The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations

The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations

by Richard C. Bush

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The rivalry between Japan and China has a long and sometimes brutal history, and they continue to eye each other warily as the balance of power tips toward Beijing. They cooperate and compete at the same time, but if competition deteriorates into military conflict, the entire world has much to lose. The Perils of Proximity evaluates the chances of armed conflict between China and Japan, presenting in stark relief the dangers it would pose and revealing the steps that could head off such a disastrous turn of events.

Richard Bush focuses his on the problematic East China Sea region. Although Japan's military capabilities are more considerable than some in the West realize, its defense budget has remained basically flat in recent years. Meanwhile, Chinese military expenditures have grown by double digits annually. Moreover, that the emphasis of China's military modernization is on power projection—the ability of its air and naval forces to stretch their reach to the east, thus encroaching on its island neighbor.

Tokyo regards the growth of Chinese power and its focus on the East China Sea with deep anxiety. How should they respond? The balance of power is changing, and Japan must account for that uncomfortable fact in crafting its strategy. It is incumbent on China, Japan, and the United States to take steps to reduce the odds of clash and conflict in the East China Sea, and veteran Asia analyst Bush presents recommendations to that end. The steps he suggests won't be easy, and effective political leadership will be absolutely critical. If implemented fully and correctly, however, they have the potential of reducing the perils of proximity in Asia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815704775
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 421
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Richard C. Bush's two-decade public service career spans Congress, the intelligence community, and the U.S. State Department. He currently focuses on China-Taiwan relations, U.S.-China relations, the Korean peninsula, and Japan's security. He is the author of, among other works, Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations (Brookings, 2012).

Read an Excerpt

The Perils of Proximity

China-Japan Security Relations
By Richard C. Bush

Brookings Institution Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-0474-4

Chapter One


In U.S. security policy, as would be expected, adversaries pose the greatest challenge. Whether with respect to the Soviet Union during the cold war or Iran, North Korea, or nonstate actors today, the relative paucity of information and absence of open channels of communication make it difficult to gauge the other side's intentions and underlying motivations. The temptation to read the worst into an adversary's capabilities and how it uses them is strong.

But there is a lesser though still significant challenge. It involves groups of countries with which the United States seeks to maintain good relations but that cannot get along with one another. The enduring conflict between Israel and the Arab states is one case; the dispute between China and Taiwan is another. Here, Washington has at least two options: one is to play its friends off against each other in order to get them to exercise mutual restraint; the other is to recognize that the countries may not be able to avoid conflict and that the United States might have to intervene militarily to defend one of the parties and its own credibility. Generally, the United States has chosen to minimize the chance of conflict rather than feed it.

The evolving security relationship between China and Japan creates another such dilemma for the United States. China's power in Asia is growing, and China's economy will soon pass Japan's as the leading economy in Asia. Although the capabilities of Japan's military, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), are not trivial, those of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) are growing steadily. The PLA's budget grows by double digits each year, while the SDF's is essentially flat. Moreover, in China's modernization of its military, the emphasis is on power projection: the ability of its air and naval forces to stretch their reach to the east, encroaching on Japan. Japanese regard the PLA's growth and focus with deep ambivalence. How should they respond? With hopeful conciliation? With a military buildup of their own? Or—the traditional postwar answer—by relying on Japan's alliance with the United States?

Of course, current developments have a historical context. Japan invaded and occupied China in the 1930s, causing both human suffering and physical devastation. More than any other country, Imperial Japan exposed and exploited China's weakness, fostering a deep sense of victimization among the Chinese and leaving scars on the Chinese psyche. Those scars cause pain even today, as China returns to national health and its former status as a great power. In spite of joint efforts to reduce and manage tensions, China doubts that Japan will accommodate its expansion. For the Chinese, the shadow of the past darkens the future. Chapter 2 looks at a dimension of that tragic history, the military conflict between Japan and China in the 1930s.

