Most of the media attention at the 22nd Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing has been on the first encounter, and half-hearted reconciliation, between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Shinzo Abe. Yet, behind this spectacle, a complex diplomatic dance has been occurring among China, Japan, and the United States.
Xi and Abe agreed to deemphasize their acute conflict over the East China Sea, but past efforts in this direction have not proved successful for long. The disputed islands are thought to hold valuable natural resources and have important strategic value for power projection and homeland defense. In addition, there are many sources of tension between the two countries besides their maritime dispute. Besides these economic and strategic drivers of confrontation, both governments face domestic nationalists that oppose making major concessions to the other country.
For the past two decades, the national security establishments of both countries have expressed alarm at the other country’s actions. Japanese policy makers have expressed concern over the Chinese missile launches against Taiwan in the mid-1990s, the magnitude and lack of transparency of China’s military spending, increased Chinese maritime activities in waters near Japan, and general angst about “China passing” due to Japan’s poor economic performance in recent years. Last December, Japan’s national defense guidelines made defending the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands a higher priority than previously. For example, the country’s Self-Defense Forces has been directed to strengthen its capacities for rapid reinforcement and for amphibious operations designed to expel any enemy forces that have occupied them.
For their part, Chinese leaders have viewed with unease Japanese resistance to acknowledge their country’s World War II-era aggression, Japan’s growing military capabilities and expanding security role in East Asia, and efforts to revise the pacifist clauses of Japan’s constitution. Over the long term, Chinese security experts fear that Japan could exploit its technological and industrial potential, including the country’s latent nuclear weapons capacity, to become a threatening military power.
Past attempts to improve relations regularly run into the same roadblocks. While the two countries have become more economically interdependent, their peoples remain distant. Even if the islands prove economically worthless, the strategic logic of China-Japan competition for maritime primacy will persist.
One consequence of this strategic rivalry has been that Japanese-U.S. defense cooperation has now regularly addresses joint security concerns about China. Last month’s release of the interim report on Japanese-U.S. progress in revising their defense guidelines has become the latest object of Chinese concern.
The interim report does not identify specific threats or discuss detailed scenarios for joint military operations, but it is clear that the new guidelines will expand both the geographic and the functional scope of the contingencies for possible joint military action. For example, the report states: “the two governments will take measures to prevent the deterioration of Japan's security in all phases, seamlessly, from peacetime to contingencies.” Furthermore, rather than limit joint operations to certain types of contingencies in Japan’s vicinity, the report says that the revised guidelines will describe how the two militaries will collaborate in cases of an “armed attack to a country that is in close relationship with Japan.”
Neither Japanese nor Americans expect the Chinese Navy to try to seize the disputed islands through a conventional invasion, but they do fear that China may pursue non-military hybrid tactics to change the status quo in its favor. This explains their alarm at how Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and how Chinese coast guard ships have expanded their presence near the islands.
The current guidelines do not offer guidance regarding how the Japanese and U.S. militaries should respond to these kinds of activities, which do not constitute “an armed attack against Japan.” To address what the Japanese media describe as these “grey area issues,” the new guidelines will allow the U.S. and Japanese militaries to respond rapidly in cases even when an armed attack against Japan is not involved.
Yet, the interim report stresses the desire of Japan and the United States to “promot[e] trilateral and multilateral security and defense cooperation with regional allies and partners.” To this end, U.S. officials briefed both China and South Korea about the impending revisions. Among other matters, they made clear that the revised guidelines by themselves will likely not lead Japan to engage in any major new military operations. They do not legally oblige either party to take any specific action, which will be decided case by case by the two governments in power based on assessment of their interests and capabilities. For example, Japan has declined to join the any countries supporting the U.S.-led military campaign against ISIL in Iraq.
The revisions could impart new momentum to Abe’s drive to “normalize” Japan’s defense policy and the Obama administration’s rebalancing to Asia. Even so, the two governments are simply updating the guidelines to correspond to the wider geographic and functional range of military activities that Japan has been engaging in already during the past two decades rather than transforming Japan into a global military power like the United States.