How is Japan reacting to the rise of China?

Wikipedia / Holger behr

by Richard Snow

Since the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, and the opening up of the Chinese economy to the outside world, starting in 1978, China has been a growing economic power. With that economic growth has come a greater ability to modernize its armed forces, and to extend its military reach, especially its navy.

Recently China has been trying to enforce its view that it owns the South China Sea.

This view is based on its fishing vessels having fished in the SCS for centuries and various maps showing that China has historically regarded the various in the South China Sea as Chinese. Unfortunately, several other countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, also claim various islands in the SCS as theirs.  Malaysia has generally adopted a passive position, not disputing the Chinese claims.

Starting in 2013, Japan has been filling in various reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, and converting them into military bases.  In 2015, China began transforming Mischief Reef into an artificial Island.  China has installed airstrips, aircraft hangers and anti-aircraft batteries on the islands. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected Chinese claims to the so-called “Nine Dash Area” which covers most of the SCS.

China announced it would ignore the decision. These moves by China have concerned Japan. Control of the South China Sea would enable China to determine who could ship goods through the straits of Malacca.  About forty percent of the world’s shipping passes through the channel between Singapore, Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Almost all of Japan’s oil passes through these straights.

How do Japan and China view each other?

China and Japan have a history of antagonism to each other.  Japan has committed atrocities in the Rape of Nanking (when numerous Chinese residents were murdered over a six week period in 1937-38), or the use of Chinese prisoners in medical experiments in Harbin during World War 2. Japanese politicians pay regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where several class A war criminals are commemorated. According to public opinion polls by PEW, Japanese see the Chinese as arrogant, aggressive and not modern. Chinese people similarly have a similarly poor view of Japan. Tensions also exist school text books in Japan, which play down Japanese war crimes.

Japan has been expanding the role of its military

Japan has been slowly trying to cast off the shackles of article 9 of its constitution for some time. It has, over a forty-year period, expanded the scope of its defence activities. In 1976, Japan expanded its maritime surveillance area out to 300 miles from the Japanese coast. After the First Gulf War of 1990-91, Japan was criticised for writing a check to contribute to the war effort, but not contributing men or materials. In 1992, they therefore passed a law to allow troops to serve overseas, although not in combat roles.  After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Japan allowed its ships to perform logistic, transport, refuelling and escort roles near the gulf region to assist US and other allied forces. After the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, its forces delivered humanitarian aid in Indonesia. Japan has passed the “International Peace Cooperation Law” which allows Japanese forces to contribute to peacekeeping missions.

Japan has avoided irritating China on a few issues.

Japan has avoided irritating China on issues where there is no benefit from a conflict. Japan has prevented its citizens from visiting the disputed Senkaku Islands. Members of the Diet (the Japanese parliament) who have visited the islands have been officially criticised. Japan has not attempted to kill feral goats on the islands, even though they are destroying unique flora. Japan has allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Japan on over a dozen occasions, but officials avoid meeting him in any official capacity. In 2000, Japan even warned the Dalai Lama it would refuse him further visas if he met Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a fierce critic of China. Japan has avoided criticising China’s human rights record, and supported China’s entry into the WTO.

Japan is rearming.

In international relations theory, “realists” are people who believe that states are motivated by their own self-interest. They believe that states are inherently aggressive, and predict that states will try to balance each other militarily, as much as they can. Japan has clearly been at least partly adopting a realist approach to China, building up its armed forces.

Japan has a clear problem in relation to the size of its navy. It has no aircraft carrier, but has 26 destroyers, 10 frigates, and 18 submarines.  China, on the other hand has one aircraft carrier (with two under production) 29 destroyers, 49 frigates, and 68 submarines. Looking only at those vessels, the Chinese navy has three times the vessels of Japan. No other nearby country comes close to China.  India has only 31 such vessels and Vietnam only 17, with four more frigates on order.  Even if all those countries combined in an alliance to balance China, their combined vessels are only two thirds that of China’s. Japan’s ocean defence area is bigger than Western Europe plus the Mediterranean. If Japan were to defend this area, it would need a much bigger naval force than it currently has.

However, Japan has been moving to acquire the ability to project force at a distance. As Katzenstein and Okawara describe, Japan has, been “…purchasing modern fighter planes such as the F-2, moving to acquire airborne refuelling capabilities, develop spy satellites, and adopting a theatre missile defence system.”  Japan began putting up spy satellites in 2003.

The actions of Japan in building up its defences against a possible North Korean threat might lead China to conclude that Japan wants to strengthen its ties with the US, and possibly protect Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.  In addition, “…Beijing has been concerned that a mobile, sea-based US–Japan BMD [Ballistic Missile Defence] system could be used for the defence of Taiwan and, thereby, reduce the mainland’s ability to coerce the island into re-unification (p. 171).”

Japan has also been shifting naval assets from the north east of the country to the south west, to be closer to the South China Sea.


Another school of international relations theory are called “constructivists”. Constructivists believe that relations between states depend on ideas and norms that are socially constructed, i.e., made by people, and that these ideas can be moulded and modified by interactions. Hence, if Japan were conducting its relationship with China on a constructivist basis they would expect to see China being enmeshed in multilateral bodies and forums, involving China as an observer where it cannot be a full participant in a forum.

According to Atanassova-Cornelis  (2011, p.165), “By promoting regional cooperation, Tokyo has sought to increase its regional influence (notably vis-à-vis Beijing), as well as enmesh China in a web of interdependent relationships in order to encourage it to behave as a responsible power.” K and O claim (p.163) that these types of dialogues “…may socialize elites directly or indirectly to different norms or identities.” This is a typical constructivist view.

Japan and China have cooperated since the 1990s in exchanges of police information, especially with the North-eastern provinces of China, which produce some of the organised crime syndicates that operate in Japan (K and O, p.161). In 2011, Japan, China and South Korea launched a trilateral summit focussed on the regional economy and disaster relief.

Japan is now China’s third biggest export destination, and China is Japan’s biggest export destination. China gave Overseas Development Aid to China for many years, although it now only gives it for environmental programmes. As of May 2017, Japan is now attending summits on China’s “One belt one road” initiative (Economic Times of India, 2017).

Overall, these actions are consistent with Japan adopting a partly constructivist approach in which it hopes to “domesticate” China into better world behaviour by engaging it in international forums.

In the future we can expect Japan to continue both approaches to China. It will try to involve China in regional forums and multilateral bodies, and at the same time build up its naval strength so that China cannot dominate it in the South China Sea.

~ ~ Richard Snow is a former economist now studying international relations at La Trobe University.


Wikipedia article on the South China Sea dispute here.

“Japan’s perception of and interests in the South China Sea.” By Yoji Koda Link here.

Wikipedia article on the Rape of Nanking here.

ABC News (Australia) 2017  “South China Sea: Beijing can deploy military assets on islands anytime, US think tank says”   28 Mar 2017

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