The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Japan’s Security Strategy toward the Rise of China: From a Friendship Paradigm to a Mix of Engagement and Hedging

April 8, 2015

Japan's China policy has evolved over the past several decades within a complex Japan-US-China trilateral framework. While the country's security strategy is grounded on its alliance with the United States, it has also pursued economic interests through trade with China. Tsuneo Watanabe takes a broad-ranging look at Japan's security policy toward China encompassing historical issues, the shifting balance of power, and the influence of domestic political dynamics. This paper was originally presented at an international conference on Asia-Pacific security, hosted by the Tamkang School of Strategic Studies, Taiwan, in April 2014. It is reprinted here with the permission of the organizers.

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History is an essential component of Japan’s strategy toward China. Japan owes both its positive and negative legacy to its longstanding ties with China. Throughout history, Japan has been influenced by Chinese civilization, importing a system of writing, a structure of government, and ways to prepare food. Separated by the sea, Japan was able to maintain political independence from powerful Chinese dynasties through the centuries. Japan had created a modern nation-state by the late nineteenth century, while China became subject to colonization by European imperial powers. The United States has played a unique role in both Japanese and Chinese history. The country pressured Japan to open up its closed ports despite great reluctance after over 200 years of a sakoku seclusion policy, and a rapidly modernized Japan sought to join the ranks of imperial powers by attempting to colonize parts of China.

The United States eventually crushed Japan’s imperial ambitions in East Asia and secured China’s independence. After World War II, the United States chose Japan as its closest ally in East Asia under a Cold War structure. China occasionally voiced its acceptance of the Japan-US alliance in strategically calculated moves to counter the Soviet Union or to secure its own economic development. The alliance with the United States is today the cornerstone of Japan’s security strategy. At the same time, frustration has occasionally been expressed toward the United States, often accompanied by calls for a “return” to closer rapport with China.

Japanese leaders often note the importance of keeping the Japan-US-China relationship an equidistant one. [1] Such an attitude may be a reflection of the ambivalence in the Japanese psyche, at once contrite over past aggressions toward China and frustrated with the current overreliance on the United States.

Eric Heginbotham and Richard Samuels have described Japan’s current policy direction as a dual hedge strategy, pursuing security interests through an alliance with the United States and economic interests through trade with China. [2] It has also been one containing many contradictions and which has sent unintended negative messages to both Washington and Beijing.

This paper will explore Japan’s strategy toward China within the context of the highly complex Japan-US-China trilateral relationship, focusing on the historical legacy and balance of power, as well as the influence of domestic political dynamics. Japan’s grand strategy can be said to have been shaped by the pursuit of complex security and economic interests within the Japan-US-China triangle, whose history can be traced back to the 1930s. The paper, though, will limit its scope to the period after 1972, when Japan normalized diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, to the present, when Japanese strategic thinking is challenged by the rise of China and the relative decline in US military capabilities and Japan’s economic influence.

Japan and China in 1970s and 1980s: The “Friendship Paradigm” and the Golden Age of Good Relations

Japan regained independence in 1952 when the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Allied powers came into force. However, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union did not sign the treaty. And while Japan signed a separate peace treaty with the Republic of China in Taiwan, as recommended by the United States, Japan did not restore diplomatic relation with the PRC until 1972.

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This was just after the breakthrough visit by US President Richard Nixon to the PRC in 1972. Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira paved the way in normalizing Tokyo’s ties with Beijing, although they faced internal resistance from conservative, pro-Taiwan politicians within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The majority of the Japanese public, though, welcomed the normalization with the PRC.

There were high expectations of the PRC, especially regarding commercial interests, among Japanese political and business leaders. Beijing’s skillful diplomacy contributed to Japanese good feelings toward China, such as Chairman Mao Zedong’s generous expression of forgiveness for Japan’s past aggression and Premier Zhou Enlai’s skilful renunciation of reparation demands. [3]

The result was a Japan-China “friendship” paradigm defined by good will on both sides. A more realism-based interpretation of the “friendship” would be that Japan and China, along with the United States, shared a strategic interest in containing the Soviet Union as a common threat and that Japan had commercial interests in mainland China’s potentially enormous market. It is important to point out that feelings of remorse over war aggressions in China were shared across the Japanese political spectrum, from the leftists in the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) to the rightists in the LDP, who participated in or witnessed Japan’s aggressions against China in the 1930s.

The friendship paradigm continued to work and resulted in actual mutual cooperation in the 1980s after the peace treaty between Japan and the PRC was signed and came into force in 1978. Kazuko Mori points out that there were four background factors to the friendly bilateral relations in the 1980s. First, China initiated its “reform and opening up” policy, led by Deng Xiaoping. Second, US-China relations were good following normalization in January 1979. Third, the economies of Japan, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific region were growing. And fourth, Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira launched a new phase of economic cooperation for the Asia-Pacific region as a new strategy. [4]

Ohira, who was foreign minister during the normalization talks with China, visited China and agreed to provide government loans for urgent infrastructure projects in December 1979. This marked the start of over 3 trillion yen in concessionary loans to China through 2003. In 1978, China made a bold, strategic decision to accept foreign assistance from capitalist countries in order to develop its economy, and Japan became the first capitalist country to become a donor of development assistance to China.

