Defence - Issue 129 - Magazine | Monocle

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Troubled waters


Many Asian nations are pouting over Abominable, a Dreamworks film that briefly shows a map depicting China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, aka Lake China. Japan also has island problems with its neighbours, which are partly about resources but mostly about colliding nationalisms, writes Jeff Kingston. The rival claimants are Russia, South Korea and China (including Taiwan).

Okinawa is another headache, as the majority in that prefecture oppose the presence of a US military base that occupies 18 per cent of the land and stirs controversy as a result of environmental damage and soldiers committing sex crimes. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has pulled out all the stops to support the bases in order to placate the Pentagon and his erratic counterpart. After all, Japan lives in a dangerous neighbourhood and is more dependent than ever on US protection.

For Tokyo, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and China’s hegemonic ambitions pose nightmare scenarios that make Washington an indispensable ally. Okinawans, however, worry that the bases are a target, not a shield; they also wonder why they are saddled with 75 per cent of the base-hosting burden and their votes against them are ignored. In a recent referendum, 70 per cent of Okinawans opposed a new US airbase in Henoko.

Not far away, Japan and China play cat and mouse over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. These rocky islets populated by a handful of goats have assumed an astonishing importance. Japanese Coast Guard patrols confront Chinese vessels intruding on what Tokyo insists are its territorial waters and Japanese fighters are frequently scrambled to warn away trespassing aircraft. Though the US recognises Japan’s administrative control, it has refrained from taking a position on sovereignty; this ambivalence stokes concerns in Tokyo.

US fingerprints are all over this standoff and Japan’s other territorial disputes. The San Francisco Treaty, which ended the Pacific War and the US occupation of Japan in 1952, casts a long shadow. In it Japan renounced claims to the Kurile Islands, also asserted by the Soviet Union, which never signed the treaty. Tokyo has said that the renounced islands don’t include four outposts off Hokkaido that it calls the Northern Territories. Shinzo Abe has met Vladimir Putin more than any other world leader but chances of an agreement are slim.

Finally, Seoul and Tokyo are at odds over Dokdo/Takeshima, rocky outcrops occupied by South Korea in what it calls the East Sea and Tokyo insists is the Sea of Japan. This is another bone of contention between neighbours shackled to a divisive past and simmering grievances are never far from boiling over.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo


Who’s buying and who’s selling? We keep you abreast of significant defence deals.

In the basket: 1 Type 071e amphibious transport dock
Who’s buying: Thailand
Who’s selling: China
Price: €178m
Delivery date: 2023 to 2024

Amphibious transport dock is an unromantic name for an extremely useful warship. Six Type 071s, built by China State Shipbuilding Corporation, are in service with the People’s Liberation Army navy; the Royal Thai navy will be the first foreign customer. The ship can accommodate 800 troops and carry landing craft, helicopters and land vehicles. The vessel will be useful for Thai disaster relief and the purchase will boost relations with China.

From floppy to solid


The eight-inch floppy disk was, circa 1973, the pinnacle of computer storage – but it has long been superseded by other physical systems, not to mention the cloud. It is now a relic, of interest only to museums – yet it has only just been phased out by the US air force’s Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS), which co-ordinates US nuclear forces.

So is it weird that the mightiest power ever wielded was relying on redundant technology? “Despite its age the system is capable, reliable and incredibly secure,” says Dana E Struckman, a former colonel in the US air force who is now deputy chair of the National Security Affairs Department at the US Naval War College.

But this is not the reason that SACCS has persisted with the floppy disk. “The end of the Cold War and subsequent focus on fighting terrorism meant that the modernisation of US nuclear forces was relegated to the back burner for decades,” says Struckman. The floppy disk will be replaced with a – hopefully just as impenetrable – solid-state digital storage system.

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