My latest analysis … of the rapidly evolving maritime gray-zone competition between China and Japan in the East China Sea … is now forthcoming as a chapter in an edited volume […]
My latest peer-reviewed article… an analysis of the implications of recent institutional reforms–esp. the new National Security Council–for Japan’s crisis management capabilities…has just been published in the newest issue of Journal of […]
My latest peer-reviewed article… a critique of traditional methodologies and metrics often employed in contemporary security studies and analysis of four regional states’ military responses to China’s rise…has just been […]
Desperately Seeking Statesmen
Japan’s self-restraint continues despite its refusal to acknowledge even the existence of a dispute. Ironically, and unfortunately, it is because Japan does not behave provocatively that its policy never makes headlines. Yet its constructive behavior demonstrates that even when a government claims territory “inherently,” acknowledges no dispute, and exercises effective administrative control, it still can choose self-restraint in the interest of regional stability. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s and Taipei’s initiatives demonstrate that when two are willing to hear the music, they can indeed tango.
As relevant parties search for a framework to manage South China Sea tensions, a consensus, binding definition of “self-restraint” faithful to the spirit of the 2002 DOC is the Holy Grail. The deck today seems stacked against it. Unconstructive activities driving changes to the status quo are unlikely to be reversed. Political will among relevant parties remains in doubt. Nevertheless, as observers naturally focus on tension and conflict, constructive alternatives must be proactively kept a part of the conversation.
That Japan’s decades-old policy of self-restraint is so often ignored is perhaps evidence that, at least until recently, it proved so effective.
Since Tokyo’s September 2012 ‘nationalization’ of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Beijing’s use of military and paramilitary forces to challenge Japan’s decades-old effective administration has introduced a major source of uncertainty and risk into a volatile flashpoint between the world’s second- and third-largest economies. Specifically, China’s unprecedented operations increase the likelihood of an unintended incident in the surrounding waters or airspace. While neither side seeks conflict, how capable China and Japan are of rapidly and effectively preventing such an incident from escalating is a crucial, yet rarely-asked question. This is particularly true given the noxious state of Sino–Japanese political relations, infrequency of high-level dialogue, presence of nationalism potentially affecting leaders’ domestic political calculations, policy decision-making processes considered relatively slow and consensus-oriented, and the longstanding absence of bilateral crisis hotlines.
The question of how capable the two sides are at managing a crisis effectively is not merely an academic one…
Far from constituting an abrupt transformation of Japan’s defense policy, recent measures adopted during the Abe era to large extent continue long-term trends initiated by previous governments from both his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). They reflect a significant, but evolutionary, rationalization of defense policy driven by growing concerns about regional security because of perceived threats from North Korea’s increasingly advanced nuclear and missile programs, a shifting regional military balance, and China’s maritime advancement and efforts to assert its sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas. Other important factors include lessons learned from two decades of the Japan’s Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) gradually expanding regional and global missions and a desire to maximize efficiencies in response to the changing nature and rising costs of military technology, fiscal constraints, a shrinking and aging population, and the Japanese public’s persistent, deep-seated skepticism about military power. In response to these challenges, Abe and his predecessors have pursued incremental changes to bolster deterrence, to deepen cooperation and interoperability with the United States as well as other partners, and to facilitate a more rapid, flexible, and effective response to a range of perceived traditional and non-traditional security threats.
Furthermore, a flawed yet widespread focus exclusively on changes to Japan’s security policy overlooks the persistence of strict, long-standing, and self-imposed constraints within which political leaders pursue these reforms. Rumors of their demise to the contrary, recent developments have stretched, but not removed, core principles that for decades have defined Japan’s self-restraint. As cases-in-point, political leaders still prohibit the JSDF from using military force outside a singular, narrow interpretation of self-defense, or developing—much less employing—offensive power projection or nuclear weapons. Though practically significant and historic in a Japanese context, recent reforms—up to and including collective self-defense—are, at most, reactive realism within strict normative bounds. Seventy years after Japan’s surrender, the public remains deeply skeptical about the employment of military power as a tool of foreign policy.
Recent developments have stretched, but not removed, Japan’s core principles of self-restraint.
Since the summit between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping last November, the ice between Tokyo and Beijing has begun to thaw. But crowded waters and airspace in the East China Sea still make the risk of miscalculation or low-level encounters escalating into a major crisis too great for comfort…