Thus, good relations between China and Japan in the 1980s were cemented with China’s expectations of Japanese assistance and strategic relations with the United States against a common, strategic rival—the Soviet Union. Japan’s aid policy toward China in the 1980s was a reflection of the strategic notion that helping the modernization of the Chinese economy and the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang would serve the interests of both the Western capitalist bloc and Japan. [5] Japan-China strategic cooperation within the friendship paradigm continued until around 1990, when it came to be challenged by drastic structural changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Domestic Political Dynamics behind Japan’s Constitutional Pacifism

Under the friendship paradigm, Japan’s national security policy struck a balance between the country’s alliance with the United States and self-restraint in an effort not to provoke its neighbors, which had experienced Japan’s aggressions or colonial policy. This was possible because China’s primary security concern was the Soviet Union, rather than Japan, although China was not fully comfortable with Japan’s rearmament, which started in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War through the establishment of the prototype of the current Self-Defense Forces.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan’s defense policy was seriously constrained by the political rivalry between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the opposition Japan Socialist Party (JSP). The LDP favored maintaining a close alliance with the United States and securing business opportunities under a free market economy, whereas the JSP was sympathetic toward the Communist bloc and maintained close ties with the Soviet Union and the PRC. The JSP asserted its pacifist role in preventing the conservative LDP from returning to prewar militarism, which had devastated Japan’s Asian neighbors, by appealing to the antiwar sentiments of the people, many of whom still carried vivid memories of their own suffering in World War II. The JSP strategy was to utilize the so-called war-renouncing clause of Article 9 in the Constitution to limit Japan’s full rearmament and military cooperation with the United States, notably by interpreting the Constitution as banning collective security arrangements.

Michael Green describes the role of the JSP as a “Greek chorus for pacifism,” adding “the Constitution discouraged the LDP from pursuing divisive foreign and security policy initiatives.” He explains the JSP’s tactics as a way of “holding up otherwise popular LDP budgets in the Diet.” [6]

Yet, such a political constraint on Japan’s defense policy was not a critical impediment to its alliance with the United States in the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War, when any potential contingencies involving Japan were premised on military engagements against the Soviet Union. Such contingencies could effectively be deterred through “mutually assured destruction” arrangements between the United States and the Soviet Union. In addition, US-China strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union contributed to mitigating regional conflicts around Japan. As a result, Japan could concentrate on its own territorial defense through close military cooperation with the United States. In this context, Japan needed only to exercise its right of individual self-defense, rather than collective self-defense.

By its nature, the LDP’s policy stance seeking a closer security alliance with the United States was in conflict with the JSP’s ideological sympathy toward the Chinese Communist Party. But such policy differences did not come to a head within the friendship paradigm, mainly because LDP and JSP leaders shared a feeling of remorse toward Japan’s aggressions in China in the 1930s. [7] For the LDP government, the US strategic shift to cooperate with the PRC against the Soviet Union was the last push needed to normalize ties in 1972.

Under the friendship paradigm, the Japanese government maintained a large development assistance program for China. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Japanese people had a friendly perception of China, with public opinion polls showing that around 70% had a favorable view of China. [8]

Paradigm Shift toward “Normalcy” and “Realism” in the 1990s

Favorable feelings toward China declined sharply following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, in which the Beijing government violently oppressed a pro-democracy movement. Still, the Japanese government was one of the first to resume relations with China after economic sanctions were imposed by Western democracies to protest human rights violations. In the 1990s, commercial interests played a major role in Japan’s continuation of economic assistance, even after the end of the friendship paradigm. [9]

As the Chinese economy grew, anxiety and frustration over the Chinese attitude increased among the Japanese, such as when Chinese leaders chose to lecture the Japanese over history issues. When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Japan in December 1998, his strident demands for an apology for past aggressions disappointed even those Japanese who believed in the importance of Japan-China relations. This was a reflection of fatigue among the Japanese people after repeated expressions of remorse over the history issues. Jiang did not express any gratitude for Japan’s recent 390 billion yen economic assistance to China, and many Japanese people started to feel that China would never stop criticizing Japan, no matter how much assistance was provided as long as the “history card” worked in China’s interests. During President Jiang’s visit to Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi refused to include an apology in the joint communiqué, although he was willing to do so following a summit with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

The Japanese frustration was partly due to the prolonged economic slump after the collapse of the economic bubble in 1989, while China was enjoying an economic boom. The Japanese were also annoyed that China actively persuaded many Asian and African countries to vote against a resolution to expand the number of permanent members in the UN Security Council, submitted by Japan, Germany, India, and Brazil in July 2005. Many of those Asian and African nations voting against the resolution had received financial aid from China. This was quite shocking to the Japanese, as Japan had extended a total of around 6 trillion yen in development assistance to China between 1979 and 2007.

This was a period, though, when frustrations and anxieties regarding China were more emotional than based on a perception of actual economic or national security threats. The size of the Chinese economy and the modernization of the Chinese military were not yet serious concerns for the majority of the Japanese public.

China’s Growing Military in the 1990s

Defense experts and officials first acknowledged that the military posture and actions of China posed a potential future threat to Japan’s security in the 1990s. In 1994 General (retired) Ikuo Kayahara, a defense expert on China’s military at the National Institute of the Defense Studies, examined Japanese anxiety over the potential military threat that China’s military modernization represented. He pointed to four concerns: (1) the large size of the military, (2) the tendency of military budgets to increase, (3) attempts at territorial expansion using military strength, and (4) the modernization of China’s nuclear arsenal and its proliferation to other countries.

China had the world’s largest armed forces (3.03 million troops), the third largest naval fleet as measured by tons, and the second largest number of military airplanes. Thus the sheer size of the armed forces was felt to be a threat for many Japanese nationals.

Secondly, Kayahara pointed out that China’s military budget had been registering double-digit growth since 1989. Anxiety in Japan was reinforced by the opaque nature of the allocations, such as the omission of procurement costs for expensive military equipment from the total military budget.

Thirdly, the unilateral claim to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands with the enactment of the Law of the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone in 1992 stirred Japanese suspicions, given China’s expansionary past.

