This publication was produced as part of Mr. Sadler’s participation in Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA’s In-Depth Research Trip program, which provides funding and support for participants to travel to Japan and engage with experts in their field to more deeply understand common challenges and opportunities for growth in the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Deterring a Chinese assault on Taiwan remains a top security concern in Tokyo and Washington, which a decade-long military buildup in Japan’s southwest islands has been critical in deterring. However, this is no longer enough should Japanese domestic pressures shift after being triggered by a military crisis elsewhere, thus jeopardizing the strategic focus to the southwest. One of several plausible incidents in the Sea of Japan could be that trigger. Strategic distraction can be avoided with assistance by the United States with adequate military posture and appropriate political attention to the security dynamics in the Sea of Japan.
The Sea of Japan region retains important political and historical significance to the Japanese people. Historically, the region was important in Japan’s early modernization during the Meiji era. Sado Island was notorious for its 400-year-long operating gold mine, closed in 1989. The port of Maizuru near the cultural capital of Kyoto has played an important naval role. This port served as Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō’s command and staging point for the culminating naval battle in the nearby Tsushima Strait during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War and was a critical conduit for raw materials feeding Japan’s World War II wartime industry.
Figure 1: Map of Japan
More recently, post-Cold War events here awakened Japan to pressing security dangers when on September 1, 1998, a North Korean ballistic missile overflew the main island of Honshu. That event triggered a Japanese response that still resonates today in the form of invigorated defense budgets and reinterpretation of its pacifist constitutional limits on collective self-defense. Tensions with North Korea persisted following nuclear tests beginning in 2006 and a second missile that overflew Japan in 2009. This newfound Japanese security activism has likewise invigorated a more proactive regional security posture, especially after Chinese provocations around the Senkaku Islands in 2010 and the rare earth embargo that hampered Japanese industry. Since then, it has been China’s massive military buildup and sustained presence around the Senkaku Islands that has forced Tokyo to rebalance its military posture to the southwest.
This rebalance was aided by successful U.S. diplomacy regarding North Korea. The Trump administration’s unconventional diplomatic approach ushered in a semi-détente with the Kim regime in Pyongyang. President Donald Trump’s 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore and subsequent 2019 meeting at the demilitarized zone ushered in a period absent long-range missile tests and nuclear weapons testing. This lull occurred as tensions flared with China in the South China Sea and around Taiwan and was subsequently followed by diminished political focus on a subregion that has been a frequent post-Cold War flashpoint: the Sea of Japan. The lack of political, senior military, and press attention to this region was echoed at numerous site tours and in-person engagements I conducted over the summer of 2022.
Absent a crisis, the focus on the southwest is holding. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently made new cabinet assignments in August 2022, and his choices signal continuity in Japan’s defense policy. A policy that since 2012 has focused on the threat from China, reaffirmed by his new Defense Minister. In his inaugural press conference on August 10, 2022, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada repeated the need to improve military posture in the southwest proximate Chinese threats to Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands. This is expected given the increased military activity by China there, but military capacities are limited and must be balanced across a range of threats. There is the risk that military posture may become too bore-sighted on the threat in the southwest, allowing threats nearer to the home islands to metastasize unchecked.
A New Normal for Regional Geopolitics
Just as détente was materializing with North Korea, the Chinese and Russian militaries for the first time conducted provocative combined operations in the Sea of Japan. On June 5, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement in Moscow committing both countries to an upgraded “comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era.” Then, in July 2019, Russian and Chinese long-range bombers, operating together for the first time, circumnavigated Takeshima/Dokdo Island in the Sea of Japan. Possession of this island is a subject of dispute between Japan and South Korea, and the ensuing recriminations between allies over their armed forces operating in disputed airspace obscured the more troubling Chinese and Russian activities taking place there. Russian/Chinese combined air operations have been repeated since then in December 2020, November 2021, and during a QUAD summit meeting hosted in Tokyo in May 2022.
The past two years have also seen combined Russian and Chinese naval patrols in the region. Most visible was an October 2021 combined 10-ship flotilla that sailed within easy view through the Tsugaru Strait between Japan’s main islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. At that time, Chinese ships also transited the La Perouse Strait which included the most modern Chinese warship, a Renhai-class cruiser, which then deployed into the Bering Sea. Again in spring 2022, another Renhai-class cruiser in a Chinese surface action group circumnavigated Japan. This surface naval activity is in addition to Chinese and Russian combined naval and long-range military aircraft formations that are deploying at increased frequency into the Sea of Japan.
