This analysis is the fourth and final chapter in a CSIS examination of security dynamics in the East China Sea and the implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance. The first chapter can be read here, the second here, and the third here.

As the preceding discussion has demonstrated, the U.S.-Japan alliance needs to take urgent measures to ensure that its deterrent posture and defensive capabilities remain intact in the years ahead.

Based on lessons from China’s past strategies and tactics in maritime disputes, Beijing’s likely approach will be to:

  • Create wedge issues that separate Japan from the United States;
  • Attempt to act more quickly than foreign decision-makers;
  • Incrementally alter the status quo through fait accompli tactics;
  • Force foreign decision-makers to break escalation thresholds;
  • Generate and leverage confusion about events, rules, and norms.

In response, Japan and the United States will have to alter their approach by seeking to:

  • Avoid alliance expectation or perception gaps;
  • Accelerate decision-making and responsiveness;
  • Maintain capability edges in critical domains;
  • Leverage allied advantages against Chinese weaknesses;
  • Demonstrate willingness to accept risk, when necessary.

What specific steps can Japan and the United States take to bolster their preparedness for potential challenges in the East China Sea? The following recommendations focus on six initiatives: establishing a Japanese joint operations command, creating a U.S.-led combined joint task force, conducting combined alliance planning for gray zone disputes, featuring U.S. military assets in gray zone responses, improving Japanese Coast Guard and Self-Defense Forces coordination, and maintaining capability and/or capacity advantages in critical areas.

Establish a Japanese Joint Operations Command

At present, the Chief of Staff of the JSDF would be responsible for commanding Japanese forces in a contingency as well as managing interactions with political leadership and foreign militaries and ensuring the long-term training and readiness of the force. This is simply too many tasks for a single individual and a relatively small staff. To rectify this issue, Japan should separate some responsibilities for operations from the JSDF Chief of Staff by assigning these tasks to a subordinate commander and staff.

Although many parts of the Japan Self-Defense Forces are modeled on the U.S. military, the U.S. combatant command structure is the wrong model for Japan to emulate. The United States has large numbers of forces executing complex operations in multiple theaters, which necessitates multiple combatant commands. Yet, most of Japan’s capabilities remain resident in Northeast Asia, with only a small number of forces deployed abroad for counter-piracy and similar operations. A more streamlined command structure is a better fit for this more focused force.

Australia’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) provides a potentially useful model. The JOC is commanded by a three-star officer who serves as Chief of Joint Operations, with one-star component commanders for the ground, maritime, and air elements. The JOC is responsible for all operations, both foreign and domestic, conducted by the Australian Defence Force. In addition, the JOC’s component commanders are responsible for both near-term operational missions as well as long-term training and readiness. As a result, the JOC more effectively manages the strains of high operational requirements with maintenance of the force and its readiness to conduct future operations.

To better address its operational requirements, Japan should create a Joint Operations Command with a similar command structure. There will no doubt be modifications required by Japan’s particular organizational characteristics, legal limitations, history, and culture, but Australia’s Chief of Joint Operations provides a useful model. A starting point would be for the Ministry of Defense and JSDF to launch a study on re-organizing Japan’s command structures. This should be done in the context of the alliance, ideally alongside a corresponding study of alternative U.S. command structures discussed below.

Create a U.S.-Led Combined Joint Task Force

While Japan works to create a more streamlined command structure, the United States must also create an equally responsive and focused command architecture. At present, the U.S. military relies on the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) to serve a variety of functions. In a contingency, the PACOM Commander would be busy managing relations with Washington and liaising with allied forces. This would often leave the director of operations at PACOM in charge of day-to-day management of major combat operations. The director of operations, however, is a two-star commander while the PACOM service components are commanded by four-star officers at the U.S. Pacific Fleet (PACFLT), U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), and U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC), as well as a three-star at U.S. Marine Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC). Such a situation puts the PACOM director of operations in a disadvantageous situation, one that would likely be untenable in a major contingency requiring difficult decisions and risk allocation among component commands.

How might the United States solve this operational and organizational challenge? The ideal solution would be to assign a subordinate commander responsible for executing joint and combined command responsibilities in a major contingency. The commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) already has responsibility for a contingency on the Korean Peninsula, so the logical step would be to create a similar combined joint task force to handle potential contingencies involving China. The most likely conflict scenarios are maritime and air in nature, including potential conflicts over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea.

