- Beijing would not be amused by a stronger Japan. But much of the rest of Asia wouldn’t mind.
- It would be refreshing if China welcomed Japan’s larger role as one that can contribute to regional stability.
- China's alarm about its own isolation, and Japan's potential strength, speaks volumes.
An Xinhua editorial that also appeared in the U.S. edition of the China Daily asserts that the impending premiership of Japan’s Shinzo Abe would “destabilize” East Asia. Yet the piece in reality makes a case for why Abe’s next term in office would be a good thing. To quote from the article:
"…Abe has called for an increase in Japan's defense spending, easing constitutional restrictions on the military and even changing Japan's so-called Self Defense Forces into a full-fledged military.
Abe is likely to push through several changes with little opposition, including abolishing the requirement for a separate new law each time Japan wants to send peacekeepers abroad and establishing a National Security Council to streamline decision-making, which was a primary, though eventually unrealized, goal of Abe's previous administration."
The editorial also rightly notes that “for the first time in decades, national defense played a significant role in Japan's general election,” yet refrains from listing the reasons for this, namely North Korea’s renewed belligerence and the on-going crisis over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands between China and Japan.
But Xinhua gets the big picture right, namely that Abe is likely to make Japan a more “normal” nation, to use a once-popular phrase. This means a more rational national security decision making process and a military that can be more easily dispatched abroad for collective self-defense (instead of the current cumbersome situation in which each overseas deployment requires a special law to be passed). He indeed may also attempt to increase the defense budget, which has been trending downward for nearly a decade.
Clearly, Beijing would not be amused by a stronger, less-constrained, more confident Japan. But much of the rest of Asia wouldn’t mind. There might be grumbling over Japan’s failure to fully account for its wartime atrocities (and Abe has been on the wrong side of this in the past), but most smaller nations are eager for Tokyo to become a counterweight to China. They may make this case quietly (or in the case of the Philippines, not so quietly), but a stronger Japan that remained closely wedded to the United States would likely be welcomed by states that have territorial disputes with China or worry about the growing presence of the PLA Navy in the region’s common waters.
Where Abe could make a real difference would be in proposing some significant public goods provisions by Japan, in addition to merely building up Japan’s military strength. Working more closely with regional coast guards on training or further revising the arms export law to allow for sales to Southeast Asian nations could help them build up their own capabilities. A greater maritime presence in the East China Sea and perhaps more partnering on training patrols in the South China Sea would answer many of the calls by Hanoi and Manila for a bigger Japanese presence.
Beijing would only see this as an attempt by Tokyo to contain China, which is fantasy, given the disparity in size between the two militaries. Yet it speaks volumes about Beijing’s assessment of its own isolation, and Japan’s potential strength, that it takes so seriously such modest attempts at reform. It would be refreshing if China welcomed Japan’s larger role as one that can contribute to regional stability, in part by reducing the chance of miscalculation by countries that believe they can intimidate smaller nations into surrendering their national claims. Of course, since that currently seems to apply mainly to China, there’s little chance Asia’s two giants will grope their way to a more productive relationship, even by accident.