Opinion | Why is Japan reinforcing its army?
Both the optimistic and pessimistic perspective reflect important realities, and history will decide which was more appropriate. Meanwhile, few Americans are as well-versed in Tokyo thinking as Michael J Green, a Japanologist who was a top Asia person on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and currently heads the Center for American Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia. His recent book, “Advantage Line”, explains Japan’s Chinese strategy to a Western audience. I interviewed him via Zoom to understand the implications of Japan’s geopolitical transformation.
“Many people argued that Japan’s culture of pacifism was immutable,” said Green, who first moved to Japan to teach English after college in the 1980s, “but I always felt that the Japanese were ultimately instance, realistic”. The main goal of her art of ruling has been “not to lose,” she said. Japan organized not to lose economically in the decades after World War II and “is now organizing not to be coerced and defeated by China.”
The turn from pacifism has been sudden. One of Green’s professors compared Japanese politics to “a bowl of peas: it never moves,” he recalled. “But if you tilt the plate a bit, they all roll to the side.”
China is tipping the foundations of order in Asia. For most of the Middle Kingdom’s history, its rulers focused on Inner Asia, but now China has “largely resolved its land border issues with all countries except India,” Green said. “The last piece that China must secure” is the maritime periphery of Asia.
“The challenge for China, and the reason it’s so dangerous for the rest of us,” he said, is that unlike the US’s Monroe Doctrine in Central and South America, Beijing’s bid for the regional dominance in Asia is “targeted at some of the world’s largest economies and militaries.” Even if China’s naval and air force buildups were “defensive in origin”, it is “extremely offensive and aggressive if you are Japan, or if you are the Philippines, or especially if you are Taiwan.”
Taiwan is now the most likely flashpoint for war in the region. on a trip to taiwan and Japan in November, it struck me that Japanese officials seemed more alarmed by the prospect of Chinese aggression against Taiwan than the Taiwanese themselves.
A US military defense of Taiwan against China would likely depend on the US naval base at Okinawa, some 400 miles away, making the Japanese territory a potential Chinese target. yes japan acquires 500 Tomahawk missiles, as it is supposedly contemplating, China might think twice about such an attack. So Tokyo could join the United States in a naval war and reduce the likelihood that its homeland will be attacked for the first time since 1945.
Japan started that war with the United States, of course, by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. But for Green, Tokyo launched the conflict with a more fundamental strategic mistake: its decision to be primarily a land power rather than a sea power. . That decision was rooted in Japan’s history and geography. Unlike Britain, the Japanese archipelago is well protected by oceans, so their fighting forces were concentrated inland. Japan was run by “a clan system with a very violent rule system and the samurai spirit,” Green said. The civil war made the army “absolutely dominant”.
Japan’s navy, which emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was less influential. “The army’s instincts were to control the land, not the sea,” he said, leading to the Japanese occupations of Korea, then Manchuria and China. The clan system “fused with a modern military and also injected into that modern military a very brutal form of medieval conquest, which is what you saw done in Japan in the ’30s and ’40s,” Green explained, an uproar that upset dangerously to the balance of power in Asia.
Tokyo’s new strategy focuses on air and sea power to meet China’s maritime ambitions and uphold the open trading system that has helped Japan become the world’s third-largest economy. But Asia’s security will continue to depend on the United States playing an active role that it chose not to play in the 1920s and 1930s.
Green worries that American intellectual life is not sufficiently in tune with the geopolitics of Asia. As a young aspiring diplomat, he assumed his time in Japan would be a “palate cleanser before I pursue my career in Europe, like any good East Coast American.” Instead, he said, “I just got hooked.”
When he joined the NSC in 2001, “the Europe office was about three times the size of the Asia office” due to the Clinton administration’s focus on the Balkan wars of the 1990s. American strategists have recognized the need for a greater focus on Asia for decades, Green said, but the energy of the United States has been repeatedly drawn to Europe and the Middle East: “the Balkans, 9/11, [the Islamic State]Ukraine.”
Academically, the study of international relations emphasizes European history. Students learn about the Peloponnesian Wars, but are less likely to study the Sino-Japanese War or the Mongol conquests. “Academia hasn’t adapted,” said Green, who earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and is a professor at Georgetown.
The main historical difference between European and Asian geopolitics is that in Europe, power dynamics “have been multipolar for a long time.” The Spanish, British, French, Austrian, Russian, German, and Turkish have been major regional powers at one time or another. When one becomes too powerful, “the other powers eventually defeat that rising power and restore a balance,” Green said, “and then another comes along.”
The sweep of Asian history, by contrast, has China at its center. “It’s mainly a story of China coming together or coming apart.” More than in Europe, the distribution of power in Asia depends on a powerful state.
Sometimes it seems impossible to shake American diplomacy from its European roots. the Biden administration Democracy Summit in December 2021 “it was really a European transatlantic design,” Green told me. Such appearances can help China appeal “to the global south and pan-Asian solidarity.”
In meetings in Tokyo, I also heard concerns about the way the Biden administration has presented its democratic agenda. Japan is a democracy, although its high levels of social consensus and dominance by one party set it apart from most Western systems.
Japanese elites believe that Tokyo can be a go-between for the United States and the strategically vital but less democratic states of Southeast Asia. Japan’s national security strategy, Green said, “emphasizes Japan’s commitment to upholding an international order based on the rule of law and human rights,” but “when it comes to human rights violations in Myanmar or the coup Been in Thailand, they are not where we are.”
Japan’s perspective as a maritime power resembles that of Great Britain in the 19th century more than it does the “Wilsonian” tradition of the United States, that is, focused on protecting trade and enforcing rules rather than promoting democracy.
Green drew a contrast between Japan’s defense buildup and Germany’s more passive approach to Russian aggression. “Many academics in the 1990s and 2000s said: ‘Germany good, Japan bad'” and asked why Japan “couldn’t deal with her military past.” Green proposed that perhaps Germany was “too successful” on that front.
The war in the Ukraine poses a strategic dilemma for the defense of Asia. “If we hadn’t done anything in Ukraine,” Green noted, America’s Asian allies “would have been terrified” by the precedent. On the other hand, “they don’t want us to send all our best equipment” to Eastern Europe instead of East Asia.
Japan’s steps toward rearmament, for Green, show that the post-World War II period of Pax Americana is “completely unlike anything ever seen in history.” Unlike the British Empire or the Roman Empire, it has “relied on building up ancient adversaries as centers of power that had their own agency.” Now, “Japan is choosing, not being forced by the United States, but choosing to reinforce the international order that the United States helped create after the war.”
But at the same time, he said, the fact that Japan is making this “pretty desperate” decision should be a source of American humility. Washington is losing the ability, on its own, to support the security commitments it has made around the world. That is the paradox of Japan’s strategic transformation: its defense of the American system is itself a sign of that system’s increased vulnerability.