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China’s maritime aggression should be wake-up call to Japan

China’s maritime aggression should be wake-up call to Japan

The Sino-Japanese standoff over Japan’s detention of a Chinese trawler captain who acted aggressively towards the Japanese coast guard in waters near the disputed Senkaku islands is part of a larger pattern of Chinese assertiveness towards its neighbors over the past few years. This pattern includes renewed Chinese claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing’s increasingly forceful claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, China’s effort to claim suzerainty over the Yellow Sea (where it sought to prevent recent U.S.-South Korean naval exercises), and a series of naval provocations directed at Japan.

These have included China’s unprecedented deployment in April of ten warships — including Kilo-class attack submarines and advanced Sovremenny-class destroyers — through the Miyako Strait just south of Okinawa, the buzzing by a Chinese naval helicopter of a Japanese destroyer near Japan’s home waters, and heightened Chinese submarine activity in waters near Japan. These incidents come in the context of new frictions in the Sino-Japanese dispute over claims to disputed natural gas fields in the East China Sea – despite an earlier agreement between the countries for joint development — and increasing Chinese heavy-handedness towards smaller Southeast Asian neighbors with regard to the South China Sea. 

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum meeting in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s jaw-dropping lecture to Asian ministers — and the U.S. secretary of state — that other countries were obstreperous to contest China’s unilateral claim to international waters and island chains in the South China Sea still rankles with leaders who were present. Particularly galling, according to the foreign minister of one major power at the meeting, was Foreign Minister Yang’s reminder that Southeast Asian states were "small countries" who depended on trade with China for their prosperity, while China was a "large country." There was therefore little chance of equality in their relations, Yang suggested. China’s neighbors simply would have to take that asymmetry — and, he added pointedly, their economic dependence on the China market — into account before "internationalizing" their dispute with Beijing over competing maritime claims. 

As the Chinese characters for the word suggest, there is an opportunity for Japan in this unfolding crisis. Hazy talk by previous Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama about building a "fraternal" East Asian community centered on closer Japan-China cooperation has given way to a new realism in Tokyo about China’s attempts to displace Japan as Asia’s dominant power. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, re-elected as party leader last week in the face of a challenge from "China school" competitor Ichiro Ozawa, has emphasized strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, including by sticking with a plan agreed with Washington to realign American forces on Okinawa. New Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara comes from the right wing of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and is a well-known China hawk. He is a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance who was warning years ago of the dangers posed by China’s aggressive military modernization.

Japan is developing new defense guidelines that must factor in China’s increasing military challenge — and provide budget support for the development of new capabilities to protect Japan against Chinese bullying. Many DPJ members support the notion of a more equal U.S.-Japan alliance — which means they must be willing to bolster Japanese defense capabilities so that it can punch its weight without being overly dependent on the United States. Japan’s defense budget has declined by five percent in real terms over the past decade; it is past time to reverse this trend in light of regional developments. In addition to missile defense, this should include investing in new platforms, technology, and training for the Japanese navy and coast guard to secure Japanese territorial waters and maritime interests against Chinese revisionism.

Japan is also well-positioned for a new diplomatic activism. Japan is hosting the APEC summit this November and has succeeded in encouraging the United States to join the East Asia Summit. As Southeast Asian leaders unite in their apprehension of Chinese power and look to closer partnership with bigger powers to stabilize the Asian balance, Tokyo could re-emerge to play the leading role in regional diplomacy it did in the 1990s, when it was instrumental in founding Asian regional institutions designed to engage, enmesh, and constrain China so as to encourage it to be a constructive regional player. 

Japan boasts the world’s third-largest economy, cutting-edge technology, one of the world’s biggest navies, an advantageous geographic position, a rich and cohesive society, and an enduring alliance with the international system’s preeminent power. But leaders in the West and Asia, their eyes riveted on China, sometimes forget the possibilities offered by closer partnership with Japan. At the same time, many Japanese seem all-too-willing to live with diminished expectations for their country as it ages and remains caught in an economic funk. Given China’s increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbors, it is not only the Japanese public but the wider world that has an abiding stake in Prime Minister Kan’s agenda to reform and renew Japan for a new — and more dangerous — era.