On July 1, 2014, the Japanese government issued a cabinet decision on the “development of seamless security legislation to ensure Japan’s survival and protect its people”. The decision outlined a number of new policies, aimed at enabling Japan to adapt to an “increasingly severe” regional security environment. Even though China was not explicitly mentioned, it is clear that Tokyo views China’s rise as one of the newly emerging “complex and significant national security challenges”.
Forty-two years after Japan and China normalized diplomatic ties, the relationship between both countries is at a historical low. For Japan, the annual double-digit-percentage growth of China’s defense budget and Beijing’s lack of transparency on defense expenditures are causes for concern. Observations that China’s defense expenditures are in fact less impressive when judged as percentage of its GDP do not lessen the perception that China is rapidly modernizing and building up its armed forces in parallel to its growing national strength. Furthermore, China’s “assertive measures” over conflicting maritime interests and intensifying actions in the East and South China Sea are causing worries in Japan as in the wider East Asian region. China’s sheer size, population, economic strength and geographical proximity, in addition to Japan’s own economic stagnation and loss of leadership as geo-economic power further exacerbate the perceptions of threat.
As shown by intergroup threat theory in the field of social psychology, in-groups can experience realistic and symbolic threats by the presence or actions of out-groups. These can include, for example, concerns about loss of power and resources, or loss of values and beliefs. Importantly, it is not so much the actual threat posed that matters, but rather the degree to which threats are perceived to exist, and the real consequences the threat perceptions have. The consequences are already clear at the level of national defense policy, media, and society. At the level of the state, it has been the obvious intention of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration since December 2012 to implement a balancing strategy in the light of the perceived Chinese threat.
Internally, Japan has been gradually adjusting its defense policy. The military budget increased with a small percentage, but especially the transformation of the Self Defense Forces into “dynamic and assertive” armed forces catches attention. More focus comes to lie on transport, rapid deployment mobility, and air and sea superiority in order to defend the remote islands including Senkaku. To achieve these goals, Japan is purchasing surveillance drones, Osprey aircraft, fighter jets and amphibious vehicles.
More importantly, Japan is externally balancing China’s rise by strengthening the security alliance with the U.S. The Abe administration created a National Security Council (NSC) based on the U.S. model in order to allow for speedier and more centralized decision-making, but also to lead to more effective cooperation with the U.S. Furthermore, a contentious “Designated Secrets Protection Bill” aims to facilitate intelligence sharing with US agencies, by tightening secrecy rules for Japanese public servants. Collective self-defense is expected to allow a broader role for Japan in the alliance with the U.S., and thereby forms a vital tool for the U.S. to implement its “rebalancing towards Asia.”
It is furthermore closely linked with weapons sales, joint development of military technology, and logistical training, support and maintenance. Tokyo earlier this year eased the principles restricting the sales and export of weapons, boosting international business opportunities for firms such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Lastly, the closer integration of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and defense is an additional sign of Japan’s revised security policy. ODA is increasingly seen as “strategic”. For example, it allows for the supply of used patrol ships, maritime security equipment, and naval training to befriended Southeast Asian nations.
This balancing strategy against the perceived Chinese threat also allows Japan to profile itself as a stronger and more autonomous nation, even if, paradoxically, security bonds with the U.S. will further tighten. But from the Japanese perspective, this will result in a more equal relationship. For the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, it constitutes another step toward their decades-long attempts to “normalize” Japan as a country. It also serves as an insurance policy to counter uncertainty about the long-term commitment of the U.S. to secure Japan’s interests.
Local right-leaning newspapers and magazines in Japan have played out threat perceptions in order to stir up nationalist sentiment, often using China as Japan’s other. These media draw attention to the “China threat” by resorting to sensationalist captions such as “Japan in danger”, “The China risk”, “China’s next target: Japan?” and “The conditions for victory in a war with China”. Popular media are furthermore implicated in rallying their Japanese audiences behind national goals by “othering” China in terms of national character. Whereas the Japanese are seen as a collectivist people valuing social order and hierarchy, the Chinese are portrayed as being capitalistic and individualistic, dishonest and uncooperative.
Threat perceptions trickle further down to the level of the people in general. According to the Genron NPO and China Daily Public Opinion Poll conducted last summer, 93% of the Japanese respondents held an unfavorable impression of China, a sharp increase compared to the mere 38% 10 years ago. Almost 67% thought that unfavorable image had increased during the past year. China’s disregard of international rules, selfish actions to secure resources, criticism of Japan over historical issues, and the Senkaku islands dispute were quoted as the main reasons for negative impressions. 83% believed that current relations are bad, and a majority felt that bilateral relations will further deteriorate in the near future. In addition, 64% see China as a military threat, and almost 30% of respondents thought there would be a military conflict in the future. For the general population, the territorial dispute remains the main issue preventing better relations, followed by China’s anti-Japanese education, and the lack of trust between politicians as well as people from both countries.
Even though the territorial issue remains a latent flashpoint, it is clear that the tense relations between Japan and China run much deeper than the dispute over some small contested islands and rocks in the East China Sea. China’s military growth along with its economic rise, Beijing’s assertive actions in regional maritime affairs, together with deep-rooted differences in national memory have resulted in a perceived “China threat”. This has had concrete outcomes in the form of relatively minor changes and new policies that, taken together, nevertheless point towards a landmark change in Japan’s post-war history and defense policy. The more tangible threat posed by the unpredictable North Korean regime only reinforces Japan’s resolve to strengthen its own defense and tighten alliances with other countries.
The rhetoric of threat at the official level is adopted by the media, and resonates with the general public. Economically China remains an important partner for Japan, in view of regional interdependency and the progressing talks toward regional and bilateral free trade agreements. But as a driver of a shifting security policy and identity discourse however, the “China threat” is more forceful than ever.
Bart Gaens is senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and specially-appointed associate professor at Osaka University.© Japan Today