Fourthly, China’s nuclear test on October 5, 1993, despite pressure from the United States and the modernization of its nuclear weapons, such as warheads for intermediate-range ballistic missile, which can target its Asian neighbors, caused alarm in Japan in the midst of moves toward nuclear disarmament between the United States and Russia. Kayahara noted that China’s position on the transfer of both nuclear and conventional weapons to such countries as Pakistan and the failure to dissuade Pyongyang from pursuing nuclear development were additional sources of Japanese suspicions. Kayahara concluded that public concerns about China were largely legitimate. [10]

In 1996, China conducted a missile launch exercise as Taiwan was about to hold its first democratic presidential election. This prompted Japan to strengthen its alliance with the United States. In 1997, Japan and the United States agreed to review the Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation, broadening the scope of bilateral security cooperation to areas surrounding Japan, which was not covered in the previous guidelines of 1978. [11]

China’s Reaction to the 1997 Security Guidelines

The 1997 guidelines enabled Japan to provide logistic support for the US military in the event of a contingency in areas surrounding Japan. Yet, it still carefully avoided Japan’s direct support for US combat activities, which could be regarded as a violation of the constitutional ban—as interpreted by the government—on the exercise of the right of collective self-defense. Presumed Japan-US contingency cooperation was for noncombat activities, such as relief for refugees, search and rescue, noncombat evacuation operations, or the inspection of ships in support of UN economic sanctions. [12] The Japanese government continued to interpret Article 9 of the Constitution as not allowing Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defense.

The “contingency” assumed in the 1997 Guidelines was one involving the Korean Peninsula, as North Korea had suggested it might target US bases or neighboring countries while pursuing the development of nuclear arms. However, the guidelines could theoretically also be applied to a contingency in the Taiwan Strait, and this worried China.

Koichi Kato, a pro-China liberal Diet member and LDP secretary general at the time visited China and explained to Chinese officials that the guidelines were not targeted at China but at North Korea. Immediately after Kato’s visit, though, Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama commented that the Taiwan Strait would not be excluded. Japan thus wound up sending a mixed message to China. [13]

There was another incentive behind the 1997 guidelines. It was to reestablish the trust in the Japan-US alliance that was damaged following the rape of a Japanese elementary schoolgirl by US military personnel in Okinawa.

Whatever the motivation, Japan’s attempt to improve its security cooperation with the United States ended up provoking China in the 1990s. China’s reaction became harsh and negative. At the same time, Kato’s attitude and the lack of public criticism over his remarks suggest that the Japanese public did not regard China as a serious security threat in the 1990s, although military experts like Kayahara expressed substantial concerns about China’s military modernization. The public was more critical of Kato’s conciliatory stance some 10 years later. In 2006, the house of Kato’s mother was set on fire by a right-wing activist angry at his criticism of Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. [14] China was critical of visits by senior Japanese officials and warned of a resurgence in Japanese militarism.

The Japanese public became worried about China’s expansionist behavior and military modernization and was fed up with repeated criticism of Japan’s historical perception. Indeed, Chinese “research vessels” and warships frequently intruded into Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the East China Sea around the Senkaku Islands in 1990. Yet, the Japanese public did not imagine that China would pose a serious threat to Japan’s security. The Japanese still underestimated the impact of China’s rapid economic growth and its firm determination to challenge Japan’s territorial claim over the Senkakus and the surrounding EEZ.

Shaky Japanese Political Leadership

During his tenure as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Jun’ichiro Koizumi was determined to visit Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s war dead, including class-A war criminals, are enshrined.

Security dialogue between Japan and China, which had been agreed upon in the bilateral summit of 1998, was frozen due to the Yasukuni controversy. It was not resumed until five years later, when Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba visited China in 2003.

Political relations with China became cold, but economic ties were still quite robust. Japan’s exports to China increased from $23.3 billion in 1999 to $80.34 billion in 2005. [15] Japan’s annual direct investment in China increased from $360 million in 1999 to $6.58 billion in 2005. [16] Such economic interdependence was a source for optimism about China’s future trajectory, despite the cold reality of mutual suspicion and frustration.

The National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), FY2004 and beyond of the Japanese government showed restraint and did not call China a threat. Among the major threatening factors listed were such new threats and situations as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles, and international terrorism. It added that the probability of a full-scale invasion against Japan had declined. NDPG FY2004 only noted that Japan should be attentive to future actions by China. [17]

In 2006, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who succeeded Koizumi, showed his desire to repair Japan’s relationship with China by visiting the country as an “icebreaking” trip within two weeks of becoming prime minister in October 2006. He showed restraint in his approach to the history issue, despite his conservative views. Japan and China agreed to seek an acceptable resolution of issues related to the East China Sea and to resume bilateral security dialogue and defense exchange. In return, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made an “ice-melting” trip to Japan in April 2007. [18] Political relations between the two countries seemed to resume the smooth course of earlier years.

However, this was the start of a period of domestic political turmoil in Japan, with prime ministers changing every year. Each administration had its own diplomatic stance, and such incessant change in the political leadership eroded the mutual trust that had been nurtured until then.

China’s expectations regarding Japan continued under Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who succeeded Abe one year later after Abe stepped down in September 2007 due to illness. Fukuda showed a willingness to improve bilateral relations, and China responded positively to Fukuda’s show of goodwill. It proposed the joint development of undersea gas fields in the East China Sea, and the two countries agreed on a joint development plan in June 2008. Fukuda, though, resigned suddenly in August 2008 in the face of a political gridlock.

He was succeeded by Taro Aso, whose foreign policy plan known as the “arc of freedom and prosperity” surprised China, as it appeared to promote the country’s encirclement by democratic nations. China retreated from the joint development agreement and starting drilling in the East China Sea without first consulting Japan.

