Crouching dragon, rising sun

Beijing has finally achieved its aspiration to be a force to be reckoned with on the high seas. The long-awaited launch of China’s aircraft carrier signaled the incremental readjustment of power relations in East Asia. However, the rise of one power does not necessarily translate to the decline of all others in the vicinity. The rise of China as a naval power will inevitably highlight the indispensability of Japan and prompt Tokyo’s ascent to a position of greater political and military importance in Northeast Asia. 

Recently, Professor Robert Farley drew parallels between military conditions today and those in the 1920s when Japan and the United States challenged the naval supremacy of Great Britain. [1] Noting the economic burden of an arms race, he lauded the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty and recommended a new treaty between India, China and Japan to limit the size of their fleets. 

However, Beijing has yet to show any signs of budgetary or economic difficulties in providing for massive naval buildup. Furthermore, considering how internal opposition to naval arms control in Japan in the 1920s ultimately caused Tokyo to withdraw from the treaty in 1934, there is no reason to believe Beijing would abide by, much less initiate, control measures on its own longtime military objectives. 

In addition, just as advancements in naval aviation undermined the effectiveness of the 1922 Washington Treaty, future advancements in maritime military technology may well void any agreements that the nations forge today. 

Responding to the new political, economic and military realities in the west Pacific, Japan will have an increasingly pivotal role in diplomacy and security in East Asia. Three reasons already make Japan a natural counterweight to the growing influence of China. First, Japan maintains significant diplomatic relations with all the regional players and can act as a regional arbiter; second, upholding Japan’s territorial integrity will contain China’s surface fleet; third, Japan is militarily capable of contributing to regional security. 

It’s been noted that when a country is an economic giant, it will inevitably be a political giant as well. [2] Japan has used its economic prowess to deepen its diplomatic contacts throughout the region since regaining its autonomy in 1952. After normalizing relations with South Korea in 1965, Japan also made diplomatic overtures to North Korea. 

Although Tokyo has yet to recognize the government in Pyongyang, Japan was the first capitalist country that North Korea turned to for trade and investment. [3] Most importantly, North Korea still desires greater political and economic interaction with Japan. This ongoing relationship places Tokyo in a key position to be involved in inter-Korean negotiations as an arbiter. 

Japan also consistently sought closer economic and diplomatic ties with both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. Although the dispute over the Kurile Islands have long soured the relations between Moscow and Tokyo, since the mid-1990s successive Japanese governments have pursued general economic linkage with Russia rather than previous attempts to trade economic aid for territorial concessions. 

The 1997 Yeltsin-Hashimoto Plan committed Japan to the economic development of the Russian far east and Sakhalin Island, promising continued investments that Moscow desperately needs to reach its long-desired goal of exploiting the vast reserve of natural resources in Siberia. [4] These economic ties with Russia provide Japan with inexorable political capital that can be leveraged to further stabilize and secure the region against sudden changes in the balance of power.

Geographically, Japan’s deep reach into the East China Sea also makes Tokyo a key player in the strategy to limit Beijing’s naval force. The dispute over the Senkaku islands (called the Diaoyu by China) arose in full in the 1990s when China leveraged its burgeoning political status in East Asia to extend its territorial claims. 

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force frequently infringed on Japanese air space and showed interest in exploiting the mineral resources around the contested islands. With the completion of an aircraft carrier, Beijing’s capacity to further up-the-ante in disputed waters has drastically increased. Thus it is not surprising that Japan’s 2011 Defense White Papers cited the growth of China’s military reach as a key security concern. 

Although Washington has always maintained an ambiguous position regarding its obligations in the case of a Chinese incursion of the Senkaku islands, in December 1996, the Pentagon did note that the islands were included in the terms of the US-Japan Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971, thus lending weight to Japan’s position over China’s claim.

The United States prevails upon a more diplomatically viable position of sustaining the status quo in Northeast Asia; Dokdo to South Korea, the Kurile Islands to the Russian Federation and the Senkaku Islands to Japan. This diplomatic and military coalition remains the most practical means of keeping China’s ambitions at bay. Therefore, Tokyo’s position regarding its concept of territorial integrity has significant bearing on the direction of multilateral cooperation. 

Japan is also increasingly capable of contributing to the security of Northeast Asia. The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force maintains six guided missile destroyers built around the Aegis combat system and it plans on expanding its helicopter carrier fleet which could eventually accommodate F-35 jet fighters, fifth generation stealth fighters capable of vertical launch and landing. 

New guidelines established in Japan’s 2011 Defense White Papers stated that Tokyo intended to augment the defense capabilities of its southern frontier by improving the Self Defense Force’s and mobility and response-readiness. 

Japan’s diplomatic, military and economic role in the security of the region fulfills the role that Tokyo sought since the 1960s and 1970s when prime minister Eisaku Sato and president Richard Nixon discussed the possibility of Japan playing a larger role in the security of Northeast Asia.

With the nation coping with the consequences of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima and the Democratic Party of Japan failing to show political leadership and assertiveness, current conditions at home look grim. However, it is also taking forward steps to bolster its political position in the region. 

New Prime Minister, Noda Yoshihiko decided not to visit the controversial Yaskuni Shrine, thereby reducing potential areas of conflict with South Korea and China. Furthermore, the proposed joint naval exercises between Russia, Japan and the United States, the intrinsic economic and political ties with Seoul and its diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang stands as a testament to Tokyo’s increasingly predominant political role in the region. [5]

The next decade will be as much Japan’s decade as it will be China’s.

Notes 

1. Robert Farley, “Over the Horizon: Toward a Tokyo Naval Treaty?” World Politics Review, August 17, 2011. 

2. GerdLeptin noted this explicitly in a lecture given at FreieUniversitat Berlin in April 1994. 

3. Armstrong, Charles. “Juche and North Korea’s Global Aspirations.” NKIDP Working Paper #1, Apr. 2009.

4. Randall E Newnham, “How to Win Friends and Influence People: Japanese Economic Aid Linkage and the Kurile Islands.” Asian Affairs, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 2001), pp. 247-260.

5. “Russia, in order to contain China, to conduct joint naval exercises with Japan and United States.” Yonhap News (article in Korean), September 1, 2011. Citation suggests Nihon KeizaiShimbun as the original source.

(Source: Asia Times Online)

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