Is Japan striving for military “normalcy,” hedging against uncertainty, or balancing a more assertive China? Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has increased defense spending, reinterpreted Article Nine of its once-pacifist constitution, strengthened its alliance with the United States, relaxed constraints on its defense industry, and increased its security ties in Southeast Asia. It has even expressed interest in using its military resources to conduct maritime patrols in the South China Sea, where it has no direct stake in extant territorial disputes. Why? What motivates all these moves in the defense domain, and how “on trend” is it with the rest of the region?
The answer matters for our ability to accurately generalize about the character of the region, but it matters even more for how we understand Japan’s trajectory as a military power in Asia. Any debate about the sustainability of the relative peace Asia has known for the past generation depends on what we are willing to assume about the region’s largest military powers.
A number of Asia scholars (this author included) have observed that Asian states are neither balancing against nor bandwagoning with a rising China, but instead pursuing hedging strategies. The evidence is there, whether diversifying military ties in the region, building up military capacity without aiming it at anyone in particular, or simultaneously moving closer to the United States (on security issues) and China (on economic issues).
There are several practical implications that logically follow from this characterization of the region. It suggests, for one, that the United States should not take its centrality in the region for granted; we cannot expect the region — or even allies — to simply go along with U.S. preferences in an environment where alternatives may exist. It also means smaller states are unlikely to gleefully embrace Chinese hegemony anytime soon, and if there is anything inherently “Asian” about Asian international relations (as some scholars argue), it is not necessarily that China has a rightful place at the center of regional life. But if hedging is as pervasive as many claim, it also implies that the most pessimistic expectations about Asia’s fate — that China is hell bent on expansionism or that the region is “ripe for rivalry” — are not necessarily accurate either, at least not according to the judgment of the region’s middle powers.
Perhaps most importantly, a region of hedgers gives us a baseline for what counts as “normal” in contemporary Asian security. If Japan is adopting a hedging posture toward the region or China, then we might judge Japan’s foreign and defense policy shifts as “normal” for the time being. If not, then either Japan is unique among states in the region for choosing to balance China, or it is at the vanguard of a regional shift away from hedging and fuzzy geopolitical alignments in favor of firmer coalitions of balancing states.
Evidence of Japanese security behavior to date paints a complex picture. Japan’s increased defense spending and military modernization can be explained as a reaction to increased Chinese assertiveness, as can a strengthened alliance with the United States; both represent classical forms of internal and external balancing. More difficult to explain in terms of balancing is Japan’s growing defense ties in the region with India, Australia, and ASEAN, and its hints about being willing to conduct patrols in Southeast Asia. These moves fit better with a hedging explanation, which would place it more in alignment with “normal” regional foreign and defense policy behavior for now.
In some respects it does appear that Japan is trying to become a “normal” military, while in other respects it seems to be balancing China. Both can be true, though that makes parsing reality — and predicting the likelihood of continued regional stability — more difficult. Whatever its motivations, it seems that Japan is no longer passing the buck to the United States or the international community to provide for its security. U.S. voices critical of Japanese foreign policy for not contributing enough to alliance or regional security have long awaited this moment. But the causes of Japan’s decision to cease buck-passing — and the implications they harbor for regional stability — may not be so welcome.