Seeds of mistrust continued to be sown. In the general election of August 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the LDP and created a non-LDP government for the first time since 1955 (except briefly in the early 1990s, when the LDP was still the largest party in the Diet). Due to his immature diplomatic views and lack of experience, though, DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama only created confusion in Japan’s foreign policy. His wavering stance on the relocation of the Futenma base in Okinawa seriously damaged the Japan-US alliance. Hatoyama was keen to improve relations with China and South Korea, though, and stated Japan would seek to ease its heavy dependence on the United States. During the bilateral meeting with Premier Wen in June 2010, he accepted China’s demand to downgrade the existing agreement on undersea gas fields in the East China Sea from joint development to Japan’s partial investment.

Collision with Chinese Fishing Boat and Japanese Government Purchase of the Senkaku Islands

Due to his mishandling of the Futenma issue, Hatoyama was forced to resign and Naoto Kan became prime minister in September 2010. One of Kan’s priorities was to repair the damaged Japan-US alliance. Almost immediately after Kan entered office, an accident occurred in which a Chinese fishing boat collided into Japan Coast Guard patrol boats near the Senkaku Islands. The inexperienced administration’s handling of the situation surprised and provoked China, as the boat captain was detained and became subject to criminal prosecution.

This surprised the Chinese government, as the Japanese practice until then had been to “catch and return” any Chinese “intruders” without taking any legal action. “Catch and return” was a gentleman’s agreement to avoid complicated legal procedures, which could lead to questions of sovereignty. Incentives for the Kan administration to change the rules of the game are still not clear. It may have been a combination of inexperience and a lack of informal communication channels with China, which LDP administrations had maintained. Unfortunately, the minister supervising the Japan Coast Guard at the time was Seiji Maehara, who had been criticized as an anti-China nationalist after stating that China was a threat to Japan in a speech to a US think tank in 2005. [19] China may have been suspicious of an emerging nationalistic streak with the change in Japan’s game rules. Since the collision occurred during a transition period, Maehara remained in the cabinet as Foreign Minister to negotiate with China. Kan was not deliberately choosing an anti-Chinese minister but needed Maehara—who had restored trust with US security experts as foreign minister—to repair the Japan-US alliance that was damaged during Hatoyama administration. This choice, though, may have offended China.

China’s tough reaction to the Japanese move also surprised the Japanese government. China demanded the immediate release of the detained captain, arrested four Japanese businessmen stationed in China on suspicion of espionage activities and restricted exports of rare earth metals—essential for the production high-tech electric devices by Japanese manufacturers. [20]

China’s use of economic tools to achieve diplomatic ends made the Japanese very nervous. Before it happened, the Japanese never imagined that China would take such a harsh measure, which could wind up hurting China’s own business interests and reputation as well. Even during the height of the Yasukuni controversy in the Koizumi years, political differences did not spill over into economic and business affairs.

Anxiety over Chinese retaliatory tactics were further aggravated in September 2012 as large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations turned violent, leading to the destruction of Japanese cars, factories, and stores. The demonstrations were triggered by the Japanese government purchase of three islands in the Senkaku chain from a Japanese private owner. China had warned the Japanese government not to make the purchase, since this could be regarded as an exercise of sovereignty. The timing could not have been worse. It was a very sensitive moment in the power transition from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping in preparation for the National People’s Congress in November. [21] Many observers pointed out that relations between Japan and China reached their lowest point since ties were normalized in 1972.

Second Abe Administration

The LDP, led by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, defeated the ruling DPJ in the December 2012 general election, and returned to power. One major reason for the victory was people’s frustrations with the DPJ’s immature handling of economic and foreign policy since the Hatoyama administration in 2009. People were especially critical of Hatoyama’s mishandling of the US-Japan alliance and the relocation of the Futenma base in Okinawa. People generally believe the DPJ administrations damaged both the Japan-US alliance and relations with China. [22]

Abe was not considered a particularly popular figure, though, as many people remembered his miserable first term as prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007. The LDP’s landslide victory in December 2012 can thus be seen as being more of an anti-DPJ vote than an expression of hope in the LDP; the public was placing its expectations on the LDP’s half a century of experience in managing government, rather than on Abe’s personal ability.

During the first year of his second term, Abe consistently received high approval ratings, for he succeeded in revitalizing a stagnant economy with an effective monetary policy and massive economic stimulus spending, a policy dubbed “Abenomics.”

Abe’s strong commitment to the Japan-US alliance and his realistic foreign and security policy, as reflected in the administration’s revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines for FY 2014 and beyond, the founding of the National Security Council (NSC), and the issuance of Japan’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2013, have gained the support of the Japanese security community.

The NDPG for FY2014 and beyond contains a concept called Dynamic Joint Defense Force, which represents an attempt to enhance Japan’s defense mobility and the capability to defend its own territory, especially around the Nansei Islands southwest of mainland Japan, where China has increased its military and paramilitary activities. The NDPG also seeks greater security cooperation with like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as with the United States. [23] The NSS clearly defines the rationale behind and sets the direction for Japan’s security strategy in an open document. The NSS also proposed that Japan proactively cooperate with Asian neighbors, such as by providing coast guard ships as a form of capacity building assistance. [24]

While the Japanese public welcomes Abe’s economic policy and realistic alliance policy, people are worried about the continued chilly relations with China and South Korea. This is a negative inheritance of the previous Yoshihiko Noda administration, during which time Japan became embroiled in territorial issues with China (Senkaku) and South Korea (Takeshima). One additional bone of contention that has emerged is Abe’s perceptions of history and the reported attempts to revise past Japanese government statements apologizing for Japan’s past aggressions and recruitment of “comfort women” from the Korean Peninsula during World War II.

