An Assessment of U.S. Navy Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey’s Options at Leyte Gulf

Jon Klug is a U.S. Army Colonel and PhD Candidate in Military and Naval History at the University of New Brunswick.  He taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and at the U.S. Naval Academy, and he holds degrees from the U.S. Military Academy, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies.  In his next assignment, Jon will serve as a U.S. Army War College Professor.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title: An Assessment of U.S. Navy Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey’s Options at Leyte Gulf

Date Originally Written:  October 21, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  November 19, 2018.

Summary:  On the night of 24/25 October 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf U.S. Navy Admiral William “Bull” Halsey addressed competing priorities by attacking the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) while maintaining a significant surface force to protect the landings at Leyte Island. Halsey’s decision was influenced by the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Halsey’s understanding his operational advantage, and his aggressive spirit[1].

Text:  During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, U.S. Navy Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet inflicted heavy damage on the most powerful Japanese surface group in the Sibuyan Sea, forcing IJN Admiral Kurita Takeo to retreat to the west. At roughly 5:00pm Halsey received work from search aircraft that Kurita had turned his forces around and they were once again heading east. In response to this, Halsey maneuvered Third fleet as a whole to attack Kurita’s forces[2].  Before assessing Halsey’s decision-making, some background information is needed.

First, prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf many U.S. naval officers criticized Admiral Raymond Spruance’s decision-making during the Battle of the Philippine Sea (19-20 June, 1944) because several of the Japanese aircraft carriers escaped destruction. These officers felt that Spruance was too cautious and too focused on protecting the amphibious forces. At the time, not knowing the depths of the Japanese difficulty in replacing aircrews, many U.S. naval officers worried that the Japanese would just replenish the carriers with new aircraft and new aircrews. Halsey certainly knew of these criticisms of Spruance, and he wanted to crush the Japanese aircraft carriers once and for all[3].

In addition to the criticisms of Spruance, Halsey also knew that few Japanese aircraft had reacted to the previous U.S. carrier raids, so he may have suspected that the Japanese husbanded carrier-based and land-based aircraft for the decisive fleet action. Furthermore, Halsey knew the Japanese had used a shuttle-bombing attack against Spruance’s forces during the Marianas Campaign in mid-June 1944. The Japanese had launched planes from aircraft carriers that bombed American naval forces in route to airfields on Saipan, from which they rearmed and then attacked the American forces in route back to the aircraft carriers[4]. Although this tactic failed in the Marianas, their use of shuttle-bombing demonstrated that the Japanese were still a dangerous and creative opponent. This tactic too may have been on his mind when Halsey maneuvered Third fleet as a whole to attack Kurita’s forces.  

Historians often neglect the impact of where Halsey positioned himself with respect to his forces and the Japanese forces in their discussion of the Battle of Leyte Gulf: in other words, where was his flagship? As Halsey hailed from New Jersey, he made the new fast battleship USS New Jersey his flagship[5]. This matters. New Jersey as well as the Iowa, two more battleships, six cruisers, and fourteen destroyers made up Task Force 34 (TF 34)[6]. These battleships and their anti-aircraft weapons would be important if Japanese aircraft attacked Halsey’s three aircraft carrier groups, which were Halsey’s primary concern. If Halsey had broken out TF 34, including the New Jersey, to protect the landings at the Island of Leyte, he would have undoubtedly wanted to move to another flagship, as the new flagship would have been part of the force attacking IJN Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo’s carriers. Halsey would have wanted to be close to the decisive battle. 

The Battle of Surigao Strait is the final aspect in any assessment of Halsey’s decision-making. After Halsey had made his actual decision, which was to take all of Third Fleet to destroy the Japanese carriers, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid sent U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf and his Bombardment and Fire Support group to defend the Surigao Strait.  This force compromised the majority of Kinkaid’s surface combat power, which included several of the refurbished battleships from Pearl Harbor. Oldendorf’s enemy counterpart was IJN Vice Admiral Nishimura Shoji who commanded a Japanese surface group.  Oldendorf prepared a brilliant defense with a textbook example of “capping the T” that destroyed Nishimura’s force on the night of 24/25 October[7]. Thus, Halsey went north, Kinkaid’s heavy surface ships went south, and together they left the middle open for Kurita who had again turned east.

