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China naval exercise stokes Japan's fears

Published 1 Nov 2013 16:01    0 Comments

So China is accusing Japan of ‘dangerous provocation’ over its alleged monitoring of Chinese naval exercises in the Western Pacific. 

Amid the prolonged tensions between the two North Asian powers, this is a new twist. In the past, it has typically been Japan accusing China of perilous maritime surveillance or targeting activities, such as helicopters ‘buzzing’ Japanese ships at close range or locking-on with fire-control radar

Asian security-watchers have warned of the risks of unintended conflict arising from incidents at sea. After years of finger-pointing at China on this score, it looks like the Chinese are trying to turn the tables and blame Tokyo for whatever may ensue.

But there’s some context to this latest episode that undermines China’s supposed moral high ground.

It’s no surprise that Tokyo would want to keep a close watch on this particular Chinese exercise. Its nature, its location and even its navigational course appear custom-made to stoke Japanese anxieties about China’s military capabilities and intentions. According to an officially-sanctioned account presented on the Chinese Defence Ministry website, the 'Manoeuvre 5' maritime exercise is the first time units from all three major Chinese fleets have converged for simulated conflict. [fold]

The PLA Navy has made a point of holding the exercise in the western Pacific, apparently somewhere south of Honshu, as part of a deliberate demonstration of its ability to 'dismember' the so-called 'first island chain' (which includes Japan and Taiwan). The account further declares:

...the location of the exercise is one of the most sensitive sea areas with the most potential conflicts. The PLAN must be prepared for any unexpected combat operation in such an area.

And just so there’s no doubt in Japanese, Taiwanese or American minds, the account goes on to celebrate 'the three major fleets’ passing simultaneously through the Bashi Channel, the Osumi Strait and the Miyako Strait'. The first of these skirts Taiwan, and the others – although legitimate international sealanes — cut between Japanese islands.

Of course China has the right to train its navy in international waters and can point to any number of US exercises in the western Pacific over the years. Moreover, China will no doubt claim a defensive element to its increasingly ambitious naval exercises, arguing that this is all about countering a prospective blockade strategy by the US and its allies.

But amid all the recent confrontational rhetoric in Tokyo and Beijing, the PLA Navy wargames and their provocative packaging suggest that cooling things down is not China’s highest priority.

The Lowy Institute’s research on maritime security tensions in Indo-Pacific Asia is supported by a grant from the John T and Catherine D MacArthur Foundation.

Sino-Japanese tensions: The case for strategic patience

Published 31 Oct 2013 13:51    0 Comments

Michael Green is Senior Vice President for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a Professor at Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.

As Tokyo and Beijing exchange warnings over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, commentators are increasingly evoking August 1914 and urging action from the international community to defuse the situation.

To be sure, the chances of an accidental confrontation in the troubled East China Sea have gone up rather than down, and crisis avoidance should be one of the highest priorities for US policy. But it is not the only priority. 

The current Sino-Japanese stand-off touches on two other important US interests: maintaining the integrity of the offshore island chain in the western Pacific and ensuring that Beijing sees decreasing utility in the use of coercion to resolve regional disputes. A poorly conceived rush to de-escalate the stand-off between Tokyo and Beijing could actually be counterproductive in this larger geostrategic context.

The first thing to recognise is that the leadership in both Beijing and Tokyo do not see a lasting resolution to the underlying geostrategic factors driving the two countries’ confrontation. And for the next 5-10 years they will be right.

Beijing seeks to expand rather than limit its denial capabilities and eventual control over the 'Near Sea' (encompassing both the South China and East China Seas). Japan is equally determined not to lose control and has tacit or explicit backing from the other maritime states under pressure, including the Philippines and Vietnam – and Washington and Canberra (though some senior officials on the US side seem not to have read the memo and occasionally lapse into describing the problem as purely one of ecumenical crisis management).[fold]

The near-term goal should therefore be to find enough space for diplomacy to begin to take hold and confidence-building measures to come into effect.

