August 6th, 2012
10:38 AM ET

Japan making neighbors nervous

By Brad Glosserman, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank that focuses on U.S. foreign policy and Asia. The views expressed are his own.

For much of the postwar era, numerous U.S. security officials and analysts argued that Japan was a “free rider” in its alliance with the United States. Yet although the alliance is unequal, this charge goes too far. After all, the treaty establishing the security relationship between the two nations acknowledged the limitations imposed by Japan’s “Peace Constitution,” which officially forswears war as an instrument of state policy. (And don’t forget this Constitution was forced on Japan by the United States during the occupation).

In practical terms, the United States is obliged to come to Japan’s defense in the event of an attack on its territory, while Japan is under no similar obligation if the U.S. is attacked. In return, however, the United States has forward bases on Japan, which makes the island, in the words of one former prime minister, “an unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

U.S. complaints about burden-sharing reached a crescendo during the 1980s and ’90s as Japan’s economy looked like it might eclipse that of the U.S. Those fears ebbed over the last two decades as Japan entered the doldrums and American attention switched its focus to China.

Little noticed in the United States outside a community of security specialists has been the evolution of Japan’s security posture. Since 1996, the U.S. and Japanese governments have been working to reapportion roles and missions in ways that allow Japan to do more in its own defense and contribute more to regional security.

This effort takes a number of forms – and there’s still more to do – but it begins with an increasingly realistic mindset among Japanese security policymakers. A nation once derided as pacifist has come to realize that it can’t rely on goodwill to secure good relations among nations, and it’s increasingly cognizant of threats to national peace, security and prosperity posed by states in the region and bad actors. North Korea’s belligerence and bellicosity have been instrumental in shaping Japanese thinking, as has China’s determination to assert its national interests, even if it risks confrontation with Japan. China’s military modernization effort, which seems disproportionate to regional threats and whose endpoint and purpose aren’t clear, compounds the unease.

Japan’s new thinking is evident in the Defense White Paper that was published late last month. It is, from a U.S. perspective, an unremarkable document, one that puts the alliance with the U.S. at the center of Japan’s defense policy and explicitly reaffirms at multiple points and in many ways the overwhelmingly defensive orientation of its security outlook. Yet it’s also striking for the blunt way it questions Chinese intentions and the assertion that Japan needs better defense capabilities to prepare for and respond to security challenges and contingencies.

The problem is that language that sounds like boilerplate to many Americans has inflamed China. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, for example, denounced the White Paper, calling it “groundless” and “irresponsible.”

Where Americans see a gradual movement in Japanese defense policy, Chinese – and Koreans – see the re-emergence of a militarist Japan. So, for example, when Japan amended its Atomic Energy Law in the aftermath of last March’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster and acknowledged that nuclear energy was part of “national security” – a seemingly obvious conclusion since a stable energy supply is critical to a functioning economy – Chinese and Koreans asserted that Japan was laying the foundation for the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Given the “allergy” that dominates Japanese thinking about all things nuclear and the deep scars of World War II, it’s hard to imagine a more fanciful proposition.

In recent discussions in Beijing, though, Chinese interlocutors warned that the U.S. risked being dragged into a confrontation with China as a result of Japan’s determination to assert its claim to the Senkaku islands, territory known as the Diaoyutai to Chinese, and also claimed by Beijing. Tokyo’s behavior was equated with that of Pyongyang, and it was apparently up to both Washington and Beijing to rein in their respective allies.

Equating the actions of those two nations seems unreal. But it’s a good example of the kind of thinking going on in Northeast Asia right now.

Post by:
Topics: China • Diplomacy • Japan • Military • United States

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Lee

    We are also too much worried about the USA least she would drop nuke on a country which is becoming a contender of the USA in economic field . How is it Mr Zakaria ? You are using people's low moral values . Moral value of people are now at lowest level . How such argument can be heard by so called wise people ? You have only one problem Mr Zakaria , you went to Harvard , read book and Believe all .

    August 6, 2012 at 10:51 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Thank you, Lee. That was quite well put.

      August 6, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Reply
    • sam

      Well said, Lee. Thank you.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
    • Nina

      The only reason you all should be afraid of the USA is if you have done something wrong.
      Have you done something illegal? something against humanity? something islamist?

      August 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
      • sam

        Come on Nina, you should know better than that!

        August 6, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
      • Nina

        What does your comment mean Sam?
        What are you saying?

        August 6, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
      • Sergei

        It means, don't be soo naive!!

        August 6, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        I agree with sam above.

