Asia's Most Dangerous Rivalry Heats Up: China vs. Japan

With China rising and Japan seeking to become a "normal nation," the stage is set for increased tensions.

Japan has taken a fateful step toward becoming a “normal” power by adopting the doctrine of “collective self-defense”, paving the way for Tokyo to play a more direct role in ensuring stability in international waters as well as in aiding allies in times of crisis. It took a combination of iron-willed leadership, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and deepening territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea to force Japan to take greater responsibility for its own national defense.

Uncertainties over Washington’s commitment to rein in China’s territorial ambitions and growing concerns over the strategic impact of long-term defense-budget cuts at the Pentagon have only encouraged Japan to become more self-reliant. Washington has welcomed Tokyo’s decision to adopt a more flexible defense doctrine, facilitating broader efforts to upgrade U.S.-Japanese bilateral defense guidelines, which were last revised back in 1997. Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing regional-security environment, the aim is to create a more dynamic U.S.-Japanese alliance, where Tokyo contributes more proportionately to regional stability in East Asia. After all, throughout the post–Cold War era, the U.S. has repeatedly sought to mitigate “free riding” by well-endowed allies, such as Japan.

As expected, China has been perturbed by the resurgence of its archrival, Japan. And the Xi Jinping administration has spared no efforts to denigrate its counterparts in Tokyo. Aware of lingering regional anxieties over Japan’s early-twentieth century imperial aggression, especially in South Korea, Beijing has sought to convince the world that Japan is purportedly reassuming its militaristic past. Any sober analysis, however, would suggest that the real bone of contention is an emerging Chinese-Japanese contest for regional leadership, as Washington gets more comfortable with playing the role of an offshore balancer. Gradually, bitter territorial disputes have seemingly rekindled a century-old rivalry for the soul of Asia.

Reinventing Japan

Japan’s recent lurch toward a more proactive foreign policy, however, has met stiff domestic resistance. Pacifism continues to be a cornerstone of Japan’s national psyche, preventing the Abe administration—and its like-minded predecessors—from garnering sufficient public support as well as a legislative supermajority to amend Japan’s constitution.

The tumultuous memories of World War II continue to cast a long shadow on Japanese society. But as any astute political leader, Abe has instead opted for reinterpreting existing provisions of the Japanese constitution, striking a tenuous balance between Tokyo’s evolving security calculus, on the one hand, and the pacifist spirit of Japan’s constitution, which prohibits the country from using coercive means to settle international disputes, on the other.

Far from introducing a new approach, however, Abe has simply followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, who didn’t shy away from reinterpreting Japan’s constitution to pursue specific political goals. After the Korean War (1950-53), the Japanese leadership reinterpreted Article 9 of the Japanese constitution—particularly vis-à-vis prohibitions against developing a “war potential”— to allow for the establishment of the Self Defense Forces (SDF), which purportedly only served exclusively defensive objectives bereft of any aggressive operational capability to project power beyond Japan’s immediate territories.

By maintaining a minimalist doctrine of pacifism, Tokyo sought to justify the constitutionality of even nuclear weapons so long as they stayed within the ambit of “minimum necessary level for self-defense.” Interestingly, Abe’s own grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, was responsible for a series of bureaucratic maneuvers to influence and shape the position of executive agencies, specifically the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB), in charge of operationalizing and safeguarding the pacifist provisions of the Japanese constitution.