At first blush, it would seem that Japan should take the first step by acknowledging that there is a dispute (Tokyo's formal position is that the islands are under Japan's undisputed control), but this would be counterproductive and Prime Minister Abe knows it. Since 2008, Beijing has been trying to undermine the credibility of Japan’s administrative control of the islands by dispatching maritime patrol boats ('white hulls') near the islands on daily probes and into Japan’s claimed territory several times a month, always backed by PLA Navy surface action groups over the horizon and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force destroyers waiting on the other side.

De facto, Japan and China have a dispute, but conceding this de jure would validate China’s use of coercive pressure and teach Beijing all the wrong lessons. Senior officials in Tokyo have considered taking the step of inviting China to take its claim to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), an invitation which they are confident Beijing would reject. However, expressing readiness for adjudication would represent a de jure acknowledgment of the dispute (if not precisely the kind Beijing wants) and Tokyo would need a comparable face-saving gesture from China. The most likely step would be for China to reduce (reciprocally with Japan) its operational tempo near the islands.

The problem is that Tokyo knows what happened in the Philippines when the Obama Administration brokered a similar separation of forces around the Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese side promptly violated, shutting Philippine fisherman out of waters their families had been harvesting for generations. Sending third party navies to monitor the separation of forces would also be problematic because internationalising the problem is precisely what Beijing hopes to do in order to undermine Japan’s administrative control.

So the bottom-line is that the rest of the region should be careful to avoid solutions that reward Beijing for using coercion. This is a time for strategic patience, not panic.

Meanwhile, the interactions between Tokyo and Beijing are far more measured and calibrated than most observers from afar realise. The two navies are in regular ship-to-ship communication now (though not the coast guards yet); the foreign ministries have quiet channels; and academics are engaging in forward-looking bilateral second track meetings. The Chinese assume that Article V of the US-Japan Security Treaty would come into effect in a real clash and will steer well short of that line, seeing what they can do to undermine Japan’s position without triggering a major US response.

Xi is not ready to give Abe a summit, and Abe does not want a summit so badly that he will unilaterally concede to China’s demands on the Senkakus/Diaoyutais to get one. But politics matter. Abe triumphed in Japan’s upper house election in July and the Chinese know he will be around for a while. Meanwhile, Xi still has to get through the Communist Party plenum next month.

A summit will happen when Xi realises coercion won’t work and both leaders are ready for a face-saving formula. My guess is that the formula will involve tacit parallel moves in which Japan invites China to go to the ICJ and the Chinese quietly reduce their operational tempo and agree to extend confidence-building measures to the white hulls – all in the context of a summit meeting. But that won’t happen until Beijing realises that the international community backs Japan in opposing China's use of coercive pressure as the main instrument in its kit.

Yes, Australia has changed its East China Sea position

Published 31 Oct 2013 08:11    0 Comments

Robert Ayson is a Visiting Fellow with the ANU's Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, on research leave from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

I have strenuously resisted the temptation to write again on Australia, the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD), and Japan-China relations. But my hand has been forced by Prime Minister Abe’s comment in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that ‘There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law’.

Abe’s latest comments don’t leave us guessing about the recipient of his message, and his line certainly captured Beijing’s attention. But as a Japanese journalist reminded us this week, even the Japanese warnings which don't name Beijing are aimed in a clear direction. 'Use of force for changing the status quo', wrote Kiyoshi Takenaka, ‘is an expression often used by Japanese politicians and security experts to indirectly refer to what they see as China's aggressive maritime expansion in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.’

As I noted in my original post on this issue, this is just the sort of formulation Australia signed up to with its TSD partners earlier this month.

But my aim here is not to go back to my stalemated debate with Malcolm Cook in these pages. What has been bugging me is the idea that the TSD statement was simply a continuation of existing Australian policy. At a press conference in Tokyo on 16 October, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop provided just such an explanation. ‘I have also had meetings with Chinese officials’, she said: [fold]

...and explained that the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue is not aimed at any country, that it didn't represent a change in Australia's position at all. In fact our view on the East China Sea issue has been long-standing. That is, we don't take sides on territorial disputes, but we certainly don't support coercive or unilateral action in the resolution of such disputes. And that was what was expressed in the communique which is long-standing Australian policy.

Now, part of this is accurate. In July, for example, Bishop’s predecessor Bob Carr said in a speech in Hong Kong that ‘We don't take a position on competing maritime claims in the South or East China seas.’

