The U.S. Vs. China: What About Japan?

The tensions between the superpowers have Tokyo mulling a larger security role to check its newly assertive neighbor

By Brian Bremner

Back in the late 1980s, when Japan could lay reasonable claim to being the world's true economic superpower, a lot of fashionable talk was heard in Tokyo about looking east. Perhaps Japan ought to rebalance its relationship away from the U.S., which was in the economic doldrums, and toward Asia. Japan, after all, had a huge economic stake in the region. Over time, Japan's interests there would likely eclipse those in the U.S. At least that's how the theory went.

Few talked about severing security ties with the U.S. altogether. Given Japan's wartime history with China, Korea, and Southeast Asia, rearming was unthinkable: It could have triggered a destabilizing arms race across the region. Instead, Japan directed more aid and investment toward China in the hope of making amends for the destruction it caused during World War II -- not to mention making it a more hospitable place for Japanese multinationals to expand their production bases.

The Americans would do the heavy lifting with China, while Tokyo diplomats dropped out of sight. The beauty of this arrangement is that Japan ultimately never really had to take sides. By and large, Japan always played the good cop. And Tokyo also understood how important its bases and logistical support were to the Pentagon. That came in handy during trade spats with the U.S. in the '80s and early '90s.

CHINA RISING.

  Fast-forward to 2001: The dynamics of power among Japan, the U.S., and China have changed considerably. Japan has lost tremendous economic and international clout over the past decade. China is an ascending power. One of the lessons of the recent downing of a U.S. spy plane is that the Middle Kingdom clearly intends to be the premier military player in Asia. Its economy is far smaller than Japan's $4.2 trillion, but it will draw much closer in size and sophistication over the next couple of decades.

Click the abacus of national self-interest in Tokyo, and any thought of a go-it-along strategy or sudden embrace of China looks pretty farfetched. Beijing is no friend of Tokyo. And given Japan's rapidly aging society, plus its dependence on imported food and energy that only open sea lanes and a conflict-free Asia can secure, Japan arguably needs Washington's security services more than ever. To imagine an Asia in which Japan's interests are subservient to China's is close to a nightmare for the Japanese.

Relations between Tokyo and Beijing are testy in the best of times and noticeably chilly in down cycles, and that's pretty much where things stand now. The tension isn't that hard to fathom. Generally speaking, Japan resents that despite giving China all that aid and investment, and Beijing never misses a chance to invoke Japan's aggressive wartime behavior for diplomatic gain. China resents Japan's security ties with China's potential adversary, the U.S.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE.

  And you can bet that the purported sins of the Bush Administration will be visited on Japan before long. At least that's the take of Masashi Nishihara, who serves as president of the National Defense Agency, which is essentially Japan's military academy. He believes that any time Beijing bangs heads with Washington, Japan suffers collateral damage. This latest flap over the spy plane is no different. "The Chinese will use this case to condemn Japan for supporting U.S. intelligence operations" around Taiwan, says Nishihara. "This will only increase the hostility between Japan and China."

He also thinks that China's taking such an aggressive stance, scrambling fighter jets in a provocative way over international waters, probably makes the U.S.-Japan security alliance all the more relevant. "China's military capabilities are increasing, and therefore there are good reasons for the U.S. and Japan security alliance," he adds.

Which raises a couple of interesting questions. Might Japan not only take sides with the U.S. when it comes to China but also start to upgrade its military capabilities to play much more than a rearguard role? Opinion polls continue to show rising public support for revising the Japanese constitution and its war-renouncing clause, basically written by U.S. occupation authorities after Japan's surrender.

A special committee in the Japanese Diet is considering such revisions. And although Beijing continues to warn of a return to Japanese-style military aggression should Japan rearm, sensible people in Japan think it's inevitable down the road. Japan is already beefing up its intelligence-gathering apparatus. Its Self Defense Forces are no slouches when it comes to training or equipment sophistication. Having Japanese forces take on a bigger role could also be a way to persuade the U.S. to lower, but not eliminate, its base presence in Okinawa and other parts of Japan. These installations are a real, day-to-day hassle for plenty of families.

HEFTIER DEFENSES.

  The upshot: A U.S.-Japanese alliance will remain, but it likely will be more broad-based, with Japan playing a more prominent security role. Japan would never turn to nuclear weapons -- that's still unthinkable, given the history of the region. But it might bulk up its defenses enough to give China second thoughts about pushing territorial disputes to the point of threatening regional stability.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. But make no mistake: As China grows more powerful and assertive in Asia, the day is fast approaching when Japan can no longer feint left and right between the U.S. and China. It's clearly making a choice, an obvious one.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht