How to Contain Japan-China Tensions
Image Credit: Flickr poter.simon

How to Contain Japan-China Tensions


A recent Economist magazine cover portrays Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clad in superhero costume, flying through the air flanked by fighter jets under the banner, “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No… It’s Japan!” This caricature represents a growing sense that Japan has turned a corner toward a more assertive foreign and defense policy.

Despite Abe’s intentions, Tokyo is unlikely to adopt a radically expanded defense posture aimed at containing Beijing in coming years. Rather, a wide range of domestic and external factors will likely place constraints on Japanese defense spending and capabilities and lead Tokyo to continue an overall policy of cooperative engagement with Beijing.

However, there is growing support in Japan for dealing firmly with China’s expanding military capabilities and ambitions, especially in light of the most recent crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Equally important, Abe and his highly conservative supporters are bent on revising Japan’s constitution and affirming an interpretation of modern Japanese history, moves that are sure to provoke other Asian nations greatly, especially China and South Korea. While it is questionable whether these efforts will succeed, at the very least, the cooperative elements of Tokyo’s stance toward Beijing are likely to be combined with an increasingly hard hedge.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

At the same time, although Beijing is unlikely to engage in future efforts at territorial expansion, it is also unlikely to back down from its more assertive stance on current territorial disputes. And it is almost certain to increase its military and paramilitary capabilities and presence near Japan from their currently modest but growing levels. Even if economic growth rates slow, China will be able to sustain significant annual defense spending increases that will enable its military power in the Asia-Pacific region, including areas near Japan, to grow steadily over the coming decades.

Taken together, these trends suggest that Tokyo and Beijing are likely to find themselves engaged in a growing security competition in coming years that could prove destabilizing to the region and deleterious to the interests of both countries. To mitigate this security competition, policymakers in both countries need to prioritize skillful diplomacy and implement stable mutual security reassurances.

In the short term, this should involve efforts to establish rules of engagement, informal understandings, communication channels, and other mechanisms that will facilitate the prevention and management of crises, particularly those that could arise as the result of incidents at air and sea.

In the longer term, the two sides – necessarily through a simultaneous conversation with the United States – will need to grapple with the question of what type of deployment pattern and distribution of military power in the Western Pacific they can accept.

These are some of the conclusions we and our co-authors reach in a recent Carnegie Endowment report, China’s Military and the U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2030: A Strategic Net Assessment (though the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the other report authors).

The Outlook for Japan

Despite the recent ascendancy in Japan of those who advocate a move toward military normalization, it is unlikely that Tokyo will make a major breakthrough toward becoming a fully normal military power by 2030. Overall, numerous factors suggest that Japan’s defense response to China is likely to be restrained. Various domestic influences, including constitutional constraints, normative values, political and bureaucratic factors, and budgetary limitations, are likely to limit growth in Japanese military missions and capabilities. Moreover, Japan’s extensive economic interests vis-à-vis China are likely to act as stabilizing ballast for the relationship. Similarly, U.S. interests in encouraging a cooperative Sino-Japanese relationship will continue, as will, in all probability, U.S. preferences against full-fledged Japanese normalization.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief