Countering the dogma: Japan is not balancing against China’s military rise

by Louis Reitmann

512px-shinzY abe and xi jinping (november 2017)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, 2017. 内閣官房内閣広報室 via Wikimedia Commons.

As China’s defence budget has grown rapidly over the past decade, it has replaced the Middle East as the security community’s go-to issue. In expert conversations, one assumption is ubiquitous: a worried Japan is bound to retaliate. In International Relations research, contributions by prominent hawks like John Mearsheimer have made Japanese military balancing against China an uncontested dogma. However, the reality on the ground gives us little reason to believe that Tokyo has been re-militarising or becoming more assertive towards Beijing. In fact, since China’s reform period began in 1978, Japan has been reliably neutral and often even helpful for Chinese core objectives.

Throughout the years, Japan’s policy towards China has been rooted in the 1974 Treaty of Peace and Friendship’s clause on ‘mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity … non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence’. Regarding internal affairs, Japan has fully recognised China’s claim over Taiwan as legitimate, strictly limiting relations with Taipei and siding with Beijing during the conflicts in 2004 and 2007. It has also depoliticised Tibetan independence, against domestic sentiments, and has abstained from discussions on Beijing’s human rights record in international fora. In terms of mutual benefit, Japan was one of the earliest proponents of China’s WTO membership, its biggest aid donor and performed highly in foreign direct investment (FDI) despite political tensions. With regard to peaceful coexistence, Japan has accepted China’s military capabilities for adequate support of its regional position, conditional on transparency and communication, and has only marginally expanded its own.

If we assumed that Japan was adopting a balancing strategy, we would expect a decisive deviation from this behaviour. Nonetheless, looking at three key issues we can see how Japan’s foreign policy disappoints mainstream expectations.

Japan does not aim to stop China’s ascendancy to global actorness but rather to deter direct threats to its security and the regional status quo.

Consider Japan’s recent approach to China claiming sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. They are a key strategic asset in the region for defining China’s and Japan’s air defence identification zones and access to underwater oil and gas deposits. Despite many attempts by Beijing to escalate the dispute into a fait accompli, Japan has merely been vocal about its frustration with China’s actions. Far from capitalising on China’s assertiveness to guarantee the territorial status quo, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe issued moderate responses, refrained from bringing the case to international attention, held on to Japan’s non-acknowledgement of the dispute, and normalised relations with President Xi Jinping in November 2014. Although this has hit its relative position, Japan has accepted a new equilibrium of naval presence around the islands.

But what about Japan’s new defence capabilities and security legislation? Despite outcries that Japan was re-militarising, Abe’s reforms merely enable it to honour two commitments: 1) participating in humanitarian security missions to protect UN-led troops and civilians, and 2) the credible protection of the status quo in Asia-Pacific. The reforms give Japanese security actors a legal anchor, and bring its negative pacifist attitude up to date with the proactive pacifist worldview  adopted by other liberal powers after the Cold War: the conviction that global peace can only be achieved if responsible states intervene robustly for the international order. Most importantly, the reforms include extremely tight parliamentary control, defying speculations about a power grab by the executive. In comparison to other US allies, Japan remains far less capable and lacks the power-projection assets necessary for a balancing strategy. The recent increase in defence spending is not out of line with a new vulnerability in Japan’s South due to China’s improved standing. As outlined in its 2013 National Security Strategy, Japan does not aim to stop China’s ascendancy to global actorness but rather to deter direct threats to its security and the regional status quo, for which it seeks continued, but not significantly increased, US support. Indeed, when examining the alliance with Washington, its much talked about 2015 revision is not much more than a reassurance of the existing agreement. These intentions are also reflected in Japan’s recent establishment of a security communication mechanism with China to ease tensions.

There is no indication of a shift in Japan’s foreign policy towards balancing against  China.

Lastly, despite a slowing Chinese economy and soured relations over the Senkaku Islands, the regression in imports from China has been a microscopic 0.029% over five years. Japanese FDI in China has mostly correlated with FDI in Asia and even rose, despite a regional contraction in 2016–17, in support of Beijing’s ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy and manufacturing sector. Neither government has discouraged Japanese businesses from investing in China. Recently, both have even pledged to accelerate talks on a bilateral free trade agreement.

As this illustrates, there is no indication of a shift in Japan’s foreign policy towards balancing against  China. Yes, under Abe Japan has adopted some changes, especially vis-à-vis its previously militarily vulnerable, legally confused and restricted, and cooperation-wise isolated position. Nevertheless, its actions are nowhere near those necessary to credibly and effectively contain China’s development.

Here are some clues as to why Japan is not balancing against China. Most importantly, Japan benefits enormously from China’s economic upswing. China is Japan’s number one origin of imports and second most important export destination. The fact that China is the primary destination for Japanese FDI shows its importance for a struggling Japanese economy. Trade limitations or tariffs would hurt Japan’s position more than advance it, especially amidst practically dead domestic consumption and major demographic challenges. There are also political reasons: a majority of the Japanese public have no interest in the US-China sort of power competition. They retain a strong affinity with their pacifist post-war identity. Completely alienating China will also not help Japan with solving other security challenges like North Korean nuclear weapons. All this is not to say that Japan will never engage in balancing against China, but for now its strategic outlook remains unchanged. As Abe emphasised in 2013, Japan is interested in adequate security and a ‘mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests’ within the liberal international order and with improved regional crisis management.

About the author

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Louis Reitmann is a postgraduate International Relations student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has previously studied at the Universities of Vienna, Nottingham and Chicago. His main research interests are EU foreign and defence policy and security challenges in Asia-Pacific.

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