RIPS’ Eye, January 14, 2021
Japan Should Reinforce Defense Diplomacy
Masahiro Matsumura, Ph.D.
Professor of International Politics, St. Andrew’s University in Osaka
RIPS Senior Research Fellow
Amid intensified U.S.-China hegemonic rivalry, Japan is now walking a strategic tightrope as America’s primary frontline ally and forward deployment base against China. Also, Japan is one of China’s primary regional competitors, geo-strategically situated to block China’s power projection into the Western Pacific. Certainly, deterrence through the Japan-U.S. alliance is essential, but not sufficient given China’s unparalleled massive arms buildup. Japan’s fiscal and domestic political constraints prevent her swift arms buildup to countervail China’s military power. To make the matter worse, U.S. defense commitment and capability are less reliable because its domestic politics is more severely divided than ever under snowballing economic structural vulnerability. Thus, Japan now faces urgent need to supplement and complement the alliance’s deterrence effect.
The U.S.-China rivalry takes place most conspicuously at the level of conventional arms buildup. China’s warfighting capabilities, though significant, remain inferior to those of the U.S. military that are far more technologically and operationally sophisticated. Naturally, China avoids symmetric warfare with U.S. power-projection-capable, network-centric forces, and instead chooses asymmetric one in the conditions where it can plausibly prevail, that is, where U.S. forces are compelled to suffer the tyranny of distance and possible China’s attack with anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) weapons.
To complement its inferior military power, China also combines armed warfare, concurrently or separately, with economic, legal, propaganda, and psychological war. This approach has evolved into all-out amoral and immoral combinations of these various forms of war to win a war without armed warfare, if possible.
In fact, already in 2012, China waged a “propaganda war” against Japan by striving to form a united front with Russia and South Korea, with the assertion that Japan denied its war responsibilities and the post-WWII order. It focused on Japan history questions, especially then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and the so-called comfort women issue, and their respective territorial disputes with Japan. The then-Barak Obama administration was very prone to being sided with the assertion, because it resonated well with its liberal ideology and political correctness and satisfied the U.S. political need to maintain its international legitimacy after de facto defeats in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars. Evidently, the united front aimed to weaken the Japan-U.S.-ROK trilateral cooperation, wedge the Japan-U.S. alliance, and isolate Japan, while eroding the U.S.-led hub-and-spokes system for regional predominance.
Despite initial setbacks, Abe successfully fractured the China-led front, wrecking China’s “propaganda war” plan. In 2014, Abe seized a window of opportunity briefly opened by Russian’s annexation of Crimea that necessitated Obama to include Japan in the alignment for anti-Russia economic sanction. In 2015, Abe resolutely rejected Japan’s participation in the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank while the U.K. and all the other major U.S. allies joined it despite strong U.S. dissuasion. Obviously, Abe’s move prevented the U.S. from a diplomatic free fall and hegemonic debilitation, and helped Japan out of isolation. This also marked turning the tide belatedly toward strengthening of the drifting Japan-U.S. alliance to counter China’s hegemonic aspiration.
Around the same time, it was increasingly clear that China under Xi Jinping abandoned the longtime “hide and bide” policy in external orientation and shifted to an aggressive hardline. Confident of its economic power, China has rushed to translate it into military power and diplomatic leverage, especially, due to its lack of partners for countervailing military alliance. Relying on unparalleled conventional arms buildup, China has pushed forward with the Three Island Chains strategy that is notionally designed to project its military power from the littoral waters into the vast western Pacific Ocean.
The approach, however, is slowly but steadily deepening China’s international isolation while draining its own inferior economic power and, eventually, diminishing its military power. The country has already been in an “economic war” with the U.S. since 2018 when the Donald Trump administration set massive tariffs and other trade barriers on China, ensued by a spiral of retaliations and counterretaliations in which China has become an underdog. It has progressed into a “techno-hegemonic war,” centered on information and communication technology (ITC) that has great potential for military and intelligence applications. In addition, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has increasingly suffered growing international notoriety due to the serious debt trap effect on recipient countries.
As a winning grand strategy, therefore, Japan now has to build a robust countervailing military alignment against China that has significantly more military and economic power, while driving the country into international isolation and resource overstretch. With the Japan-U.S. alliance cemented after 2015, Abe also realized substantial naval cooperation under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of Japan, the U.S, Australia and India (Quad), now with good potential to be an Asian NATO. Besides, the U.K. has recently begun approaching the Quad by building quasi-regular naval presence in the region including the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, while France is exploring a similar opportunity for multilateral naval exercises. Based on Abe’s line of defense diplomacy with Southeast Asia, new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently visited Indonesia and Vietnam, in part, to agree on arms exportation in view of China’s growing threat.
Now that China experiences a growing sense of international isolation, as demonstrated by its “wolf warrior diplomacy”, in general, and the recent vain visit to Tokyo of PRC State Councilor Wang Yi to weaken the anti-China alignment, in particular, Japan has to reinforce this grand strategy by taking a more active leadership role in defense diplomacy. This will surely put Japan on the same playing field with China in the ongoing protracted “war” without armed warfare.