Japan: Coping With The ‘China Threat’


By Dr Subhash Kapila

“The real issue at stake is the battle for supremacy in Asia, the duel between the region’s dominant economy on one hand and its strategic power on the other, because for the first time in their history China and Japan are both regional powers at the same time.”

“Despite all the cooperation and declarations of friendship, the rivalry between the two countries remains a pervasive obsession in both Beijing and Tokyo.”

“Converging economic interests never eclipse mutual distrust because everything keeps them apart, whether the interpretation of the past, their perceptions of the present, or their version of the future; memories of unhealed wounds yesterday, the rise of nationalist sentiments today, rival ambitions tomorrow.”
— Claude Meyer, International Economist and Banker, 2011.

Introductory Observations

China - Japan Relations
China – Japan Relations

China’s “Not So Peaceful Rise” lately seems to have strategically flagged the 21st Century as a century whose coming decades will be marked by the intensification of ‘The China Threat’ as the over-riding threat perception in all major countries on its peripheries. Stretching across the Asia Pacific from India to Japan, ‘The China Threat’ factor weighs heavily in the security planning and formulations of Asian countries.

Japan unlike India has never been directly attacked by China after its emergence as Communist giant in 1949. Notwithstanding this ‘The China Threat’ did manifest itself on the footsteps of Japan when Chinese military forces during the Korean War swooped down to very nearly the southern tip of South Korea. Japan was drawn into the Korean War, not as a combatant US Ally but along with Okinawa provided the major base-support for the United States war effort on the Korean Peninsula and the push- back by US Forces of Chinese Communist forces all the way to the Yalu River on China’s doorsteps.

Japan thereafter has been the lynch-pin of the US security architecture in East Asia.

The strategic picture obtaining in 2013 is that China’s stupendous military expansion not checkmated in the first decade of the 21st Century by the United States has resulted in ‘The China Threat’ looming large over the Asia Pacific strategic expanse. Reasons of China’s aggressive posturing in the Asia Pacific more markedly stand analysed in my preceding papers on this website.

‘The China Threat’ figures significantly in Japan’s threat perceptions today and this gets manifested in Japan’s White Papers on Defense and in Japanese strategic literature.

International observers have noted that the strategic jostling between China and Japan carries ominous overtones of concern, both in regional and global terms. Intertwined intensely in this tussle are the strategic interests of the United States and US security and nuclear umbrella commitment to Japan.

Japan unlike India takes its security threats very seriously and in Japanese traditional style it has for the last few years engaged in putting under way a host of strategic, political and military measures to cope with ‘The China Threat’ that is acquiring accentuated contours with each day passing.

This Paper intends to examine the main theme of the Paper under the following heads:

  • Japan & China: The Strategic Perceptions of Each Other
  • Japan’s Gearing-up to Cope with ‘The China Threat’
  • Japan Towards New Security Horizons.

This paper does not intend to get into a statistical survey of the military balance in East Asia but confine itself to a broad survey of the fundamentals of major issues involved.

Japan & China: The Strategic Perceptions of Each Other

In 2013 the picture obtaining is that both Japan and China strategically distrust each other to the point of actively figuring in each other’s threat perceptions. This mutual distrust of both nations arises from a complex mix of historical, strategic, political and military factors. Territorial disputes figure prominently today focussed on the Senkaku Islands, which China claims them based on historical rights.

Historically, even when China was mighty and powerful, it could not subjugate or dominate Japan as it did the other Asian countries. In the last century, in the run-up to the Second World War, Japan occupied sizeable territories of China and continued to do so till its defeat in 1945 by the United States. China stands scarred by this humiliation.

Strategically, China perceives Japan as the only Asian country not only capable of standing up to a militarily rising China but also contending with it for leadership of Asia. That both nations lie in proximity to each other in the Western Pacific makes this rivalry more accentuated for reasons analysed in my previous Paper.

Japan’s long standing alliance with the United States under the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty is the biggest eye-sore for China. This enables the United States to position sizeable US Forces in Japan and Okinawa, virtually on the doorsteps of China. The Forward Military Presence of US Forces coupled with the potent high-technology Japanese military machine achieves twin military objectives of deterrence and checkmating any unrestrained Chinese military aggressiveness.

Earlier, this was aimed at any Chinese forcible military take-over of Taiwan. In 2013, as part of US re-balancing of its forces it will extend wider to the Asia Pacific Region, with Japan playing a major role in US security architecture.

Politically, China perceives Japan as furthering the US national interests in the Asia Pacific by exercising Japanese ‘soft power’ to US political advantage and in which the United States was handicapped. The Japanese espousal sometime of an ‘Arc of Democracies’ in Asia was seen by China as a proxy strategic move on behalf of US clothed in political verbiage.

Militarily, Japan outweighs China in many fields despite Chinese contemporary asymmetric advantages. Japan has a strong national strategic culture distinguished by exercise of military power and the will to use military power. Its armed forces have rich military traditions of battling against all odds. Japan has a sizeable self-reliant high-technology defence production infrastructure capable of overnight doubling of production. The deliberate adoption of a low military profile by Japan after 1945 misleads many people into thinking otherwise.

Militarily, in the maritime domain the Japanese Coast Guard is a significant force-multiplier for an already powerful Japanese Navy. It is the most powerful Navy in Asia in my estimation.

Japan’s undisputed superiority in technologies of IT, communications and surveillance and stealth warfare technologies provide her with the prerequisites and assets of modern warfare for all her three Services.

