HONOLULU – Chinese officials and analysts are raising the alarm that Japan under the Abe government is moving toward a militarist foreign policy that will endanger China and the rest of the region.
Having suffered terribly in the 1931-1945 war, the Chinese want to prevent any possibility of a repeat of that awful chapter of history.
The Chinese want China to be strong and Japan to be militarily weak. The Chinese favor a continuation of the postwar constraints on Japan’s armed forces and are highly sensitive to claims that the Chinese version of their own victimization during the 20th century may be exaggerated or erroneous. All of this is natural and understandable.
There are political agendas at work as well. In every country, the ruling government selectively uses history to promote its own agenda. The Chinese Communist Party has employed the victimhood narrative, with Japan as the main villain, as a means of rallying public support for the party and its national development programs.
Beijing also sees Japan as a rival for regional leadership, so the allegation of recrudescent militarism is a useful way of containing Japanese influence. In this context, Chinese warnings about a threat from Japan are predictable, but they are also largely wrong. The Chinese reaction to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies lacks balance and logic.
Chinese commentators inevitably link the gradual buildup of Japanese military capabilities with the denial of past aggression and atrocities by Japanese nationalists, describing these two phenomena as mutually-reinforcing. The postwar restrictions on Japan’s military are a punishment for the policies of the wartime government. No other country in the world is under similar restrictions. These restrictions cannot be eternal. This raises the question of how long the restrictions should last. A reasonable guideline is one human lifetime, to ensure that all Japanese who were in any way personally responsible for the wartime aggressions never have the power to wage offensive war again. Since the war ended 69 years ago, Japan has nearly fulfilled that stipulation (keeping in mind the unusually long life expectancy of Japanese people). During these seven decades Japan has not pursued an aggressive or warlike foreign policy. Most of Japanese society has been strongly anti-militarist. Japan’s postwar prosperity has relied solely on economic competitiveness. Japan has been a model international citizen, one of the leading contributors to global development and peace initiatives.
The Chinese government often argues, in defense of China’s own military buildup, that a country with a large economy should have proportionately powerful military forces — “rich country, strong army.” Japan, until recently the world’s second-largest economy, has long been vastly under-militarized, spending only about 1 percent of its GDP on defense. Indeed, Japan has epitomized the idea of what the Chinese call “peaceful development.” The Japanese defense buildup is not tantamount to aggression. Rather, it is a normalization after an appropriately long period of punishment and rehabilitation.
If there is an aspect of Japanese behavior that is alarming, it is the continued insistence by some Japanese nationalists on denying wartime Japanese atrocities that the rest of the world recognizes as historical fact. As is usually the case, a government’s attempt to cover up its mistakes only succeeds in further damaging its reputation. Surely there are better ways for Japanese leaders to build national self-respect among their country’s younger generations. Even here, however, the problem should be kept in perspective.
Fifteen Japanese prime ministers, two Japanese emperors and many other high-ranking Japanese officials have already apologized for Japan’s wartime behavior. The Abe government has not disavowed the Kono Statement.
More importantly, atrocity-denial is a separate issue from re-armament. The premise of the deniers is that the atrocities are bad and, therefore, the Japanese government wants to dissociate itself from them.
The history problem is a political issue about compensation, not a strategic issue about the future of Japan’s foreign policy. It would be quite a different matter if Japanese nationalists admitted to and defended wartime atrocities.
While Chinese and other commentators often point to atrocity denials as evidence of militarism, the persistence of these deniers throughout the seven decades since World War II has not even brought about a revision of the Japanese “peace constitution,” let alone an aggressive foreign policy. This is because anti-militarism remains a powerful force in Japanese society, a fact Chinese alarmists usually overlook. In sum, by any reasonable assessment, Japan in the 21st century is no more likely than the average country of its size and strength to use its military forces aggressively.
Some Chinese commentators go so far as to allege that Tokyo plans to invade China again. This is patently absurd. A re-armed Japan, even with a conservative government, does not create a danger of a repeat of the Second Sino-Japan War. Massively stronger than in the 1940s and armed with nuclear weapons, China is no longer vulnerable to an invasion from Japan. The Japanese public is averse to large armed forces for both economic and political reasons. The new “collective self-defense” posture will be highly constrained.
The greater significance of such Chinese allegations is to demonstrate China’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that current Chinese behavior contributes to the enhancements in Japanese security policy that China wishes to avoid. The fact that Japan terribly molested China last century does not make it impossible or unjustifiable for Japan to fear China today.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
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