Japan, China and”Congagement”

2 December 2005

Japan, China and”Congagement”

By Gwynne Dyer

If I were a Chinese strategic analyst of a moderately paranoid disposition — and all strategic analysts are paranoid by nature — I would be twitching uncontrollably by now. Call it professional deformation, if you like, but I would have the overwhelming feeling that China is being surrounded and that its enemies are arming against it. And I would take Japan’s latest move as the final proof of a vast conspiracy against my country.

On 30 November Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s prime minister, declared that Japan’s “peace constitution” should be changed so that the country can legally maintain armed forces and strengthen its military capability. “Can we defend our country with an organization that has no war capability? Common sense says it is impossible,” he said in a speech to fellow members of the Liberal Democratic Party, which a week before had proposed a constitutional reform that would regularise the position of the Japanese armed forces, now coyly referred to as “Self-Defence Forces,” and give them an official role in assisting Japan’s allies.

For the past 58 years, Japan’s foreign policy has been constrained by the constitution drafted for it by the US occupation forces in 1947, in which it renounced the right to use armed force in international disputes or even to maintain military forces intended for war-fighting at all. Once the Cold War got underway and the United States needed strong allies in Asia, Washington repented of its earlier idealism and began pressing Japan to re-arm, but several generations of Japanese politicians successfully used article 9 of the constitution to excuse their reluctance to build up their military forces to the level that the US wanted.

Over the years, Japan’s “Self-Defence Forces” have gradually grown to a strength of 250,000 , almost half the ratio of military personnel to total population that prevails in the United States. They are well trained and equipped, too, but the constitutional ban means that they lack key types of formations and equipment that would let them wage large-scale war against serious opponents beyond the home islands.

Koizumi wants to free Japan from those constraints, and he has the full support and encouragement of the United States, but the proposal rouses dormant anxieties in other Asians about Japan’s ultimate intentions. There is scarcely a country in East or South-East Asia that was not attacked, conquered or colonised by Japan during the half-century from 1895 to 1945, when it was the sole industrialised country in Asia.

Memories and suspicions about Japan run deep throughout the region, but perhaps deepest of all in China, where the Japanese invasion and occupation in 1937-45 left very deep scars on the Chinese psyche. They have been compounded by contemporary Japan’s striking reluctance to take full responsibility for its past crimes — and now it’s breaking loose from the restraints of the “peace constitution”.

This comes on top of a sharp shift in Japanese foreign policy towards Taiwan. Last February, Tokyo redefined the Taiwan Strait as a “common strategic objective” of Japan and the United States (implying that its forces would join the US in resisting any Chinese attack on Taiwan).

It is bad enough, in Beijing’s view, that the United States has promised military support to the rival Chinese government in Taiwan ever since America’s Nationalist proteges lost the civil war and retreated to the island in 1949. It is close to intolerable that Japan, the old enemy who invaded China in 1937-45 and has never properly atoned for it, should assert an equal right to interfere militarily in China’s internal affairs.

Then there is last July’s ten-year military agreement between the United States and India, which in Chinese eyes foreshadows a full military alliance between the sole global superpower and Asia’s other emerging giant. There are the repeated visits of senior American military officers to Hanoi, which seem to be leading towards a similar US-Vietnamese military agreement. There are the new American military bases to the west of China

in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It’s hard for people sitting in Beijing to avoid the conclusion that the US is seeking to encircle China with military alliances, in an echo of its Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union.

The constant propaganda in the United States about a “Chinese military build-up,” complete with articles in serious magazines like “Atlantic” about “How We Would Fight China,” reinforces this perception of an American threat. China’s defence analysts know that their budget is not growing significantly faster than the country’s economy as a whole, and that they are just modernising their decrepit military forces to the level already attained by most of their neighbours.

So they ask themselves: What are the Americans and their Asian allies up to? The answer, in Washington, is “congagement”, a policy of preparing to contain China militarily if it turns nasty combined with an effort to engage China politically and economically in the hope of encouraging democratic reforms. It sounds pretty good in Washington — a wise combination of stick and carrot — but in Beijing the perspective is different.

There, it feels a lot more like encirclement and threat. The pressures to respond with a serious Chinese military build-up must be mounting, and if that happens then America will reply by redoubling its efforts to overawe and “contain” China and the real arms race will begin. The holiday from history may be almost over.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 10. (“Over…islands”; “It is bad…affairs”; and “The constant…neighbours”)