Released last week, the Interim Report on the Revision of the U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation offers insight into some significant new characteristics of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Although the purported aim of the revision is to make the alliance “more balanced and more effective” in protecting Japan’s peace and security and Asia’s prosperity as a whole, it immediately raised suspicion in China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that the bilateral treaty should not jeopardize third-party interests, while Chinese media deemed the revision part of a plan to counter the rise of China.
A vital goal of the revision is to prepare the alliance for the “evolving security environment surrounding Japan.” Given Japan’s more balanced status in the alliance, this means that Japan will have more autonomy in dealing with adjacent security issues. However, the “evolving security environment surrounding Japan” actually applies to only two countries: North Korea and China.
The DPRK has long been a troublesome irritation, and as Kim Jong-Un’s recent disappearance has reminded the world, the hermit state can easily escalate tension on the Korean peninsula. Yet, in light of the PRC’s expanding maritime power, the most menacing actor for Japan is in fact China. The PRC’s growing Anti-Access/Aerial-Denial (A2/AD) capability poses a serious threat to Japan’s vulnerable Sea Lines of Communications, which it relies on for trade. Moreover, China’s hawkish nationalism does not bode well for future rapprochement between the two countries. Any serious incident around the disputed islands (such as a fatality) can potentially trigger a military conflict.
Several phrases in the interim report are very sensitive for China and therefore deserve special attention. “Proactive Contribution of Peace” is likely to alarm China greatly. This probably means that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will no longer engage in purely defensive actions against an attack and will have less restrictions in taking action against a perceived threat. Such a threat may involve the DPRK’s nuclear program or, to a greater extent, China’s assertive behavior around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Furthermore, the “expansion of the Self-Defense Forces activities” will have a similar impression on China. The vague language obscures both the nature and limits of this expansion.
The lack of clarity of the language used in the report is disturbing. For example, the revision also calls for “swift and robust responses” to “prevent the deterioration of Japan’s security in all phases.” “Swift and robust responses” could mean that the alliance will initiate preemptive military operations. “Any phases” suggests that the alliance can use its military power in both short-term and long-term scenarios.
The “global nature of the Japan-U.S. alliance” is another very unsettling aspect of the report for China. This new definition implies that the alliance no longer aims to protect Japan only from foreign attack on its soil. Rather, it suggests that Japan’s SDF may increase its operations abroad. Japan may develop a global “blue water navy” and engage in military cooperation with other countries in Asia, such as India. For a country whose people remain vigilant about the rise of Japanese militarism, this new provision is certainly cause for unease.
Even so, China’s old fear about the rebirth of Japanese military expansion is unfounded. Japan neither has the capability nor the domestic political enthusiasm to become the dominant military power in Asia. In the recent past, Japan has limited its foreign actions to supportive, non-combat roles and will most likely continue to do so in the future. Despite Chinese concerns that the U.S. is carelessly “letting loose” of its ally, Japan is still bounded by its Peace Constitution and stagnating economy, and its actions are limited to those that serve the U.S. alliance system in Asia.
Nevertheless, perceptions play a significant role in the Sino-Japanese relationship, and much of the new content of the defense guidelines—such as enhanced missile defense, intelligence sharing, and cyber and space cooperation—will reinforce China’s mistrust of the alliance and America’s “Pivot to Asia” policy. Hostility between China and Japan will likely increase in the near future, and the only remedy will be to gradually reduce the historical tension between the two countries through the establishment of a crisis-management mechanism.