The U.S. Seventh Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan is responsible for U.S. naval operations in the region and has sustained a modest presence in the Sea of Japan. That is until the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group conducted operations here following renewed North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile tests in March 2022. This was the first time in five years that a carrier strike group had operated in these waters. However, it is recurring bilateral exercises that are most critical to maintain and enhance interoperability amongst allies, such as the Bilateral Advances Warfare Training (BAWT). The last iteration of BAWT was over February 28 to March 2, 2022, occurring in the Philippine Sea. Importantly, most bilateral exercises with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF) are not conducted in the Sea of Japan, instead favoring large weapons ranges, uncontested air space, and a desire to conduct sensitive training further from Chinese and Russian interlocutors.
Emerging Operational Patterns
The Need for Missile Defense
Even as North Korean provocations return and the operational tempos of Chinese and Russian militaries in the Sea of Japan pick up, the U.S. and Japan Self Defense Forces (SDF) posture has not yet changed. In fact, the attempt to base two AEGIS ashore sites in the region faltered on poor community outreach and operational planning with regard to ascertaining rocket booster drop zones. Yet the need for missile defense from North Korea persists. Japan has two ballistic missile defense (BMD)-capable destroyers—Atago and Myōkō, both based in Maizuru—but a persistent defense requires additional BMD-capable destroyers not anticipated to arrive until 2027. Immediate missile defense requires redeploying destroyers from other districts or deploying Seventh Fleet ships based in Yokosuka, Japan. This means having less presence or capability elsewhere—notably in the South China Sea—and diminished ability to provide missile defense for the strategically important U.S. territory of Guam.
In the mid-term (two to five years), recently or to-be decommissioned BMD-capable U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruisers might be able to fill the gap. These ships were designed to provide air defense to carrier strike groups, with later upgrades for ballistic missile defense. Aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers with limited BMD capabilities have been recently decommissioned (or are awaiting to be). Their older analog radar systems, while still capable, have a limited capacity for engaging advanced missiles or multiple targets, but would be adequate against a North Korean ballistic or cruise missile threat. Manning these ships in a reduced operational condition provides several advantages. First, as a moored platform it can be relocated as the threat and deconfliction with local activity merits—recalling AEGIS ashore was cancelled due to local concerns over missile booster rocket drop sites. Second, the insertion of up to 244 vertical launch cells of two such ships bolsters regional defenses and complicates Chinese war planning. Third, it provides a platform to train Japan’s SDF forces who may eventually operate future BMD-capable Japanese-built warships or a resurrected AEGIS ashore option. Lastly, there is the potentiality of transferring such cruisers to Japan to be operated as BMD platforms through what is called a “hot ship transfer,” avoiding de/re-activation costs. However, this option also allows a pathway for developing limited SDF strike capacity since these ships are platforms for targeting and employing tomahawk cruise missiles.
Increased Demands on the JASDF
As Chinese and Russian air patrols in the region increase, this will add to Japan Air SDF (JASDF) operational demands as well. Since 2004, the SDF have been recording historic levels of intercepts, peaking at 1,168 sorties in 2016 leveling at 725 in 2020. Since 2011, the majority of these Japanese responsive air sorties were due to Chinese air activities in the southwest. If Chinese and Russian air activity increases in the Sea of Japan, it increases the geographic range needing to be covered by the SDF. This will pose new coordination and capacity challenges for the JASDF and potentially for U.S. aircraft based in Okinawa, Misawa, and Iwakuni. It is worth noting that increased Chinese air operations were taxing existing forces, resulting in new intercept policies implemented in 2020 to launch only when encroachments directly threatened Japanese territorial airspace—which had the subsequent effect of slightly reducing reported air intercepts. Given the sensors and air defense weapons (e.g., SM-3, SM-6) of the above BMD-capable warships, their entry into the region mitigates somewhat the burden on JASDF and U.S. aircraft.
New and Preexisting Submarine Threats
Additionally, it must be assumed that advanced Chinese and Russian submarines will be operating at increased frequency in the Sea of Japan. During the recent Russian and Chinese combined naval operations there, the Russian press did mention a Chinese submarine was participating. These submarines will add to the already present threat of North Korea’s sole antiquated ballistic missile submarine; potentially armed with a nuclear capable missile. Given the nuclear threat this antiquated submarine poses, it will require naval assets to monitor. While the North Korean submarines do not pose a daunting technical challenge, the same is not necessarily true for more advanced modern Chinese and Russian submarines added to this mix.