        August 6, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
      • Nina

        I am the last person on earth you can ever call naive.
        You still have not explained anything. Its all suppositions based on nothing.
        Explain yourself!

        August 6, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
      • Indra

        Your a pitiful, NAIVE, piece of garbage Nina.

        And you know it.

        August 6, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
      • Nina

        Obviously, you've got nothing.
        Just more insults and hate because you've got nothing.
        Wouldn't want to be you!

        August 6, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
      • puddintane

        haha anything Americans perceive as "wrong" gets cussed out, then suppressed and lastly nuked if all else fails. Then its back to playing Minecraft. Of course right and wrong change at moments notice so........

        August 18, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • ImperiumVita

      If you honestly beleive this about the USA, you really need to stop getting your news from Al Jezeera and Chinese propaganda.

      August 6, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  2. jasc

    i was reading this while hearing CoD world at war soundtrack (blackcats)

    August 6, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  3. Drew

    I agree with Nina, on what basis do you fear the USA Lee, and no I am not naive nor am I American, you have been asked yet no answer.
    I fear China much more than I fear the USA

    August 6, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Gee whiz, Drew. No wonder what happened in Oak Creek, WI happened! It's this kind of ignorance that's fueling all the violence here in the U.S.A. Ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hatred and so on.... This needs to end.

      August 6, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
      • Nina

        Drew just told you he was not American.
        Can you read?
        You make all kinds of assertions and you are unable to back any of them up!

        August 6, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
      • ImperiumVita

        Not to mention it indicates shallow thinking limited to broad, if foundationless, generalizations.

        August 6, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
      • Z-German

        Did you seriously just use the "Dark Side of the Force" argument to try and explain human nature?

        August 18, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    It's quite unlikely that the history of Nippon's glorious, imperial past would repeat itself. Today its people no longer embrace the Samurai values and beliefs. It's a country with low birth rates and an aging population. So China and Korea have nothing to fear about Nippon revamping its defence system.

    August 7, 2012 at 4:25 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Sadly enough j.von hettlingen, I'm afraid that you're right. On the other hand, the Chinese are quite pleased to hear this as the older ones remember what happened from 1937 up to1945!

      August 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  5. neo

    Taiwanese call it diaoyutai

    August 7, 2012 at 5:35 am | Reply
    • eastbayray

      ding ding ding. Winner!
      how can someone who claims to be an expert in east asian relations, "executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS" , make such an error.
      Shows his ignorance.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  6. Lee

    Hey Nina , Yes I have feared the USA as you claim . Plez invade me . I am repressing minority group in Burma and Human rights violation in Soudi Arab . Plez invade there . O you can not as oil , gas !

    August 7, 2012 at 6:56 am | Reply
  7. Dom

    Fun reading all these comments..... To bad none of you really understand the world. China and the US are not going to war. Netiher one has anything to gain from it and USE each other to justify spending money on defense. US makes China out to be a great danger so the public will spend $$$$$$ on new weapons. The the US LEAKS the info to China and Russia as payment for helping keep the greatest innovation machine in world history running. US is also happy when Russia and China keep us from doing stupid things like invading Syria. We need them and they need us – so don't beleive for a minute there is a war coming between these three. There is trouble brewing in the middle east – and the US might arm one side while Russia and China arm the other. Then when it is all over the will divide it all up.

    August 10, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
    • yeah yeah

      BINGO! we have a winner.

      August 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  8. Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007 ©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484

    I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti American, anti GB, anti semite, anti India, anti modern anything because I am a good moooooslem. I steal people's monikers because I am so ashamed of myself and post the most stupid comment. When people get angry with me, I claim insanity. I am the same guy.

    August 18, 2012 at 9:00 am | Reply
  9. rockwell

    Where is my post?

    August 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  10. raven88

    China's bullying of its smaller neighbours over South China sea is a more dangerous threat to peace in Asia. China is claiming teritorries way beyond its 200 miles EEZ under UNCLOS. China is using its newfoundwealth to upgrade its military capabilities so it could intimidate its weaker neighbours. .

    August 20, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
    • Total2199

      Of course China will be bullying the neighbors, it is a growing superpower and it will be flexing its muscles. Did the US ever behave differently? It's a dual pole World now.

      August 24, 2012 at 1:18 am | Reply
  11. Corgededprano

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    April 2, 2013 at 2:56 am | Reply
  12. Jackelyn Ohren

    I had been afraid to dive into php, but gave it a shot after reading this. Never ever really adore WordPress' comment system. Thanks for that tips for getting me started.

    August 29, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Reply

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