A combined joint task force would need to be led by a four-star U.S. admiral or general, to ensure that the commander could wield sufficient authority over PACOM’s various components. At the moment, each of the potential command elements has limitations. PACFLT and PACAF, like PACOM, are based in Hawaii, which could be a vulnerability in a denied- or degraded-communications environment. U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) is not an operational command, but instead focuses on maintaining alliance coordination. U.S. Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka and III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) in Okinawa are both based forward, but would likely struggle to handle the responsibilities of managing a joint and combined warfight. Therefore, an alternative arrangement is necessary.

One possible option would be to create a Combined Joint Task Force for the Western Pacific, focused on managing contingencies with China over Taiwan, the South China Sea, or the East China Sea. Such a combined joint task force would need to include key U.S. allies, including Japan and Australia, so it would need to be developed in coordination with U.S. allies and exercised frequently. As a result, it would likely require either a standing staff or it would need to be attached to a pre-existing command, most likely PACFLT. This would be a major undertaking, but the incoming command of U.S. Pacific Command should put this on the top of the agenda and make it a priority in consultations with allies.

Conduct Combined Alliance Planning for Gray Zone Contingencies

At present, U.S. and Japanese forces remain reliant on rapid coordination to respond to potential gray zone contingencies. Yet, this plays directly to Chinese advantages. Beijing does not need to coordinate with an ally in an East China Sea contingency. Moreover, China is more likely to be the “first mover,” giving the PLA a substantial edge in the time that it would likely need to make decisions in a gray zone contingency. It is vital, therefore, that Japan and the United States move to speed up their response times to East China Sea contingencies.

Improved command structures are an important step, but military commanders must report to civilian authorities in both Tokyo and Washington. By their very nature, these bureaucracies are structured to take time when responding to crises. Yet, wartime commanders need authority to conduct some types of operations quickly, without having to wait for their respective National Security Councils to make every decision. Otherwise, many gray zone situations may be resolved before leaders in Tokyo and Washington even come to a decision, opening the door for Chinese leaders to attempt fait accompli tactics.

A similar challenge has existed on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere for years. the United States has worked with South Korea to develop a counter-provocation plan, which essentially sets out pre-planned responses to potential North Korean escalations. By planning beforehand, the United States and South Korea have been able to respond quickly to North Korean provocations, effectively demonstrating that the alliance can rapidly react to belligerent actions. This decreases the North Korean incentive to engage in escalations, which might otherwise succeed in creating wedge issues for the alliance.

In an East China Sea context, the best option to speed decision-making is for Tokyo and Washington to work together to develop combined contingency plans for some gray zone scenarios. This would give allied military commanders clear guidance, so that they could focus on executing operations rather than waiting for orders from their home capitals. For example, the potential contingencies described in the previous chapter provide obvious potential crises for alliance managers to work through before they occur. Minor modifications would no doubt be required during an actual crisis, but standing plans for these types of gray zone contingencies would help to establish the list of possible options and develop agreement between the allies on the best types of responses. There are well-known legal restrictions on some types of planning efforts, but it is long past time for Japan and the United States to conduct combined contingency planning. After all, as allied commander Eisenhower stated, “Plans may be worthless, but planning is everything.”

Feature U.S. Military Assets in Gray Zone Responses

China has achieved many of its ends in maritime Asia by escalating crises and then convincing regional states that they must either ignore these escalations or deescalate themselves. Thus, Beijing has been able to leverage its substantial advantages in coast guard and maritime militia vessels to succeed in gray zone conflicts. Although the United States and Japan retain escalation dominance at multiple potential levels of conflict, they have been hesitant to leverage these asymmetric advantages in gray zone disputes. At both the nuclear and the conventional military level of conflict, the United States and Japan together are far more capable than China. Yet, as long as Japan and the United States are unwilling to raise the possibility that gray zone activities might trigger an escalation to the conventional military threshold, China will retain the advantage in the gray zone.

One potential step that the United States could take would be to become involved earlier in gray zone crises, rather than permitting China to set the agenda or waiting for potential incidents to spin out of control. China seeks to convince the United States that it should not engage in gray zone situations involving other parties. Yet, these Chinese rules only serve to perpetuate its dominance in the gray zone; this essentially lets Beijing use Tokyo’s and Washington’s own risk aversion against them. Japan will certainly continue to take the lead in gray zone responses in which its territorial claims are being challenged, but with Chinese capabilities expanding rapidly in both quantity and quality, the Japan-U.S. alliance must reconsider U.S. engagement in East China Sea gray zone scenarios.

Japan should involve the United States early and often in gray zone disputes to deter Chinese escalations. If China escalates a situation in the East China Sea, U.S. vessels might operate in Japanese surface action groups and U.S. aircraft might scramble in response to Chinese operations. This would take some of the operational burden off of Japanese forces. It would also increase alliance coordination and demonstrate to Beijing that its actions will pull Tokyo and Washington together, rather than forcing them apart. China would no doubt paint this as an escalation, but close alliance coordination is often painted as de-escalatory when it is done with South Korea, so this argument is a misnomer.

