Threat Theory and Japan’s Collective Self-Defense

Japan’s collective self-defense resolution crystallizes a greater Japanese threat for Beijing.

Threat Theory and Japan’s Collective Self-Defense
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On this week’s podcast, I was joined by Zach and Clint, our Tokyo-based editor. We discussed the ramifications of Japan’s new resolution of collective self-defense that will allow Tokyo greater latitude in the use of its armed forces under its constitution. Toward the end of the podcast, I asked Zach and Clint to offer their thoughts on whether the Japanese government’s reinterpretation of the constitution would be, on balance, a stabilizing or destabilizing factor in East Asia’s security architecture. We all seemed to agree that the highly symbolic nature of the reinterpretation meant that it would not be highly destabilizing in the short-term; instead, Japan’s neighbors would continue to focus on slights such as prime ministerial visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and the comfort women issue (in South Korea’s case).

It occurred to me after this discussion that this reinterpretation, if anything, could be destabilizing if read through the lenses of balance of threat theory. This theory (made famous by Stephen Walt) expands on the traditional realist notion that states balance against the material capabilities of other states by arguing that states in reality will balance against perceived threats. Japan has always been an impressive country martially, even after its war-renouncing constitution. Its armed forces are roughly as capable as the French armed forces (and that country is a nuclear-armed United Nations Security Council permanent member). Considering the rivalry between China and Japan, and China’s naval modernization, reinterpreting Japan’s constitution to allow for its armed forces to participate in collective self-defense hugely ramps up the perceived threat from Japanese forces in Beijing.

Where before Beijing may have faced the prospect of facing Japanese forces in the East China Sea over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it could now potentially fight Japan in other theaters. In effect, the collective self-defense resolution should cause China to double down on balancing Japan internally by building additional capacity (something that it has already been doing, by all accounts). Zach also expanded on another topic that came up on the podcast, which was the prospect of Japan becoming involved in a potential altercation between China and Taiwan across the Taiwan strait. While that scenario remains unlikely, the mere possibility of Japan’s collective self-defense resolution allowing this to become a reality changes the strategic arithmetic of attacking Taiwan for Beijing.

Beijing, of course, has been rather concerned with a perceived Japanese threat ever since Shinzo Abe and the LDP returned to power in late 2012. Thus, it is unlikely that this week’s resolution on collective self-defense will trigger a noticeable change in Beijing’s behavior. What this week’s resolution will do, however, is crystallize Japan as a greater threat for China, necessitating balancing. In this sense, the collective self-defense resolution, if not actively destabilizing, is certainly not a stabilizing factor in Northeast Asia.

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