06 May, 2020

Japan's Achilles Heel?

Infographic from the International Gas Union.

Two months ago I wrote a post with the title "Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan." It described how the loss of Taiwan to the PRC would put Japan in a geopolitically untenable position, as the PLA Navy would then be capable of choking Japan into submission if conflict ever arose between the two powers.

I thought back to that post as I read a report from the Financial Times on the difficulties Japan will face if its liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities are shut down because of the SARS-2 coronavirus:
Because LNG is poorly suited for long-term storage, Japan only has a two-week stockpile. Yet the country depends on the fuel for 40 per cent of its electric power generation, and all of the LNG it uses is imported from the Middle East and south-east Asia.....

Unlike oil, LNG is hard to stockpile. After the Arab oil shocks of the early 1970s, Japan passed a law to require stockpiling oil, and about 200 days of domestic consumption is stored together with the private sector. Even if there were a hindrance to the transportation of oil, “we can hold up until the infection subsides”, said an employee at a private energy company.

LNG, meanwhile, cannot be held in large volume because of its composition. To ship over long distances, the gas is chilled to minus 162C, at which point it becomes liquid. But it evaporates as it is being transported. That is why Japan has only two weeks’ worth of LNG at any given time.

It takes about a month to ship the LNG from the Middle East to Japan. With shipments arriving constantly, a few missed shipments would not immediately signal a crisis. But an extended cut-off would spell trouble for the country. [1]
The connection to that previous post should be obvious. However, as I am not especially familiar with LNG infrastructure, I am left pondering a few questions. I encourage readers more knowledgeable than myself to take them up in the comments.

The Financial Times describes a nation that can easily be paralyzed by losing just a few key nodes in its LNG offloading infrastructure. If damaged in war, how quickly could such infrastructure be rebuilt? How possible is it to harden these targets from ballistic missile attack? In the event of war, what is more economical: attacking the LNG port infrastructure or attacking the LNG ships bound for Japan? What percentage of the LNG carrier fleet that embarks in Japan is Japan-flagged? One suspects Mitsui O.S.K. Lines would have no choice but to continue supplying Japan in the face of commerce raiders, but would the fleets of Shell, Nakilat, et. al dare risk it?

If you found this analysis of Taiwanese and Japanese military affairs of  interest, you might also like the posts "Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan," "Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power," "Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet or Not At All," and "At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Suguru Kurimoto, "Hidden threat: Japan has only 2-week stockpile of LNG," Financial Times (5 May 2020).


Lexington Green said...

Attacking Japan in a way that is mortal threat to the nation and the regime is to enter a darkened room. China would not just be taking on the Japan they know, they would be taking on the full scope of Japanese capabilities, known, unknown, and potential, that a Japanese regime with its survival at stake could draw upon in response. A regime in mortal danger may resort to steps which are inconceivable under ordinary conditions. Japan in fact is one of the best examples of unexpected and costly defensive measures when faced with defeat. I have read things which suggest that Japan's civil space launch capability includes rockets capable of being used as ICBMs, and that Japan has the capacity to quickly assemble thermonuclear warheads. This may or may not be true. If it is true, or might be, then China has to consider that. Japan is an extremely sophisticated country, and it's technological capability is at least as good as anyone else's on the planet. What does China have that Japan could similarly attack, or menace? I agree with the thrust of this post. Japan has serious vulnerabilities, and Japan should try to protect against such threats on the political and diplomatic plane while that remains an option. But if the Taiwanese bulwark gave way, Japan would respond to that threat in ways that are unforeseeable, and that China may not be able to counter.

Anonymous said...

It does not matter how smart, how sophisticate a country is, there are certain things one cannot get it right the first time. The weapon, the system must be tested, and then get refined a few times before deployment for use.

That said, I don't see Japan has any serious defense but relies on USA's for the nuclear umbrella as well as other big weapons.

Based on the satellite images captured in China, clearly China is leaping ahead in an alarming rate both in quantity and quality. The latest is the 40,000-10 assault carrier, only behind in USA in that category. Even Russia could not build such vessel.


DB said...

Why not import LNG from Canada or the US, thus bypassing the choke point?