International politics is always shifting, basically affected by changes in the balance of power. Of all the factors that can change a balance of power, one that is unique to modern international society (since the 19th century) is the economic growth of a single country.
Unlike the classic examples of a power-change, such as the annexation of territories or the formation of alliances, an economic change is invisible to the outside world, and it is hard to determine the point in time when a country begins presenting itself as a growing threat.
China has had a bitter experience in Asia. The Ching dynasty, which had its eyes opened following the Opium War, reorganized the nation and proudly built a formidable North Sea Fleet. However, it failed to realize how rapidly Japan had risen since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and did not change its perception of Japan as a minuscule state until the year before the Sino-Japanese war (1894-5). That resulted in its defeat in that war, the intervention of Western imperialistic powers, and its semi-colonization over the next several decades.
The balance of power over China today is comparable to the relationship between Britain and Germany exactly 100 years ago, the period that led to World War I. Germany’s economy grew rapidly after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and the country overtook Britain in steel and other product manufacturing. After the establishment of the first Fleet Act in 1897, Germany’s naval power also rapidly closed in on Britain’s. Ten years later, around 1907, views of Germany as a threat abounded, just like views of China today. Wariness about Germany’s growing strength existed alongside hopes for its peaceful development, just like today’s wariness of China.
Although the issue of threatening power versus peaceful development was not settled, international politics naturally headed toward the forming of a power to counter and balance Germany’s rise. Britain, France and Russia consequently formed an alliance, the Triple Entente. Indeed, 1907 became known as the year of the entente.
China’s economy has been growing rapidly since it launched its reform and open-door policy in 1978. It began making serious efforts to build up its military since 1997, the year after tensions rose over the Taiwan Strait. China’s military budget has shown double-digit increases for almost two decades. However, it has accomplished true double-digit growth excluding inflation only since 1997.
A large portion of China’s military budget has been explained as a requirement to support the enormous Chinese Army. It is assumed, however, that the country has reduced the number of troops by 500,000 since 1997 and that the resources for the 500,000 troops have been used instead to modernize the military.
China’s military threat is an everyday topic across the world, which has yet to be resolved, but diplomatic moves have begun to appear.
The United States has strengthened cooperation with India in its stand against the principle of nuclear proliferation. Japan and Australia have also released a joint security declaration. Those countries have all explicitly indicated that these moves were not aimed to be stands against any third countries.
The pacts concluded in 1907 also were intended to simply to eliminate sources of conflicts between Britain and France and between Britain and Russia. They were described as ententes that had no bearing on third countries. But as a result, the economic and military powers uncontrollable by international pacts remained a real problem, one that resulted in World War I.
2007 might be called a year of a new entente. At this stage, the lack of an entente between Japan and Russia is noticed by everyone. In other words, Japan is seen to be lagging behind China, which has settled border issues with Russia and other countries.
How to deal with China’s ever growing presence in the world is the most vital issue for Japan’s national strategy of the 21st century. Other international issues are of far less concern regarding Japan’s security.
I do not deny Japan’s legal and historic claims to the Northern Territories. I also think Japan has a right over Sakhalin in view of the history since the days of Rinzo Mamiya. In that context, I am somewhat close to the Japanese Communist Party, which asserts Japan’s sovereignty beyond the four islands. But for the sake of national interests, I believe strategic thinking should take precedence over legal and historic views.
The China-as-a-threat argument has just begun. In the case of Germany, the “naval scare” did not explode in Britain until 1909. Historian William Gooch described the period before then as “anxiety” and the time after that as a “nightmare.” If things go like this, experts’ prediction that China will become a threat after the Olympics might come true.
In that event, Japan, in view of the balance of power, might be pressed to set one of its politically tied hands free after settling the Northern Territories issue, not from the basic territorial argument but from a bigger strategic perspective.
Russia, too, as a country that shares a border with China and is susceptible to its growing military might, would all the more be required to engage in thinking that is more flexible than Japan’s from a strategic perspective.