As America’s Rivalry with China Grows, Japan is Becoming a Better Ally

As America’s Rivalry with China Grows, Japan is Becoming a Better Ally

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who visits Washington this week, China has not been a revolutionary ideological superpower. But the country’s explosive rise, and its deployment of military power to pursue territorial aggrandizement in maritime Asia, risks subverting a rules-based regional order that has been remarkably peaceful and prosperous. That is why Washington cheered on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s successful campaign to move historic defense reforms through the Japanese Diet last weekend, enabling Japan to better cooperate with America to protect peace in Asia in the face of revisionist challengers.

Under the constitution drafted by Americans during their postwar occupation nearly 70 years ago, Japan forfeited the right to use military force for anything beyond the strictest interpretation of self-defense. Until now, Japan’s laws actually prevented its military from defending American forces that were themselves engaged in shielding Japan from armed attack.

Prime Minister Abe correctly wants to revise a postwar regime that may have been appropriate in 1947, but which actively undermines Japan’s security today in light of new threats, including North Korea’s deployment of nuclear weapons and China’s use of coercion to revise Asia’s order in its favor.

Leaders in Beijing (and Seoul) have mobilized domestic political support by exaggerating Abe’s modest defense reforms as evidence of a new Japanese “militarism.” But the distinguishing feature of Tokyo’s new security laws is not that they somehow “unleash” Japan’s military power. Instead, the authority to undertake collective self-defense will enable Japan to cooperate with American and other military forces in ways that reinforce, rather than undermine, Asia’s fragile stability.

In fact, Abe’s move to liberalize postwar constraints on Japan’s ability to defend itself and its allies has been welcomed in most Asian capitals. Nations as diverse as the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, and India understand that China risks dominating Asia in the absence of countervailing powers. These include Japan and also the United States, whose regional leadership and military presence are made possible primarily by its alliance with Japan.

Japan’s defense reforms therefore have a double impact: they make Japan’s Self-Defense Forces more capable, while enabling them to be better partners to the American forces that still protect Japan and the sea lanes that carry the fruits of Asia’s prosperity. The reforms also facilitate Japan’s cooperation with friendly countries in Southeast and South Asia that want to sustain the region’s peaceful status quo.

Asia’s strategic future hangs in the balance as the region’s powerhouses jostle for influence. For those who see an equilibrium of power as a source of stability, a Japan that is better able to defend itself and partner with nations like Australia and India reinforces a regional balance that otherwise is in danger of tilting toward China.

For those who believe a continued U.S. military presence is necessary to help reassure insecure Asian states, Japan’s defense reforms put its U.S. alliance on a sounder footing, stabilizing the wider region by facilitating Washington’s future military cooperation with Tokyo.

Similarly, for those who hope Asia can develop robust regional institutions to moderate great-power competition and enable deeper multilateralism, Japan’s new security legislation will enhance Tokyo’s collaboration with South and Southeast Asian partners, strengthening webs of regional cooperation.

Ultimately, Japan’s security reforms are but a small piece of a larger story — the need for the country to adapt its postwar institutions and policies to make Japan what Abe calls a “proactive contributor to peace.” Ironically, the policies of inertia, disarmament, and isolationism that are recommended by some Japanese critics would be more likely to lead to conflict in Asia, by creating a power vacuum and emboldening Japan’s adversaries.

When they meet this week, President Obama could remind President Xi that a more capable, confident Japan will be a stronger anchor of a rules-based order in Asia — and that it is not Japanese but Chinese revisionism that is seeding regional insecurity, potentially leading to a dangerous escalation of conflict between Beijing and Washington.

A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.