China and the US-Japan alliance

Author: Robert A Manning, Atlantic Council

At the September G20, China rebuffed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s call for a bilateral meeting between Japan and China. The snub was not surprising. A recent opinion poll indicated that more than 90 per cent of both the Chinese and Japanese publics view each other unfavourably, highlighting the security dilemmas in Northeast Asia. Tensions between China and Japan have spurred nationalism in both countries and raised anew questions about each nation’s intentions in regard to the other.

It was only when France and Germany came to terms with each other after World War II that a stable, integrated Europe became possible. Achieving a similar comfort level in the Sino–Japanese relationship is critical for East Asia’s future.

Yet Japan’s difficulty in accurately remembering the past and China’s difficulty in forgetting it results in a volatile relationship. Distorting the past complicates Tokyo’s efforts to become a more normal nation. The numerous apologies and billions of dollars in aid Japan has given to China since the normalisation of relations in 1972 are easily overshadowed by emotional nationalist reactions to Japanese statements that reimagine history.

Both Tokyo and Beijing need to take a deep breath and begin to think anew about how to move beyond this dangerous stalemate.

China often expresses concern as Japan enhances its defence capabilities, most recently when Japan unveiled a new helicopter carrier. Moreover, the US–Japan alliance is often cited by Chinese analysts as part of a strategy to contain China. Yet for the past 35 years, as China has transformed its economy, the US–Japan alliance has underpinned stability in East Asia and facilitated China’s peaceful rise.

If China has concerns about Japan’s defence spending now — at US$59 billion in 2013, Japan’s budget is dwarfed by China’s, which is estimated at more than US$120 billion — imagine what the regional security picture would look like to China if Japan were strategically independent from the United States.

While Japan has very capable air and naval forces and an increasingly adept missile defence system, it does not yet possess an offensive strike capacity. Even its new helicopter carrier is more suited to humanitarian or natural-disaster missions than offensive missions. Would China or Japan be more secure if Tokyo developed long-range missiles and nuclear weapons?

Viewed against the alternatives, the US-Japan alliance is better seen as a stabilising factor in the US-Japan-China triangle.

As the world’s third-largest economy and a global technology leader, Japan has the industrial and technological bases to develop offensive capabilities if it chooses to do so. Tokyo’s efforts are centred on defensive capabilities, constrained in part by a pacifist political culture that developed after the horrors of World War II, and by its Constitution.

But since the end of the Cold War, Japan has become a more equal partner of the United States, and it now seeks to share more of the security burden. The Japanese Constitution, effectively written by US representatives in the aftermath of World War II, prohibits collective self-defence and opinion polls suggest the Japanese public is divided on whether to revise or reinterpret it. What this means is that if North Korea fired a missile at the US – or China for that matter – Japan would be unable to use its full capabilities to help.

Prime Minister Abe’s overwhelming priority is to fix the economy. But Japan’s desire to be a more normal nation will not go away. After all, how comfortable would China be if its national constitution were written by a foreign power?

Even if Prime Minister Abe at some point in the future succeeds in revising the Japanese Constitution to permit collective defence, his highest strategic priority is strengthening the US–Japan alliance. This was demonstrable even in the title of the Joint Statement issued at the ‘2+2’ Security Consultative Committee in early October, when US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with their counterparts, ‘Toward a More Robust Alliance and Greater Shared Responsibilities’.

Tokyo is in the middle of formulating its next five-year defence planning guidance paper, and even if Sino–Japanese relations improve significantly, Japan would still need to consider how to protect itself from threats from China’s ally, North Korea. Pyongyang continues to develop long-range missiles and has on more than one occasion fired test missiles over Japanese territory, most recently in December 2012.

As China argues, Japan should better reconcile itself with the horrors inflicted in the 1930s, as Germany has done. But China also needs to move beyond the easy temptation of anti-Japanese nationalism. Both Tokyo and Beijing would benefit from avoiding a cycle of action and reaction in their respective defence planning. The challenge is how to define a new type of major-power relationship between Tokyo and Beijing.

Robert A Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counsellor from 2001 to 2004 and a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008.

A version of this article first appeared in the Global Times