Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Rise = Remilitarizing Japan?

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?

By John Hemmings for

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.

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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).

In addition, Sino-Japanese relations remain beset by historical tensions: Japan’s history textbooks stirred controversy in China in the 1990s, while former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine—a site commemorating the Japanese war dead, including Class A war criminals—sparked major anti-Japanese riots in China in 2005, and a cessation of senior level talks. For its part, China has allowed further anti-Japanese sentiment to develop in its own history books, and the establishment of a number of war museums dedicated to revealing atrocities committed by Japanese forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

But above all, Chinese military leaders are cognizant of the fact that modern Asian security is dominated by US military power. The US Pacific Fleet is the largest naval command in the world and includes six aircraft carriers, 2000 aircraft and over 125,000 personnel deployed across bases in Japan, South Korea and other locations on China’s immediate borders.

Back in 1985, there was a significant shift in Chinese naval strategy, from one of defending Chinese coastlines to one of meeting threats at sea, called Offshore Defence. It’s arguably this policy that has had the biggest influence on strategic thinking in the region, both as an expression of growing Chinese power and as a cause of friction with the United States and other Asian states. Coming three years after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea had internationalised sea resource and maritime territorial issues, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) doctrine of ‘Offshore Defence’ conceived of two island chains forming geographic defence barriers to any attacking opponent.

The first island chain supposedly stretches from the southern tip of Japan to the South China Sea and encompasses many of the region’s most important sea lanes of communication (as well as its richest fishing waters), while the second chain is supposed to stretch out into the Pacific, and includes Indonesia, Borneo, the Bonins, the Carolinas and the Philippines. The development of a Chinese submarine and anti-ship missile systems became a priority for the PLAN over the next decades, something that was hastened by the 1995-6 Taiwan Strait Crisis, in which Bill Clinton reacted to Sino-Taiwanese tensions by sending two carrier battle groups into the waters around Taiwan to demonstrate US willingness to defend the island.

Such US muscle-flexing met with a Chinese response. Between 2002 and 2006, the Pentagon estimates that Russia sold over $11 billion in military craft to China, including Su-27 Flanker and Su-30 Flanker interceptors, 3M-54E (SS-N-27B) anti-ship cruise missiles, Il-78 Midas in-flight refuelling tankers, Il-76 Candid transport planes, Kilo-class diesel submarines and Sovremenny Class destroyers. And, alongside this build-up, China has developed naval facilities that have extended its reach into South East Asia, including a submarine base on Hainan Island, as well as developing long-distance operations through anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

Mahan, a US naval thinker who had a strong influence over Japan, is said to be in vogue again, this time amongst Chinese naval strategists. Diplomatically, Beijing has sought to balance these increased capabilities with reassurances to Japan and other Asian powers that its intentions are benign. And, until recently, most states had been content to accept the notion of a ‘peaceful rise.’

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Unfortunately, 2010 saw a marked increase in incidents involving Chinese naval units, unequivocal or non-compromising statements on maritime disputes and a crisis in relations with nearly all of China’s maritime neighbours.

So how will traditional rival Japan respond? For nearly two decades, Japan’s remilitarisation has piggy-backed on North Korean bellicosity and the desire to be a more ‘normal’ country—an equal partner to the United States. But as the ‘unipolar moment’ of dominant US economic and political power has receded in the shadow of two costly wars, burgeoning national debt and the lingering effects of the financial crisis, Japan has begun to realise that it must be able to defend its interests in the same way that other normal states do, namely with economic and military hard power.

In addition, Japan has also noted the immense inroads that Chinese trade missions have made in Africa, South-east Asia and the Middle East, many at Tokyo’s expense. While the new defence guidelines don’t alter Japan’s pacifist constitution, there are signs that some of the walls are coming down. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan came very close to giving in to Japanese Ministry of Defence pressure to overturn the Three Principles Ban on Weapons Export, established in 1967 as a self-imposed moratorium on defence exports.

In the end, a typically Japanese compromise was reached where the wording maintains the Three Principles Ban, but is also worded in a way that could allow for future ‘reform.’ It is, according to one Japanese civil servant, ‘policy-making by a thousand cuts.’ While Japan’s military budget continues to fall this year and is under one percent of GDP, it remains one the largest in the world—usually among the top ten. Japan has particularly strong maritime capabilities, and is developing better counters to Chinese anti-access strategies including a larger submarine fleet, a campaign to get a new fighter and a new helicopter-carrier in the design phase. And there are also plans to deploy ground forces with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles to the various islands that make up Japan’s southernmost territories. In addition, Japan’s relative new governing party, the Democratic Party of Japan, has backed away from its initial pan-Asian policies in favour now of consolidating and strengthening the alliance with the United States.

When tasked with the decline in their soft power, Chinese analysts and foreign policy editorials are quick to apportion blame to the United States. Seeking to benefit from a ‘divide and conquer strategy,’ the US has beefed up its own lagging influence at China’s expense, they suggest. The problem with this narrative is that while it correctly sees China’s influence loss as the United States’ gain, it misunderstands the causes.

China is, above all, responsible for developing a power-projection capability and for using it for short-term gain. While China’s point of view that this is no more, no less than previous rising powers have sought is understandable, such thinking, planning and acting is more characteristic of 19th century powers than of those in the 21st century.

And the results of all this are already clear. Further Chinese militarisation will be met with further Japanese militarisation—and thus begins a dangerous cycle. By focusing on Japan’s past rather than a mutually beneficial future, and by embracing the worst elements of nationalism, Chinese leaders have sought to displace questions over legitimacy and internal political reform.

Japan and the United States, for their part, view China as a potential partner and as a major player at the table of nations, and so must act on this positive side of the relationship. But there are questions the US will have to answer as well. After all, it has dominated Asia for nearly 60 years, and will seek to maintain its role in the region for the foreseeable future. The question, then, is how much is the United States willing to let China carve out a role for itself in the region, and how much is China willing to allow the US to share?

While these questions are ultimately the most sensitive and the most difficult to approach openly, they can still take place at a scholarly level, in trade talks, and in the media. But it’s already clear that although the United States might be willing to afford a role to China, Beijing must tread carefully around its defence commitments in the region and avoid threatening the neighbours.

The future of the region depends on Chinese leaders making sensible choices. But it will also depend on Japanese and American leaders offering China sensible options.

John Hemmings is the co-ordinator and a research analyst for the International Security Studies department at the Royal United Services Institute in London,