It is a truth universally acknowledged that a rising China, in possession of a modernising military, must be in want of a non-militarised Japan. So is Beijing being foolish by acting assertively in the East China Sea, thereby helping to fuel Japan's evolution into a full-fledged military rival?
Perhaps not, says Hugh White. Based on analyses by Amy King and Brad Glosserman, he argues that either China doesn't believe that Japan can become a 'normal' military power (in which case Tokyo would have little choice but to accept a subordinate role to Beijing in Asia), or China calculates that its assertiveness and Japan's militaristic response will drive a permanent wedge in the US-Japan alliance, to China's benefit.
The possibilities Hugh raises are certainly compelling. China's coercive behaviour has so far elicited a relatively ambivalent response from America. Although Washington talks a tough game in Asia, and has continued apace with military exercises with other powers in the region that share its concerns about China's military modernisation, other aspects of its behaviour are cause for concern. Washington still felt the need to send two very different messages about its intentions to audiences in the US and in Asia (a point the Lowy Institute's Michael Fullilove recently raised with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in Singapore). Attempts at emphasising the non-military dimensions of Washington's 'pivot to Asia,' the mixed response to China's extension of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea, and budgetary considerations all point to waning enthusiasm in Washington for confronting Beijing.
There's also good reason to suspect Japan's long-term political appetite for a strategic rivalry with China.
Prime ministers have short life-spans in Japan (even the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi lasted only five years) and incumbent Shinzo Abe's position on reinterpreting Japan's constitution is not necessarily shared by some within his own party, let alone the wider Japanese political and bureaucratic establishment. The sharp decline in Abe's approval ratings to below 50% raise further questions about his political longevity and, with it, Japan's future as a normal military power.
The ambivalence of America and the possible unsustainability of Japan's response to China's provocations are mirrored in other regional powers. Vietnam is of two minds about confronting China, with the wing of its Communist Party's Politburo that favours accommodating Beijing reportedly ascendant. Even in India, where anti-Chinese sentiment is incredibly high, there's a continuing desire to diversify relations with all major powers, which means deepening ties with China even as it hedges against Chinese assertiveness. This tendency was recently underscored by rumours that India may join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member later this year.
But while all these developments might suggest that Beijing is playing its cards shrewdly (staking its claims and asserting its dominant regional position without risking a significant backlash), White's argument falls short on a simple but important point. He presents a binary choice for China in the Indo-Pacific: either it will confront the US, supported by a self-constrained, pacified Japan; or it will face a remilitarised Japan that lacks the full backing of the US-Japan alliance.
Yet there's a third possibility that White has overlooked, one that is much more troublesome from Beijing's standpoint. That is the evolution of a strategic, security, and technological compact among resident Asian powers that serves to balance China. Chief among these balancers would be Japan and India, but Vietnam, Australia, and others could all conceivably play crucial roles. Indeed, Rory Medcalf and C Raja Mohan have recently raised this very possibility: the emergence of middle-power coalitions in the Indo-Pacific.
The one that has Beijing most worried, judging by the rushed visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to New Delhi in June, is the emerging strategic relationship between India and Japan. Security ties between these two countries are, at present, at risk of being both wildly oversold and under-explored. But there is no discounting the potential. As I've written elsewhere, India and Japan share similar concerns about Chinese intentions (both are locked in territorial disputes with China) and have doubts about Washington's commitment to the region. They also have complementary strengths, with Japan's financial resources and technological sophistication a natural foil for India's manpower-heavy and battle-hardened military.
A security partnership with India offers Japan at least two other benefits, both of which, if carried through, could undermine Beijing's plans for regional hegemony. Japan's military-to-military contacts with India enable it to prepare for out-of-area contingencies, particularly in the maritime realm, which represents a key step in Japan's path to becoming a normal military power. More significantly, the possibility of joint production of the US-2 aircraft with India, and its potential export to third countries, could mark a major development as part of Japan's reversal of its self-imposed ban on defence exports.
There is a tendency in some quarters to downplay Beijing's ability to make mistakes. Even its handling of public relations — not exactly China's strong suit — can somehow be re-interpreted as an act of brilliance and sophistication. While White rightly raises two scenarios in which China's assertiveness towards Japan reaps dividends, it's hard to completely discount the possibility that Beijing is being short-sighted. China's leaders might relish the thought of unquestioned Asian dominance or a revanchist campaign against an isolated Japan. But the emergence of a balancing coalition led by Japan and India (and possibly including others) presents a much more daunting prospect.
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Republished with permission.