Sean Connery as Admiral Ramius in the movie Hunt for Red October was the author’s inspiration behind selecting this historical situation for analysis. Connery’s distinctive delivery helped create a classic quote when Ramius evaluated Jack Ryan’s work on Admiral Halsey at Leyte Gulf, “I know this book. Your conclusions were all wrong, Ryan. Halsey acted stupidly[8].” Did he? 

Using historical reenactment as a method one must consider the historical facts and what we can surmise about Halsey. More specifically, what did Halsey know of the strategic, operational, and tactical context, and what was his state of mind when he needed to decide on an option? He chose to attack the Japanese aircraft carriers with all of Third Fleet (Option #1 from the Options Paper), and in his report to Nimitz on 25 October, 1944, the day after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey wrote:

“To statically guard SAN BERNARDINO STRAITS until enemy surface and carrier air attacks could be coordinated would have been childish to three carrier groups were concentrated during the night and started north for a surprise dawn attack on the enemy carrier fleet. I considered that the enemy force in SIBUYAN SEA had been so badly damaged that they constituted no serious threat to Kinkaid and that estimate has been borne out by the events of the 25th off SURIGAO[9].”

This quote provides insight into what Halsey was thinking and his nature – he believed there was no need for a more cautious option. However, a more careful review shows that Halsey was very lucky that Kurita decided to withdraw. If he had not, many more U.S. lives would certainly have been lost as the Yamato and the other Japanese heavy surface vessels fought to the death in and among Kinkaid’s amphibious forces. This fight may have been like a bull fight in a ring that is too small – although the matador and his assistants are assured of ultimate victory, the bull will exact a horrible price before it expires. Given his knowledge of the situation at the time, Halsey could have left TF 34 (Option #2 from the Options Paper) with minimal risk, as the number of U.S. carriers, aircraft, and air crews handled properly should have been sufficient to destroy the remaining IJN carriers.

Protecting the landing at the Island of Leyte as Halsey’s primary focus (Option #3 from the Options Paper), goes against goes against the grain of aggressive U.S. military and U.S. Navy culture, but, Halsey had a huge advantage and knew it, just like Spruance did months before. Any escaping IJN forces would appear again at the next major operation.  There was no way for Halsey to see this far ahead, but Spruance’s decision making in the Battle of the Philippine Sea is in line with Halsey’s option to keep Third Fleet concentrated in supporting distance of the Leyte landings (Option #3 from the Options Paper). Taking page from another the movie, in this case the 1998 poker movie Rounders[10], if you have the chip lead, all you have to do is lean on them, and that was all Spruance and Halsey had to do in late 1944 and early 1945: lean on the IJN until it collapsed. Historical reenactment demonstrates that Ramius’s opinion is correct in the sense that the Japanese suckered Halsey into going “all in” and only Kurita’s mistake in turning away from the Leyte Gulf landings prevented what would have been at least a severe mauling of U.S. forces.


Endnotes:

[1] This assessment paper uses historical reenactment as its method to reconstruct historical events and senior leader’s thought processes and options, augmenting historical facts by surmising when necessary.  More information is available here: Jon Klug, Options at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, November 12, 2018,  https://divergentoptions.org/2018/11/12/options-at-the-battle-of-leyte-gulf/

[2] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte, June 1944-January 1945, Vol. 12 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1953), 192-193; Ronald H. Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York, NY: Vintage, 1985), 431-432; and Craig L. Symonds, The Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 180-181.

[3] Morison, 58-59; and Spector, 433.

[4] Spector, 307; Symonds, 168 and 169; and Samuel Eliot Morison, New Guinea and the Marianas, March 1944-August 1944, Vol. 8 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1953), 233 and 248-249.

[5] Merrill, 131; Spector, 428.

[6] Symonds, 180.

[7] Symonds, 180; Morison, 86-241; Merrill, 160-163.

[8] The Hunt for Red October, directed by John McTiernan, Paramount Pictures, 1990.  Symonds, 180; Morison, 86-241; Merrill, 160-163.

[9] Chester W. Nimitz, Command Summary of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Volume 5 (Newport, RI: United States Naval War College, 2013), 564. The quotation is an excerpt from Halsey’s reports to Nimitz.

[10] Rounders, directed by John Dahl, Miramax Films, 1998.

Assessment Papers Japan Jon Klug United States

Options at the Battle of Leyte Gulf

Jon Klug is a U.S. Army Colonel and PhD Candidate in Military and Naval History at the University of New Brunswick.  He taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and at the U.S. Naval Academy, and he holds degrees from the U.S. Military Academy, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies.  In his next assignment, Jon will serve as a U.S. Army War College Professor.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  U.S. Navy Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s options during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on the night of 24/25 October 1944.

