Japan's Daunting Challenge

March 1, 2013 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: Japan

Japan's Daunting Challenge

Mini Teaser: Shinzo Abe might turn Japan into an isolated, aging, indebted fortress.

by Author(s): Daniel Sneider

The most profound difference between Japan’s major parties was the DPJ’s readiness to address Japan’s history in Asia, whereas the LDP’s ranks included many outright defenders of Japan’s colonial and wartime expansionism of the 1930s and 1940s. The DPJ led the rebuke of former air force chief of staff Toshio Tamogami for publishing an essay defending Japan’s wartime aggression, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. After Koizumi paid homage to Japan’s war dead at the Shinto Yasukuni shrine, the DPJ called for easing tensions with China and Korea by creating a secular national cemetery and removing the names of Japanese war criminals from the list of enshrined souls at Yasukuni.

SUCH DISAGREEMENTS about how to treat the past actually represented a debate over Japan’s future direction. But mainstream Japanese policy remained anchored in the Yoshida Doctrine. Partly in response to American encouragement, Japan tried to become a Great Britain of Asia, an offshore balancer whose naval and other forces could more actively supplement American power. Following severe criticism of Japan’s decision not to extend military support to the UN coalition against Iraq in the first Gulf War, Japanese leaders incrementally removed some long-standing postwar barriers to the use of Japanese force beyond the constitutionally circumscribed mission of self-defense. Beginning with the 1992 dispatch of Japanese peacekeeping forces to Cambodia, Japan’s military has been used in limited missions overseas—a flotilla sent to the Indian Ocean to refuel international naval operations off Afghanistan; a small contingent to Iraq; and antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In all cases, the ban on collective self-defense did not allow Japanese forces to come to the aid of U.S. forces beyond the narrow defense of Japanese home territory, though they could serve abroad in logistical and peacekeeping roles. But the LDP is determined to reinterpret the constitution, as suggested by an advisory panel organized under Abe’s first premiership, to allow for the right to collective self-defense.

This “mission creep” outlook acquired significant momentum from the growing perception that China represented a gathering threat. This was compounded by North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests beginning in 1998. Japan’s official support for the Iraq War was motivated more by a desire to cement American backing than by any particular enthusiasm for the war itself. That was particularly the case from 2002–2005, when Sino-Japanese relations took a nosedive.

Many Japanese political and opinion leaders, including prominent conservatives, began to question this policy and the singular reliance on the U.S. alliance. During the George W. Bush years, Japanese policy makers increasingly feared that they would cede Asian leadership to China by overemphasizing the bilateral security relationship with the United States. While Washington focused on the Middle East and Southwest Asia after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, China moved with diplomatic skill to assert itself in the region. It improved ties with South Korea and Southeast Asian nations, reached free-trade agreements and reaped the benefits of its emergence as East Asia’s driver of economic growth.

Anti-Japanese riots in China in 2005 reflected the deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations. Japanese leaders worried that the Sino-Japanese rivalry could lead to serious conflict, including clashes over oil and gas rights in the East China Sea and over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The prospect alarmed the business community, with its deep investments in China and growing dependence on trade with China. American officials also worried that these tensions might threaten regional stability.

In the fevered anti-Chinese rhetoric of the nationalist Right, China supplanted the Soviet Union in a renewed Cold War–style containment strategy that anticipated an expanded Japanese security role in South and Southeast Asia and closer ties to India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia. This policy overlapped in part with the more classical Yoshida Doctrine role. But it is crucially different in its willingness to confront China and embrace a revisionist historical worldview that pits Japan against China and also South Korea, for whom the wartime resistance to Japanese colonialism remains an essential source of identity and a neuralgic issue in domestic politics.

Yet despite the rhetoric, an open containment strategy focused on China isn’t really feasible given the two countries’ economic interdependence. Indeed, some Japanese policy makers increasingly began to worry that the United States would abandon them in favor of China, a fear that grew in the last two years of the Bush administration. Japan did not want to be the anchor of an American hedging strategy toward China, only to be left in the lurch. Some Japanese officials feared a reprise of the “Nixon shock,” when Henry Kissinger made a surprise visit to Beijing just as Washington was warning Tokyo against normalizing relations with China. Japanese policy makers opted to hedge against both American abandonment and the rise of China, maintaining the security alliance while drawing China into regional and global economic and security structures.