The Chinese and South Korean governments severely criticized Prime Minister Abe’s December 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The visit also elicited an unusual statement expressing “disappointment” from the US government, which was worried that the move could escalate regional tensions, possibly setting off an accidental conflict around the Senkaku Islands or pushing South Korea, another US ally, toward China. [25]

Washington’s worries about Abe’s perceptions of history appear legitimate, as his security and foreign policy has intentionally or unintentionally frequently been misunderstood or exaggerated. Heightening tensions could undermine the legitimacy of the Japan-US alliance and the stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

In its December 18 editorial, for example, the China Daily warned against Abe’s “proactive pacifism,” asserting that “the catchy but va

gue expression” is “Abe’s camouflage to woo international understanding of Japan’s move to become a military power.”[26]

Abe’s intentions, however, are not to turn Japan into a military power, either in qualitative or quantitative terms. Rather, his security policy is designed to incrementally enhance the functionality of Japanese defense capacity.

The China Daily’s editorial pointed out that Abe’s doctrine seeks to turn Japan’s Self-Defense Forces into “ordinary armed forces.” In reality, though, the SDF are far from “ordinary armed forces,” which are able to take necessary actions to defend the country and to contribute to regional security promotion. Japan’s defense-related legal system is so restrictive, in fact, that the inability to respond to contingencies—even when a defense response is required—could actually abet the escalation of tensions with neighbors.

On February 4, 2014, the prime minister hosted a meeting of an expert panel on reconstructing the legal basis for national security. The panel proposed legislation to enable the use of the SDF to deal with so-called “gray zone” situations categorized between peacetime and genuine contingencies.[27] Under current Japanese law, the country cannot exercise its right of self-defense unless it is under organized, armed attack.

The recommendation to the prime minister came from a panel of cool-headed defense experts, not emotional nationalists. The Tokyo Foundation, an independent nonprofit think tank, made the above points in its policy proposal on “Maritime Security and the Right of Self-Defense in Peacetime,” released in November 2013 under a project for which I myself served as leader. The recommendations of Abe’s panel is closely aligned with the Tokyo Foundation’s proposal, which called on the government to make reforms to the Diet, law enforcement authorities, and the SDF that are long overdue in order to more effectively defend Japan’s territory and avoid an escalation of tensions with its neighbors, especially China, which is now persistently sending paramilitary vessels into Japan’s territorial waters.[28]

Currently, the deployment of the SDF is heavily restricted by legal and political concerns, even in addressing self-defense needs. This is based on Japan’s remorse for the suffering caused to its neighbors, including China, by its wartime aggressions. This self-restraint was functional during the Cold War, since Japan’s exercise of self-defense was chiefly directed against the Soviet Union and integrated into US military strategy. There was no need to address intrusions into its territorial waters by paramilitary vessels.

A military invasion of Japan would be a clear case of a contingency, when the Japanese government can legally order the SDF into action. Considering the current situation surrounding the Senkaku Islands, though, Japan is more likely to face minor yet critical challenges from nonmilitary or paramilitary vessels, which would not be considered armed attacks. This could place the Japanese government in a dilemma. The SDF cannot use their full military capabilities without a defense mobilization order from the government clearing the way for self-defense maneuvers. If the government does issue such an order for an incident around the Senkakus, though, this could send the wrong signal.

Ordinary democracies, such as the United States and its European allies, do not have such a dilemma, since predefined Rules of Engagement outline the actions to be taken by their military forces. Japan is constricted by its deep remorse for past military aggressions and understands the sensitivity of its neighbors. But we must also keep in mind that lapses in Japan’s national security laws could actually lead to a heightening of tensions in the East China Sea.

Even if the legal reforms are legitimate, many criticized why the prime minister needed to visit Yasukuni Shrine, stirring up new controversy and worrying neighbors. I agree that the visit was ill-timed, but we live in an imperfect world in which emotional nationalism can sometime become a source of political capital. This is true not only in Japan, though, but also in China, South Korea, and even the United States, which saw an upsurge of patriotic sentiment following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Despite the image encouraged by China and South Korea, the Abe administration is marked more by realism than nationalism. University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Shin’ichi Kitaoka, who is deputy chairman of Abe’s panel on reconstructing the legal basis for national security, was the leader of a Tokyo Foundation project on Redefining Japan’s Global Strategy, which also recently announced its policy proposal. The core message of the proposal was the importance of restraining emotionalism and taking pragmatic steps to find common ground with its neighbors.[29]

The prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine was not fully supported by Japanese general public and realistic strategic thinkers. Three (Yomiuri, Asahi, Nikkei) out of four major news papers’ editorials criticized Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukui Shrine. Centrist Nikkei Newspaper poll shows that 45% supports Abe’s visit while 43% opposes in January 2014.[30] The administration’s current security policy initiatives, therefore, are not the result of an emotionally charged nationalism but represent a rational and incremental development of democratic governance in Japan’s postwar security and defense policy.