Current U.S. and JMSDF Capabilities and Cooperative Activities
JMSDF’s Maizuru district is responsible for securing Japan’s maritime interests in the Sea of Japan and consists of Escort Division 14, Escort Division 3, Minesweeper Division 44, and several supporting commands. However, it is the capabilities of the escort divisions that are most relevant to countering Chinese, Russian, and North Korean naval incursions. Escort Division 3 consists of flag ship Hyūga, a large helicopter-carrying destroyer, and three destroyers: the Fuyuzuki, and BMD-capable Myōkō and Atago. Importantly this division is tasked with being able to deploy out of the Maizuru district and has previously participated in multinational exercises such as Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) in Hawaiian waters and Malabar off of Okinawa in 2016. Escort Division 14 is comprised of three legacy (30+ years old) destroyers intended for anti-submarine operations: destroyers Asagiri and Setogiri with hull and towed sonars, and destroyer escort Sendai with hull sonar only. All three are able to deploy a single SH-60J/K helicopter. The two modern Asahi-class destroyers optimized for anti-submarine warfare are the Shiranui based in Ōminato district covering the northern pacific, and the Asahi based in Sasebo covering the southwest region. No additional ships of this class are currently planned. This situation will likely see increased demand for a U.S. anti-submarine presence as well as both JMSDF and in short supply U.S. nuclear submarines to patrol these waters.
However, adding more warships—even repurposed legacy ships in reduced operational status—introduces logistic burdens that must be considered. For the U.S. Seventh Fleet, maintaining any additional ships will tax its ship repair facilities (SRF) in Yokosuka and Sasebo. Since 2014, both these shipyards have seen persistent delays due to planned maintenance, which would be exacerbated with additional ships to service unless underlying causes are addressed and SRF capacities in Japan are grown. A 2020 Government Accountability Organization report on overseas surface ship maintenance recommend that the Secretary of the Navy develop a comprehensive (overseas and domestic) maintenance plan to include plans for expanding maintenance capacities. To date, there has been no reported progress on these recommendations.
As part of basing agreements, significant host nation support is provided to sustain the Seventh Fleet. For example, all Japanese employee salaries at these SRFs are paid by the government of Japan; the current agreement raised the preexisting limit from 18,217 to 19,285 employees whose salaries it will pay. Leveraging this assistance at new locations affords one method to mitigate the workload on Sasebo and Yokosuka SRFs by sending some U.S. ships to where comparable JMSDF ships do repairs. Should U.S. ships do repairs away from Sasebo or Yokosuka, it will necessitate families being separated as American schools and housing are co-located at those bases. This will necessitate rethinking Seventh Fleet’s forward deployed naval force three-month deployments to longer periods that include remote Japan maintenance periods.
Sending U.S. warships to do maintenance at Japanese shipyards is not a novel idea; in fact, it is already being done. One example is the destroyer Milieus that conducted repairs in April 2019 at Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s Yokohama dockyard near its homeport of Yokosuka. As for the BMD-capable AEGIS ship Myōkō, it splits its maintenance between Nagasaki for AEGIS-related repairs and general maintenance in Maizuru with the other naval district ships based there. Japan Marine United is contracted to support JMSDF ships in Maizuru. Non-naval workload in Maizuru has diminished due to South Korean and Chinese competition for commercial contracts.
Okinawa’s Political Impact on Burden-Sharing
Looking to balance the maintenance burden outside of Sasebo and Yokosuka, while keeping this activity in Japan, will run into a thorny domestic political issue: the basing burden on Okinawa. For years, the Okinawan people have protested what they view as an unfair burden for hosting the majority (more than 70%) of U.S. forces in Japan, and have fueled efforts to relocate U.S. Marine Corps bases off-island. That effort was part of the now stalled 2002 Defense Policy Review Initiative (DPRI), which has only partially relocated marines off Okinawa and constructed a replacement base in Okinawa at Henoko. The issue is a national one; at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s 1972 reversion to Japan attended by the Emperor and the Governor of Okinawa, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida committed to lessening the burden on Okinawans. By looking to SDF bases such as Maizuru for greater support, both the Japanese and U.S. governments would demonstrate their efforts to lessen this burden on Okinawa while also mitigating SRF workloads as the overall naval presence in Japan grows to meet the combined threat from China, Russia, and North Korea.