Given that background, a good understanding of the strategic context of current relations between Japan and China is necessary. That understanding begins with the recognition that the two nations are caught in a security dilemma in spite of their positive interaction when it comes to economics and trade. That is, neither really wishes the other ill, but the steps that one side takes to promote its own security leave the other with a growing sense of vulnerability, which in turn causes it to take steps in response, and so on. This template for interpreting relations between the two is useful, but it does not appear to explain everything that is going on between China and Japan. So, in chapter 4, after reviewing postwar China-Japan relations in chapter 3, I seek to broaden the concept to make it more applicable. In particular, I argue that the conclusions that a country draws about another's intentions are based not only on the capabilities that the other acquires but also on their mutual interactions on sensitive issues.

This volume does not address the totality of Japan-China security relations, which is a large and complex subject. Instead it focuses on the nations' interaction in the East China Sea. The presence of the navy, air force, and law enforcement units of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is expanding toward the east, thereby moving into Japan's area of operations—and also that of the United States. Chapter 5 describes the growing interaction between Beijing and Tokyo in the East China Sea and explores why both regard it as strategically important.

There are, moreover, particular points of friction that, like magnets, draw the military forces of the two countries into close proximity. Specifically, they dispute ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands north and east of Taiwan, which are controlled by Japan. They argue over rights to exploit maritime oil and gas fields east of Shanghai, and they have competing views on the extent of China's undersea continental shelf and on the extent of their respective exclusive economic zones.

Finally, if the political dispute between Taiwan and China were to erupt in conflict and the United States were to come to Taiwan's defense, Japan, as a U.S. ally, could end up in a war with China. Since the chances of a Taiwan-China conflict have declined significantly since the 2008 change of government in Taiwan, the first two issues, which create some possibility of an accidental clash between Chinese and Japanese ships and planes in the East China Sea, are more worrisome. These issues are addressed in chapter 6.

As units of the two countries operate closer to each other, a number of institutional factors come into play that can increase or decrease the probability of a clash and affect the immediate aftermath. Those factors, which are discussed in chapter 7, include the autonomy that the nations' military and law enforcement units have vis-à-vis their civilian authorities, the degree of centralization of their command-and-control systems, and their views concerning the use of force. The discussion of civil-military relations exposes a contrast. In China, military officers adhere to norms that are quite consistent with those of the ruling Communist Party, but they both weigh in on policy issues that touch on their domain and enjoy broad discretion in implementing the policies adopted. In Japan, by contrast, officers appear to be more independent with respect to values and norms, but they are under relatively tight civilian control when it comes to policy and operations—though not necessarily in the East China Sea. Although military and law-enforcement organizations from both countries are tempted to operate independently and somewhat aggressively to carry out their missions, the problem is greater on the Chinese side.

Should there be a clash between Japanese and Chinese naval or air forces, civilian leaders and institutions would come into play. At issue would be whether those leaders and institutions have the skill and capacity to ensure that the clash did not become a crisis. To probe that question, it is necessary first to know more about how the Chinese and Japanese governments are structured, how they function in routine situations, and whether they have accurate information and analysis at their disposal. Chapter 8 looks at China and chapter 9 at Japan. The picture that emerges is of two systems in which leaders make tough decisions on a collective basis but often do not have the sort of information that they need; in which line agencies such as foreign and defense ministries put too much emphasis on protecting their turf and therefore are often ineffective in working together to shape coherent policy responses; and in which policy-coordination mechanisms do not always work well. These similarities in crisis response exist in spite of the differences in the political systems of the two nations: Japan is a special kind of democracy and China is an authoritarian regime. The discussion examines the points at which civilian officials and military officers, defense policy and operations, and security policy and domestic politics all come together and interact.

Complicating matters is the impact of domestic politics. Again, despite the differences between systems, the public in each country shapes the environment in which the leaders make decisions. Although Japanese opinion is not favorably disposed to China and competitive mass media can make that disposition even less favorable, ironically it is in nondemocratic but Internet-friendly China that a hard-edged, anti-Japanese nationalism is a vocal and influential force. Chinese leaders and officials are often reluctant to swim against that tide. To make matters worse, some members of the public have the ability to do damage in Japan through cyber warfare. Chapters 10 and 11 discuss those issues.

If decisionmaking is not necessarily effective in either country during times of routine interaction; if civil-military relations in China grant the PLA substantial policy and operational autonomy; and if domestic politics restricts civilian leaders, then the chances of the two governments responding to sudden tensions between them in a measured way are not great. That is the subject of chapter 12.

