“The future of the U.S.-Japan relationship is getting murkier and murkier”, said a Harvard-educated Japanese business leader who has been an important player in Japanese politics. He has also been close to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leaders over the last couple of decades. “There’s no fathoming Obama’s thought. It seems in disarray. We have to get prepared, even for the worst”, he said in a private conversation.
These casual remarks by a typically pro-American business big shot reflect sentiments that are spreading throughout Tokyo’s inner circles. People dwelling in this archipelago have started to feel as if they are living on quicksand. They see, to the west, the rapid rise and expansion of China’s power across the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea (witness the Air Defense zone hoopla), and, to the east, an inward-looking United States across the Pacific (witness the ongoing budget and debt limit messes). On the other side of the globe, they heard, Russia bit off Crimea from Ukraine. It is as if the very bedrock were shifting under their feet, teetering precariously in random directions.
For the first time in recent history, Japan feels existential angst…sort of. This may be comparable to the situation this island nation was in during the late 19th century, before the 1894–95 Sino-Japanese War. I don’t mean a military conflict is inevitable—just so there is no confusion. But I also don’t exclude the possibility.
Often cited by European media and pundits (with a slightly mocking tone) is a comparison between pre-World War I Europe and the current situation in northeast Asia. Some see Japan as parallel to the declining Great Britain of those days, while others place Japan in the role of France, with China today being analogous to the fast-rising Germany. Still, those European powers were tightly enmeshed in alliances and ententes in those days (though these compacts led them to a war involving a whole continent). Japan at that time was solidly underpinned and buttressed by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.
The current plight Japan faces is more like the impasse it came up against in the 1880s. China and Japan’s regimes differed widely from each other, as they do now. Japan had embarked upon a determined modernization project with promulgation of the Meiji Constitution, followed by the first general election at the end of the decade. China under the despotic Qing dynasty continued to resist political and social modernization while drastically expanding its military power, particularly in the naval area, as Communist China is doing now. China’s Beiyang (North Sea) Fleet was equipped with two 7,000-ton battleships when it made a port call at Nagasaki in August 1886. At that time, the then-modern Japanese navy had only two 4,000-ton battleships.
Battleships in those days were considered the ultimate strategic weapons, just as ballistic nuclear missiles are today. The Beiyang Fleet’s port call at Nagasaki was for refueling, supply, and repair, yet Japan perceived it as a blatant act of intimidation, as the visit was made after naval exercises off the Korean Peninsula, which Japan and China were contesting.
In the late 19th century, Japan felt isolated and abandoned. Its efforts to help modernizers in other parts of Asia, including China and Korea, all but failed. The “Middle Kingdom” and its surrogate Korean rulers fiercely resisted modernization and deemed modernist Japan a threat. European colonial powers were, meanwhile, still competing in the Asia-Pacific. France fought fiercely with China to establish, eventually, colonial French Indochina in 1887.
Naturally, Japan conceived itself besieged also by the colonial powers. The island nation, as the first and only modern power in Asia, still small and weak, outlasted that isolation with the strong will of the political and intellectual leaders who embraced modernization until the perceived beleaguerment was broken by the 1902 signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the victory in the Russo-Japanese War. The rest is a well-known history.
These days, Japan feels as if it were brought back to the period of more than a century ago, which preceded the Alliance. It feels left on its own, despite the enduring 62-year U.S.-Japan alliance based on the bilateral Security Treaty, which is almost as old as the North Atlantic alliance. Of these two Cold War alliances that sustained U.S. grand strategy in the post-World War II period, the latter, despite its membership expansion, has been struggling with its identity crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the former also has been trying to redefine itself in relation to China’s fast rise as the dominant power in Asia.
As the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis and the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis prompted the 1997 revision of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines to support the Treaty, the recent rapid rise of China and the relative decline of the United States now calls not only for re-revision of the Guidelines but also for revamping the whole U.S-Japan strategy.
China’s military expenditure increased fourfold over the past decade (2003–13), yet Japan’s has been decreasing until a slight pickup for this fiscal year. If you take the past 25 years (1988–2013), China increased such expenditure almost 35 times in nominal yuan value. According to the Tokyo Foundation’s estimate, China’s defense spending will be five (low estimate) to six and half (high estimate) times larger than Japan’s in 2020, and nine to 12 times larger in 2030, when it may surpass U.S. spending. “The power transition is a reality of the Japan-China relationship and that foretells the coming era when Japan will find it increasingly difficult to deal with China’s military rise on its own resources alone”, says the think tank.
The security environment in East Asia is thus totally different from the 1990s, when China’s military power was far smaller, and it had not yet acquired “anti-access/area denial” capabilities such as DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, dubbed “carrier killers”, which would be a game-changer in a possible regional contingency by preventing the participation of U.S. carrier groups. Such participation could be crucial in deterring China. The qualitative superiority held by Japan’s air force is now being challenged by China’s, which has been introducing fourth-generation fighters, such as the J11-B and the Su-30MMK over the past decade. On top of these, waves of missile strikes from continental China could destroy U.S. military bases in Japan, including strategically important Kadena, Misawa, and Yokota Air Force Bases.
