The Weekly Standard

Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force base on Okinawa shares a runway with the civilian planes on this island about 1,000 miles southwest of Tokyo. When the American-made Japanese F-15s scramble, as they often do these days, the civilian traffic awaiting takeoff pulls over to a side taxiway. It must be a pretty decent air show for those with a window seat.

The F-15s scramble in pairs, perhaps a minute apart. Two flights of two roared off as I watched from a balcony at the base HQ, then another pair 20 minutes or so later. Most likely, they were off to intercept traffic inbound for airspace over Japan’s Senkaku Islands, to which China has laid a territorial claim that both Japan and its powerful ally, the United States, categorically reject. Planes from the Chinese mainland have repeatedly been probing to test the Japanese response. Scrambling to meet the provocations has been more or less a daily affair since last year. More Japanese F-15s are redeploying to Naha Air Base to meet the mounting demand.

There is no immediate crisis in the South China Sea, nor is anyone expecting one to arise any time soon. But Japanese wariness befits the situation. The practical implication of China as a rising economic and military power has been Chinese willingness to test its neighbors in the “gray zone” of conflict, as Japanese officials characterize encounters like the ones for which the F-15s have set out.

I was in Tokyo and Okinawa with a small group of Americans as a guest of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Japan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in the process of reorienting its national security posture. Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 constitution (drafted by the United States after defeating the imperial military government 70 years ago) renounces war as a sovereign right and forbids maintaining land, sea, and air forces. Yet as the F-15s indicate, Japan has considerable military power at its disposal, including significant naval assets and the quietest diesel submarines anywhere. The Japanese constitution contains no prohibition on defending the homeland. Hence the official “Self-Defense” designation of the branches of the Japanese military.

Last year, the Abe government promulgated a reinterpretation of Article 9 designed to allow Japan to participate in collective self-defense measures—to come to the assistance of an ally under attack, as Japan would hope to be assisted. Some in Japan, including Abe, would like to amend the constitution to reduce the constraints under which the country operates. For now, the political support for such a move is insufficient, so reinterpretation is the order of the day. The postwar Japanese tendency toward pacifism is sufficiently strong, however, that concerns from the left about reemerging Japanese nationalism and militarism receive a wide hearing both in Japan and abroad. And indeed, some politicians on the right encourage it by giving expression to a sanitized version of Japanese militarism from the 1930s through the end of the war.

But there is a much better explanation for the new approach to security policy than resurgent Japanese militarism, and it is reducible to a single word: China. North Korea is inscrutable and unpredictable; no one in the neighborhood has reason for complacency there. China, by contrast, is a known quantity, and what Japanese diplomats and defense officials in and out of uniform see is a neighbor that talks about a “peaceful rise” but would also like to secure a sphere of influence in which other countries readily defer to its wishes—the peace of deference to the strong.

Japanese officials note that every time a power vacuum has occurred in the region, China has actively sought to fill it, from the colonial French bugout in the 1950s, to the fall of Saigon in the 1970s, to the closing of U.S. air and naval bases in the Philippines in the 1990s. No one thinks China is eager for a war with any of its neighbors; its 1979 invasion of Vietnam was the act of a China in very different circumstances from those of rapidly advancing prosperity today. But if there’s a door, China will knock on it, and if there’s no answer, China will try the handle.

For Japan, this is an acute problem. An island nation, Japan is utterly dependent on open sea lines of communication for access to the energy resources the country imports and for the goods it exports. A drive down the coastal highway from Tokyo to Yokohama is a revelation in terms of the vastness of mile after mile of port facilities. The centrality of the U.S. Navy in ensuring free transit of shipping cannot be overstated. The U.S. Seventh Fleet is forward-deployed permanently in Yokosuka, about 20 miles farther down the coast. (Of course sea lines are not the only concern of the Seventh Fleet. It’s a key element of the U.S. military commitment to our other treaty ally in the immediate neighborhood, South Korea.)

Disruption of open sea lines is hardly in China’s interest, since its economy, too, depends on imported oil and exported goods. China also benefits from the U.S. Navy. But as those thinking geopolitically in Tokyo and elsewhere are quick to note, China has embarked on a long-term strategy to assert its dominance in the region, and the ability of the United States to project military power there is its biggest obstacle. So the ideal long-term scenario for China, and the nightmare scenario for Japan, is a gradual U.S. disengagement that eventually sees U.S. withdrawal from the region without a fight. In effect, that would either put China in charge of sea lines, with Japan and others kowtowing to the local hegemon, or would lead to contestation for control, which would be at best ugly and tense.