Four Strategic Choices regarding the Rise of China

In an essay published in 2007, Mike Mochizuki introduced four patterns in Japan’s strategic options toward China: cooperative engagement with a soft hedge, competitive engagement with a hard hedge, balancing and containment, and strategic accommodation.[31]

Mochizuki pointed out in the essay that a majority of Japanese foreign policy experts advocate cooperative engagement with China, noting that China desires a peaceful international environment in order to pursue wealth and power. This school, he says, acknowledges that China’s development may engender new international challenges, such as opaque military modernization, hyper energy demand, or spillover from socioeconomic turmoil due to domestic contradictions, which should be met by strengthening Japan’s military alliance with the United States and engaging in dialogue with China. Mochizuki explained that the school is distinct from “the cooperative school with soft hedge” since those in the former “shy away from explicitly characterizing the US-Japan alliance as a tool for balancing or containing China.”[32]

Mochizuki saw “the competitive engagement with hard hedge” school as being more skeptical of the possibility that China will adhere to a cooperative strategy as its power capabilities increase. This school is also worried that the balance in conventional weapons could tip in favor of the Chinese side, even in comparison to the combined air and naval capabilities of Japan and the United States. Mochizuki chose “competitive” engagement rather than “cooperative,” since the school sees Chinese leaders using the “history card” to “weaken Japan’s to resolve to stand up to China and to reduce its regional influence.”[33]

Mochizuki distinguished “balancing and containment” from “competitive engagement with hard hedge,” saying that the former camp believes that China will eventually embrace hegemonic ambitions based on cultural or historical reasons and could, in the future, face internal turmoil due to socio-political contradictions. Some members of the school raised doubts about the credibility of US extended deterrence in the context of China and proposed that Japan pursue its own nuclear option.[34]

Mochizuki pointed out that the “strategic accommodation” school differs from “cooperative engagement with soft hedge” as it believes that tightening the alliance with the United States could jeopardize cooperative ties with China.[35]

China as a Security Threat

The Japanese perception of China has deteriorated through the chain of events that created mutual distrust in the 2000s and early 2010s. Although Japan occasionally experienced diplomatic skirmishes with China in the 1980s and 1990s, the relationship had the ability to get over them. Japan’s experience with China in the 2000s, however, has prompted many to regard Chinese as a potential threat to Japan’s survival.

Public opinion polls conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Office shows the changes in Japanese perceptions of its giant neighbor. In 2000, the biggest threats to Japan’s national security were regarded as being the Korean Peninsula (56.7%), disarmament and weapon of mass destruction (35.2%), and US-Russia relations (17.9%). China was not even among the choices offered except in the context of US-China relations (13.1%) and China-Russia relations (11.7%). The Japanese did not assume that China itself was a security threat to Japan.[36]

In the same poll conducted in 2012, many Japanese respondents said they were concerned about the modernization of China’s military and its maritime activities (46.0%)—the second most popular response after the Korean Peninsula (64.9%).[37]

Another poll conducted by a Japanese NGO in 2013 showed the Japanese feel most threatened militarily by North Korea (73.4%), followed by China (61.8%). Respondents choosing China also gave their reasons why. The two top choices were concern with China’s intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters, and concern with Japan and China’s conflict over territories, which were more 60%. The same poll asked the same questions to Chinese citizens, who saw the United State as being the biggest threat (71.6%) and Japan as the second biggest (53.9%).[38]

The poll results suggest a growing perception of China as a threat during the 2000s. The first turning point was Prime Minister Koizumi’s Yasukuni visit in 2005. According to the same poll in 2006, 42.8% of Japanese respondents said they see China as a military threat.[39]Yet, the Japanese were optimistic that mutual economic interdependence would prevent military conflict.

The second turning point was 2010 after the fishing boat collision near the Senkaku Islands. The Japanese realized that China would resort to economic measures to address diplomatic issues even if they may damage their own economic interests. It may not be a coincidence that it was in 2010 that China’s gross domestic product surpassed Japan’s to become the second largest in the world. The Chinese economy was now big enough to allow for a few dents in economic relations with Japan. This is a worrisome trend for the Japanese, as it suggests there could be more retaliatory actions on the economic and business front, as evidenced by China’s harsh reaction to the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkaku Islands in September 2012.

Historical Limitation and the Japan-US-China Triangle

As noted above, China was not seen as a serious security threat until very recently. China, though, has seen the Japan-US military alliance as being against their security interests. Historically and structurally, the United States has been an integral part of Japan’s security strategy toward China. In 1930s and 1940s, Imperial Japan invaded China with colonial ambitions. It was the United States, which provided military support to Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Republic of China on the mainland against Japan’s invasion. In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to start a war against the United States. After its defeat in World War II, Japan’s rearmament was driven by the US strategy for the emerging Cold War. Japan recovered its independence and began limited rearmament under a new Constitution that included a clause vowing to “renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” This idealistic clause was augmented with the US military presence in Japan under a mutual security treaty to guarantee Japan’s security. For China, the Japan-US security arrangements were occasionally seen as a threat to its own security. China was more antagonistic toward the United States in the early stages of the Cold War and during Korean War than at any other time. China rewrote its former positive view of the United States in more antagonistic terms during this era. At the same time, the US military presence in Japan and the constitutional restraints on an independent defense policy were designed to prevent the reemergence of Japanese militarism. This facilitated China’s decision to normalize ties with the US and Japan after 1972 in the face of their urgent need to counter the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Japan’s economy grew more dependent on the markets of neighboring Asian countries, especially in Southeast Asia. This was part of a US Cold War strategy to turn Japan into a showcase of the success liberal democracies can enjoy and to encourage it to become a reliable security partner, guaranteeing a US military presence in East Asia against the Soviet Union and the PRC. After the US strategic shift to seek cooperation with China against the Soviet Union, China also became a very important economic partner for Japan. Strategic cooperation between China and the Japan-US alliance successfully pushed the Soviet Union toward collapse.

The side effect of the Cold War victory was that China enjoyed military and economic assistance from the United States and Japan and was able to create the foundations for its current economic success as the world’s second-largest economy. As the current US strategy toward China no longer ignores the economic interdependence with China, Japan is also heavily dependent on the Chinese economy.

Another side effect of the Cold War is that Japan failed to make a moral reconciliation with Chinese and South Korean nationals regarding its past aggressions and colonial policy, although state-to-state agreements were reached. Japan’s normalization with China in 1972 was achieved thanks to the strong leadership and grand strategic ideas of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. There was no clear reconciliation, though, at the social level. China continued to conduct “anti-Japanese” education, since winning independence from Imperial Japan is seen as an essential source of legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party of China.