The U.S. “pivot to Asia”, announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2011, was supposed to alleviate the concerns of Japan and other countries in China’s neighborhood. It was, however, promptly renamed a “rebalancing”, seemingly out of hyper-caution for China’s sensitivities. The “Air-Sea Battle” concept, revealed with much fanfare as a follow-up support to the “pivot”, does not seem to have any substantial consequences except a rumored “cobweb-covered room” in the Pentagon. Some Chinese strategists sneered at it as a “paper tiger.” Instead of being beefed up, U.S. forces in the Pacific are looking to the south for relocation (for instance, the new Marine rotation base in Darwin, Australia), as if to avoid Chinese power projection.
Then came the whole inward-focused period of 2013 on the U.S. budget, sequestration, and the debt limit, which led to the cancellation of President Obama’s participation in a few Asian summit meetings in October. These episodes deepened Asian allies’ skepticism not only over Obama’s will to commit himself to the “pivot” but also over America’s will to support its Asia policy. The fiscal struggle between Obama and the Republicans, whose gaze was also turned inward, went on.
The apex of all this hoopla was President Obama’s anticlimactic Syrian policy, which resulted in giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the upper hand in the Middle East and the Crimea washout.
All of this was even more psychologically shocking to many Japanese because it happened against the background of the Hatoyama leadership fiasco of a few years ago. Yukio Hatoyama, who became the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government after its sweeping victory over the Liberal Democrats in 2009, seriously damaged the U.S.-Japan Alliance with an incoherent policy with respect to such delicate issues as the relocation of a U.S. Marine air base in Okinawa and U.S. membership in a proposed East Asia Community.
Additionally, there has always been a certain level of apprehension about the validity of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, in case it should be applied to the Senkaku issue. The oft-stated U.S. position was ambiguous as heard by the Japanese, because it insisted that the United States does not take sides on who owns the islands. (Exactly the same sort of position stated by a U.S. Ambassador with regard to Kuwaiti oil fields triggered an Iraqi invasion in 1990.) It also says, however, that, as Japanese effectively control them, the islands fall under treaty obligations requiring the United States to help Japan in defending them in case of attack. So the Chinese are trying to undermine that “effective control” by sending in their patrol boats every other day.
At issue for the Japanese is not only such ambiguity but also the value of an article of the Treaty saying that U.S. military action is not automatic but has to be contingent on “constitutional procedure”, which is generally understood to be congressional approval. Given that U.S. public opinion often argues that Washington should not start a military conflict with China over these “rocks”, it is quite natural for the Japanese to take it for granted that the people’s representatives in the U.S. Congress would follow vox populi, as they would in any democracy.
Spreading like heavy clouds over these apprehensions is the still more ambiguous U.S. policy on China, as well as its policy toward allies. It has been generally understood in the post-Cold War world that the United States will not allow any hostile power to dominate a region critical to its interests, and that it will cooperate with old and new allies to prevent such dominance and make a more democratic, freer, and safer world.
To achieve such a goal, China seems to pose grave impediment. While it was still a relatively small power in the 1990s, the United States and its allies could negotiate a difficult path with a contradictory “engagement and hedging” policy. However, as it is now the second largest economy in the world, the contradiction (Mao Zedong’s favorite term) of China is deepening and becoming harder and harder to cope with, not only for China’s leadership itself but also for the outside world. For example, it is a huge capitalistic market dominated by a number of gigantic state-owned enterprises, which are in turn controlled by the despotic Communist Party. The Party’s core power comes from its Central Military Commission, which controls the two million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA). They still believe in Mao’s axiom, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, not out of the people’s will.
The general tendency is that the larger the economy becomes, the stronger the army. But in the free world, there are many exceptions, such as postwar Japan and Germany. The above-mentioned Chinese politico-military structure links more directly the growth of economy to the expansion of the army and the sophistication of its armaments. When China was still economically weak, such a link might have been permissible for other powers. Yet China is now an economic colossus, making the growth of Chinese military power threatening not only to neighboring countries but also to the world as a whole.
Still, the United States and its major allies have not developed a coherent China policy, which would be built upon the “engagement and hedging” formula of the 1990s. All major democratic and free powers, represented by the United States, Western Europe, and Japan itself, have kept themselves busy harvesting profits from the fast-growing Chinese economy without minding about nurturing any regional arms control framework.
Without developing a clear-cut China policy, the Obama Administration is taking an ambiguous attitude toward Xi Jinping’s proposal for a “New Model of Great Power Relationship” between the United States and China. This generates not-unfounded Japanese anxiety about possible U.S.-Chinese backdoor deals on major issues related to regional security and the economy. Such U.S. “strategic ambiguity” caused Japan’s oversensitivity to nuanced differences between the U.S. and Japanese reactions to China’s Air Defense Identification Zone, announced this past November.
All of this may come from the fact that the United States has not found its post-“Lehman Shock” identity, which is linked to its identity in the post-9/11 and Afghan-Iraq War period, which in turn is linked to its post-Cold War identity. Faced with such a U.S. loss of identity, Japan feels as if it has lost its most important and sole ally, particularly in the context of an air of uncertainty about its own future as a business heavyweight.
All the nationalistic cacophony about the Yasukuni Shrine, Class A war criminals, the Tokyo Military Tribunal, and so on may emanate from a sense of abandonment by the one and only ally, who also sometimes seems to be drifting without any sense of direction. And this situation may be exactly what Chinese strategy, if there is any, aims to encourage.