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The geopolitics of coping with a rising China

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Special To The Japan Times

Last week I examined the logic and consequences of the “Abe Doctrine,” whereby Japan has beefed up its alliance with the United States by agreeing to expand what it is prepared to do militarily in support of U.S. global security operations. This is not a settled issue domestically as few Japanese support this dramatic departure from the pacifism and minimalism embodied in the “Yoshida Doctrine” that has served as the touchstone of Japanese security policy since the 1950s.

Then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida fended off Washington’s demands that Japan shoulder a greater defense burden by invoking Article 9 of the Constitution and prioritizing economic recovery. A commitment to pacifism and a defense-only security policy saw Japan through the end of the Cold War and into the 21st century, but the strategic landscape has quickly changed with the rise of China.

In 1997, the year the initial Japan-U.S. Defense Guidelines were issued, China spent $10 billion on defense. In 2014 it rose to an estimated $144 billion, funding a rapid modernization of China’s armed forces that is slowly narrowing the military gap with the Japan-U.S. alliance. This surge coincides with China’s increased assertiveness about its territorial and maritime claims, which puts it at loggerheads with much of the rest of Asia.

To counter Beijing’s ambitions, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, a proponent of so-called offensive neorealism, tells Nikkei Asian Review that a closer bilateral alliance will try to contain China.

“The United States has no interest in sharing power with China,” he says. “The United States is a jealous god. The United States prefers to be the most powerful state in East Asia.”

Mearsheimer believes that China is committed to changing the Asian status quo in its favor, because that is what powerful nations do, and will rely on economic leverage and military force to achieve its aims. He notes that becoming the regional hegemon is eminently sensible from China’s standpoint, but equally not in the interest of Japan or the U.S. This security competition, he says, might not lead to a wider war, but there is certainly the potential for armed conflict in the East and South China seas.

But aspirations are not destiny.

“It all ended disastrously for Japan. But nevertheless, Japan was smart to want to dominate Asia,” Mearsheimer says, adding that China hopes for a better result and is also smart because “all states think in terms of dominating their region, because that’s the best way to be secure.”

The notion that increased economic interdependence can avert war is not reassuring because politics often trumps economic rationale.

“Chinese nationalism is so powerful,” he argues, “that if a crisis breaks out, there may be great pressure from below in China on the leaders to actually fight against Japan. And the Japanese view the Senkaku Islands as sacred territory, so they will fight to defend that territory.”

Somehow I doubt that China’s leaders would make such a crucial decision based on populist pressures and it’s precisely because few Japanese view the Senkaku as sacred that the government is vigorously trying to arouse nationalist sentiments about this ‘inherent” territory in new textbooks, diplomatic forays and in the media.

While some experts assert that international institutions, and nurturing a web of exchanges and confidence-building measures within a more robust regional security architecture, can prevent war, Mearsheimer points out that such a rule-based assumption overlooks an essential point: “Great powers do not obey the rules when they do not think it’s in their interest.”

Regarding Japan’s ally, he says that “the United States often violates international law when it thinks that its core interests are at stake. It was a violation of international law for the United States to go to war against Iraq. Nevertheless, George W. Bush said, in effect, ‘I don’t care what international law says.'”

So if unilateral pacifism, economic interdependence, institutions or rules can’t guarantee the peace, what’s Japan to do?

As China gets wealthier and stronger it will become an uncontainable Goliath, and at some point this means the U.S. and Japan will have to come to terms with China as the regional hegemon. In Mearsheimer’s view this will be disastrous for Japan. Twenty years down the road he predicts the Japanese will look back on the present period as “the golden age of security in East Asia.”

In the nasty and brutish business of international politics, Tsuneo Watanabe, in a 2014 paper published by the Tokyo Foundation, argues for “pursuing security interests through an alliance with the United States and economic interests through trade with China.” This entails “strengthening Japan’s own military capabilities, changing the Constitution to allow more flexibility on security policy, broadening the scope of the alliance for regional and global challenges and expanding security ties with other likeminded nations.

“In the past, China’s history card was effective in restraining Japan’s security policy. But in the face of China’s military modernization and burgeoning economy — and as the number of elder Japanese who experienced wartime aggressions declines — Japan’s self-restraint is fading away.”

Perhaps, but Japan’s military budget remains relatively modest, especially given the sharp devaluation of the yen and Byzantine procurement practices that means it pays more than it should and gets less than it needs. Abe is often portrayed as a warmonger, but he is hemmed in by public opinion and budget constraints, and as my colleague Robert Dujarric often points out, he is a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.”

But with China rising and hostile, it seems Japan would be wise to do more diplomatically to prepare for the inevitable power shift. This doesn’t mean craven capitulation, but does require a more inspired and deeper engagement than is currently evident.

Australian security expert Hugh White argues in his book “The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power” for expanding cooperation between the United States and China to create a mutually beneficial balance of power, a “concert of Asia.” That seems unlikely for a variety of reasons, mostly because a regional detente is not that appealing to Beijing, Tokyo or Washington; tensions have their uses as long as they are managed.

But Japan needs an exit strategy from the current deadlock with China and the worrying levels of mutual distrust. This has to be worked out within the trilateral relationship involving the United States and China, a delicate balancing act to be sure. Watanabe concludes that closer alliance ties with the United States are essential, even at the cost of stoking Chinese anxieties and distrust. But this is no substitute for trying to address and overcome those anxieties and antipathy. On this diplomatic front, Japan is underperforming.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.