China vs. Japan: Asia's Other Great Game

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) raise a Chinese national flag during the military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the army at Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, July 30, 2017. China Daily via REUTERS

Beijing and Tokyo will undoubtedly compete long after U.S. foreign policy has evolved.

November-December 2017

On security matters, there is a far more direct struggle for influence and power in Asia between Beijing and Tokyo. This may sound odd when applied to Japan, which is well-known for its pacifist society and the various restrictions on its military, but the past decade has seen both China and Japan seek to break out of traditional security patterns. Beijing is focused on the United States, which it sees as a major threat to its freedom of action in the Asia-Pacific region. But observers should not dismiss the degree to which Chinese policymakers and analysts worry about Japan, in some cases considering it an even bigger threat than America.

Neither Japan nor China has any real allies in Asia, a fact often overlooked when discussing their regional foreign policies. They dominate, or have the potential to dominate, their smaller neighbors, making it difficult to create bonds of trust. Moreover, memories of each as an imperial power are well remembered in Asia, adding another layer of often-unspoken wariness.

For Japan, this distrust has been abetted by its fraught attempts to deal with the legacy of the Second World War, and the sense on the part of most Asian nations that it has not sufficiently apologized for its wartime aggression and atrocities. Yet Japan’s long-standing pacifist constitution and limited military presence in Asia after 1945 helped tamp down suspicions of its intentions. Since the 1970s, Tokyo has prioritized building ties with Southeast Asia, though until recently those were primarily focused on trade.

Since returning to power in 2012, Prime Minister Abe has moved to increase Japan’s defense spending and expand its security partnerships around the region. After a decade of decline, each of Abe’s defense budgets since 2013 has modestly increased spending, now totaling roughly $50 billion per year. Next, in reforming postwar legal restrictions, such as the ban on arms exports or the ban on collective self-defense, Abe has attempted to offer Japan’s support as a way to blunt some of China’s growing military presence in Asia. Sales of maritime patrol vessels and airplanes to countries including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are designed to help build up the capabilities of these nations in their territorial disputes with China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Similarly, Tokyo hoped to sell Australia its next generation of submarines, as well as provide India with amphibious search and rescue aircraft, though both of these plans ultimately fell through or were put on hold.

Despite such setbacks, Japan has increased its security cooperation with a variety of nations in Asia, including in the South China Sea area. It has formally joined the Indo-U.S. Malabar naval exercises, and sent its largest helicopter carrier to the July 2017 exercise after three months of port visits in Southeast Asia. The Japanese coast guard remains actively engaged throughout the region, and plans to set up a joint maritime safety organization with Southeast Asian coast guards to help them deal not only with piracy and natural disasters, but also to improve their ability to monitor and defend disputed territory in the South China Sea. Most recently, Foreign Minister Taro Kono announced a $500 million maritime security initiative for Southeast Asia, designed to help build capacity among nations in the world’s most congested waterways.

If Tokyo has attempted to build bridges to Asian nations in a cooperative gamble, Beijing has constructed artificial islands in an attempt to be recognized as the dominant Asian security power. China faces a more complicated security equation in Asia than Japan, given its assertive claims in the East and South China Seas, and its territorial disputes with many of its neighbors, including larger nations such as India. The dramatic growth of China’s military over the past two decades has resulted not merely in a more capable navy and air force but in policies designed to defend and even extend its claims. The high-profile land reclamation and construction of bases in the Spratly Island chain exemplify Beijing’s decision to assert its various claims and back them up with a military presence that dwarfs those of other contestant nations in the South China Sea. Similarly, the increase in Chinese maritime exercises in areas far from its claimed territory, such as the James Shoal, near Malaysia, or in the Indian Ocean, has worried nations that see Beijing’s increasing capabilities as a potential threat.

China has, of course, attempted to assuage these concerns through maritime diplomacy, such as engaging in an ongoing set of negotiations with ASEAN nations over a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, or conducting joint exercises with Malaysia. Yet repeated acts of intimidation, or direct warnings to Asian nations, have blunted any goodwill, forcing smaller states to consider how far to acquiesce in China’s expansionist activities. Adding to the region’s unease was Beijing’s flat rejection of The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling against Beijing’s South China Sea claims. Unlike Japan, moreover, China has not sought to win friends by providing defensive equipment; the bulk of China’s military sales in Asia goes to North Korea, Bangladesh and Burma, forging a loose grouping, along with Pakistan (the largest recipient of Chinese arms transfers), that is isolated from those nations cooperating with both Japan and the United States.