A New Dawn in Japan: How China Is Empowering Its Greatest Rival

"China’s ostensible quest for regional hegemony has ended Japan’s strategic oblivion, paving the way for a new era in Japanese foreign policy."

For the past seven decades, Japan hasn’t fired a single bullet for offensive military purposes, nor has it established a standing army with the mandate to engage in war. The northeast Asian powerhouse has been bound by a legendary pacifist constitution, Article 9 of which compels Japan to "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." Today’s Japan, unlike its imperial predecessor in the early twentieth century, is a curious case of a “rich country, no army” nation that has no parallel in modern history. But this is bound to change, as Japan reorients its foreign policy towards what it calls “proactive pacifism.”

One of the most significant implications of China’s territorial assertiveness, which has often translated into outright aggression and threat of use of force, is the empowerment of hawks in Tokyo, who have called for a more independent, capable and self-reliant Japan. Beijing’s unabashed quest for maritime dominance in the Western Pacific, with some of its top officials brazenly declaring that the South China Sea “belongs to China,” has raised alarm bells in Tokyo, which is grappling with Chinese maritime adventurism in both the East and South China Seas. For Tokyo, Beijing isn’t only aggressively staking claim to a group of largely uninhabited islets (Senkaku/Diaoyu) that Japan considers its sacred territory, but it is also undermining freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most important Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs).

China’s brash pursuit of maritime hegemony in East Asia has inadvertently ended the decades-long strategic stupor of its archrival, Japan. Yet, far from transforming it into a militaristic nation, as China’s propaganda machine constantly declares, Japan is instead morphing into a more credible anchor of regional stability. The recent passage of a landmark security bill, which allows Japan to engage in collective security operations, paves the way for a new era of Japanese foreign policy. The northeast Asian powerhouse will no longer be confined to “checkbook diplomacy,” since it will also be able to leverage its modern armed forces to shape and preserve international order.   

Man of the Hour

Under the stewardship of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the country has progressively recalibrated its defense policy and relaxed restrictions on Japan’s ability to project power beyond its immediate shores. Abe’s return to power, after a decisive parliamentary victory in late 2012, has coincided with an end to eleven years of budget cuts, exports of advanced military hardware (e.g., submarines) to allies such as Australia, provision of Japan’s largest postwar security aid to weaker Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and the revision of bilateral defense guidelines with the United States. And thanks to the recent passage of a controversial security bill, for the first time in its postwar history, Japan will be able to dispatch troops for overseas military operations under the principle of collective security.

By no means has the reorientation of Japan’s defense policy been an easy task, requiring Abe to expend much of his political capital along the way. Pacifism is deeply ingrained in the Japanese public psyche, with major opposition parties, especially the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), committing themselves to the preservation of Japan’s pacifist foreign policy. Imperial Japan’s brutal legacy of subjugation and colonization in Asia, and the traumatic conclusion of the Second World War that saw the usage of weapons of mass destruction against Japan’s major cities, has instilled a profound popular aversion vis-à-vis any expression of militarism and/or participation of Japan in overseas military operations.

Abe recognized the near-impossibility of garnering the two-thirds parliamentary majority support needed to push for amendment of Article 9 of the constitution, not to mention the broad public opposition that will surely sink any eventual referendum on the issue. Displaying political astuteness, he instead pushed for a reinterpretation of constitutional restrictions on Japan’s defense policy. Under the principle of collective security, Japanese leaders can authorize military force if "the country’s existence, the lives of the people, their freedoms, and the right to seek happiness are feared to be profoundly threatened because of an armed attack on Japan or other countries.”