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Japan Emerges

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on March 31st, 2005

Though not widely noticed in the media, the now unmistakable determination by Japan to take seriously her own and regional security is easily the most consequential recent development in Asia, the repercussions of which are only beginning to be detected.

While traders have dismissed Japan’s over-leveraged and slow-growing economy in favor of the China boom, and diplomats taken a parallel approach to her political role, things have been changing in the island nation. To begin with, the fifty years of low profile diplomacy, official pacifism, and tendency to trust the United States to take care of her, no matter what, would appear to be behind us.

Several factors are at work here. One is simply the natural, demographically-driven emergence of Japan from the shadow of World War II. Another is the growing evidence that, as with treasury bills, so with alliances and promises of military support, the United States is becoming over extended, having issued far more than she can comfortably redeem. Finally comes the security situation in Asia itself, which is growing more uncertain, owing primarily to North Korean missile and nuclear weapon development and China’s clear intent to become the major regional military power.

Japan’s security policy until recently has been similar to that she followed after the grand bargains struck at the Washington Conference of 1921-22, in which China came to the international table for the first time as a full equal and saw her territorial grievances, notably in Shandong, remedied, the presumption being that she had now become a fully-fledged and responsible international player, while at the same time Japan was forced to abandon her bilateral alliance with Britain, in return for promises of consultation among the Powers should conflict emerge, and multilateral security (i.e. everyone agrees to protect everyone else) in place of the tangible tie to London. Japan then planned for peace guaranteed by a concert of Asia.

Of course things did not work out as planned: within ten years of the end of the Conference (to this date still the most comprehensive and thorough attempt to deal with Asian issues) Japanese troops had occupied Manchuria and were menacing China. The outbreak of the full Pacific War, ended only with nuclear weapons, was only five years away.

Something had gone terribly wrong; something that should be noted very well today. Some historians have argued that blame for Japan’s new aggressive policies was to be found in internal developments: hunger, economic down turn, autocracy, eventually the Japanese version of fascism—an argument that, whatever its merits for explaining the 1920s and 1930s is clearly irrelevant to the solidly constitutional Japan of today. So perhaps we should listen to other historians, less well known than those who concentrate on Japanese domestic history, stressing instead a series of completely unexpected developments in the region that even the most liberal Japanese leaders saw as threatening to their country’s security.

Most important of these was a strong but erratically guided rise of Chinese power that saw that country’s government, goading and reacting to the resentments of her people, flout many of the undertakings she had made at Washington. Almost simultaneously came political splits and then civil wars in a China that at the time of the Conference had seemed politically stable and set on a course of peaceful economic development. These wars threatened continental interests that Tokyo considered vital, and when the allies who had promised at Washington to consult on such threats and act to protect legitimate interests failed to do so, Japan attempted to do so herself—in a catastrophic way that saw both democracy and millions of Japanese people perish.

One element of a parallel to these developments is already in place. North Korea’s nuclear capability has deeply unsettled Japan, which has every reason to question whether the missile defense system that seems to be Washington’s answer to this offensive threat will in fact ever work well enough to make Japan genuinely secure—as well as to wonder whether, if defense does not work, Washington will really be willing to fight a nuclear war with North Korea to save Japan. Japanese regularly affirm their complete confidence in the alliance and in American extended deterrence. This particular American has his doubts.

China too is increasingly attracting attention in Tokyo. Several months ago one of Beijing’s nuclear submarines made a long cruise through Japanese territorial waters, failing to surface and fly her flag as international usages require. Of course Japan’s highly skilled anti-submarine forces tracked the craft every inch of the way, through the Japanese island chain that stretches more than a thousand miles to the south of the main Japanese islands. The Chinese submarine returned to base as its trip was hailed in the Chinese press as a vivid demonstration of Beijing’s formidable new power.

In Japan, however, actions spoke louder than words. Tokyo announced that it was taking formal charge of the Senkaku islands, a little more than sixty miles northeast of Taiwan, which the Chinese (and the Taiwanese) have long claimed as well, calling them Diaoyutai. Plans were announced to develop bases in the island chain, and amphibious and rapid-deployment forces, as well as modest garrisons, to protect them.

What these decisions meant in practice was that any Chinese naval forces wishing to reach the open sea from their coast, would now have to pass through a thousand mile long Japanese-controlled barrier, or else seek to exit through the narrow waters between Japan and Korea,  and Japan and Russia, to the north, or Taiwan and the Philippines to the south. Some Chinese admirals understood this, and pointed out with respect to Taiwan only if that island were in Chinese hands, and a Chinese navy based on that island’s east coast, where waters are extremely deep and favorable to submarine operations, would it be realistically possible for Beijing to carry out the genuine blue water operations to which she aspires. Otherwise her access to the Pacific is potentially but effectively blocked.

But Japan’s security interests would be gravely compromised were China to possess Taiwan as a naval base. Since China could obtain that only by force, Tokyo for the first time explicitly stated that she shared Washington’s interest in a peaceful solution to the Taiwan Strait standoff.

Were China genuinely sagacious about her interests and diplomacy, she would never have allowed relations with Japan to deteriorate to this degree. For half a century after World War II Beijing had the best of all imaginable Japans: pacifistic, friendly, aid-giving. Now that Japan has been made to vanish, primarily by needless and symbolic Chinese belligerence—an error of Beijing’s diplomacy comparable in magnitude of potential damage only to her two other greatest and most damaging mistakes: namely, her failure to make terms with the United States in 1949, despite Ambassador Leighton Stuart’s clear remit to do just that, which brought decades of hostility and (in China) economic decay, and the antagonizing of India, a would-be friend under Nehru, through the border war of 1962 and subsequent action, which helped call into being a militarily and nuclear capable potential great power right where China needed one least: on her vulnerable southwest frontier, flanking territories inhabited by ethnically non-Chinese peoples. As “realist” theorists of international relations would predict, a loose, balancing coalition is beginning to emerge.

It is too late for China to prevent the entente from emerging of Tokyo and Washington, joined with other neighbors, an entente that checkmates China’s more ambitious plans for military hegemony—not a bad thing, not least for China, as what she needs most is internal peace, development and reform, in which she has made great progress over the past several decades, yet which would all perish utterly in case of real conflict.

The question is whether China will change course, and seek genuine trust and friendship with her neighbors, Japan above all. The signals are mixed. Some Chinese writers on foreign affairs understand exactly what must be done. But in China itself, the bloody shirt of Japanese atrocities in World War II (real and atrocious) is proving an irresistible political rallying flag. For example, anti-Japanese demonstrations and flag burnings are spreading in China, while Beijing is reportedly orchestrating a campaign to deny Japan her well-deserved permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This will win no friends in Tokyo, where China needs them.

If this sort of counterproductive approach takes command, then we can expect rising tension in the region, and strains on the United States, the traditional guarantor of the Asian balance of power, but now preoccupied (perhaps for many more years), with Iraq and the Middle East. Without the United States or another balancer, the region will have to find its own equilibrium—something it has never been able to do since the nineteenth century, regularly slipping into conflict instead.

We must bear in mind that the reason today’s Japan is not a military super power bristling with nuclear missiles and commanding powerful fleets of submarines and aircraft carriers is not that she is incapable of developing such technology: at the time of Pearl Harbor, it should be recalled, the Japanese Zero was a far better fighter plane than anything the United States possessed. Rather Japan, with the lesson of World War II and the counsel, even before that war, of some of her leading politicians, has since 1945 chosen not to seek military power and to rely instead on international mechanisms, alliances, and diplomacy. Should that decision be changed, the likelihood is that Japanese military technology and power would soon outstrip any regional rival’s.

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