The East Asian region is witnessing a turbulent period in its history. Never before in history of East Asia, there had been an absence of power competition when a rising power threatened to challenge the established and sole recognized power in the region. Japan’s ascendance as the dominant military power during the pre-War years when Japan emerged as a major colonial power in Asia coincided with China’s eclipse from its preeminence position of the Middle Kingdom period. The world took note of Japan with awe as a dwarf crushed two giants – China and Russia – within a decade and this became the news of the time. After the War, Japan emerged as a powerful economic powerhouse within decades from its defeat in World War II. At this time China again slumped into economic abyss during its flawed Great Leap forward policy and Cultural Revolution. After China opened up its economy with market reforms and started registering astounding double-digit economic growth for the past four decades, its aspiration to regain its old glory has gained currency in China and abroad. The equation with Japan is thus now being challenged to be altered with China flexing its military and economic muscles to assert its claim to be the dominant power of the region. The Chinese aspiration to reemerge this time is not only as the sole regional but also as the global power. This is demonstrable from its assertive behavior in regional issues such as the East and South China Seas. China is also raking up historical wounds to reassert its claims. Even with India, it is unwilling to resolve the boundary disputes and started flexing its military muscles.
China feels that the time is opportune as its major challenger, Japan, is unable to come out from its prolonged recession and knows that its military wings are clipped by prohibitory provisions in the US-imposed Constitution, particularly Article 9. But recent developments in Japan with a nationalistic prime minister in office signals that Japan will not acquiesce to this new situation gracefully. Japan’s national security defense outlining the country’s National Security Strategy and approved by the Security Council and the Cabinet on 17 December 2013 signals that Japan is prepared to meet the new China challenge. Will the smaller regional power such as South Korea, and closer to the region, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam and few others will accept this new power equations quietly without discomfort? Can China succeed in bullying the smaller powers in Asia into subjugation at the cost of hurting its own economy as interdependence within the regional economies makes the stakes high for all nations, more so for China? These are troubling questions to which there are no ready-made answers. But after analyzing the recent developments, some tentative inferences can be drawn to the likely developments in the coming months or years.
Against this backdrop, it can be seen that there is a rapid change in global power balance as globalization takes firm root. For Japan, the security environment in its periphery creates an element of volatility and this is represented by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and missile development. The China-North Korea nexus does not portend good for regional peace and stability. The symptoms of potential instability in North Korea following purging and then quick execution of the No. 2 in the army related by marriage with the supreme leader sends disturbing signals in the neighborhood. The strategic vulnerability of the potential adversaries gets exposed further with transnational threats grounded on technological progress including international terrorism and cyber attacks gain significance.
Reshaping Japan’s security strategy The US “rebalance” strategy in Asia or “Asia pivot” as it is popularly called, means that even powerful countries in the world need allies to maintain world peace. Even when China seems determined to rewrite laws governing world peace and sets its own code of conduct, it needs allies. It has allies in Pakistan and North Korea and seems to have lost Myanmar after the latter opted for market reforms. But can a nation maintain its own peace and security alone without outside support? In the case of Japan, its Self Defense Forces, constricted as it is by its own peace constitution but compelled to reinterpret it in the way that it serves its national interests, cannot remain silent and rely on the US protection. Even within Japan, there is a sizable public opinion that does not endorse perpetual subservience to the US and oppose to Japan’s support financially for the latter stationing military bases to protect Japan. The argument goes that why Japanese citizens’ tax payer money should be spent on a venture that lacks public approval. A senior Japanese academic once told the author that the US must withdraw the George Washington aircraft carrier harbored at Yokohama bay, calling it a “monster”. The relocation of American bases in Okinawa remains a burning issue and is unlikely to go away so soon.
So how does Japan respond and prepare itself to this changing situation? While its SDFs has contributed to the maximum possible extent to the efforts to maintain and restore international peace and security, such as UN peacekeeping operations, the Japanese government is crafting a nuanced security doctrine in establishing the National Security Council (NSC), adopting the National Security Strategy (NSS), and the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) to meet the country’s security challenges (perceived threats) coming from its neighbors. These measures are based on the belief that Japan, as a “proactive Contributor to Peace”, needs to contribute more actively to the peace and stability of the region, while at the same time strengthening its ties with its ally, the US. As regards the NSC, it was established on 4 December 2013 with the aim of establishing a forum which will undertake strategic discussions under the Prime Minister on a regular basis and as necessary on various national security issues and exercising a strong political leadership. Then, the Cabinet adopted the NSS on 17 December 2013, setting the basic orientation of diplomatic and defense policies related to national security. NSS presents the content of the policy of “Proactive Contribution to Peace” in a concrete manner and promotes better understanding of Japan’s national security policy. The NDPG and the Mid-Term Defense Program based on the NSS were also announced on 17 December 2013. Earlier, the Ministry of Defense had published the Defense Posture Review Interim Report on 26 July 2013.
