Expert Commentary

The Military Escalation

Dennis Wilder
Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for East Asian Affairs

The adversarial relationship between China and Japan reaches back centuries, and the memories of Japan’s imperial past continue to plague a productive and peaceful relationship. Recent events between the two countries continue to stymie what is one of the world’s most valuable economic relationships. The Cipher Brief interviewed former U.S. Presidential Advisor Dennis Wilder on how the most recent incidents are shaping the security landscape of East Asia’s two most powerful countries.

The Cipher Brief:   Given the LDP’s current supermajority, what is the likelihood of Japan reinterpreting Article 9 of the constitution?

Dennis Wilder: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a strong advocate for amending Article 9 of Japan’s post-World War II pacifist constitution to eliminate its stipulation that Japan can never again wage war to settle international disputes.  This would clear the way for the reestablishment of a national military rather than the current limited Self Defense Force.  To him and others in Japan, these restrictions—which no other nation has in its constitution—are an impediment to Japan’s ability to meet the geostrategic threats it now faces.  However, he is well aware that the Japanese public and many politicians within his own party are wary of such a seismic change, because it would alarm Japan’s neighbors. 

Prime Minister Abe will continue pressing his case, but having other immediate concerns such as the economy, he is unlikely to call for a referendum in the near term.  The constitution has not been amended since its adoption almost 70 years ago, and it would take a majority of voters in a national referendum to ratify any change. 

Even without amending the constitution, Abe has achieved a great deal of his goal of revising Japan’s security posture through the reinterpretation of the constitution by the Japanese Cabinet two years ago.  These reforms recognize the right of collective defense partnering with allies like the United States, relax export controls on military-related technology, and revise the defense guidelines.   By enacting these reforms, Prime Minister Abe has given himself greater latitude to integrate U.S., Japanese, and South Korean operational capabilities in such areas as joint missile defense against an increasingly belligerent North Korea (that recently fired a ballistic missile for the first time into Japanese-controlled waters) and to work more closely with Southeast Asian militaries in the South China Sea.  

TCB:   Prime Minister Abe just appointed a new Defense Minister who is known to be a hawk. How do you foresee this affecting China-Japan relations?

DW: The appointment of Tomomi Inada as Japan’s Defense Minister is already creating a new irritant in the contentious security relationship between China and Japan.  During her initial press conference on 5 August, Inada side-stepped questions on Japanese atrocities during World War II and said that it depended on one’s point of view whether you believed that Japan had “invaded” other countries during that war.  The Chinese Defense Ministry was quick to express its indignation and to charge that she was intent on reviving Japanese militarism.  Although her initial response on the difficult historical questions can be chalked up to inexperience, she will have to reiterate current Japanese contrite positions in future press events to avoid becoming a lightning rod for Chinese political broadsides.  

TCB:   Japan recently released its 2016 Defense White Paper which focuses in large part on China. China has labeled the document as overly hostile. Why does China see the document as provocative?

DW: This year’s Japanese Defense White Paper was far more specific than in the past at stating Japan’s concerns about what it labeled as China’s “assertive manner” in the East and South China Sea disputes with its neighbors.  Perhaps the most pointed charge was to state that China is “determined to accomplish its unilateral demands without compromise” and without regard to international norms.  The White Paper was released just after China rejected the validity of the international arbitral tribunal’s rulings against its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and at a moment when Beijing was struggling in the court of international public opinion to explain why it will ignore the court’s decisions.  Chinese state media accused Japan of meddling in its relationship with Southeast Asian countries and of hyping the “China threat” in order to justify its effort to revise the Japanese constitution.

TCB:   2016 has seen increased fighter jet sorties by both countries over the East China Sea. What is the rationale for each side to conduct such flights?

DW: The increase in fighter aircraft intercepts over the East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands is deeply troubling and could easily lead to an international incident similar to the Chinese pilot’s downing of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace south of Hainan Island in 2001.  I served as the Chief of China analysis at the CIA at the time, and I can tell you that my team had sleepless nights while the 24 member U.S. crew was detained, trying to help U.S. policymakers understand the Chinese reaction and point of view. 

China has stepped up its air patrols in the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that it unilaterally declared in 2013.  Japan and the United States do not recognize this ADIZ, and Japanese fighters routinely are scrambled to intercept—but not engage—the Chinese fighters.  Recently, both Japan and the United States have lodged protests about Chinese fighters coming excessively close to surveillance aircraft operating in international airspace.  Beijing has denied the claims, made its own counter claims, and demanded an end to the surveillance flights.  It is not hard to see how the increase in the number of sorties and the tense atmosphere could lead to an unfortunate mishap with deadly consequences.  It has before.    

TCB:   Are there any other dynamics in either China or Japan that you think play a role in the bilateral relationship?

DW: Despite the increased tensions and the military buildup on both sides, Sino-Japanese economic ties continue to place a solid floor under the relationship.   China is Japan’s largest trading partner, and Japan is China’s second largest.  Sino-Japanese trade topped $300 billion in 2016, marking it as the third-largest trading relationship in the world.  Japanese companies have more than $100 billion invested in China.  The personal relationship between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Abe seems to have improved in the past year, and both sides need to recognize that they have far more to gain through their dynamic economic interaction than through rehashing old grievances and military escalation.

The Author is Dennis Wilder

Dennis Wilder served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for East Asian Affairs during President George W. Bush's second term.  He is currently Professor of the practice in the Asian Studies Program of the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Learn more about The Cipher's Network here