Illicit Maritime Activity by China, North Korea, and Russia
Lastly, illicit trade has been an issue in the region, though effectively countered ashore by the Japanese police. That said, illegal fishing poses a growing problem with the arrival in recent years of large Chinese fishing fleets licensed to fish in North Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Pressure on regional fishing stocks from aggressive Chinese fishing fleets has become more pronounced since 2016 when a large Chinese fishing fleet sheltered at the South Korean island of Ulleung-do. That event heavily taxed local waterfronts and for a time gained some international attention. There are indications these fleets are forcing fish stocks to migrate as they overfish North Korean waters. One consequence has been so-called North Korean ghost ships washing ashore in Japan with their North Korean crews dead or dying from exposure after being unable to return to port.
Overfishing is also driving Chinese fishing fleets to follow the fish and squid into South Korean and Japanese waters. Policing this activity falls on the Japan Coast Guard (JCG). Additionally, as sanctions on Russia persist for its invasion of Ukraine, there will be increased pressure to circumvent them. In the past, Japanese used cars have been a key commodity in the Russian Far East, and there has been a black-market trade in Russian seafood. As such, the JCG could see its mission loading increase to counter Russian smuggling as well as Chinese fishing fleet encroachment, potentially drawing in more naval presence to assist with detecting and tracking illicit activities which the JCG would then intercept.
To address illicit activities in the Sea of Japan, the Japan Coast Guard operates cutters in three regions: 2nd, 8th, and 9th. From seven ports in these three regional commands are deployed ten patrol vessels and three cutters capable of embarking helicopters; an additional three patrol vessels operate from Otaru and Wakkanai on Hokkaido facing the Sea of Japan. These patrol vessels and larger cutters are augmented by seven medium and small maritime patrol aircraft. This force is expected to patrol the Japanese economic exclusive zone where in recent years China has operated 148 open ocean fishing vessels in the Sea of Japan.
Capacity Gaps and Priorities
Matching every Chinese, Russian or North Korean military operation is not required, but responding effectively to a politically sensitive event is. Striking the right balance amongst these threats and establishing appropriate priorities will be critical to sustaining the main effort to the southwest. Several Sea of Japan trends should inform planning for what forces are needed to mitigate any politically significant crisis in the near-term (next five years):
Unaddressed, this strategic gap undermines confidence in extended deterrence assurances encapsulated in the U.S.-Japan alliance. While China’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon against JMSDF forces at-sea could be done in the East China Sea to the North Pacific, it is the threat of such use in the context of increased tensions in the Sea of Japan that could be more problematic and more likely. By threatening Japan’s naval forces in the Sea of Japan with a tactical nuclear weapon, the United States would be unable to respond in kind, and the remoteness of the attack would seemingly negate greater escalation. However, a similar provocation closer to Tokyo, major Japanese population centers, or U.S. bases would likely entangle the United States directly and trigger unwanted escalation and rally popular support—all contrary to Chinese strategic intentions to diminish the U.S.-Japan alliance and keep Japan out of a war over Taiwan.
A balanced approach is needed that sustains the prioritization of military resources to southwest Japan, while maintaining the ability to adequately address the risks emanating across the Sea of Japan. To achieve this, the following are offered for consideration:
The U.S. National Security Advisor and Japan’s National Security Secretariat should prepare combined national-level responses to provocations in the Sea of Japan.
The 2015 Defense Guidelines’ Alliance Coordination Mechanism, if fully utilized, can enable this sort of planning and coordination during a crisis, as well as provide a platform for orchestrating more proactive strategic initiatives. This mechanism as envisioned would enable iterative and ongoing planning between the Japan National Security Secretariat and the U.S. National Security Council.
Additionally, within this mechanism a working group should be established with the specific task of enhancing combined naval presence and crisis response in the Sea of Japan. Learning from the DPRI, this group would sustain national political attention as it works through tricky political and budgetary arrangements required to achieve basing adjustments and long-range deployment planning. While there are numerous reasons why this highly complex initiative stalled, it and similar efforts recommended here would benefit from having easy access to senior national leadership to ensure progress.
The U.S. Secretary of State and Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs work together in pursuit of agreement for coordinated coast guard operations between Japan and South Korea to enforce common maritime law with regard to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU), sanctions violations, etc.
As Russia’s economic isolation tightens, there will be increasing pressures for smuggling (cars, seafood, etc.) across the Sea of Japan to sustain Russia’s Far East. This increased illegal activity will place added strain on the JCG already adjusting to increased Chinese fishing activity. A memorandum of understanding with South Korea is one possibility for devising methods of sharing the workload of maritime security as illicit activity increases in the near-term.