Interestingly, this hypothetical future appears to be the South Korean analysis of the current state of affairs: China on the rise, the United States in decline. South Korea seems, however, to have a very different perspective on what to do. Whereas Tokyo is all about buttressing its alliance with the United States, as well as its own military capabilities and authorities, South Korea currently seems more interested in a closer relationship with China. Certainly Seoul shows no serious interest in working with Japan to cultivate a tripartite alliance with the United States. On the contrary, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye seems preoccupied with Korea’s grievances over Japan’s conduct during the war, a point on which most of Japan’s other neighbors (though not China) have managed to accept Japanese apologies and move on.

China, for its part, has also been pouring on the hate toward Japan, though the current heat map is not as bright as it was six months ago. This is nothing new. A foundational myth of the Chinese Communist party is that its forces (rather than the Nationalist forces) were at the forefront of resistance to the Japanese invasion in 1937, and some in Japan still find it difficult to speak candidly about the cause of the war (Japanese imperial aggression) and the atrocities the Imperial Japanese Army committed (such as the rape of Nanking). Although the vitriol has hardly shut down Chinese tourism to Japan, which was up 83 percent from 2013 to 2014, it contributes to the tension between two states that have long been wary of each other.

While the tension may be historically or even culturally understandable, I think it is a geopolitical puzzle. One wonders, not cheerfully, what effect a Chinese charm offensive directed toward Japan might have on Japanese views of security. A full-scale rapprochement between China and Japan could effectively cut the United States out of East Asia for good. For now, though, such a rapprochement is the least likely eventuality.

One interesting sight in the offices of many current and former Japanese security officials is an upside-down map of East Asia. Sometimes, apparently, a change of perspective helps to clarify the geopolitics. Upside down, Japan looks a bit like the U.K. off the coast of continental Europe. And therein lies a strategy. Japanese mistrust of its giant continental neighbor dictates a policy of closer cooperation with its offshore neighbors and, especially, with the United States.

Former diplomat Kuni Miyake, now with the Canon Institute for Global Studies and Ritsumeikan University, sees China’s maritime expansion in terms of exerting influence over the first and second chains of islands off its coast. Japan is part of that first chain, along with Okinawa, the much smaller Senkaku Islands, and Taiwan; the second, farther out, includes the current U.S. naval base in Guam. If, somehow, the United States decided that maintaining a presence in the region was no longer worth the trouble and expense, China would be in a position to all but deny freedom of navigation in the western Pacific.

Miyake proposes an “Island Alliance,” building out from the U.S-Japan alliance, of like-minded maritime countries basically satisfied with the regional status quo: Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia. He sees its three principles as maintaining a balance of power with regard to the continent (no Chinese hegemony); maintaining a “healthy distance” from the continent (a principle of non-intervention); and securing the sea lines of communication, thus a global free trade system. At the center of any such strategy is a strong partnership between Japan and the United States.

When the Obama administration first took office, there was a great deal of hullaballoo about a diplomatic and strategic “pivot to Asia.” Its meaning and substance, if any, were somewhat elusive for a considerable period of time, and the administration itself soon seemed to regret having deployed the phrase in the first place. There’s a pervasive sense in Japan, as elsewhere, that the United States is underperforming with regard to the strength of its strategic position. Nevertheless, some positive elements of a “pivot” have been detectable. The U.S. Marine Corps now has a presence on the ground in Australia, another close ally, and last year the United States concluded the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, which allows U.S. military personnel and operations there (though not at a permanent base, à la Subic Bay).

It’s a start. With regard to another region, Obama has made clear his sense of affront over Vladimir Putin’s flouting “21st-century” norms of international behavior by annexing Crimea and advancing into eastern Ukraine. In Japan, some like Miyake think China is beginning to do by sea what Putin is doing on land; hence the “gray zone” probing the seriousness with which Japan and its American ally take Japan’s possession of the Senkaku Islands. Perhaps this is an overstatement, but in any case, we have learned how demonstrably reckless it is to rely on 21st-century norms—or any other norms—as a substitute for serious security policy.

The United States can best encourage China’s “peaceful rise” by working with regional partners to ensure that the costs to China of trying to rise in any other way are too high. It looks like that makes Japan our most important 21st-century ally.