In addition, China has effectively utilized the history card to restrain Japan’s aspirations to become a “normal country” by amending Article 9 of the Constitution. It was very difficult for Japanese leaders to pursue “normal nation” rearmament in the light of the strong anti-war sentiments of those who experienced World War II. In the Diet, the Japan Socialist Party, which was sympathetic to China’s Marxist ideology, roused feelings of war guilt to block Japan’s return to normalcy with a constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of a two-thirds majority in the Diet.

Thus, Japan’s strategic options have been shaped by historical and geopolitical limitations: a security alliance with the United States, constitutional restraints on defense and security policy, diplomatic restrictions on rearmament via China’s (and South Korea’s) history card, and, more recently, the heavy reliance on the Chinese economy.

Current Trend toward “Hard Hedge”

The current trend in Japan’ strategic policy seems to be a shift toward “competitive engagement with hard hedge” and away from “cooperative engagement with soft hedge,” as coined by Mike Mochizuki. Richard Bush categorizes the Tokyo Foundation’s policy proposal “Japan’s Security Strategy toward China” in 2011 as an example of “competitive engagement with hard hedge” school. Bush sates that the proposal focuses on strengthening Japan’s own military capabilities, changing the Constitution to allow more flexibility on security policy, broadening the scope of the alliance for regional and global challenge, and expanding security ties with other likeminded nations.[40] He also added that this approach is similar to the series of policy recommendations on the Japan-US alliance contained in the Armitage-Nye Report.[41]

In Japan’s two more recent administrations, led by Prime Ministers Noda and Abe, members of the “hard hedge school” have had an influential policymaking role. In fact, there is considerable continuity in the defense and security policies of the DPJ’s Noda administration and the LDP’s Abe administration. For example, security experts like Satoshi Morimoto and Shigeru Ishiba, whom Mochizuki categorizes as belonging to the “hard hedge” school, have played important roles in Japanese policymaking.[42] Morimoto served as minister of defense as a nonpolitical appointee in the Noda administration, and Shigeru Ishiba is the secretary general of the LDP. Morimoto’s pick was regarded as an effort to reinforce the alliance with the United States, which was damaged by Prime Minister Hatoyama’s unprofessional management of the Okinawa base issue. Although Ishiba was defeated by Abe in the September 2012 LDP presidential election, he received more votes than Abe from non-Diet party members.(Abe won the election with higher support from Diet members.) Ishiba is known as a defense policy expert, and his support could be seen as a reflection of people’s anxiety and antipathy toward China’s harsh reaction to the Japanese government purchase of the Senkaku Islands in September 2012.

This apparent trend does not signal the death of “soft hedge” school, though. The small but influential New Komeito Party, which played a critical role in maintaining relations with China and continues to cooperate closely with the LDP during elections, is an influential coalition partner advocating a “soft hedge” approach. For example, the liveliest debate on the shift in security policy toward “hard hedge”—such as a reinterpretation of Article 9—are now held between the LDP and Komeito, rather than within the government or with the opposition parties.

The general trend, despite the influence of the “soft-hedge” Komeito, though, is that Japan’ future trajectory will be toward more “normal country” status, both in its relationship with the United States and China. China’s assertiveness in the South and Easter China Sea pushes Japan toward a closer alliance with the United States and encourages an increase in defense capacity. In the past, China’s history card was effective in restraining Japan’s security policy. But in the face of China’s military modernization and burgeoning economy—and as the number of elder Japanese who experienced wartime aggressions declines—Japan’s self-restraint is fading away.

Japan’s Dilemma in the Japan-US-China Triangle

In a sense, thought, this is quite natural, as nearly 70 years have already passed since the end of World War II. The trouble is, however, historical reconciliation has not been made in the minds of the people in the PRC, who are still educated that Japan is a hostile nation. As matter of the fact, a majority of people polled in China said that Japan’s current government is a military regime. This contrasts sharply with a BBC worldwide poll conducted between 2011 and 2012 that scores Japan as the nation that has had the most positive influence in the world.[43]

As Japan seeks an exit strategy from the current impasse and mutual distrust with China, it may find itself in a difficult dilemma in the trilateral relationship with the United States and China. To secure its territorial integrity, Japan needs to increase its own military capabilities and force closer alliance ties with the United States, even when such actions could raise China’s anxiety or mistrust of Japan.

There is no getting around the fact that Japan needs to increase its business ties with China to secure its own economic growth. However, the Japanese are no longer so naive as to expect economic interdependence to prevent potential conflicts in the light of the Senkaku experience in 2010. The Japanese now realize that increasing economic interdependence could actually give China bigger political tools with which to limit Japan’s policy choices.

Japanese strategy experts occasionally voice the concern about whether the United States would fully support Japan’s security interests in the face of deepening US-China economic ties. The Japan-US-China triangle may have entered a new difficult phase as China rises into a more influential military and economic power. It behooves Japanese policymakers to address the complex nature of this triangle, in which military rivalry and cooperation, economic competition and interdependence, and historical differences and friendship are juxtaposed in the context of a dynamic power shift in the Asia-Pacific.

[1] In 1997, Koichi Kato, the Secretary General of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) stated that Japan-US-China should be equidistant one at the Council of Foreign Relations in the United States. “Kato Kanjicho Kyou-kikoku” (Secretary General Kato is back from the US today) Yomiuri Shimbun July 26, 1997.  In 2006, Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan told Chinese President Hu Jingtao that Japan-US-China should be equidistant one in China. “Nichi-bei-chu Seisankakkei-ron Futatabi”(Japan-US-China equidistant idea comes back again) Sankei Shimbun July 5, 2006.

