Is China making a big mistake about Japan?

Lowy Interpreter

It has long been an axiom of Asian strategic analysis that the last thing Beijing wants is a rearmed, strategically independent, 'normal' Japan. And yet it seems obvious that Beijing's highly assertive policies are pushing Tokyo in exactly that direction. To many this provides yet another sign that China does not know what it is doing.

This is reassuring to those who think we do not need to take China's challenge to US regional leadership too seriously. As long as China foolishly stokes anxiety and provokes counter-balancing action among its neighbours, America has little to fear.

Well, maybe. But before we assume that China is being foolish, it is worth looking more closely at alternative explanations of what is going on. There is a chance that Beijing might be making a rather different mistake from the one most of us assume, and there is even a chance that they are not making a mistake at all.

One thing is for sure: China's conduct, especially over the Senkakus, is undermining Japan's post-war strategic posture, a posture which has served both Japan and China so well for so long. The foundation of that posture has of course been Japan's confidence that it can rely on America for its security, which in turn has seemed essential to Japan's unique version of 'national pacifism'.

As I have argued before (Explaining China's behaviour in the East and South China Seas), China's actions over the Senkakus seem deliberately designed to undermine Japan's confidence in American support by showing Japan that on a critical issue America is not willing to risk a clash with China on Japan's behalf. And that seems to be working. Despite President Obama's bold affirmation of US support over the disputed islands in Tokyo in April, Japanese confidence in US support against China does seem to have waned. The clearest signs are of course Mr Abe's steps to embrace collective self-defence and start looking for allies in Asia, including Australia.

These are exactly the kinds of steps towards normalisation that we could expect Beijing to want to avoid. So what is going on? There seem two possible alternatives to the conclusion that Beijing is just making a mistake.

The first and perhaps more probable explanation is that China's leaders believe Japan is incapable of becoming a 'normal' military power again, even if it does lose confidence in US support. Beijing quite possibly assumes that Abe's bid to rebuild Japan as a great power in Asia is doomed to fail. After twenty years of economic stagnation, political drift, demographic decline and natural disasters, Japan is simply too demoralised to remake itself into a serious independent military power again.

My ANU colleague Amy King has recently written an outstanding piece suggesting that this is exactly what Beijing thinks. She shows that Chinese statements and commentaries almost completely omit Japan from discussion of Asia's strategic future. They just don't seem to take Japan seriously as a potential great power. That seems right to me: I've always been struck by how readily Chinese interlocutors dismiss Japan as a possible strategic rival.

This would explain why Beijing doesn't seem to worry about how Japan responds to its assertive tactics in the East China Sea. China's leaders may hope and expect that if their pressure tactics work, Japan will lose confidence in America and yet be unable to reassert an independent role as a great power. In which case, Beijing might think, Japan would have no alternative but to acquiesce in Chinese regional leadership.

But are the Chinese wrong to dismiss Japan as a future strategic rival in this way? I've always tended to believe that they were. Japan has such an intense sense of its own identity, and such an intense fear (thanks in part to China's own conduct) of how it would fare under China's regional leadership.

But many people who know Japan much better than I do say that this may not be right. They argue that Japan might indeed be unable, or at least unwilling, to resist Chinese regional leadership if American leadership falters. Now Brad Glosserman of CSIS has written a fascinating essay in the Summer 2014 issue of Washington Quarterly that sheds a lot of light on Japan's choices at this critical moment. Although Brad does not draw this conclusion specifically, his analysis does lend support to the idea that Japan would accept a subordinate status in a Chinese-led Asia. If that is right, then the current moves to undermine the US-Japan alliance make good strategic sense for Beijing.

The second possibility is that Beijing has got Japan wrong, and instead of sliding gracefully into subordination Japan would respond to any erosion of US leadership by rallying to Abe's call and re-establish itself as a great power in Asia, with nuclear weapons and all. I still think this is a real possibility.

If Beijing sees this as a possibility, or if it comes to see it as such in future, then it will face an interesting choice: would it rather face Japan as a strategic rival in Asia, or America? Either it stops trying to undermine the US-Japan alliance, which leaves US strategic weight in Asia largely intact as the principle limit to Chinese ambitions. Or it undermines the US-Japan alliance, in which case Japan replaces America as the major balancer of Chinese power in Asia. Which would Beijing rather deal with? I think they'd probably prefer Japan.

So either way, China's strategy may not be so dumb after all.

Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Republished with permission.