The book then returns to the question with which this discussion began: the consequences of the relationship between Japan and China for the United States, which seeks good relations with both and which must maintain its reputation for credibility. The United States is, after all, a treaty ally of Japan with a responsibility to come to Japan's defense in the event of external attack. The bedrock of that alliance is Japan's confidence that it will not be abandoned. On the other hand, how the two allies address the revival of China as a great power is a complex matter. Chapter 13 considers the implications of security interaction between Beijing and Tokyo for Washington.

I do not assume that conflict between a reviving China and a defensive Japan is inevitable. Far from it. Nor do I assume that either Tokyo or Beijing would deliberately seek war with the other. The leaders of both countries understand the interests that they share, particularly economic interests, and they know the costs of conflict. Recent Japanese governments—particularly the new Democratic Party of Japan government elected in August 2009—have pursued moderately accommodating policies toward China. But just because the probability of war is not very high does not mean that it is zero. Moreover, if a clash occurs, it is far from certain that the two nations could automatically avoid sliding off the cliff of conflict. In addition, the chance of conflict is not likely to decline as time goes on. The strategic reality in the East China Sea is unlikely to change; nor will domestic politics moderate in the short term. It is certain that although the possibility of conflict may be low, the consequences would be catastrophic for both countries.

For all those reasons, it is incumbent on China, Japan, and the United States to take steps to reduce the odds of clash and conflict; to achieve that end, chapter 14 offers a set of recommendations. It concludes that Tokyo and Beijing should start small with steps to restrain their forces in the East China Sea by creating a conflict-avoidance regime. Thereafter, they should pursue measures that address aspects of their security dilemma, institutions, and domestic politics. None of that will be easy. Nothing will happen without political leadership. But the results will have the salutary result of reducing the perils of proximity.

Chapter Two

Prologue: Japan-China Military Conflict in the 1930s

The Chinese believe without question that Japan committed acts of aggression against China during the twentieth century. But different Chinese address that history in different ways. Formal, somewhat stern, official statements convey the views of the Chinese leadership. Scholars' dry statistical inventories of losses sustained are compelling in their cumulative impact. Museums and historic sites, which remind visitors of the horrors inflicted by Japan's Imperial Army, introduced a narrative of victimization that Chinese had not heard before. The same is true of textbooks that seek to inculcate patriotic values in China's youth and fictional accounts that refract the past through their author's imagination. One of the best novels is Mo Yan's Red Sorghum, which is set in Shandong province and includes vivid stories of Japanese brutality. Then there are the shrill emotional diatribes, brimming with righteous indignation at the victimization of China. A contributor to the Strong Nation bulletin board, a feature of the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily, wrote that Japan "butchered 35 million of our compatriots and robbed countless amounts of our wealth in the war of invasion against China between 1936 and 1945.... Therefore, we can conclude that Japan has relied on robbing the Chinese people to expand itself. Killers must pay with their lives. Debts must be paid with money. Heaven will settle all accounts. Japan should be incorporated into Chinese territory!"

And then there is Chinese scholarship. A visit to a bookstore in Shanghai reveals a whole section of books on Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and expansion into North China thereafter. Even among serious studies, however, authors offer extensive detail on military operations but do not probe a key question: how exactly did the tiger of Japanese militarism slip its leash to inflict the horrors that Chinese now remember? They adopt the premise that Imperial Japan was a unitary actor and that aggression in China was its project. The few treatments that probe more deeply do so allusively. Thus, the content of Chinese historical memory, which animates much of popular sentiment about Japan today, is on the consequences of the Imperial Army's aggression. That is perfectly understandable, but it begs a question: why is there so little attention to its causes?

Japanese mainstream scholarship on the subject is quite sound. Indeed, it was mainly Japanese scholars after World War II who combed through archives to document how the China War came about. Yet other Japanese seek to revise history, denying the factual record in order to assert that Japan bore no responsibility. As late as 2008, General Tamogami Toshio, the chief of staff of the Air Self-Defense Force, entered an essay in a magazine-sponsored contest that asserted that Japan was not the aggressor in China. He argued instead that Japan's military campaigns were a response to Chinese provocations that had a communist origin. Tamogami won the contest but lost his job; he was drummed out of the military.