[2] Eric Heginbotham and Richard J. Samuels, “Japan’s Dual Hedge,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2002.

[3] Tatsumi Okabe, “Nit-Chu kankei no kako to shorai” (The Past and Future of Sino-Japanese Relations), Gaiko Forum, February (2001), pp. 12–13.

[4] Kazuko Mori, Nit-Chu kankei( Japan-China Relations), Iwanami Shinsho, (2006), p. 109.

[5] Ibid., p. 109.

[6] Michael J. Green, Japan’s Reluctant Realism: Foreign Policy Challenges in an Era of Uncertain Power, (Palgrave, 2003), p.38.

[7] There were two factions in the JSP, one pro-China and the other pro-Soviet, and the two were occasionally at odds. Tomomi Narita, who was chairman from 1968 to 1977, belonged to the pro-China faction and contributed to the secret negotiations with the PRC before normalization in 1972. He also led the drafting of the joint communiqué issued by the JSP and the Japan-China Friendship Association in 1975 that included an anti-Soviet hegemony clause.

[8] Public opinion poll conducted by the Cabinet Office of Japan, <>  accessed on July 27, 2014.

[9] Michael Green and Benjamin Self, “Japan’s Changing China Policy: From Commercial Liberalism to Reluctant Realism,” Survival, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Summer 1996).

[10] Ikuo Kayahara, Chugoku gunjiron (On Chinese Military Affairs) (Tokyo: Ashi Shobo, 1994), pp. 34-43.

[11] Japan Defense Agency, Defense of Japan 1997, pp. 168-69.

[12] Ibid., pp. 331-32.

[13] Nicholas D. Kristof “For Japan, a Quandary on Pleasing Two Giants”, The New York Times, August 24, 1997.

[14] “Home grown political terror,” Japan Times, August 20, 2006.

[15] Japan’s Ministry of Finance Website “Nicchu bouekigaku no suii”(Past annual Japan-China trade amount)  <> accessed on July 26, 2014.

[16] Japan External Trade Organization(JETRO) Website “Nihon no kuni chiiki-betsu taigai chokusetsu toshi”(Japan’s foreign direct investment to countries) <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[17] Heisei 17 nendo iko ni kakaru boueikeikaku-no taiko ni-tsuite(National Defense Program Guideline for FT 2004 and beyond) <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[18] Speech by Premier Wen Jiabao of the State Council of The People's Republic of China at the Japanese Diet, April 12, 2007. English translation is carried at the website of the Consulate-general of the PRC at Manchester <>, accessed on July 26, 2014.

[19] “China's Peaceful Development Poses No Threat,” China Daily, December 14, 2005. <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[20] Martin Fackler and Ian Johnson, “Japan retreats with release of Chinese boat captain,” The New York Times, September 24, 2010.

[21] China expert, Ryosei Kokubun, President of the National Defense Academy points out that internal rivalry in Chinese leadership complicated Senkaku issues. “Nicchuu mondai o kangaeru,”(Consider Japan-China relation) Nikkei Shimbun, September 28, 2012.

[22] Leonard Schoppa, “A Vote against the DPJ, Not in Favor of the LDP,” Newsletter:Japan Chair Platform, December 18, 2012. At the Center for Strategic & International Studies website <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[23] National Defense Program Guidelines for FY2014 and Beyond (provisional translation) December 17, 2013, at Japan’s Ministry of Defense website. <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[24] National Security Strategy (provisional translation) December 17, 2013, at the Japan’s Ministry of Defense website. <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[25] Hiroko Tabuchi, “With shrine visit, leader asserts Japan’s track from pacifism,” The New York Times, December 26, 2013.

[26] “Abe’s three shots at pacifism,” Editorial, China Daily, December 18, 2013. <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[27] “Anzenhosho no houteki kiban no saikouchi ni kansuru kondankai,”(Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security) February 4, 2014, at the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office website <> accessed by July 27, 2014.

[28] The Tokyo Foundation, Maritime Security and the Right of Self-Defense in Peacetime: Proposals for a National Security Strategy and the New National Defense Program Guidelines (translation of the summary), May 12, 2014, <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[29] The Tokyo Foundation, Abe gaiko-eno 15 no shiten-Nashonarisumu yori riarizumu no tsuikyu o (Pragmatism over Nationalism: 15 Foreign and Security Policy Choices for Prime Minister Abe) August 2013, <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[30] “Shusho no yasukuni sannpai sanpi wakareru,”(Prime minister’s Yasukuni visit splits public opinions) Nikkei Denshiban January 25, 2014, <> accessed on July 27, 20014.

[31] Mike M. Mochizuki, “Japan’s Shifting Strategy toward the Rise of China,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, August-October (2007).

[32] Ibid., pp. 759-762.

[33] Ibid., p. 762.

[34] Ibid., p.765.

[35] Ibid., p. 766.

[36] “Jieitai bouei mondai ni kansuru yoronchosa,”(Public poll regarding to the Self-Defense Forces and defense issues) January 2000, at the Japan’s Cabinet Office website <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[37] Jieitai bouei mondai ni kansuru yoronchosa,”(Public poll regarding to the Self-Defense Forces and defense issues) January 2012, at the Japan’s Cabinet Office website <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[38] Joint Poll by Genron NPO and China Daily, conducted in May to July 2013, <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

[39] Joint Poll by Genron NPO and China Daily, conducted in June to July 2006, <>

[40] Richard Bush, The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations, (Brookings Institution, 2010), p. 269.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Mochizuki, op.cit., p.763.

[43] BBC Poll “Views of different country’s influence” in 2011 to 2012, at the Democratic <> accessed on July 27, 2014.

    • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation
    • Tsuneo Watanabe
    • Tsuneo Watanabe

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