Date Originally Written:  October 21, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  November 12, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Robin Collingwood pioneered the concept of historical reenactment[1]. Historian Jon Sumida discussed Collingwood’s concept in Decoding Clausewitz, in which he argued that Carl von Clausewitz anticipated Collingwood by incorporating self-education through “theory-based surmise about decision-making dynamics[2].” This paper uses a method of historically reconstructing events and reenacting a senior leader’s thought processes and options, augmenting historical facts by surmising when necessary[3], to examine Halsey’s options during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Background:  In 1944 U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur commanded the Southwest Pacific Area, and U.S. Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz commanded the Pacific Ocean Areas. In October, U.S. forces remained firmly on the strategic offensive in the Pacific and the Island of Leyte was their next target[4].

KING II was the U.S. codename for the seizure of Leyte via amphibious assault, and there were command issues due to the long-standing division of the Pacific into two theaters of operation. After almost three years of war, these two forces were converging and neither the Army nor the Navy was willing to allow one joint commander. The Army would not accept Nimitz because MacArthur was senior to him, and the Navy did not believe MacArthur sufficiently understood sea power to command its fleet carriers[5]. This led to the unwieldy compromise of U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet working directly for MacArthur and U.S. Navy Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet reporting to Nimitz. In KING II, Halsey was to “cover and support the Leyte Operation[6].” The desire to destroy the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) carriers was why Nimitz included the following in the plan: “In case opportunity for destruction of major portion of the enemy fleet is offered or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task[7].” Thus, the plan was a confusing compromise between services with inherent divided command and control and tasks.

SHO-I was the Japanese codename for their attack to foil the American attempt to seize the island of Leyte. The plan had four major fleet elements converging at Leyte Gulf. The first two were surface groups from Japanese-occupied territories in Southeast Asia, of which IJN Admiral Kurita Takeo commanded the powerful surface group, including the mighty Yamato and Musashi[8]. The third group was a cruiser force and the fourth group was a carrier group, both from the north. The carrier group, commanded by IJN Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo, was bait. They hoped Halsey would attack the carriers and inadvertently allow the three surface groups to slip behind the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet and destroy the landings[9]. The Japanese did not expect anyone to return if SHO-I worked[10].

Significance:   U.S. carrier raids against Japanese bases in September met with unexpectedly light opposition, and Halsey interpreted the weak response as overall Japanese weakness, which was incorrect as they were husbanding their aircraft. Based off of Halsey’s view, the U.S. cancelled some operations and moved up the invasion of Leyte[11]. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet began landing MacArthur’s forces on Leyte Island on 21 October. Consequently, the Japanese put SHO-I in motion.

Alerted by submarines and air patrols on 24 October, Halsey’s carrier aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the most powerful Japanese surface group in the Sibuyan Sea, forcing Kurita to retreat to the west. At roughly 5:00 PM word reached Halsey that search aircraft had spotted the Japanese carriers. Unbeknownst to Halsey, IJN Admiral Kurita had turned his forces around and again headed east.

Option #1:  Halsey maneuvers Third Fleet as a whole to attack IJN Vice Admiral Ozawa’s aircraft carriers.

Risk:  This assumes the greatest levels of tactical, operational, and strategic risk for the chance of achieving a great victory. Halsey moving his forces without breaking out Rear Admiral Willis Lee’s Task Force 34 (TF 34) would leave no fleet carriers or fast battleships to protect the landings on Leyte. If an unexpected threat arises, there are scant uncommitted forces within supporting range of the landings, which is a great tactical risk to landings. The operational risk is the catastrophic failure of the landings and destruction of the forces ashore, which would result in a multi-month setback to retaking the Philippines. Assuming no knowledge of the atomic bomb, the strategic risk was a setback in the overall timeline and a likely change to the post-war situation.

Gain:  Aggressive and bold tactical maneuver often allows the best chance to achieve decisive victory, and U.S. Navy leaders wanted the remaining Japanese carriers sunk. In fact, many criticized U.S. Navy Admiral Raymond Spruance for letting the same IJN carriers escape at the earlier Battle of the Philippine Sea.

Option #2:  Halsey leaves TF 34 to protect the landings at the Island of Leyte while Third Fleet attacks IJN Admiral Kurita’s forces.

