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Commentary (December 24, 2004)

A Powerful Incentive to Keep the Peace

Michael Richardson (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore)

China's rise as an Asian dynamo has changed the balance of power in the region, not least in relation to Japan. As Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew observed this week, because of China's emergence, Japan is unlikely to take the militarist path again and invade its Asian neighbours as it did before and during the second world war. "That Asia will not come back," Mr Lee told a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents' Association in Singapore on Monday. "We have an Asia now that is completely different ... So I don't see a repetition of the old behaviour, but an evolution into a new balance."

China, Japan and its ally, the United States, will have key roles in shaping this balance of interests. This month, Japan unveiled new defence policy guidelines which described North Korea as "a major factor of instability" in the region but portrayed China as simply an uncertain factor in the future. "China, which has significant influence on the region's security, is pushing forward its nuclear and missile capabilities and the modernisation of its navy and air force," the guidelines noted. "It is also trying to expand its scope of naval activities, and attention must be paid to these developments."

These were realistic, not alarmist, observations. North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons. It fired a long-range missile over Japan in 1998 and has dozens of other ballistic missiles that could strike Japan within 10 minutes of launching. North Korea is clearly the most immediate security challenge for Japan.

But China can hardly be surprised if some of its activities also worry Japan. The two countries are at loggerheads over a range of issues, including development of natural gas fields in the sea separating them, Chinese marine surveying activities in Japan's exclusive economic zone, and the recent intrusion by a Chinese submarine into Japanese waters.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hiroyuki Hosada, said Japan needed to pay attention to China's activities because it was a military power with nuclear capability. "But this does not mean Japan sees China as a threat," he added.

Despite this restraint, Beijing chose to portray Japan's strategic assessment as one portending more proactive use of force. "We are deeply concerned with the great changes in Japan's military defence strategy and its possible impact," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.

Yet there was actually little, if anything, new in the Japanese defence outline, the first in nearly a decade. It called for a missile defence system, in co-operation with the US. And Tokyo also announced that it would relax its long-standing ban on arms exports, but only to enable it to sell missile defence components to America. These and other steps and had been flagged well in advance. "A close examination of current Japanese attitudes towards security does not suggest the collective mindset of a resurgent hegemony," wrote Alan Dupont, a senior fellow at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, in a report last month on Japan's changing security policy. "Given its geo-strategic vulnerabilities, energy dependence and declining birth rate, Japan is hardly in a position to embark on a policy of military adventurism or expansionism in East Asia, not least because it would be vehemently opposed by China, Japan's principal competitor for regional influence, as well as its major ally, the US."

Of course, Japan will have to assert itself more forcefully on issues of national security if it feels threatened by either North Korea or China. One way Beijing could pre-empt such a move is by forming a stronger united front with Japan, the US, South Korea and Russia to induce North Korea to end its nuclear and missile build-up.

(Originally appeared in the December 24, 2004 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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