But I can’t find a precedent for the TSD position to which Australia has now agreed. In the previous government’s 2013 Defence White Paper, for example, the East China Sea gets two mentions. But these are delightfully unspecific in the way they avoid turning the issue into a finger-pointing exercise, directly or anonymously.

The more substantial of these comments, on p.11, says that ‘the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea and the South China Sea’ are all ‘flashpoints’ which ‘have the potential to destabilise regional security owing to the risk of miscalculations or small incidents leading to escalation.’ The White Paper does not use the Japanese formulation about the status quo. It instead calls generally for ‘effective mechanisms to help manage these pressure points’ so as to encourage a ‘peaceful regional strategic order with deeper understanding, clearer communication, and more effective rules.’

That seems closer to what Ms Bishop was herself writing in December last year (while she was still shadow foreign minister). In an even-handed opinion piece, she observed that the East China Sea dispute was a ‘serious flashpoint’ where there was a ‘high risk of miscalculation’. The answer, she said, was for both China and Japan to compromise, although her comments indicate she realised just how unlikely that would be. In her travels in North Asia she had ‘been struck by the militant rhetoric of officials in both countries in our discussions about the islands.’

All the more reason, then, for not giving the impression that Australia would or should take sides on the issue. But that is what has happened at the TSD, and it is a change in Canberra’s position that needs to be recognised, not glossed over.

Photo by Flickr user CSIS.

'Don't annoy the dragon' is not a foreign policy

Published 22 Oct 2013 14:04    0 Comments

My thanks Rob Ayson for responding promptly to my post on Japan and Japan-China relations. Rob says my post reaffirmed his worries about Australia’s management of the relationships with Japan and China. But in turn, Rob’s piece reaffirmed the worries I expressed about his original post.

I have called these concerns the 'Three Overshoots':

1. The concern about 'annoying China' and the consequent judgments about necessary (not one example mentioned) versus unnecessary (Rob's focus) annoyances would help China set the terms for Australian foreign policy. It would provide China much greater influence than other powers whom Rob Ayson does not worry about annoying.

This point is particularly important because it is well known that Chinese diplomats and public figures frequently express public annoyance on issues other states would choose to ignore, from the content of film festivals and book fairs to private think tank reports and the local management of torch relays. If it becomes clear that avoiding China's annoyance has become a central consideration in Australia's foreign policy, one would imagine that such extraordinary diplomatic behaviour may become even more marked.

2. As I noted in my original post, the two cases of unnecessary annoyance Rob Ayson counsels against do not seem to be issues of Australia standing up to or pushing back against China. [fold]

Prime Minister Abbott’s reference to Japan as Australia’s best friend in Asia is both true and very much in line with standard, decades-old Australian diplomatic language about Japan. The fact that Abbott reiterated this language in reference to Japan-Australia relations and an invitation for the Japanese prime minister to visit Australia bilaterally (something that has not happened since Prime Minister Koizumi) should not be noteworthy or annoying.

As for the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue’s opposition to 'coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo' in the East China Sea, it is China itself that has fulminated most about recent Japanese unilateral actions. This TSD declaration could be as much use to China as it is to Japan, or perhaps even more, given that China is not a TSD member. Rob's suggestion that Australia should seek to express such normal diplomatic language only in larger regional forums that include China would prove difficult, as China routinely quashes any such discussions in forums it is a member of, or in those over which it has leverage. Just ask ASEAN.

3. Rob Ayson (and Hugh White in the opinion piece Rob cites) over-interprets the Australian language on Japan and the scope and purpose of the Japan-Australia security partnership. Australia has never stated that it is an 'all-weather best friend of Japan'. Rather, Australia has emphasised that Japan is Australia’s best friend in Asia. I do not see how this is anywhere close to an unconditional alignment with Japan.

This tendency for overemphasis echoes earlier cautions from Hugh White that Australia should 'press the pause button' on its alliance with Japan, an alliance that neither Tokyo nor Canberra is aware of or working towards.

