The Schizophrenic Superpower

The Schizophrenic Superpower

Mini Teaser: Japan would prefer to be an ecnomic giant and a political pygmy. Neither circumstances nor its neighbors will allow it that luxury.

by Author(s): Alan Dupont

Over time, the future architecture and modalities of missile defense could significantly alter the power structure of the alliance and reshape Japan's approach to national security planning. Successful collaboration on missile defense would be a powerful reaffirmation of shared U.S.-Japanese strategic interests, accelerating the trend towards greater equality within the alliance and stimulating reform of the SDF's structure, organization and intelligence systems, as well as national security decision-making more generally. Already, Japanese officials have indicated their desire to have greater input into BMD planning and to share data obtained from the new FPS-XX radar system, which will improve the Pentagon's ability to track ballistic missiles targeted against the United States. Prudent self-interest dictates that Washington should be generous in sharing sensitive missile technology with Japan and be prepared to cede a measure of operational control over the system itself, if it expects Japan to cooperate fully. Conversely, Tokyo must accept that any failure to deploy an effective missile defense system or shoot down missiles bound for the United States because of constitutional niceties could rupture or severely weaken the alliance.

More fundamentally, Washington and Tokyo both need to pay greater attention to alliance management, policy coordination and addressing the imbalances in their strategic partnership. The best metaphor to describe the way the alliance works in practice is the hub (the United States) and radiating spokes (Japan, Australia, South Korea and Thailand) of a wheel. The critical dialogue is between the hub and the spokes, seldom between the spokes themselves. If the alliance is to adapt and prosper in today's vastly different strategic circumstances, the essentially uni-directional pattern of dialogue has to become more multi-directional and the alliance less dominated by U.S. interests and policy preoccupations. This will mean moving towards a more consultative, European style of alliance, which will provide Japan, Australia and the other allies with enhanced opportunities for ameliorating Washington's unilateralist tendencies and sensitizing U.S. policymakers to Asian security perceptions and political realities. In exchange, the United States should expect greater burden-sharing and collegiality in dealing with common security problems.

Calming the Dragon

As the alliance is recast, Japanese and U.S. policymakers need to consider how best to reassure a nervous Beijing that a reinvigorated Japan, working in close cooperation with the United States in Asia, is not a threat to China. This will be no easy task because of the widespread view in Chinese policy and military circles that Tokyo's strategic shift foreshadows a more assertive and possibly adversarial Japan. Of course, there is nothing new or surprising in this reaction, as Sino-Japanese rivalry has deep historical roots. It is manifest today in Chinese anxieties about Japan's support for Taiwan and BMD and resentment over legacy issues, notably Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead but in Chinese eyes is a symbol of the country's imperial past. Until recently, these anxieties have been moderated by Japan's constitution and Beijing's recognition that the U.S. alliance has prevented a revival of Japanese military power. But as Japan breaks free from its constitutional shackles and the Red Sun makes its reappearance across the globe on the uniforms and flags of a reconstituted military, Chinese strategists are drawing conclusions that are troubling for future Sino-Japanese relations.

Among them is the belief that Japan wants to be a military as well as an economic power; that it is moving from a preoccupation with self-defense to accepting the broader alliance objectives of collective self-defense; that it is developing the capability to intervene militarily in the region; that the Koizumi government is playing up the North Korean threat so that it can break the constitutional taboo on collective self-defense; and that it is concealing its real strategic intentions by using peacekeeping and the War on Terror to desensitize the region to an expanded military presence.

Mirroring their neighbor's concerns, Japan is distinctly uneasy about recent double-digit increases in Chinese military spending, the acquisition of advanced fighter aircraft and naval vessels from Russia, the rapid pace of defense modernization, and the build-up of China's missile inventory. Such apprehensions are understandable. China's recently purchased advanced Kilo-class submarines can interdict the main maritime trade routes that are crucial to Japan's economic survival. Since 2000, there has been a dramatic rise in the frequency of Chinese naval incursions into Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Tokyo is particularly concerned about Chinese hydrographic surveys and oil drilling near the EEZ, as well as what appear to be intelligence-gathering operations by Chinese submarines, dramatically illustrated in November 2004 by the highly publicized incursion of a Han-class nuclear-powered submarine into Japanese waters near Okinawa.