Risk:  Halsey leaving TF 34 to protect the Leyte Gulf landings accepts less tactical, operational, and strategic risk than Option #1. Tactically, Halsey’s forces still had an overwhelming advantage over the IJN carriers. Although Halsey knew this, he would also have wanted to be strong at the decisive point and win the decisive last naval battle in the Pacific, and TF 34’s six battleships would not be able to help protect his carriers from aerial attack. Operationally, Halsey felt that there was no real threat to the landings, as his aircraft had previously forced the Japanese center force retreat. Halsey also believed Kinkaid could handle any remaining threat[12]. Strategically, Halsey wanted to ensure that the IJN carriers did not get away and prolonged the war.

Gain:  This option afforded Halsey the opportunity to destroy the IJN carriers while still maintaining a significant surface force to protect the landings[13]. This provides insurance that Halsey had uncommitted and powerful surface forces to react to threats and, more importantly, protect the landings.

Option #3:  Halsey’s Third Fleet protects the landings at the Island of Leyte.

Risk:  This option accepts minimal tactical risk but some operational and strategic risk. If an unexpected threat arose, Halsey would have the entire Third Fleet in range to support the landings, thus avoiding any danger. Operationally, U.S. forces would have had to face any IJN forces that escaped again later. Strategically, the escaped IJN forces may have set back the overall timeline of the operation.


Gain:  Conservative decision-making tends to simultaneously minimize risk as well as opportunity. This option would ensure that Halsey protected the landing force. However, this also provides the smallest probability of sinking the elusive IJN carriers.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History. Revised ed. (1946, repr., London: Oxford University Press, 2005), 302-315.

[2] Jon T. Sumida, Decoding Clausewitz, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008), 150.

[3] Collingwood, 110-114; and Sumida, 65 and 177.

[4] Ronald H. Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York, NY: Vintage, 1985), 214-217, 259-273, 285-294, 308-312, 418-420.

[5] Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (1980, repr., Annapolis Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 190-191.

[6] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte, June 1944-January 1945, Vol. 12 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1953), 55-60.

[7] Ibid., 58, 70.

[8] James M. Merrill, A Sailor’s Admiral: A Biography of William F. Halsey (New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976), 149.

[9]  Craig L. Symonds, The Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 176-178; Ernest J. King and Walter Muir Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953), 367-368.

[10] Morison, Leyte, 167.

[11] Symonds, 176; Morison, 13-16.

[12] Symonds, 180.

[13] Chester W. Nimitz, Command Summary of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Volume 5 (Newport, RI: United States Naval War College, 2013), 282.

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China’s Options Towards the (Re)emerging Quadrilateral Security Dialogue

Adam Ni is a researcher at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.  His areas of interest include China’s foreign and security policy.  He can be found on Twitter @adam_ni.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The People’s Republic of China (China) is facing the (re)emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia.  The unstated aim of the Quad is to constrain China’s growing power in Asia through possible military and economic cooperation that would raise the cost if Beijing challenges the status quo.

Date Originally Written:  February 28, 2018.

Originally Published:  March 5, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a scholar of China’s foreign and security policy.  The article is written from the point of view of Chinese decision-makers considering policy options in response to the Quad’s challenges.

Background:  The Quad can be traced back to 2007 when diplomatic efforts culminated in a multilateral naval exercise off the Bay of Bengal.  While the countries involved contended that their activities were not aimed at China, it was clear that these activities were largely a response to China’s growing power.  However, the Quad was short-lived with Australia pulling out in February 2008 under Chinese pressure[1].

Recently, the Quad has been revived in the face of an increasingly powerful and assertive China with expanded geopolitical ambitions.  In November 2017, officials from the Quad nations met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines and agreed that a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” is in the interest of all countries[2].  This meeting was followed in January by the meeting of the Quad navy chiefs at the Raisina Dialogue in India.  During the meeting, Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, characterized China as a “disruptive, transitional force” in the region, and urged Quad nations to take measures against China’s “unilateral ways to change the use of global commons” and uphold “rule-based freedom of navigation[3].”  This sentiment was echoed by the navy chiefs of the other three Quad nations.

Significance:  While it is still too early to tell what the Quad would entail, in theory, it aims to constrain China’s growing power and to ameliorate China’s behavior by altering Beijing’s strategic calculus.  The military dimension of the Quad could take the form of expanded military cooperation that would raise the cost for China to use or threaten the use of force, including in relation to the East and South China Seas.  The economic dimension could take the form of expanded economic and infrastructure cooperation that would compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a grand plan to reshape the world economy with China at the center.