JAPAN’S GROWING economic interdependence with China was manifest in Abe’s surprising visit to South Korea and China, his first overseas trip after taking office in 2006. Abe not only moved rapidly to improve diplomatic relations but also softened talk about historical revisionism and constitutional change. He even created a joint Sino-Japanese commission to discuss historical issues. Relations with South Korea benefited from Pyongyang’s alarming nuclear test in October 2006 and Abe’s willingness to put historical issues aside.

The succeeding DPJ governments under Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda largely followed in these footsteps, although with a greater readiness to deal with wartime issues. Kan issued a new statement of apology on the one hundredth anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, returned seized Korean artifacts and made other gestures intended to cement closer cooperation. Japan also actively courted India, Vietnam and others in East Asia, establishing military-to-military contacts, holding joint exercises and discussing security coordination.

The DPJ harbored a more benign view of the Chinese “threat” and believed, perhaps naively, that Japan’s more forthright approach to wartime historical issues would change the dynamic of the relationship. “There are issues between Japan and China that need to be resolved through frank discussion: the historical issue and the territorial issue,” then DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa told me in 2009.

Such talk fed an American perception that Japan under the DPJ was veering into a “pro-China” tilt, ready to couple the security alliance with a strategic partnership with China. The wrangle over Okinawa bases, combined with Hatoyama’s gauzy vision of an East Asian community based on “fraternity,” cemented that view. In reality, that vision flowed from a long-standing Japanese interest in East Asian regional integration, going back at least to the 1970s, when Japanese and Australian academics first promoted the concept. During the boom days of Japan’s economy, Japanese talked confidently about the formation of an Asian “yen zone” led by Japan. While Japanese confidence has dimmed amid its own economic stagnation and China’s rise, these ideas retain resonance.

Even in the past decade, LDP leaders have promoted this goal. In a 2002 address in Singapore, Koizumi envisioned a community formed by the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, together with Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand—what later became the East Asian Summit with the addition of India. Six years later, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda inaugurated an annual triangular summit with China and South Korea.

American officials have viewed any form of Asian regionalism excluding Washington as a threat to create closed systems. DPJ administrations thus embraced an American-led trade grouping, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as a means of assuaging American concerns while responding to Chinese assertiveness. But due largely to opposition from within its own ranks and from powerful domestic interests, the DPJ was unable to fully join the ongoing multilateral negotiations on the pact.

These Asianist hopes foundered on American opposition and China’s assertive defense of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. China’s backing of Pyongyang after its military attacks on South Korea beginning in the spring of 2010 also alarmed Japanese leaders. For Japan, the turning point was China’s response to the 2010 arrest of a Chinese fishing-boat captain who had rammed Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Chinese leaders took the arrest as an unprecedented assertion of Japan’s territorial claim; past Japanese governments had carefully expelled Chinese activists and fishermen who trespassed. DPJ leaders, who expected the matter would be settled quickly, were stunned by the escalatory behavior that followed, including boycotts of Japanese goods, demonstrations and other forms of economic pressure.

Suddenly, talk of moving beyond the confines of the U.S.-Japanese security alliance subsided. “Problems that arise between Japan and the United States can, in the end, be resolved within the framework of the alliance,” wrote former Asahi Shimbun editor Yoichi Funabashi, an important voice in DPJ foreign-policy circles. “The alliance is the ballast. However, that cannot be said of the Japan-China relationship.” The 2010 national-defense policy, prepared under the DPJ, warned of the Chinese military buildup and proposed beefing up the defenses of southwestern Japan, the area of territorial tensions with China.

Image: Pullquote: Below the surface, many Japanese of all political stripes were never comfortable with a strategy of reflexive dependence on the United States.Essay Types: Essay