On July 16, Japan’s lower house approved security legislation backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a step toward codifying one of the largest shifts in Japan’s security posture since the end of World War II (for more, see: “Japan’s New Security Legislation: A Missed Opportunity”). Most notably, the legislation will permit Japan’s Self Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense. Predictably, the bills (which still need to be approved by Japan’s upper house) have sparked a strong reaction from neighboring China, which remains on hyper-alert for any sign that Japan is seeking to remilitarize.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency was quick to blast the passage of the legislation, calling it a “nightmare scenario” and a “dark stain for Japan.” One of the more sensational commentaries invoked a lengthy metaphor, comparing the bills to a “samurai sword” Abe used in “fatally slashing Japan’s seven decades of pacifism.”
Notably, that piece argued that “the first victims of Abe’s blade” are within Japan – its “democratic system and the principle of the rule of law.” Since the security legislation was first announced, Chinese media outlets and government officials have focused their attention not only on China’s concerns, but on the opposition within Japan itself. As the debate over the security legislation heated up in Japan, Xinhua took care to cover the increasingly vocal opposition. Xinhua even provided a primer on “Why Japan’s gov’t-proposed security legislation [is] so controversial.” According to that article:
[N]ot only opposition parties here, but also the majority of the Japanese population are hoping to see the security legislation scrapped and are urging the government through constant protests to drop the bills and calling for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to step down.
Articles published after the passage of the bills reiterated the strength of public opposition, arguing that Abe and his party had hijacked Japan’s government to ram the bills through. This is a strategy China has been using since the defense reforms took shape – criticizing Abe while highlighting the concerns of the opposition. In an earlier piece, I called it China’s “good cop, bad cop strategy” for dealing with Japan. This rhetoric allows China to fling dire accusations at Abe and his supporters while taking care to point out that the Japanese people as a whole are not culpable.
But the abundance of concern for the damage Abe’s legislation might do to Japan’s constitutional system and rule of law is, of course, a mask for China’s own anxieties about the legislation. The two aspects are not unrelated – Beijing views Japan’s post-war, pacifist constitution as an important check preventing its neighbor to the east from becoming a true military rival. By reinterpreting the constitution – and, according to prominent Japanese constitutional scholars, violating it — Abe is increasing Tokyo’s ability to counter, and thus threaten, Beijing. The fact that the security reforms are specifically designed to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance is not lost on China, either.
China uses the legacy of World War II to justify its modern-day security concerns. In media reports, Japan’s return to militarism (as China calls the defense reforms) comes with dark predictions of history repeating itself. As the “samurai sword” commentary put it, “countries once ruthlessly trampled by Japan’s wartime barbarities will once again witness the rise of Japan’s militarism at a time when their wounds have not yet fully healed and bitter memories remain.”
Such concerns extend beyond the state-run media to government officials. China’s Foreign Ministry issued a special statement on the passage of the legislation, describing the approval as “an unprecedented move since the Second World War… [which] may lead to significant changes in Japan’s military and security policies.” The statement continued, “It is fully justified to ask if Japan is going to give up its exclusively defense-oriented policy or change the path of peaceful development that has been long pursued after the Second World War.” Like Xinhua, the Foreign Ministry made a special point of noting the “strong objection to the new security bills within Japan.”
State Councilor Yang Jiechi also took advantage of a golden opportunity to express his concern. Yang hosted Shotaro Yachi, the head of Japan’s National Security Council, in Beijing for a rare high-level bilateral talk today (incidentally, the 2014 breakthrough in China-Japan ties came from another meeting in Beijing between Yang and Yachi). At the dialogue, Yang told Yachi that the passage of the legislation “cannot but raise concern and questions from neighboring countries and the rest of the international community on whether Japan will abolish its pacifist posture,” according to Xinhua. Yang also accused Japan of going against the tides of history by speeding up its military build-up and implementing major changes to its security policy.