Option #1:  Reassurance.  China continues to emphasize to the Quad nations its intent to develop peacefully through public statements and diplomatic channels.

Risk:  Without pushing back against the Quad, the Quad nations and others in the region may believe that China is unwilling to impose a cost on them for challenging China’s security and economic interests.  This lack of push back may lead to further coalescence of the Quad and may even draw in other states in the region that have become wary of China’s growing power, including those that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Gain:  Option #1 may help to undermine the narrative of an ambitious China with a willingness to adopt coercive means to protect and advance its interests.  This option would strengthen the arguments of domestic forces in the Quad nations that advocate a softer approach in responding to Chinese power.

Option #2:  Punishment.  China applies a high degree of economic and diplomatic pressure on Quad nations to demonstrate the cost of challenging China’s interests and thus deter further challenges.  This option could take the form of economic coercion, formal diplomatic protests, and the downgrading of bilateral cooperation in key fields.

Risk:  Option #2 would strengthen the rationale for the Quad and the argument for constraining China’s power in the first place by demonstrating China’s willingness to adopt coercive measures against those that challenge its interests.  This option may further exacerbate the negative perception of China among the Quad nations, especially where there is already a lively debate about China’s influence (such as in Australia and the United States).  In addition, economic coercion may damage the Chinese economy and in the long run make the target economies less dependent on China.

Gain:  China demonstrating strength and resolve early on may lead to the collapse of the Quad if the Quad nations are not willing to pay the high cost of challenging China’s interests.  For example, Australia is highly dependent on China for trade and investment flows.  The Chinese government could put in place measures to reduce Chinese tourists or students from going to Australia and link these restrictions to Australia’s involvement with the Quad.  Such measures may also deter other regional countries from cooperating with the Quad against China’s interests.

Option #3:  Reassurance and caution.  China continues to emphasize its peaceful intent while also signaling its willingness to impose an economic and political cost on the Quad nations should they continue to challenge China’s interests.

Risk:  Option #3 may not be effective due to a lack of concrete cost imposed on the Quad nations, through, for example, coercive economic measures.  At the same time, the cautioning may be interpreted as an aggressive warning of China’s coercive intent, further exacerbating public anxiety in the Quad nations.

Gain:  This approach may be enough to forestall the further development of the Quad through providing reassurance but also signals China’s resolve to protects its interests.  Option #3’s key benefit is that it does not incur large political or economic cost for China immediately, but hinges Chinese retaliation on further Quad activities.

Other Comments:  The revived Quad is still in the early stages of its development, and it is too early to tell what the Quad would entail.  The above options are presented on the basis that the Quad may involve military and economic dimensions that challenge China’s interests, including its territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as its Belt and Road Initiative.  Given the diversity of strategic interests between the Quad nations in relation to China, there is a likelihood that the Quad will not develop beyond a mechanism for dialogue.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Indrani Bagchi, “Australia to pull out of ‘quad’ that excludes China,” Times of India, February 6, 2008. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Australia-to-pull-out-of-quad-that-excludes-China/articleshow/2760109.cms.

[2] “India-Australia-Japan-U.S. Consultations on Indo-Pacific (November 12, 2017),” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, November 12, 2017. Available at: http://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29110/IndiaAustraliaJapanUS_Consultations_on_IndoPacific_November_12_2017

[3] “‘China a disruptive power,’ say navy chiefs of Quadrilateral nations,” Times of India, January 19, 2018. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/china-a-disruptive-power-quad-nations-navy-chiefs/articleshow/62562144.cms.

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South China Sea Options: An Alternative Route

“The Black Swan” is an officer and a strategist in the U.S. Army.  He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  He has been a company commander, and served at the battalion, brigade, division, and Army Command (ACOM) level staffs.  The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.


National Security Situation:  Japan is one of the most stalwart allies of the United States (U.S.) in Asia.  The U.S. guarantees Japanese security and sovereignty.  Japan serves as one of the principal rivals of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Asia.  Japan is an island, however, and depends upon seaborne trade routes, especially those that transit through Southeast Asia.  PRC claims of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea (SCS) pose a direct threat to Japanese security.

Date Originally Written:  January 29, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 30, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of Japan towards PRC claims in the SCS.