Japan’s Gearing –up to Cope with ‘The China Threat’

Japan unobtrusively but surely has been engaged in preparing itself to cope with the magnifying threat from China. In my estimation Japanese defence planning is engaged in this for two separate contingencies. The first as part of the US Military Alliance and an overall integrated US military strategy in the Asia Pacific and the second contingency I believe Japan is also planning to go it alone should for some reason the US security and nuclear umbrella becomes leaky for political reasons.

Here again Japanese efforts to cope with ‘The China Threat’ needs to be viewed from the strategic, political and military perspectives as part of a comprehensive Japanese strategy.

Strategically, Japan’s military alliance with the United States is the sheet-anchor of Japanese strategy to cope with ‘The China Threat’. It encompasses hosting sizeable US Forces in Japan and in Okinawa in close vicinity of China, integration of strategic plans, joint training and joint responses planning. Both Japan and China maintain a very high state of military vigilance in the region.

Strategically, Japan is engaged in evolving strategic partnerships with India and Australia. Opening moves have been made to form a US-Japan-South Korea Trilateral. Japan’s priority in establishing a sound Japan-India Strategic Partnership is significant as in balance of power terms as it combines Asia’s two other powerful contenders, both having territorial disputes with China.

Politically, Japan makes special effort in terms of special relationships with ASEAN countries sitting astride the strategic choke-points between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.

It is in the military sphere where Japan has been preparing itself for the last three decades when ‘The China Threat’ was in the making. Japan being an island nation separated from China by a vast expanse of seas has no fears of any land threat where China could bring to bear the might of Chinese Ground Forces.

Japan’s threat perceptions from China primarily arise in the maritime domain as the vital sea-lanes of communication, which are Japan’s lifelines for its energy security and commerce run parallel to the long Chinese littoral resting on the East China Sea and the South China Sea in Western Pacific. China sits astride Japan’s jugular vein.

‘The China Threat’ becomes pronounced for Japan when viewed in the above context of China devoting more than 30% of its colossal defence budget in the expansion of the Chinese Navy with emphasis on submarines, major combatant ships and now aircraft carriers.

‘The China Threat’ becomes prominent for Japan in terms of China’s vast armoury of ballistic missiles, both conventional and nuclear-tipped, and China’s sizeable nuclear weapons arsenal.

Japan’s defence planning to cope with ‘The China Threat ‘essentially therefore is now focussed on achieving effective deterrence in the maritime domain, missiles threat and use of Chinese air-power against Japan. It is also focused on swift response times to military crises.

Japan today is engaged in expansion and up- gradation of its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance network, maritime surveillance and patrolling and air-defence network. The emphasis in terms of redeployments has shifted towards the South West from the earlier Northern emphasis against Russia. Expansion and upgradation of the Japanese Navy and Japanese Air Force are underway

Japan has paid serious efforts towards developing a ballistic missile shield in cooperation with the United States, new generation missiles interceptors and extending that reach through the medium of AEGIS destroyers deployed in close vicinity of China in Japanese waters.

Japan has territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands which China claims. Going by China’s pattern of military aggressiveness in the South China Sea Islands disputes this is a new element in which Japan is now engaged with feverish preparations for their defence incorporating all three wings of Japan’s military. Japan has extended its military gaze to all its long line of off-shore islands stretching towards the South.

Japan Towards New Security Horizons

‘The China Threat’ to Japan cannot be expected to decline. In the coming decades, China intent on gambling for high stakes against United States military predominance in Asia Pacific and being a ‘strategic co-equal’ of the United States portends conflictual overtones for the security environment in the Asia Pacific and especially East Asia.

Japan cannot be expected to remain a passive spectator to such disruptive and destabilising Chinese threats to its security environment.

Japan therefore perforce would be pushed towards new security horizons to enhance its deterrence against ‘The China Threat’ in more substantial terms. The major initiatives towards Japan’s new security horizons, which I have been advocating since the beginning of the last decade, are:

  • Japanese Peace Constitution needs to be revised in keeping with Japan’s security environment. Japan must now emerge as a “normal nation” and a regional power of substance without being apologetic over building its military profile.
  • Japan has no other alternative but to go in for a nuclear weapons arsenal for effective deterrence against ‘The China Threat’. India too had to forgo the moral high ground in 1998 by going in for nuclear weapons tests and their possession has provided India with effective nuclear deterrence against unrestrained Chinese military arrogance and coercion. Japan too needs to go in for a nuclear weapons arsenal for the same reasons
  • Japan needs to direct its vast technological superiorities towards space warfare, cyber warfare, ballistic missiles defence and nuclear submarines to provide for comprehensive security in all domains in a self-reliant military posture.
  • Japan must remove restrictions on arms exports. This would generate sizeable resources for Japan’s defence build-up without a corresponding strain on the national budget

It is gratifying to note that a small stirring in this direction has already commenced in the Japanese public domain.

Concluding Observations

‘The China Threat’ to Japan is real and promises to magnify as China starts to flex its muscles more aggressively. The lack of effective checkmating of China in the South China Sea disputes by the United States seems to have gone to China’s head.

China may get tempted to repeat the same pattern in the East China Sea on her territorial disputes with Japan. And herein would lay the rub for China as Japan is no military push-over like China’s smaller opponents in the South China Sea.

Japan has prepared for ‘The China Threat’ both singly and jointly with the United States as its military ally. In normal circumstances it would be prudent for China not to stoke fires with Japan. But China with its propensity to use military force to settle territorial disputes with its neighbours can be expected to do otherwise.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email:[email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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