The causes of Japan's China War are not the subject of this volume, but they are relevant. A strong case can be made that institutional failings in both the Japanese and Chinese governments contributed significantly to Japan's aggression and to the death and destruction that ensued. Three turning points were crucial.

The first was Japan's takeover of the Manchurian northeast and the adjoining province of Rehe in late 1931 and early 1932. The driving force was Japan's Guandong (Kwantung) Army, a unit that had a modest geographic presence in China, deployed as it was on the Liaodong Peninsula and along the Southern Manchurian Railway. Its officers had both nightmares of peril and dreams of ambitious expansion. They believed that Japan faced adversaries in the capitalist West, in communist Russia, and in a resurgent Nationalist (and nationalistic) China. The Great Depression had shown the dangers of economic interdependence. Increasingly, the Japanese, including those army officers, came to believe that their country would be better served by self-reliance. The starting point was China's northeast, a land of agricultural and industrial promise.

The fact that the civilian government in Tokyo was pursuing a foreign policy of cooperation and arms control with the West plus a moderate approach to China did not sway the officers. If the government would not adopt a policy to seize Manchuria, they would begin the seizure and force the government to follow. The "right of supreme command" gave the military considerable power, making it accountable to no one but the constitutional monarch, who reigned but did not rule. That defective constitutional structure created a climate that made it easier for the headstrong Guandong officers to take independent action, and that is exactly what they did. In the Mukden incident of September 18 (Mukden is now known as Shenyang), they fabricated a Chinese attack on a railway train and used that as a pretext to begin the takeover. The officers correctly counted on receiving support from the national media and nationalistic public opinion, each feeding on the other, for their expansionist action. The Guandong Army would continue to create faits accomplis in China, and the civilian government capitulated at every turn, in part because of a real fear of assassination by radical right-wing groups.

Thus a field unit of the Japanese Imperial Army initiated a major change in Japanese foreign and security policy, usurping the authority of both the civilian government and the military high command in Tokyo. Mid-ranking officers started Japan's shift from a basically status-quo power to a revisionist power.

The second turning point was the beginning of the China War in July 1937. It is another story of flawed decisionmaking, but of a much different sort. Not all the details are known, but the main theme is that conflict could have been avoided or at least delayed had it not been for a game of "chicken" that occurred, fueled by limited information and misperceptions.

The trigger was an incident that stemmed from exercises conducted by Japanese military units during the evening of July 7 and the temporary disappearance of a Japanese officer. The episode occurred at Lugou Bridge (Lugouqiao), known as Marco Polo Bridge in English. The bridge is in the southwest of Beijing (then known as Beiping). It seems clear that this relatively minor incident was not a premeditated trigger for expansion of Japanese military control of North China, either by the Japanese high command or local commanders, as was the Manchurian case six years before. Indeed, the military conflict that ultimately resulted was at odds with Japan's fundamental security strategy of creating economic self-sufficiency in preparation for a war with the Soviet Union. The direction of Japanese policy during the last four months of 1936 and the first half of 1937 was to avoid conflict with China, not to foster it. Indeed, some improvement in Japan-China relations would serve Japan's basic security goals. China, on the other hand, had been moving toward a challenge of Japan ever since a Manchurian warlord had kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek in December 1936 to pressure him to resist Japan, after which Chiang had agreed to begin to form an anti-Japanese united front with the Communists.


Excerpted from The Perils of Proximity by Richard C. Bush Copyright © 2010 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Introduction....................1
2 Prologue: Japan-China Military Conflict in the 1930s....................6
3 China-Japan Relations: A Brief Review....................12
4 Explaining the Downturn....................23
5 Navies, Air Forces, Coast Guards, and Cyber Warriors....................41
6 Points of Proximity and Friction....................63
7 Features of China's and Japan's Military Institutions....................87
8 Decisionmaking in China....................124
9 Decisionmaking in Japan....................160
10 The Chinese Politics of PRC-Japan Relations....................191
11 The Japanese Politics of PRC-Japan Relations....................211
12 The Chinese and Japanese Systems under Stress....................223
13 Implications for the United States....................259
14 What to Do?....................275

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