Background:  For the greater part of recorded history, Japan has been a rival of the PRC.  All Japanese attempts to dominate the Asian mainland however, have ended in failure.  The defeat of Japan during WWII decisively put an end to Japanese Imperial ambitions.  Since the end of the Allied post-WWII occupation in 1952, Japan has been one of the most stalwart allies of the U.S. in Asia, and a bastion of western values.  Japan is an economic powerhouse, a vibrant democracy, and possesses an extremely formidable military.  For those reasons, as well as historical animosity, Japan is one of, if not the main rival, of the PRC in Asia.

The lifeblood of Japan’s prosperity flows through the Straits of Malacca, and then northeast through the SCS en route to Japan.  The PRC has laid claim to the SCS as sovereign territory throughout modern history, as well as Taiwan, and Japan’s own Senkaku Islands.  Events in the 21st century have reached a culminating point.  While Japan and the U.S. have guaranteed the inviolability of Japan’s claims to the Senkaku Islands, the PRC has gained de facto sovereignty over the SCS.  The PRC has done so by the construction, improvement, and militarization of artificial islands.  The PRC has vowed to defend its claims, and no member of the international community has chosen to challenge them, beyond legal arbitration through the United Nations.  Recent PRC assertiveness has its roots in an impressive regimen of military modernization and diplomatic initiatives colloquially called the “rise of China”.

Significance:  The PRC control of virtually the entire SCS poses a direct threat to Japan.  The PRC could coerce or compel Japan in any number of ways by cutting or hindering maritime traffic to Japan as it transits out of the Straits of Malacca.  In the event of war, Japan would be at a distinct disadvantage for the aforementioned reasons, to say nothing of its close proximity to the PRC.

Option #1:  Japan diverts inbound maritime traffic immediately until such a time as the issue of the SCS reaches an acceptable resolution.  Maritime traffic exiting the Straits of Malacca/Singapore would transit through the Java to Celebes to Philippine Sea route.  Simultaneously, Japan invests in improving Indonesian and Philippine port facilities/infrastructure along the proposed route.

Risk:  Cost and time.  The current route through the SCS is the shortest route and therefore the cheapest.  Option #1 entails a significant increase in the cost of shipping.  Furthermore, it will be a significant diplomatic effort for Japan to induce the Indonesian government to allow transit on this scale through its territorial waters.  Option #1 will require further diplomatic and economic effort to induce the Indonesian and Philippine governments to allow investment in the type of upgrades to their facilities that would be necessary to sustain such traffic.  Also, this option may embolden the PRC and result in a loss of face for Japan, as it will be perceived that the PRC is driving Japan out of the SCS.

Gain:  Safety for shipping bound for Japan.  This option completely skirts all PRC territorial claims.  Option #1 entails the cultivation of alliances with several Southeast Asian nations.  Furthermore, Option #1 establishes a buffer zone by placing multiple nations, and miles of blue water ocean, between the PRC’s navy and Japanese shipping.  In the event of war between the PRC and Japan, this route would be most difficult to interdict.

Option #2:  Japan immediately begins regular freedom of navigation patrols with its maritime self-defense force (M-SDF) through the SCS, with the option to provide armed escorts to critical maritime traffic.  Simultaneously, Japan seeks military cooperation with SCS claimants other than the PRC (e.g. Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines) to protect maritime traffic.

Risk:  The regular deployment of M-SDF ships to the SCS would be viewed as an escalation by the PRC, and an infringement on its sovereignty.  The likelihood of a stand-off at sea would be high (especially if this is a coalition of Southeast Asian nations), with the correlating risk of miscalculation in the use of force becoming casus belli.  Additionally, the more M-SDF ships that are deployed away from the home islands are the more ships that are unavailable to defend the Japanese mainland.

Gain:  This option would establish Japan as the leader against PRC encroachment.  The operational experience and partnerships gained would be invaluable.  Most importantly, this option virtually guarantees U.S. support, if Japan is perceived to be burden-sharing, but especially if Japan is threatened or attacked.  Practically, beginning and sustaining such patrols early on gives the PRC the flexibility to adjust to a new status quo without a loss of face.

Other Comments:  It has been well established here, but is a refrain of paramount importance – Japan must have access to maritime shipping to survive.  Japan can rely on U.S. support, but must stand ready to safeguard its own interests.  Both options presented here have cooperation and alliances with other nations as a common theme.  Operationalizing that theme is the best way for Japan to weather events in the SCS.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

None.

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