For Americans, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States was a proud reminder of what can be achieved through the advancement of common interests and universal values. The story has the making of a Hollywood film: once bitter adversaries, Japan and the United States have worked together to build an alliance and global partnership that has stood the test of time. On April 28, after fifty-five years of bilateral defense cooperation, the United States and Japan agreed to revise their defense guidelines to further integrate military operations and cooperation on activities ranging from peacekeeping to intelligence collection.
From China’s perspective, rather than demonstrating the power of reconciliation, the revision of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines “is a worry for all nations with direct experience of these countries’ previous overseas military escapades.” Once seen as a valued restraint that checked Japan’s ambitions for regional hegemony, the U.S.-Japan alliance is now viewed as a threat. Chinese president Xi Jinping has gone beyond mere calls, such as were made by his predecessor, for the elimination of such alliances in the Asia-Pacific to propose the establishment of a new regional security architecture that transcends “the outdated thinking from the age of Cold War and zero-sum game.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, when China faced a military threat from the Soviet Union, the Chinese viewed the U.S.-Japan alliance as on balance, beneficial to their interests. Though Chinese public perception of Japan and its intentions fluctuated throughout the Cold War, the United States continued to function as the “cork in the bottle” that prevented Japan from remilitarizing and helped to underwrite peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. That assessment changed drastically in the mid-1990s after a series of events strained Sino-Japanese relations, including Japan’s cancellation of part of its Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China following China’s 1995 nuclear tests, China’s 1996 military exercises near Taiwan, and the U.S.-Japan decision in 1996 to revise defense guidelines, which would subsequently allow Japan to assist the United States in a Korean Peninsula or Taiwan Strait contingency. Liu Jiangyong, a leading Chinese expert on Japan who is now at Qinghua University, cautioned in 1997 in an article published in Contemporary International Relations that the alliance was no longer a cork in Japan’s military bottle, but instead was an “eggshell for Japan to develop its conventional high-tech military strength.”
At an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting on confidence building in Beijing in March 1997, Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen introduced China’s “New Security Concept.” This concept, outlined in a 1997 People’s Daily article and later dubbed the “Four Nos,” called for the abandonment of Cold War–era conduct: hegemonism; power politics; military alliances and arms races. Entreaties for the United States to forsake its Cold War alliance mentality and seek lasting peace through China’s “New Security Concept” have persisted in official Chinese speeches with varying degrees of vigor ever since.
In China, the U.S.-Japan alliance, its staying power and its strategic objectives have long been the subject of lively debate. The alliance is most often framed in two distinct ways: (1) Japan is using the alliance as a guise to conceal ulterior motives; or (2) the United States is using the alliance as a facade to contain China. On both sides of this debate, Chinese analysts differ about what drives each country’s behavior within the alliance, but agree with the assessment made by Chinese writer Si Chu that, “the U.S.-Japan alliance has always been a relationship of using and being used, and of controlling and being controlled.”
Chinese views about the U.S.-Japan alliance can be divided into several discrete groups. The first school of thought stresses that Japan is the driver of its own security policies, but members of this group diverge on the motivating factors behind Japan’s defense-reform agenda. A common explanation is that Tokyo is motivated by fear. Gao Hong, a researcher at the Institute of Japanese Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explains that Japan is experiencing “genuine anxiety which is caused by Japan's failure to accept the rise of China and see history squarely.” A tangential explanation offered by Yuan Yang of China’s Academy of Military Science in a PLA Daily article is that Japanese confidence in the alliance’s ability to defend Japan has declined, so the nation “yearns for independent defense.” Referring to Shinzo Abe as “the backstage manipulator,” Si Chu maintains that the “China threat” is being used by Japan as an excuse for military expansion with the goal of developing defense capabilities independent from the United States.
Chinese analysts also disagree about whether Japanese ideological and cultural underpinnings make Japan inherently militaristic. In a Global Times article, Wang Zhangyang reasons “The social foundation under which militarism was able to become the dominant ideology has disappeared,” and pacifism has become deeply ingrained in Japan. However, other experts view Japan’s tendency toward militarism as intrinsic to Japanese ethnicity. Colonel Guo Jimin from the Academy of PLA Navy Marine Corps asserts that the Japanese innately take pleasure in slaughter and war, enjoy telling lies and have a snake-like greediness about them. These observers warn that Japan is shifting to the right under the Abe administration, denying its historical wartime aggressions, posing a threat to regional stability and, therefore, “all of East Asia should be vigilant.”
