By D. S. Rajan*
At a time when China-Japan relations already remain severely hampered due to contentious issues like history (Japan’s role in the World War II) and territory (East China Sea), a series of sweeping changes in the security realm being pursued vigorously by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since he assumed power in December 2012, are likely to further exacerbate tensions between the two Asian powers in the coming years.
It is clear that changes being contemplated by Abe regime are largely in response to its evolved perceptions on the current level of threats to Japan’s security. Reflecting them are the contents of Japan’s latest annual Defence White Paper (July 21, 2015), which are sure to play a role in shaping the future contours of Abe’s security and foreign policies. The document’s ranking of China as the main source of security concerns, makes certain that Abe’s approach in the coming years will become more and more China-centric. The nationalistic leader will give more teeth to and expand the role of his country’s military backed by an amended constitution. Over all, it can be said that the ongoing Abe-led security policy transformation in Japan on the basis of his “proactive pacifism” concept, will have far-reaching implications for the power balance and security in Asia. Geo-political shifts in the Asia-Pacific region look a certainty and there is an urgent need for other major regional powers like India to carefully watch and respond to the emerging trends.
In order to understand the magnitude of the security policy shift in Japan, it would be necessary to examine Abe’s measures in detail. Chronologically, they include creation of a National Security Council (November 2013), which was followed by formulation of Japan’s first National Security Strategy ( December 2013) which listed the following three objectives – (i) strengthen the “deterrence” necessary for maintaining Japan’s peace and security and for ensuring its survival , (ii) improve the security environment of the Asia Pacific region, and prevent the emergence of and reduce direct threats to Japan, through strengthening the Japan –US Alliance, enhancing the trust and cooperative relationships between Japan and its partners within and outside the Asia Pacific region and (iii) build a peaceful, stable, and prosperous international community by strengthening the international order based on universal values and rules, and by playing a leading role in the settlement of disputes. Catching attention are key terms in the list- “deterrence”, “reducing threat”, “Japan-US alliance” and “relationships with partners”; these are certainly going to shape Abe’s policy agenda from now on.
As next important measure, Abe’s cabinet reinterpreted in July 2014 of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution which had been restricting the operational scope of Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) since its founding in 1954; it allowed Japan to exercise the right to ‘collective self-defense’, which marked a major defense policy shift in the post World War II era, allowing the JSDF to fight alongside allies on foreign soil for the first time.
China’s response to Japan’s reinterpretation of the constitution has been predictably negative. It described (Xinhua, July 2,2014) the changes as a ‘brutal violation ‘of the spirit of Japan’s pacifist constitution, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a low-key response suggested that constitutional reinterpretation raised doubts about Japan’s commitment to peaceful development.
Abe regime took two more initiatives – first, lifting of the ban on arms exports (April 2014) as first such instance in 50 years, which permitted Japan to jointly develop arms with allies and give its defense industry access to new markets and technology. China responded by saying ( Foreign Ministry, February 25,2014) that “Japan had to address its neighbors’ concerns about allowing the export of weapons; Against the backdrop of an intensifying swing to the right for Japanese politics, the intention behind and effect of massively loosening restrictions on the export of weapons really worries people.”  The second, hiking of the defense budget to US$ 42 billion (January 2015), received China’s prompt disapproval saying (January 15, 2015) that they “hope Japan can draw lessons from history and follow the path of peaceful development”.
Having strategic significance are the Japanese Prime Minister’s subsequent three steps – finalizing of defense cooperation guidelines with the US (April 2015), passing of two national security bills (May 2015) and issuing of Japan’s annual Defense White Paper (July 21, 2015). The Guidelines with the US focused on how Japan and the US will respond to the security concerns that directly affect Japan’s security. It, however, did not cover how the two countries will cooperate in regional and global activities. This omission needs study as there are opinions both in Japan and the US about the limits to the application of ‘collective self defense’.  “The main achievement of issuing the new guidelines is to intensify and reinforce the deterrence and responsiveness to the complex new security environment in East Asia,” said (May 1, 2015) Yasuhisa Kawamura, press secretary at the Japanese foreign Ministry. 