Looking at these three overshoots together, I fear that Rob Ayson has set the bar on what he deems 'unnecessary annoyance' of China so low that, in reality, he is counseling for what he says he opposes: making the avoidance of annoying China the starting point of Australian foreign policy.

Photo by Flickr user maxful.

In search of a grand strategy: China's Meiji moment

Published 18 Oct 2013 11:09    0 Comments

Christopher Johnston is a fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

The tensions between Japan and China discussed so far in this debate are linked to broader concerns about China's national identity and foreign policy goals in the Asia Pacific.

Many Asian nations are alarmed by China's behaviour. Nationalist rhetoric, revisionist maritime borders and regular confrontations at sea undermine the 'peaceful rise' argument. Is the People's Republic an emerging belligerent or will it truly seek peaceful co-existence? President Obama's withdrawal from APEC turned the spotlight on Xi Jinping, but China's new president proved unable to articulate a clear regional strategy.

Maybe that's because, as US Navy Admiral Michael McDevitt recently suggested, China may not actually possess an overarching foreign policy:

I'm increasingly coming to the view that China's reputation as a brilliant strategist is misplaced… They're very tactical [and] focused on whatever is in the inbox… Their reactions in many places seem designed to shoot themselves in the foot.

China has certainly sent mixed messages. A problematic charm offensive has given way to real antagonism over disputed territories. For the Philippines, Japan and the US, it is hard to see past the gunboats and nationalist rhetoric to discern any meaningful Chinese commitment to international norms.

Why can't China just say what it wants? The answer is: because it hasn't yet figured it out. A historical analogy could be drawn between the Meiji restoration in Japan and China's current predicament: China has identified a path to national greatness without comprehending what the destination might look like. [fold]

When US Navy Commodore Perry blasted into Tokyo harbour in 1853, Japan's rulers were compelled to open their country to international trade. At the time, Japan was a cloistered agricultural country. When the Meiji emperor was restored in 1868 he set out to copy the infrastructure and governing principles of industrialised Europe and America. By the time of his death in 1912, his legacy included a strong central government, national rail and telecommunications network, sophisticated education system and an industrial sector. The powerful Japanese military had also proven capable of defeating Russia and China on land and at sea.

Like Japan at the turn of the last century, China has committed to national renewal. After the ruinous internal fixations of the Mao era, Deng Xiaoping reintroduced China to the international economy.

Yet China has under-invested in the instruments of sound foreign policy. It has some good schools of international relations, but no great ones. The Chinese Foreign Ministry suffers from an anaemic grasp of history. Beijing's think tank industry and public debate also remain stifled by state control (with notable exceptions).

Even Xi Jinping's concept of a 'Chinese Dream' might have been purloined from Thomas Friedman, who publicly articulated the idea twelve months ago. Last May Xi Jinping tasked his favourite think tank to figure out what his Chinese Dream might look like — the report is still pending.

In the meantime, it is easy for outsiders to mistake military capability development for national strategy. This is dangerous. Chinese military expansion is more a consequence of double-digit growth in spending, courtesy of that nation's extraordinary economic trajectory. Like any professional military, the PLA is predisposed to evolve in purpose and sophistication. It defines military objectives and adapts to likely competitors on land, sea, air and space. Unfortunately, in the absence of effective statecraft, military objectives can all too easily become national policy. This was the fate that befell imperial Japan.

China is a great power in search of a grand strategy, but whatever its future shape, it is certain to include reunification with Taiwan. Its attachment to the nine-dash-line in the South China Sea is another bellwether of armed conflict.

So as China emerges from its Meiji moment, all nations will benefit from asserting the primacy of international law in resolving regional disputes. Warning against 'coercive or unilateral measures' is entirely in our national interest. Australia should also stand squarely behind the Philippines in its quest to have the UN rule on China's extravagant maritime claims.

Australian government, defence and tertiary sectors should also meaningfully engage in China's attempt to articulate national strategy. No endeavour is more critical to the future security of the Asia Pacific.

Image courtesy of Flickr user APEC 2013.

Japan-China: Why Australia should embrace ambiguity

Published 17 Oct 2013 09:49    0 Comments

Robert Ayson is a Visiting Fellow with the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, on research leave from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

Malcolm Cook has offered thoughtful criticism of my argument that the Abbott Government went too far in a statement with Japan and the US opposing unilateral action in the East China Sea. And I have to say I agree with his initial observation that Japan is definitely alarmed about China. 

