolution of two previous versions of subsonic missile (Type 12 and 88), which they also feature GPS guidance, giving them the ability to hit ground targets as well. By 2030, however, they are scheduled to be replaced by SSM-3 supersonic anti-ship missiles. The armament also includes 16 VLS (Vertical Launching System) slots for Mk41 surface-to-air missiles, with a range of over 100 km, a battery of Raytheon RIM-116 SeaRAM (11 cells for point defense), a vertical launch system of Type 07 anti-submarine missiles (range about 30 km), employing Type 97 or 12 torpedoes, one 127/62 mm gun (Mk45 mod. 4) and two machine guns Browning 2mm M12,7.
For surface and area discovery, the units make use of the OPY-2 radar, a multifunctional AESA (Active Electonically Scanned Array) system, capable of tracking 300 targets simultaneously and attacking 60. For underwater discovery, they can count on the OQQ- sonar 25 with variable depth sensor.
With regard to electronic warfare, the units are equipped with the NOLQ-3 system, which can be used both as an ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) and ESM (Electronic Support Measures) system.
In the future, they will be able to accommodate both aerial drones and an SH-60J/K helicopter Seahawk, as well as underwater and surface drones for mine warfare.
At present, another six frigates of the same class have been ordered, which are expected to enter service by 2026, with the aim of bringing a total of twenty-two online by 2032.
Another interesting project concerns diesel-electric propulsion attack submarines. In this context, on 9 March 2022 the Taigei (opening photo + side), class leader boat equipped with lithium ion batteries. She has a surface displacement of approximately 3.000 t (4.300 t submerged), a length of 84 m and a beam of 9,1 m, with a crew of 70.
From an aesthetic point of view it is a boat similar to the previous one Soryu, but it was also designed to be used as a test bed for any innovative propulsion systems that may be developed in the future. In the current configuration of diesel-electric propulsion, the diesel system does not directly drive the crankshaft, but only serves to produce the electrical energy for the quieter propulsion. Lithium-ion batteries, however, while on the one hand allow for a lower maintenance effort, on the other they present a higher risk of fire than traditional batteries.
The hull is lined with anechoic material, to reduce noise, and is characterized by a particular shape with characteristics stealth, and has a strongly inclined bow with the lateral surfaces inclined so as to favor the dispersion of sound waves.
For the discovery it makes use of the ZQQ-8 sonar. The standard armament includes six 533 mm torpedo tubes. It also has the ability to launch anti-ship missiles Harpoon. One vessel per year is expected to enter service.
The primary task of these vessels is to hunt down Chinese ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Their overall use, however, is also based on the strategy of dispersive attrition of the opposing fleet, which provides for their deep penetration into the South China Sea, so as not to allow a dangerous concentration of Chinese units in Japan's waters of interest.
The numerous and sensitive differences existing in the North-Western Pacific certainly concern Japan, but also the Americans and many Western interests. For Japan, free passage in the China Sea covers half of its annual supply, including oil supplies from the Middle East. For the USA, these are not only economic reasons but also important strategic reasons. The European Union also pays particular attention to events in the area, given that a third of its international trade passes through those waters.
If we then go down to the south-eastern Asian quadrant, where the countries most directly involved are other than Japan, we have further confirmation of the presence of serious factors of instability and tensions present in the region, mainly dictated by Chinese political and military pressure which seeks to ensure, through what can be considered a policy of occupation of the South China Sea, free access to the Pacific Ocean (and the simultaneous right to prevent others from transiting or from exploiting fish and submarine resources), both through forcing the international law and through its increasingly sharp military instruments. Leaving aside the issue of Taiwan, which we have analyzed several times, the existing and sometimes formalized international disputes regarding various archipelagos (Spratley, Paracelsus, etc.) involve China on the one hand and a long series of countries on the other, from Philippines to Vietnam and Malaysia. All this despite the fact that China has already lost, facing the International Tribunal of the Sea UNCLOS, a territorial dispute with the Philippines. Verdict obviously not recognized by Beijing.
Certainly the lack of effective regional cooperation instruments does not facilitate détente. It was thought that ASEAN, as a multilateral instrument for cooperation and integration, in addition to allowing the growth of trade and investment, was able to foster a stable and secure geopolitical environment, capable of allowing the further development of the 'area. Today, however, we know that it is struggling to establish itself as a point of reference in this field.
The system of relations, in fact, is still based on an almost exquisitely bilateral approach, in which the Security Agreements of the USA with Japan, Australia, South Korea, still make it possible to somehow contain Chinese assertiveness.
Ultimately, the complexity of the situation in the Pacific Northwest makes the prospect of a peaceful settlement of disputes or a significant reduction of tensions in the area unrealistic in the short term. Equally improbable hypothesis that some kind of stabilization will take place thanks to bilateral instruments alone.
In this context, the United Nations seem to have little room for maneuver for a meaningful intervention, also due to the predictable opposition of Beijing and Moscow in the case of hypotheses that are not fully appreciated by the two capitals.
If a way is not found to overcome the constraints deriving from a painful and controversial past and to reconcile the various economic and security needs of today, with a marked increase in mutual trust, unfortunately the gap between the evident economic interconnection between the actors entering that area and an absence of real progress in the field of their collaboration in the political and security fields.
A paradox that finds many points of interest in a maritime dimension which is certainly the cause of disputes but which also offers multiple possibilities for cooperation.
Therefore, it is on the sea that the real possibilities of a settlement of frictions reside. The best way forward seems to be that of a reminder of the sense of responsibility of all the parties involved, which allows for an agreement to be reached which, in compliance with international law, ensures the division of island areas destined for research and exploitation of the energy resources lying in the seabed. And which ensures everyone the freedom to travel along the maritime communication routes which are essential for their respective economic growth.
Failing this, given that the seas and maritime trade will be increasingly fundamental in international relations and to guarantee the well-being of the populations, driven by the needs and threats of the other actors, it is reasonable to hypothesize that in the short to medium term Japan, by dropping all taboos, will be able to play a fundamental strategic role in the balance of the China Sea, and its new fleet will be able to play an important part on that chessboard and (perhaps) even beyond, in anticipation of the opening of the new routes northeast polar.
Photo: Japan MoD / KCNA / Kremlin / China MoD / US Navy