Hugh White's latest post immediately reminded me of three things: my admiration for Hugh's ability to spark debate; an Interpreter post I wrote on the same topic 18 months ago; and the fact that I frequently agree with Hugh's analysis of the situation and disagree with his conclusions.
Hugh poses the questions of whether China is being 'dumb' by provoking Japan toward a more 'normal' defence policy, and sets up a dichotomy that assumes Chinese provocation of Japan is aimed at undermining Japanese confidence in and commitment to the US-Japan alliance: either China stops trying to undermine the US-Japan alliance, which leaves US strategic weight in Asia largely intact as the principle limit to Chinese ambitions, or it undermines the US-Japan alliance, in which case Japan replaces America as the major balancer of Chinese power in Asia. Which would Beijing rather deal with? I think they'd probably prefer Japan, Hugh says, concluding that therefore China is not being dumb.
Yet the answer to Hugh's question of whether China is being 'dumb' by provoking Japan may very well be 'yes'.
China's provocations in the East China Sea certainly are supporting Japan's less abnormal defence policy. However, Japan's changes are not aimed at replacing the US as a balancer of Chinese power in Asia but rather helping to support America's continued role as the primary balancer. Rather than the White-envisioned US-Japan split in the face of a more aggressive China, there is a growing unity, with Japan stepping up to play a more active alliance-based role. The Abe Administration's reinterpretation of Article 9 to include the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense is primarily motivated by Japanese alliance responsibilities and the upcoming revisions of this very treaty, as well as Japan's role in the US-led regional ballistic missile defense system.
Likewise, Japan's developing strategic partnerships with Australia, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and others parallel US developments with these countries. In the case of Australia it is being done explicitly to bolster the US-Japan-Australia trilateral relationship. The Abe Administration's loosening of arms export bans will also allow Tokyo to play a more active and central role in US-Japan and US-led multi-partner weapons systems' developments, and will allow Japan to export its indigenously developed arms. Changes to Japan's planned military capabilities, particularly the expansion of its Aegis-capable fleet, also are consistent with Japan seeking greater security through a stronger alliance with the US and not outside it.
Certainly, policy-makers and the wider security community in Japan are worried about the US strategic position in Asia and the rising threat from China (and North Korea). Yet, all the steps taken by Japan so far are either driven by or fully consistent with a stronger US-Japan alliance with Japan playing a more active role.
Photo by Flickr user US Navy.