But this point of agreement reinforces my earlier analysis. Particularly when almost all of Japan’s foreign policy is directed through the prism of its concerns about China, Australia has to be especially careful not to get itself caught in a tussle between these two important partners. We simply cannot know whether it will make sense during a series of apparently small disputes, or a major Sino-Japanese crisis, for Australia to offer, let alone guarantee, support to anyone.

Think of that moment when the tensions between Tokyo, Beijing and perhaps Washington are escalating into something more violent. This may be precisely the point at which it is bad news for Canberra if any of these major powers believes Australia has an unconditional alignment with Japan.

Cultivating such a belief ahead of time is not good for Canberra. On Japan-China relations in particular, Australia should be relishing ambiguity, not reducing it. Yet Australia’s breathing room to make these important judgements is being progressively reduced. [fold]

Does this mean Australia should do whatever it can to avoid annoying China? As I say in a piece published in New Zealand this week, this should not be the starting point for Canberra’s policy. There will be times when it is essential for Australia to push back on what Beijing is doing or saying. But it should be about the things that clearly affect Australia’s core interests. I am not convinced Australia needs to go out of its way to show that it is an all-weather 'best friend' of Japan. That’s the sort of annoyance of China that is unnecessary and provocative.

We have every reason to think that Japan believes the status quo on the East China Sea is one where it retains administrative control over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. As the Abe Government continues to hold to the incredible and absurd line that there is no such dispute, it is all too clear that, in Tokyo’s eyes, China is the only challenger to the status quo. So there is something deeply significant about a situation where the Australian Foreign Minister and American Secretary of State join Japan in 'opposing coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo in the East China Sea.' (Foreign Minister Bishop defended this language in comments to the media in Tokyo yesterday.)

If Australia really has to send this message to Beijing, it should not be doing it while standing next to the two members of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. If it was me, I’d be talking much more generally about the need for restraint in territorial and maritime disputes across the region, and I’d be doing this unilaterally or under the cover of a wider multilateral grouping in Asia.

And if I was running things in Canberra, I’d be much less worried about being criticised for not standing up on this issue than being panned for having too much courage. As Hugh White has pointed out, Mr Abbott seems keen on making unconditional statements of support for selected partners in Asia, something which could easily get Australia into trouble.

Photo courtesy of the Foreign Minister.

Undercurrents of Sino-Japanese discord

Published 16 Oct 2013 15:20    0 Comments

Rikki Kersten is Professor of Modern Japanese Political History in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Malcolm Cook is right – the Japanese are indeed worried about the China threat. But we need to delve a little deeper to make sense of it.

Politically, magnifying the China threat has great utility for Abe’s conservative government. It helps underline the need for Japan to ‘normalise’ its defence capabilities and primes the electorate nicely for the referendum on constitutional revision that will have to occur if defence policy is to be comprehensively overhauled instead of merely tinkered with.

Socially, the China threat has salience as something that directly assaults Japaneseness. The media profile given to Chinese protesters who attack Japanese businesses in China resonates among the wider public in Japan. This is a visceral element rather than a rational policy position, and it has multiple historical precedents in 20th century history.

While Japan is characterised in Chinese rhetoric as congenitally expansionist and militaristic, Japanese opinion regards China as simply ‘anti-Japanese’ in a very essentialist way. Merely being Japanese earns the hatred of China, or so the argument goes. It is more about the defence of identity than it is about the defence of the homeland.

This is reinforced by the outpouring of publications in Japan about the sinister nature of China’s rise, amplified in the special displays in every Japanese bookshop on this question. [fold]

In historical terms, the representation of Japan as a threat to China is distorted and redundant. Japan’s history of aggression against China is invoked as if the past 60 years of Japanese contributions as a peaceful, responsible member of the postwar world have not happened at all. Of course, Prime Minister Abe’s nay-saying of Japanese war guilt and his denial of atrocities invites scepticism about Japan’s present motivations. But Abe is not representative of public feeling when it comes to war guilt and apology. Japanese public opinion has embraced proactive pacifism, not revisionism.