The second school of thought centers around whether the United States is an unwitting bystander or an agent of Japan’s effort to become a militarily “normal country.” The majority holds that the United States not only enables, but encourages Japan to adopt offensive military capabilities and policies countering China as part of its rebalance to Asia, which most judge to be a thinly disguised attempt at containment. Ren Weidong, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations writes, “The danger of new developments in U.S.-Japan relations under the policy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region lies in that, in order to achieve the goal of containing China, the United States has deliberately connived with the right-leaning tendency of Japan.” Proponents of this argument portray Tokyo as acting at the behest of the United States, which allegedly seeks to use Japan to sabotage the future of peace in Asia. By pressing Japan to lift its ban on collective self-defense, siding with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute in the East China Sea and revising the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, the United States is “unleashing” Japan to confront China.
A minority view holds that the United States is apprehensive of Japanese remilitarization and is attempting to contain not only China, but Japan as well. Wang Zhangyang from the Central Institute of Socialism writes, “The United States has ultimately never let go of concerns and guardedness against the only country to have attacked the U.S. homeland.” He and other such analysts believe that in provoking Japan to confront China through the pretense of the alliance, the United States is actually implementing a dual-containment strategy that keeps the two countries preoccupied with one another. U.S. scrutiny of Japan’s weapons-grade plutonium stockpile is frequently cited as evidence of friction in the U.S.-Japan alliance, possibly aimed at ensuring that in the midst of its frenzied military revisions, Japan does not go nuclear.
Under the Xi administration, Beijing’s opposition to the strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance has been shrill and explicit. In May 2014, Xi Jinping used his keynote address as the chair of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) to aver that U.S. alliances have no place in the regional security architecture China is peddling, saying, “A military alliance which is targeted at a third party is not conducive to common regional security.” He then proposed that “[s]ecurity problems in Asia should be solved by Asians themselves,” implying that not only are U.S. alliances irrelevant, but the United States itself should play no role in making and enforcing regional security rules. Six months later, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin reaffirmed Xi’s vision at the People’s Liberation Army’s fifth Xiangshan Forum, saying “China is both a proponent and practitioner of this Asian security concept.” At the China Development Forum in March 2015, Foreign Minister Wang Yi added to the drumbeat of criticism of U.S. military alliances. “. . . we hope that parties may, by acting along the trend of the times, explore a new type of partnership that is more inclusive and constructive, that is not targeted at a hypothetical enemy or against a third party,” Wang said.
So far, remarks by Chinese officials on the updated U.S.-Japan defense guidelines have been relatively mild. On April 30, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hong Lei said, “The U.S.-Japan alliance is a bilateral arrangement forged during the Cold War. The United States and Japan shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that a third party's interests will not be damaged and peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific not be undermined by their alliance.” In nonauthoritative writings, Chinese military analysts have reiterated that the alliance is ill suited to current international conditions, while they reveal concerns that the changes will make for more “seamless” and “global” joint U.S.-Japan military operations that could endanger Chinese security.
In the wake of Abe’s visit to the United States, the Chinese will likely assess the U.S.-Japan alliance as robust and therefore not vulnerable to Chinese pressure, at least through the end of Abe’s term in office. Despite this assessment, however, Beijing will probably not give up on efforts to abolish U.S. regional alliances. Rather, China will focus its attention on undermining U.S. alliances in Asia it deems more susceptible to Chinese influence. Such attempts are already visible in Chinese pressure on South Korea to forego deploying Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems to defend against the growing threat from North Korean ballistic missiles.
Beijing may also seek to use economic incentives in its relations with Australia to weaken the bonds of friendship between Washington and Canberra. Once Philippine president Benigno Aquino leaves office, the Chinese are hoping that a new leader will see the folly of challenging China in the South China Sea and instead take advantage of Beijing’s economic largesse. The Chinese are pragmatic and patient; they know China cannot supplant U.S. alliances with a new security architecture that is more favorable to Chinese interests in a span of a few years. China will not give up easily, however. Xi Jinping hopes to make as much headway as possible toward this goal during his term in office.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia in the Freeman Chair for China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brittney Farrar is a CSIS research intern and M.A. candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.