Rikki Kersten is Professor of Modern Japanese Political History in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Malcolm Cook is right – the Japanese are indeed worried about the China threat. But we need to delve a little deeper to make sense of it.

Politically, magnifying the China threat has great utility for Abe’s conservative government. It helps underline the need for Japan to ‘normalise’ its defence capabilities and primes the electorate nicely for the referendum on constitutional revision that will have to occur if defence policy is to be comprehensively overhauled instead of merely tinkered with.

Socially, the China threat has salience as something that directly assaults Japaneseness. The media profile given to Chinese protesters who attack Japanese businesses in China resonates among the wider public in Japan. This is a visceral element rather than a rational policy position, and it has multiple historical precedents in 20th century history.

While Japan is characterised in Chinese rhetoric as congenitally expansionist and militaristic, Japanese opinion regards China as simply ‘anti-Japanese’ in a very essentialist way. Merely being Japanese earns the hatred of China, or so the argument goes. It is more about the defence of identity than it is about the defence of the homeland.

This is reinforced by the outpouring of publications in Japan about the sinister nature of China’s rise, amplified in the special displays in every Japanese bookshop on this question.

In historical terms, the representation of Japan as a threat to China is distorted and redundant. Japan’s history of aggression against China is invoked as if the past 60 years of Japanese contributions as a peaceful, responsible member of the postwar world have not happened at all. Of course, Prime Minister Abe’s nay-saying of Japanese war guilt and his denial of atrocities invites scepticism about Japan’s present motivations. But Abe is not representative of public feeling when it comes to war guilt and apology. Japanese public opinion has embraced proactive pacifism, not revisionism.

Internationally, Sino-Japanese tensions are magnifying larger issues about the reshaping of the US alliance system. The elaboration of the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ in circumstances of austerity and political logjam in the US is forcing security actors, particularly in East Asia, to probe and test the resilience of the US alliance system as a whole. The East China Sea tensions loom as a test case not only for Sino-Japanese relations but the evolving US alliance system in its entirety. This is what elevates the East China Sea problem from a bilateral spat to a multilateral concern.

When voices in China opine that Okinawa may indeed be included in the array of ‘core interests’ for China, it is about more than poking at a nervy Japan. It queries the ‘resolution’ of the deal struck between Nixon and Sato in 1971 to restore Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty and the Senkaku Islands to Japanese administrative control. The rebalance has created a geopolitical transition, and the East China Sea issue has opened up the possibility of shaping that transition.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe is ramping up Japanese defence aid to Southeast Asia, openly associating this with the desire to help ASEAN nations resist Chinese incursions in the South China Sea. At the same time, as the latest 2+2 talks between Japan and the US revealed, Japan is moving concertedly to embrace the US more tightly, binding the US to the defence of Japan. Japan thus is continuing on its trajectory of incremental change in the security sphere in the direction of ‘normalisation’, though with a long way to go.

Showcasing the ‘China threat’ in this context could add momentum to this shift, and it could force Japan and the US to move faster in their enhancement of inter-operability and accelerate burden-shifting from the US to Japan. It could also expose the limits of enhanced cooperation between Tokyo and Washington, and highlight just how far Japan and other alliance partners have to go to fill the gap in a reordered US alliance system.

The spectre of the ‘China threat’ in Japan is salient in all of these spheres, but we need to deconstruct the threat perception at each level to understand the elements that drive and shape it.

Photo by Flickr user ehnmark.