While taking cognizance of the severity of the security environment around Japan and the recognition that the country should be ready for an appropriate response should the situation deteriorates, the government was prepared to examine and consider issues related to the Constitution, including the issue of collective self-defense, based on the views of the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security.
Japan has adopted the Three Principles on Arms Exports and their related policy guidelines and this needs to be reviewed based on the changed situation. While the government has dealt with arms exports in a careful manner so far, in December 2012 the government established the Guidelines for Overseas Transfer of Defense Equipment, etc. based on the need to engage more proactively and effectively in peace contribution and international cooperation and the mainstreaming among developed countries of international joint development and production of defense equipment, etc.
When the SDFs withdrew from the UN Peacekeeping Operations in Haiti, part of the materials and equipment of the Japanese Engineer Group engaged in the UN Peacekeeping Operation in Haiti was granted to Haiti in January 2012 and this was based on the Guidelines. Also, as an international joint development and production project which serves to the security of Japan, the “Agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Concerning the Transfer of Arms and Military Technologies Necessary to Implement Joint Research, Development and Production of Defence Equipment and Other Related Items” was concluded in July 2013, and chemical and biological protection technology cooperative research project is underway between Japan and the UK. In the NSS, it is stated that while giving due considerations to the roles that the Three Principles on Arms Exports and their related policy guidelines have played so far, “the Government of Japan will set out clear principles on the overseas transfer of arms and military technologies.”
China reacted sharply against Japan’s plan to enhance military spending and arms exports and said that these measures will raise tensions in the region. Chinese defence ministry spokesperson Geng Yansheng said that Japan was playing up the “China’s military threat” and using this as an alibi for its own military expansion. In particular, China is worried that Japan will have more friends because of its arms exports deals, which will be detrimental to China’s interests. Japan wants to raise defence spending by 5 per cent over the next five years to purchase its first surveillance drones, more jet fighters and naval destroyers and set up an amphibious u nit similar to the US Marines.
Tough the Abe government has committed to spend $240 billion on military in five years from 2014, China suspects that Tokyo will take forward the new trend with greater military spending. But China has missed the point that the Japanese move came after China established an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) that overlaps the existing Japanese ADIZ and covers the disputed Diaoyu islands. China is not deterred. Its defence spokesman remarked: “We urge Japan to make deep introspection on its history, honour its commitment to peaceful development and try to improve its relations with neighbours to play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability.” Geng accused Japan’s so-called “proactive pacifism” is just a cover to beef up military alliances with other countries to create a front against China. China seems to be paranoid of any move by Japan for its own security and sees itself always as an adversary. This could be because the shadow of history continues to haunt China. It was precisely because of such an attitude by China that led to the demise of the quadrilateral initiative made by Abe in his first term before it was born; China saw this initiative as anti-China. China blissfully overlooks the ground reality that its recent flexing of military muscle is causing considerable disquiet in the entire Asia-Pacific region, where it is seen as China’s long term goal of military aggrandizement.
China has been selling the idea that the US will abandon Japan from its treaty obligation at the appropriate time as the US will be unwilling to jeopardize its economic relationship with China, should a crisis suddenly breaks out between Japan and China. To an outside observer, this is China’s wishful thinking. If the recent rebalancing strategy of the US is understood in correct perspective, it would be foolhardy for China to believe that the US would abandon Japan. The Japan-US security treaty remains and would continue to remain as the lynchpin of America’s security strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region for quite some time.
Assessment Analysts would interpret if Japan’s enunciation of its national security strategy is aimed to negate its history. The truism is that the new security strategy is putting the acceptance of Japanese peoples’ pacifist constitution for the past six decades to a test to the nation’s national identity. While being careful not to get embroiled in any overseas military entanglements, its choice for a proactive national security strategy would augur well for Japan, for Asia and serve the US interests as well.
