The Changing of the Guard

The Changing of the Guard

Mini Teaser: Rajan Menon evaluates the latest works on the future of East Asia and its impact on the world. Is Pax Americana in decline, and are we on the verge of a Pax Sinica?

by Author(s): Rajan Menon

But by the 1980s, a segment of Japan's political class and foreign-policy community-which has become particularly influential following the Cold War-was arguing that while Japan should hold firm to the American alliance, it should strengthen its military capabilities. This segment also argued that Japan should undertake defensive missions further from the homeland, participate in UN peacekeeping operations and provide greater assistance to American forces in the Pacific. They advocated revising Article IX, discarding the self-imposed limits on defense spending (the 1 percent of the GNP ceiling that soon attained sacrosanct status) and the ban on exporting arms and military technology, and acquiring armaments that would provide Japan's Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) more muscle and reach. Apart from such specific changes, the advocates of a stronger military with a more ambitious mandate want Japan to stop what they consider its self-flagellation for past misdeeds, abandon its pacifist security blanket and become a "normal country."6

The extent to which this school has moved Japan away from the Yoshida consensus, while also strengthening the alliance with the United States, was evident even before the tenure of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but its influence became particularly pronounced once he was elected. Calls for rethinking Article IX have become standard. The Defense Agency gained ministerial status in 2007, and its influence has grown as the controls exercised by the powerful Cabinet Legislative Office have been diminished. Japanese ships provided logistical support for U.S. forces operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senior officials stated that pre-emptive attacks were justified to parry the threat presented by North Korea's ballistic missiles and nuclear program. A small contingent from the JSDF was deployed to Iraq. Even the nuclear option, once a taboo, is now part of the national-security debate.

Political currents within Japan could also take Tokyo's defense policy in a new direction. Those who favored unarmed neutrality, principally the Socialist Party, have become marginalized. Meanwhile, another group, although it certainly does not represent mainstream thinking, has become more prominent. Its adherents favor far more radical changes, including an end to the alliance with the United States, which they consider a symbol of subordination. The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, is the best-known advocate of these positions, but Samuels shows that they are supported by a number of other prominent thinkers, who present a coherent, if somewhat overwrought, appraisal of the growing threats facing Japan-China in particular-and stress America's unreliability. Japan, these nationalists warn, will find itself alone and vulnerable unless it ditches the Yoshida Doctrine and goes well beyond the bounds envisaged by the "normal country" folks. But even if they prove to have little influence, the fact remains that the Nakasone-Koizumi line is well established and has already made a difference that would have appeared quite unlikely as late as the 1970s.

If the United States, for whatever reason, reduces its military presence in the North Pacific, China begins to throw its weight around and the comity between Tokyo and Washington starts to erode, Pyle's argument will almost certainly be validated. The idea that external shifts will bring about major changes in the theory and practice of Japan's military policy may even exceed what he envisions-the gap between the "normal country" proponents and nationalist groups that Samuels analyzes could close and public opinion could come to favor a reevaluation of the limits placed on the JSDF. This scenario goes beyond what even Pyle expects, and far beyond what Samuels foresees, but it is hardly improbable, certainly not if one considers the long sweep of Japanese history and the major recalibrations that have occurred in the balance of power over the centuries.


WOULD NORTHEAST Asia become a more dangerous place if there were to be so radical a change? The mainstream view is that it would, and it certainly cannot be dismissed. But if in fact China proves the optimists wrong-does not collapse as Gordon Chang expects and instead surpasses the United States much more rapidly than he envisaged and sets out to alter the balance of power aggressively-Japan's choices are not limited to minimalism or militarism. It can develop a far more capable military and, together with a coalition that could include the United States, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia (and perhaps Russia, depending on whether it chooses to help balance China or to safeguard its sparsely populated and hard-to-defend Far East by placating Beijing), create a new equilibrium.

There are already some signs that new alignments are jelling in anticipation of a stronger China. After decades of estrangement during the Cold War, India and the United States are forming a strategic partnership, with Washington violating its non-proliferation policy to help consolidate the alliance. American arms manufacturers are eyeing an Indian market once dominated by the Soviet Union, anticipating that India will need to modernize its armed forces and have the cash to buy what it needs. India and Japan have begun military-to-military contacts and have also held joint naval exercises and operations in which Australia and the United States have participated. The United States and Vietnam have moved from enmity to cooperation. Leaders in these countries deny that China has anything to do with all this (and Indian officials, eager to dispel the notion that they are colluding with Washington, will doubtless point to an India-China naval exercise), but such protestations are scarcely persuasive, for the historical record is unambiguously clear: When a state makes dramatic gains in power, it provokes an opposing coalition. And there is no doubt who is the rising power.

The replication of this process in Asia would be neither an aberration nor, necessarily, something to fear. Imagine a China that continues to shed its revolutionary past, adopts pragmatism and stability as its watchwords, and becomes ever more intertwined with the global economy. The awareness that the intemperate quest for a Pax Sinica would inevitably provoke a countervailing alignment, tax China's resources and overextend its military power should restrain Beijing. Conversely, a belligerent China's freedom of action would be reduced by an opposing coalition, especially one that stretches Chinese resources across several widely separated fronts. Everyone benefits if a state bidding to become the new hegemon treads lightly-including the putative hegemon itself. That is a lesson offered by both Sun Tzu and Bismarck.


Rajan Menon is the Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and a fellow at the New America Foundation.


1Thomas Lum, "Social Unrest in China", Congressional Research Service, May 8, 2006, available at; "China Grows More Wary over Rash of Protest",, August 10, 2005; the quotation is from Sinologist Dorothy Solinger, "Worker Protest in China-Plentiful but Preempted", Taipei Times, February 18, 2005.

2T. Wing Lo and Guoping Jiang, "Inequality, Crime, and the Floating Population in China", Asian Criminology, Vol. 1 (2006), pp. 112.

3Data from Nicholas Eberstadt, "Will China Continue to Rise?" (unpublished manuscript).

4Elizabeth Economy, "The Great Leap Backwards", Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 5 (September/October 2007), pp. 47.

5Rajan Menon, The End of Alliances (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

6The JSDF has capabilities that are much greater than its innocuous-sounding name would suggest. Japan may spend barely 1 percent of its GDP on defense, but given the size of its economy, its military budget is the fourth highest (or fifth, depending on the year) in the world, which means that even a small increase in the proportion devoted to the military can make a considerable difference. Furthermore, its technological prowess gives it the capacity to manufacture modern weapons that few other states can.

Essay Types: Book Review