The Japan Minister of Defense should request and the U.S. Secretary of Defense should offer Japan a near-term alternative to the cancelled AEGIS ashore.
One option is to repurpose recently or soon-to-be decommissioned BMD-capable U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruisers as a moored defense platform. These ships, while limited in their ability to defend against high-end Chinese and Russian missile threats, provide the JMSDF a familiar platform after decades of experience with the Kongo-class and its successors.
The Japan Minister of Defense and U.S. Secretary of Defense should negotiate greater access and support for U.S. vessels at JMSDF bases in the Sea of Japan.
Doing this would enable longer deployments to the region and develop a distributed logistic network. This would also mitigate longstanding complaints of the basing burden in Okinawa and relieve some maintenance work of SRFs in Yokosuka and Sasebo.
The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations should extend deployments of modern and capable anti-submarine platforms to the Sea of Japan.
The JMSDF has limited anti-submarine capacity in the Sea of Japan to prosecute modern Chinese and Russian submarines without drawing from other maritime districts. Forces once adequate for meeting an inferior North Korean submarine threat and limited Russian presence are no longer adequate as China increasingly operates modern submarines in this region. Additionally, U.S. and South Korean navies should be invited to participate in increasingly complex anti-submarine exercises in the region, while routinizing coordinated trilateral patrols.
The Dangers of Inaction
The primary theater of operations—and where strategic risk is greatest this decade—remains the waters around Taiwan. That being said, there is danger that a significant incident could create insurmountable domestic pressures to refocus on the Sea of Japan region at the expense of deterring a Chinese military assault on Taiwan.
To avoid this, institutional awareness of the potentiality of a Sea of Japan crisis and development of appropriate response plans that do not jeopardize deterrence in southwest Japan are needed. This is not a binary choice between two theaters of operation, but rather striking the appropriate balance of forward maritime security presence. Today, U.S. and JMSDF forces in the Sea of Japan alone may not be adequate without new basing arrangements and deployment patterns, at a minimum.
Brent Sadler joined Heritage Foundation after a 26-year Navy career with numerous operational tours on nuclear powered submarines, personal staffs of senior Defense Department leaders, and as a military diplomat in Asia. As a senior research fellow, Brent’s focus is on maritime security and the technologies shaping our future maritime forces, especially the Navy.
Brent is a native of Springfield, Virginia, and a 1994 graduate with honors of the United States Naval Academy with a degree in Systems Engineering (robotics) and a minor in Japanese. As a 2004 Olmsted Scholar in Tokyo, Japan, he studied at Keio University, Jochi University and the United Nations University. He has a M.A. from Jochi University and M.S. from National War College where he graduated with distinction in 2011 receiving several writing and research awards.
In 2011, he established the Navy Asia Pacific Advisory Group (NAPAG), providing regionally informed advice directly to Chief of Naval Operations’ (CNO). He again served on the CNO’s personal staff in 2015-2016, playing a key role in developing the Defense Department’s Third Offset.
At Pacific Command from 2012-2015, he held numerous key positions. As lead for Maritime Strategy and Policy, he incorporated all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into the first regional maritime domain awareness forum; and, was instrumental in the eventual passage of the $500 million dollar Maritime Security Initiative. As Special Advisor on Japan, and a Council of Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in Tokyo, he played a key role in revising the U.S. and Japan Defense Guidelines. As Deputy Director Strategic Synchronization Group, he oversaw a think-tank like body of over 30 advisors and analysts. Brent led the Commander’s Rebalance Task Force coordinating execution of the President’s Defense Strategic Guidance—Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific resulting in over $12 billion USD of additional monies budgeted in fiscal years 2013 through 2015 during a time of fiscal austerity.
Following his final tour on CNO’s staff, Brent returned to Asia as Senior Defense Official, Defense and Naval Attaché in Malaysia. During his tenure he played a key role in coordinating responses to the USS McCain collision in August 2017, opened several politically sensitive ports and airfields to U.S. forces, oversaw unprecedented expansion of U.S. military relations, and steadied relations during the historic May 2018 national elections ushering in an opposition party for the first time since independence.
His final Navy assignment was China Branch of Navy Staff at the Pentagon. He is married to the former Yulia Polyakova and has two daughters: Sophia and Vivienne.
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