Although Japanese policymakers sometimes argue that the United States should only become involved in a crisis if Japan requests assistance under Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, this is dated thinking that plays directly into China’s hands. Nothing in Japanese law prevents U.S. support early in gray zone scenarios. Therefore, it is long past time that the United States takes more of a role in gray zone contingencies, particularly as China begins to overcome Japan’s already limited margin of East China Sea superiority.

Improve Coast Guard and Self-Defense Force Coordination

China’s strategy in maritime disputes has been to exploit escalation thresholds, so it is incumbent upon Japan to avoid what are known as “Schelling points”—the break points between different levels of escalation. The previous recommendation suggested a way to address the Schelling point between Japanese responses and U.S. responses in gray zones. But an equally concerning threshold is that between the Japan Coast Guard and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Tokyo has unintentionally created an opening for Beijing by focusing so much attention on the threshold between the Japan Guard Coast and Maritime Self-Defense Force. As long as this clear threshold exists, Chinese leaders will seek to exploit this gap.

Unlike Tokyo, Beijing does not treat its various maritime elements as entirely separate groups, but instead uses them in concert to achieve its desired ends. There is a substantial difference in how China uses its fishermen, maritime militia, coast guard, and navy, particularly when compared to Japan. In previous contingencies, such as the 2009 incident with the USNS Impeccable, Beijing has directed complex operations using all its forces.

On the other hand, ever since Japan’s Maritime Security Agency was established in 1948, Japan has insisted on a sharp differentiation between “law enforcement” and “self-defense” activities. Unlike in the United States, the Japan Coast Guard is part of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, rather than part of a security-focused agency. Article 25 of the Japan Coast Guard Laws and Regulations makes clear that the Japan Coast Guard is a civilian law-enforcement agency, stating “nothing contained in this law shall be construed to permit the Japan Coast Guard or its personnel to be trained or organized as a military establishment or to function as such.”

Japanese leaders must work hard to address this gap, not only in legal responsibilities but also in operational coordination and organizational culture. The Japan Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force must work more closely together to deter and defend against potential escalatory actions in the East China Sea. Although progress has been made in recent years, there is much work left to do. A starting point for leaders in Tokyo would be to force the Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force to cooperate more closely on a daily basis. This should include contingency planning for the transition from law enforcement to self-defense operations. One potential model is the U.S. Coast Guard’s relationship with the U.S. Navy, which could be modeled in exercises and training. After all, if Japan’s maritime agencies can’t work together, how can they expect to counter leaders in China who are actively pursuing civil-military fusion?

Maintain Capability and/or Capacity Advantages in Critical Areas

A final area of focus for Japan and the United States should be identifying roles and missions that can ensure that the alliance retains a capability (and ideally also a capacity) advantage in several critical areas. The China Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy are developing rapidly, fielding large numbers of increasingly capable platforms in the East China Sea. Meeting this challenge ship-for-ship or airframe-for-airframe is not realistic, given current spending levels in Japan. Therefore, the alliance will have to invest selectively in capabilities that provide a sustainable advantage at a manageable cost.

For gray zone operations in the East China Sea, the alliance should focus in particular on two capabilities areas. Most important are maritime law enforcement vessels. Japan (and the United States) cannot match the size of China’s rapidly modernizing coast guard fleet. Japan’s coast guard can, however, attempt to build smaller vessels that are able to monitor the actions of the Chinese fleet and call for assistance from more capable Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels, when necessary. Therefore, Japan should continue to invest substantial resources into small but maneuverable coast guard vessels that are capable of tracking larger and costlier Chinese vessels, whether they be from the China Coast Guard or People’s Liberation Army Navy. In so doing, Japan should rely on greater automation in order to minimize personnel costs.

A second priority should be intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. The United States and Japan have a substantial edge in these capabilities at the moment, which they should capitalize on by investing in unmanned assets. New platforms can provide the alliance with long-range and long-endurance systems that can give allied commanders on both sides of the Pacific a common operating picture. The allies should rely not only on ground-based radars and airborne systems, but also on space-based surveillance platforms that can provide ubiquitous sensing in non-permissive areas. Undersea surveillance should also be a priority, helping to offset China’s own recent advances in undersea systems.

There is no question that other capabilities will also be critical for contingencies, but maritime law enforcement and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are the most important elements in gray zone crises.

About Zack Cooper

Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously, he was senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has also served on staff at the National Security Council and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He received a B.A. from Stanford University and an M.P.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Princeton University.