Internationally, Sino-Japanese tensions are magnifying larger issues about the reshaping of the US alliance system. The elaboration of the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ in circumstances of austerity and political logjam in the US is forcing security actors, particularly in East Asia, to probe and test the resilience of the US alliance system as a whole. The East China Sea tensions loom as a test case not only for Sino-Japanese relations but the evolving US alliance system in its entirety. This is what elevates the East China Sea problem from a bilateral spat to a multilateral concern.

When voices in China opine that Okinawa may indeed be included in the array of ‘core interests’ for China, it is about more than poking at a nervy Japan. It queries the ‘resolution’ of the deal struck between Nixon and Sato in 1971 to restore Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty and the Senkaku Islands to Japanese administrative control. The rebalance has created a geopolitical transition, and the East China Sea issue has opened up the possibility of shaping that transition.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe is ramping up Japanese defence aid to Southeast Asia, openly associating this with the desire to help ASEAN nations resist Chinese incursions in the South China Sea. At the same time, as the latest 2-2 talks between Japan and the US revealed, Japan is moving concertedly to embrace the US more tightly, binding the US to the defence of Japan. Japan thus is continuing on its trajectory of incremental change in the security sphere in the direction of ‘normalisation’, though with a long way to go.

Showcasing the ‘China threat’ in this context could add momentum to this shift, and it could force Japan and the US to move faster in their enhancement of inter-operability and accelerate burden-shifting from the US to Japan. It could also expose the limits of enhanced cooperation between Tokyo and Washington, and highlight just how far Japan and other alliance partners have to go to fill the gap in a reordered US alliance system.

The spectre of the ‘China threat’ in Japan is salient in all of these spheres, but we need to deconstruct the threat perception at each level to understand the elements that drive and shape it.

Photo by Flickr user ehnmark.

Yes, Japan is worried about China, but not enough to change its constitution

Published 16 Oct 2013 11:29    0 Comments

William Hobart is Lowy Institute International Security intern and an AIIA NSW Councillor.

Japanese policy-makers are alarmed about China, but they still struggle to channel this concern into support for constitutional reform. Concern over Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s ‘hawkish’ designs for the nation’s Self Defense Force may be premature, as he faces significant obstacles within the Diet, his own party and in rallying public opinion.

Abe’s aspirations to reform the constitution (both Article 9 to allow collective self-defence and Article 96 to lower the threshold for constitutional reform from two-thirds to a simple parliamentary majority) is driven by a rising China. But the initial security jolt occurred over 20 years ago with the first Gulf War, when Japan was accused of using chequebook diplomacy to compensate for its strategic weakness.

Since then, to hedge against China and the DPRK, and to increase its share of the security burden with the US, Japan has slowly but consistently reinterpreted the constitutional limits of what it can do with its Self Defense Force. Japan has also increased its military capacity through acquisitions such as in-air refueling aircraft and large amphibious ships.

Yet despite Abe’s rhetoric and the decadal trends in JSDF ‘normalisation’, still only 3% of respondents to a Mainichi poll in July said that constitutional reform should be on the policy agenda. By comparison, the economy rated as the top priority with 35% of the vote. Moreover, when asked if Japan should include collective self-defence in the constitution, only 27% of respondents expressed support and 59% were opposed. [fold]

For Abe, the story is not much better in the Diet. Despite the LDP holding a majority in both houses, only 52% of upper house respondents said they would support lowering the threshold to constitutional reform to a simple majority. With regards to amending Article 9 to state the right to self-defence and establish a national military, 48% of Upper House members expressed support. This figure went up to 50% if there was ‘momentum’ (meaning public support) on the issue, but still falls short of the two-thirds majority needed.

Public support for constitutional change is yet to align with the all-time low in sentiment towards China since polling commenced in 2005. In this year's poll just over 90% of Japanese respondents had either an 'unfavourable' or 'relatively unfavourable' impression of China, up from 84.5% in 2012 (equally, 92.8% of Chinese respondents had an unfavourable impression of Japan, up from 64.5%; majorities on both sides cited the territorial dispute as the main reason for their impression).