Notwithstanding Abe’s perceived nationalistic foreign policy posture, the hanging threats from North Korea’s weapon program simply cannot be overlooked. Though Yukio Hatoyama during his tenure tried to seek distance from Washington by floating the idea of an Asians-only “East Asian Community”, the China and North Korean factors have pushed the Abe administration to awake from the country’s long slumber.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the NSS accuses China of “attempts to change the status quo by coercion”, intruding “into Japan’s territorial waters and airspace around the Senkaku islands”, and “unduly (infringing) the freedom of over flight above the high seas”. There have been cases of Chinese navy regularly transiting the Japanese islands to the Pacific Ocean and in fiscal year ending March 2013, Japan scrambled fighter jets 306 times in response to Chinese aircrafts. In the East China Sea, Chinese and Japanese maritime forces have often been at odds. This is because China seems determined to alter Japan’s administrative control over the disputed Senkaku islands. It was because of this intention, China declared the ADIZ over much of the East China Sea, including the Senkakus, claiming that civilian and military aircraft within the ADIZ are required to file flight plans with China and are subject to Chinese directions. There are some analysts who see China’s ADIZ plan as a result of “provocations” from Japan when the Japanese government purchased three of the islands in 2012 and that this was the starting point for the latest round of tension.
China’s new President Xi Jinping may be seen as a nationalist than his predecessor, but the truism is that China is concerned about its maritime commerce and would leave no excuses to be exposed to the possible vulnerability, putting its international trade at risk. Beijing realizes that Chinese submarines pass through the Miyoko Strait regularly. For China, lack of control over the waterways through which its exports, natural resource imports, and naval vessels must pass would mean its vulnerability and the ADIZ is aimed towards this goal.
In a recent posting to the National Interest, Dan Blumenthal and Michael Mazza  succinctly observe the factors that are driving China’s strategy. One cannot disagree with such persuasive and objective analysis. I quote below some relevant paras in full:
“China has become one of the world’s most dependent nations on international trade, most of which is carried by merchant vessels. Those ships dock at the massive ports along the only Chinese shoreline, in places such as Shanghai and Ningbo. China has, as a result, been building the naval power to protect its maritime trade. China is now a land power trying to go to sea. But to become a true maritime power it must pass through the East and South China Seas to reach the Pacific and Indian oceans.From China’s perspective, the “first island chain”—which stretches from the Japanese home islands in the northeast through the Ryukyu islands and Taiwan to the Philippines in the Southeast—remains a potential obstacle to Chinese access to the Pacific and a platform from which potential adversaries can interdict Chinese maritime traffic, whether of the military or commercial variety.With its stepped up naval transits through the Ryukyus and its unrelenting approach to the Senkakus, Beijing has telegraphed to Tokyo and Washington what it is most concerned about. To its credit, Japan is paving the way for a new U.S. maritime strategy that can take advantage of Chinese vulnerabilities.While the new national security strategy discusses North Korea, terrorism, the Middle East and the global commons, Japan’s defense reforms are focused largely on securing the Ryukyu island chain, and the Senkakus in particular, thus continuing the country’s rebalance of security emphasis and resources from Russia in the north to China in the west (now, that’s a real rebalance). And although Tokyo is driven by concerns for the security of its own territory, it is also taking advantage of the geographical edge it hold vis-à-vis China. Japan is already an impressive naval power with a very strong submarine and destroyer fleet. In accordance with its new plans, it will add a number of important new capabilities, including first-class maritime air interdiction, stealthy strike, rapid reaction forces, and C4ISR. All of these capabilities will be useful in defending Japan’s southwestern islands, but just as important, they will also allow the Self-Defense Force to operate more effectively in an international coalition.Washington can multiply the effect of Tokyo’s new defense policy with a real defense strategy of its own. U.S. forces can build facilities, field new capabilities, and help upgrade allied forces in a region stretching from Indonesia through the Philippines and Taiwan and up to Japan that can together bottle up the Chinese navy. Doing so would force Beijing to spend heavily on defenses, such as antisubmarine-warfare capabilities of its own. The U.S. can also lead an effort to build a coalition maritime domain awareness center that each country in the first island chain can plug into. Taken together, these steps could complement the robust presence of American and allied undersea, mining, and surface-warfare forces, all in the service of causing China to think twice about sticking to its current coercive strategy.Japan has started the process of regaining the initiative from China. Washington now has a chance to lead its allies in a strategy that forces China to play defense. Will it?”
Foot Note Dan Blumenthal and Michael Mazza “Japan: Land of the Rising Gun, 20 December 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/japan-land-the-rising-gun-9594?page=1
(The writer Dr.Rajaram Panda, is Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Japanese Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E Mail: email@example.com )