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Japan must carefully evaluate China’s strategic intentions

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In Brief

There is no doubt that China is building up its military capabilities. Nor that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played up the threat of China, which spends three times as much as Japan does on its national defence, as a justification for new security legislation in Japan. But deeper scrutiny of this issue requires a broader perspective on China’s strategic intentions.


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Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader in the 1980s, set forth the slogan of ‘hide and bide’. Deng meant that China should keep a low profile while building up its power and he ordered a close aide to start a naval development program.

The country has since consistently developed a strategy for increasing its power. China has achieved substantial progress in economic development and formulated a security policy under which the Communist Party pushes nationalism and the armed forces take a tough stance.

China’s intentions behind its maritime advances of recent years should be assessed in that context. While China’s maritime expansion is aimed at gaining a grip over marine resources in the South China Sea and ensuring free navigation in the East China Sea, it is the presence of the United States that weighs most heavily on China’s mind.

Washington has come up with a policy of ‘rebalancing’ toward Asia to keep Beijing in check. But Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping is hoping to wrest control of the South and East China Seas by sometime around 2020 and grow into a world power on par with the United States by mid-century. Beijing showing off its military power could be considered to be in line with that diplomatic strategy.

Abe cited the threat of China in justifying the security-related bills which the Japanese Diet passed on 19 September 2015. But a closer look into the Abe government’s defence policy reforms reveals that a lot of it is not addressing China’s military build-up. This seems to hint that Abe is pointing to the threat of China not so much in response to its expansionary strategy but as a means of expediency in helping to realise his pet policy of allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence.

China has so far responded with a restrained attitude, precisely because it is seeing through all the subterfuge. Beijing probably judges that stronger criticism of Japan would only give more persuasive power to Abe’s argument.

Now that Abe’s security legislation has passed, allowing Japan to exercise limited forms of collective self-defence, Japan should ensure that in practice this remains only a possibility. The exercise of the right to collective self-defence would be best keep as a diplomatic bargaining chip for the future. This is because the United States remains far ahead of China in terms of military capabilities, and there is a deep-rooted argument in China that the Japan–US alliance poses a threat. Simply touting a stronger Japan–US alliance would allow Japan to achieve sufficient deterrence.

China would be likely to build up its military power with a vengeance if Japan were to indicate any possibility of teaming up with the United States and exercising the right to collective self-defence — or staging an attack — above and beyond merely strengthening the alliance. That would invite a security dilemma, whereby military build-up on one side fuels build-up on the other. Japan should not emphasise the threat of China any further.

It is essential, before everything else, to set up a security framework that covers the entire East Asian region. One possibility could be to set up a forum for experts and officials from Japan, the United States and China to regularly discuss regional security concerns.

Developing a security policy that does not rely on military power alone will be no less important. Japan and China should seek a strategic separation of politics and the economy, forming solid connections through trade and personal interactions so that political tension may no longer lead directly to destabilised bilateral relations. Other countries could also adopt the same strategy toward China.

There are many domains where Japan and China could cooperate. China’s population is ageing rapidly as a consequence of the country’s (recently overturned) one-child policy. Building a better social security system has therefore emerged as a major domestic challenge. Environmental pollution is a serious problem. And there is a need for a sustainable economic policy that will involve energy conservation and recycling.

That is exactly where Japan has an opening — an opportunity to provide China not only with its environmental technologies but also with all the systems and know-how that come with them. The area of aged care also provides possibilities to adopt Japanese-style services and human resources development measures. Accumulating these and other steps of cooperation will help build mutual trust.

Xi’s leadership is seeking to strengthen cohesion through anti-corruption campaigns, while at the same time controlling information to put a gag on domestic society. But as private-sector exchanges flourish, as seen in the recent spending sprees by Chinese tourists visiting Japan, any attempts to portray Japan as the ‘bad guy’ will no longer convince the public. It is no longer as easy for China to play the anti-Japanese trump card to justify the rule of the Communist Party.

Satoshi Amako is Director of the Waseda Institute of Contemporary China Studies, Waseda University.

A version of this article was first published here in The Asahi Shimbun.

2 responses to “Japan must carefully evaluate China’s strategic intentions”

  1. A cursory look, at the State of the Nations of the world today, will confirm to any discerning analyst that China is, by far, the biggest beneficiary of 70 years of Peace in East Asia.

    In circa 1978 Deng Xiaoping said that “It is not the color of the cat that counts (anymore) but whether it can catch mice.”

    With that maxim clearly enunciated the Marxist ideology was tossed out of the window and China adopted ‘Meritocracy’, with a socialist bent.

    Today, after only 38 years, China has the world’s second largest economy and is the world’s largest trading nation.

    In PPP terms, the IMF has stated that China’s economy is already the largest in the world.

    China’s economic goal is clearly to further double her GDP from the year 2011 to 2020 to about 93 trillion yuan, using the rule of 72. After a high growth rate from the year 2011 to 2014, China’s GDP growth slowed to 6.9% in 2015, to a nominal value of 67.67 trillion RMB.

    That was interpreted by some media talking-heads to be a disastrous slowdown for the country, if not the world. Why disastrous when commodities, which China consumes, by far, the most in the world, are today at bargain basement prices, at a crucial time when China is launching the ‘One Belt and One Road’ mega projects in Eurasia, Africa and the Middle East?

    And furthermore, China’s infrastructure is brand new while that in the United States is crumbling and needs, at least, US$3 trillion to remedy, money which it does not have.

    True, China is an aging society but with a two-child policy in place it has a chance to fix that.

    In sharp contrast, Japan is a Super Aging Society with a TFR of 1.4%, meaning that, statistically, in a 50 year time-frame, Japan’s population of 127.13 million in 2014 could plunge by one-third to 85 million, if the trend continues unabated.

    But, more importantly, the nuance that escapes most analysts is that from now onward, as President Xi has clearly stated, China only needs a GDP growth of at least 6.5% per annum to reach her economic goal by 2020.

    With the GDP goal reached in 2020 and if the RMB/US dollar exchange rate is then 4 to 1, (viewed as realistic by the US Treasury even today) China’s nominal GDP will be US$23.25 trillion vs about US$18.76 trillion for the United States, which is growing at the rate of only 2%.

    On a PPP basis, China’s GDP then could be worth more than US$30 trillion.

    A 4% defense budget for China, in 2020, will be equivalent to 3.72 trillion RMB or US$930 billion, by far the largest in the world, eclipsing the US defense budget of today by 147% and Japan’s defense budget of today by almost 20 times.

    At that material time, with the world’s largest economy and defense budget, will China rock the boat and opt for an imperial ‘Rule of Engagement’ of destructive and endless wars, like what we witness today?

    Unlikely, as China, by then, would have learned the lesson that ALL empires, like the Persian, Greek, Roman, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, British and Japanese empires, fell in the end, when the money runs out. Why should the US military empire of today be an exception?

    And besides, China already knows that, according to Sun Tzu in the ‘Art of War’ manual, written in the 6th century BC, the ‘greatest victory is that which requires no battle’.

  2. History has shown what happens when countries begin to increase their military spending in order to deter aggression from neighbors/prospective rivals. WW I in Europe erupted after years of this process. So did the war between Japan and USA when the Japanese military felt it ‘had’ to attack the USA. The book Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy by Eri Hotta describes how this happened in great detail.

    Hopefully, Obama, Abe, Xi and their successors will not fall prey to these same dynamics. Obviously, regional diplomacy between many, if not all, of the countries in North and South East Asia along with the USA is very complex. But it offers the best, if not the only, way to avoid another war.

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