Last year was a bad one for China’s soft power. Will Japan’s response prompt a dangerous spiral of arms spending—and spark conflict?
Saying publicly for the first time what they’ve thought privately for years, Japanese defence planners in December announced a new defence posture that fingered China’s military rise as justification for a new, more proactive approach, including a refocusing of forces from Japan’s north to its southernmost islands.
Unfortunately, China’s response was as predictable as it was unhelpful: it issued a blunt statement saying that no country had the right to make irresponsible comments about its development.
From a distance, it’s hard not to be alarmed at the three trends that have dominated the region over the last decade: the growth of Chinese power, the relative decline of US power and the resulting remilitarisation of Japanese power. Indeed, given the growth in importance of the region to the global economy, these trends are as alarming as they are dangerous since they have the capacity to be self-fulfilling, driving a cycle of mistrust and spiralling arms spending. And, since Japan’s defence posture automatically includes the United States (which is obliged by treaty to come to Japan’s defence) any potential conflict has all the ingredients for a ‘great power war.’
How did this happen to a China that seemed intent on managing a history defying ‘peaceful rise’? How did this happen to a United States that has sought to reassure China and give Beijing a seat at the table? And how did it happen to a pacifist Japan, led by a newly-elected political party that looked intent on building closer ties with China? A complicated mix of security dynamics, historical grievances and major shifts in aggregated power mean there’s no easy answer.
The relationship between Japan and China has long been complex. Traditionally, the junior partner and recipient of culture, religion and writing from the 19th century on, Japan developed more quickly the tools, institutions and weapons that ultimately felled its giant neighbour. Following the 1853 US intrusion on its sleepy isolation, Japan began its rise as a great power by focusing on economic and military power.
Using the slogan Fukokyu Kohei, ‘rich country, strong military,’ Japan emulated the strategic thinking of the West, with particular focus on the kind of naval power projection discussed by Alfred Thayer Mahan. Japan’s quicker development reversed its historic relationship with China, and by the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899, Japan was fighting alongside British, French and German forces and carving out its own trade empire on the Chinese mainland.
While China’s rise over the last 20 years has done much to restore the historic balance between the two states, it’s more than possible this historical experience continues to shape current Chinese policy and the attitudes of policy-making elites. Defence spending, for example, has surged—doubling every five years—with much going into developing China’s blue-water naval capabilities. (When pressed on this issue, Chinese diplomats tend to point to China’s past vulnerability to naval-borne threats).
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