The challenge for Abe and Japanese politicians that come after him will be bridging the gap between zero-sum concern over an assertive China and taking the plunge into constitutional reform. If Abe is successful in championing economic recovery and achieves sustained popular support, he may also be able to mobilise Japanese society into supporting reform to the constitution to respond to a rising China.

But the story of Japanese military ‘normalisation’ didn’t start with Abe, and given the still insufficient levels of support needed for constitutional change, it is unlikely to end with him either.

Photo by Flickr user Jrim.

Yes, Japan is alarmed by China's rise

Published 15 Oct 2013 16:52    0 Comments

Having been to Tokyo twice in the last two weeks* for interviews and workshops on Japan-China-Korea relations and Japan-Australia relations, my answer to Sam’s query (Is Japan Alarmed by China's Rise?) is YES.

Japan is alarmed, and so it should be.

Any country facing a neighbour that has a defence budget increasing at the speed of China’s, has a growing nuclear weapons program focused on short and medium-range missile delivery, is providing steadfast backing for a nuclear-armed rogue state that threatens you, is becoming more assertive in territories that both states claim, and has a leadership team that refuses bilateral summitry should be worried.

The troubled history of modern Japan and China, the size and trajectory differences between them and their very different political systems simply add to Tokyo's worries.

The 2010 National Defence Program Guidelines released by the Democratic Party of Japan-led government and the flurry of activity on security policy under the Liberal Democratic Party-led government indicate a bipartisan consensus in Japan about the threat to Japanese national interests from China’s growing military might and increasing assertiveness, particularly in the East China Sea.

This consensus extends to the need for Japan to enhance its own response capabilities, to strengthen the US-Japan alliance and focus it on this threat, and to develop stronger security relations with states in the Asia Pacific and beyond. This political consensus is also in line with Japanese popular concerns about China and Japan-China relations. [fold]

Rob Ayson’s piece inadvertently highlights a connected worry for Japan: that states will increasingly view their policies and statements about Japan (and issues that Japan has a clear interest in) through the lens of their bilateral relationship with China.

Rob Ayson argues that Australia should not unnecessarily annoy China. He then nominates the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue’s (TSD) relatively moderate statement opposing 'any coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo in the East China Sea’ and Prime Minister Abbott’s reference to Japan as Australia’s ‘best friend in Asia’ as cases in point.

But the TSD statement refers to all parties in the East China Sea dispute, not just China. And China itself has expressed a very similar position on the East China Sea. As for Abbott's statement, among Asia’s major powers, Australia has the deepest and broadest commercial, diplomatic and security ties with Japan. That's not a bad definition of a ‘best friend’ in the realm of international relations.

If Australia shies away from telling the truth about its relationship with Japan due to fears of annoying China, or fails to support standard diplomatic language in regional institutions that Japan and Australia are part of and China is not, then Tokyo’s worries would seem to be justified.

* My research trips to Japan were funded by the Australia-Japan Foundation.

Photo by Flickr user Commander US 7th Fleet.

Is Japan alarmed by China's rise?

Published 15 Oct 2013 13:55    0 Comments

The FT's Gideon Rachman on Japan's security fears (emphasis mine): 

Abe’s radicalism is not driven solely by domestic economics. Japan has also been jolted into action by the perception of a growing threat from China. The Chinese economy surpassed Japan’s in size in 2011; the gap is widening with each passing year. China will soon have its own problem with ageing, as a result of its one-child policy. But Japanese strategists point out that China’s annual military spending is now three to four times that of Japan. The two countries are engaged in dangerous military jostling, as they pursue a territorial dispute over some barren rocks in the East China Sea. While the west still debates whether the rise of China is threatening, there is no longer a debate in Japan, where national alarm is palpable.

That last line resonates because I recently heard exactly the same sentiment from a senior Australian strategic analyst who had just returned from Japan.

I'd be interested to hear from readers based in Japan, and those who know the country, about Rachman's view. What is the tenor of Japan's public and political debate about China's rise? Have you detected a growing sense of concern? Alarm, even? And how do Japanese people believe these concerns ought to be addressed? Email me on

Photo by Flickr user Duane Storey.