China (foreign ministry) reacted by saying that “the U.S. and Japan are responsible to ensure that their bilateral alliance does not jeopardize a third party’s interests including China’s, nor undermine peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S.-Japan alliance is a bilateral arrangement forged during the Cold War period. In today’s world … the Cold War is long-gone”. Its defence official stated that a “military alliance is an out-dated product which goes against the trends of times featuring peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit. Any attempts to strengthen military power by forging military alliance, contain the development of other countries and seek selfish gains will turn out to be futile”. The PRC President Xi Jinping himself remarked at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA, May 2014) that countries should move away from reliance on military alliances and “the outdated thinking of Cold War.” Instead, he promoted “An Asia for Asians” security concept as well as a new “code of conduct for regional security.”
The two security bills passed in May 2015 in the Lower House of the Japanese Diet, provided for rights to the government to use force to aid an ally under attack even if Japan itself is not attacked. They stipulated establishment of a new permanent law to allow the JSDF to provide logistic support for a foreign military engaging in U.N.-backed operations. China’s reaction was prompt, but measured. Speaking to the visiting Secretary General of National Security Secretariat Shotaro Yachi of Japan, Yang Jiechi voiced (Beijing, July 16, 2015) “stern concern and solemn stance” of China over the issue. Yang expressed that due to historical reasons, Japan’s moves in the military and security field are closely watched by its Asian neighbors and the international community. The approval of the new security bills by Japan’s House of Representatives is an unprecedented move taken by Japan in military and security field since the World War II. In the international circumstances of seeking peace, development, cooperation and win-win collaboration, the Japanese side runs against the tide of the times and the general trend of the world by accelerating the build-up of its military muscles and significantly changing its military policy. 
Abe administration’s next measure was issuance of a defense white paper in July 2015 which said that “Japan’s security risk has worsened overall”. Unambiguously putting China on the top of the country’s security concerns, it blamed Beijing as “acting in an assertive manner including coercive attempts at changing the status quo particularly on maritime issues” and warned that its actions in the East and South China Seas “could trigger contingencies.” It has specifically cited in this connection China’s building an offshore gas platform in the East China Sea and reclamation work in South China Sea. The white paper also included the continuing missile and nuclear threats from North Korea and terrorist threats from the Islamic State group as other sources of security challenges. The threat perceptions in the paper are certain to form a policy backdrop to Abe.
China’s foreign and defense ministries criticized (July 21, 2015) the “needless provocations in Japan’s defense white paper”. A statement released by the Foreign Ministry said that the Japanese paper “creates tensions by maliciously exaggerating the Chinese threat”. About the alleged Chinese project in East China Sea, it described the project as “legal and appropriate” because they were being conducted within Chinese territorial waters where there are no disputes with other nations. Regarding the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, it said China “will continue to take necessary measures,” including “patrols into Chinese territorial waters.” It also criticized the Japanese white paper for raising the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and charged that “Japan is interfering in the issue and trying to stir up tensions in the region.” Meanwhile, a statement released by the Chinese National Defense Ministry described the Japanese white paper as “throwing dirt on the image of the Chinese military.” It said the Abe administration “is trying to greatly change national security policy, even while claiming to pursue a course of an exclusively defensive posture and peaceful development. Such actions are creating disadvantageous effects on the peace and stability of the surrounding region.” A Xinhua commentary on the same day said that the white paper “exaggerated the ‘Chinese threat’ in maritime issues and showed that Japan is trying to become a major military power.”
To sum up, there will be a legal foundation soon in Japan to Abe’s ‘collective self-defense’ initiative based on his reinterpretation of the country’s constitution; it is bound to result in an unprecedented expanded role for the country’s Self-Defence Forces affecting the military balance in the region; its political fallout will be three fold – Japan’s ties with China may undergo further strains, the rivalry between the US and China may intensify more and lastly, Japan may even get more autonomy in regional security matters. It may choose to look beyond the alliance with the US and independently woo other regional nations like India as balance against China. The arising implications for regional geo- politics thus look obvious.
The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email:[email protected]
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