Tensions have already flared over a number of unresolved territorial disputes at sea, notably the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese), which are located near rich deposits of oil and natural gas in the underlying sea bed. So far, these have been confined to polemical exchanges between Tokyo and Beijing and symbolic protests by Chinese activists. But the potential for miscalculation will increase as an energy-hungry China steps up its oil-exploration activities in the seas around the Senkakus and Japan responds by augmenting its maritime patrols and surveillance of the region. Already there are signs that for the first time the Koizumi government will allow Japanese oil companies to drill in a disputed area of the East China Sea, which would inevitably inflame anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

A critical issue for Japan is how a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan would play out. In the event of hostilities, there is little doubt that the United States would expect Japan to provide intelligence and rear-area support for the U.S. carrier groups that would be dispatched to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. This would expose the SDF to a Chinese counterstrike and risk drawing Japan into direct combat with China for the first time since World War II, the consequences of which would be incalculable for both countries.

Thus, paradoxically, mutual mistrust is growing in parallel with deepening economic interdependence. The challenge for Japan is managing relations with China so that bilateral tensions do not lead to open conflict or spill over and infect the wider region. This will require a much higher level of trust between the two Asian powers than has been evident to date and a willingness to consider new mechanisms for mediating and preventing disputes so that major crises can be averted.

Unfortunately, with the notable exception of the Six Party Talks on North Korea, neither Japan nor the United States has given sufficient priority to including China in strategies for mitigating existing conflicts and preventing new ones from arising. On the contrary, the impression has been created in Beijing that closer U.S.-Japanese security cooperation is premised on containing China and diluting its military power. Missile defense is illustrative, as is the developing trilateral security dialogue (TSD) between the United States, Japan and Australia, which was established in 2001 at the U.S.-Australian ministerial talks in Canberra. From Beijing's perspective, the TSD looks suspiciously like the first step on the road to forming a new security bloc in Asia aimed at containing China. While Chinese fears that the TSD could evolve into an Asian-style NATO are misplaced and China should not be permitted to exercise a veto over U.S.-Japanese security cooperation, it makes no sense to antagonize Beijing by further institutionalizing the TSD and transforming it into a clubby, de facto trilateral alliance. A far better approach would be to create a security mechanism that allows China to discuss northeast Asia's many intractable security problems directly with Japan and the United States.

Such a mechanism already exists in the form of the Six Party Talks, which were established in 2003 to defuse and resolve the North Korean nuclear problem and which include all the northeast Asian states as well as the United States. China has rejected previous attempts to inaugurate a sub-regional security arrangement, fearing that it could be used as a vehicle for foreign intervention and meddling in China's affairs, especially Taiwan. But Beijing is more comfortable with the format of the Six Party Talks and feels some ownership of the process. So there is every prospect that the Chinese would be favorably disposed to broadening the scope and agenda of the talks atsome future date. Enlarging the Six Party Talks would be an important confidence-building measure and would provide strategic reassurance to China that should help soften its opposition to extended U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation.

The Way Ahead

The principal conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that Tokyo's desire to pursue a more proactive security policy is not an unreasonable response to the more threatening and volatile security environment it faces. After nearly six decades of quasi-pacifism, it is time for Japan to move beyond the ideals of the post-World War II peace constitution and participate more fully in building and sustaining regional order and combating the emerging threats to security. Although fears that Japan might revert to militarism are real, they are ill conceived. Democracy and the rule of law are firmly entrenched, some constitutional restrictions on the use of force will remain, and the U.S. alliance ensures that Japan has no need for the nuclear weapons or major force-projection capabilities that would be inherently destabilizing and set off alarm bells in the region.

Essay Types: Essay