My December Newsweek Japan Essay: Japan as a Unique Bulwark to Chinese Hegemony in Asia

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I recently joined Newsweek Japan in a more official capacity as a regular contributor. I am pleased to do so, as I increasingly think that Japan is the primary bulwark to Chinese hegemony in Asia. So more and more, my research interest is drifting toward the Sino-Japanese competition as weightier than the inter-Korean competition.

In that vein, I wrote the following story for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. In brief, I argue that only Japan has the strength to really block China’s rise to hegemony in east Asia. Russia is too weak, especially out here. India just can’t seem to get its act together (I used to push India really hard as an obstacle, but it just doesn’t seem up to it.) I am a skeptic of the US pivot, and sheer distance alone means the US need not confront China unless it wants to. The US will never be under a Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ as Asia might be in the future. That leaves Japan as a unique bulwark – a front-line state with the wealth and state/bureaucratic capacity to give China a real run for its money. Indeed, one way to see the current tension is as another round of Sino-Japanese competition for Asian leadership going back to the mid-19th century. (As always, I’d love to hear from the Japan mil-tech guys on all this.)

Elsewhere I have argued that China’s rise to hegemony is unlikely, in part because I think Japan will vigorously balance China. (Indeed, it probably is already.) So this essay is an expansion of that previous argument. The essay follows the jump.


“The recent declaration of an expanded ‘air defense identification zone’ (ADIZ) by China in the East China Sea has exposed the emerging fault line of Asian politics for all to see. Sino-Japanese competition is now broadly accepted by observers. Japan today is almost certainly balancing against China as an emerging threat. The days of accommodating China’s rise are closing.

The Sino-Japanese split will be the central divide in East Asia for the next several decades, and it will suck in states as far away as the United States and India. But given the contemporary weakness of Russia and India, and the sheer distance of the United States from the region, Japan will emerge as the primary obstacle to Chinese regional dominance. Japanese opinion is deeply divided on this role, but China’s inexorable rise will force this choice on Tokyo in the coming years. The recent ADIZ expansion is just one example of the uncomfortable choices to come.

Why a New Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone ?

A central problem for observers of Chinese foreign policy decision-making is bureaucratic opacity. We have no clear explanation from the Chinese on why the new zone was suddenly declared, or why there was so little consultation with China’s neighbors. The Chinese have recently maintained that their zone expansion discussion went back several months, but few observers in the relevant neighborhood – Japan, South Korea, or the US – knew of this. And the sudden rashness of the ADIZ expansion is what drew such sharp responses.

The ‘black box’ of Chinese foreign policy decision-making will regularly generate such tensions with outsiders. In democracies, major decisions are debated publicly for an extended period with multiple voices, often including foreigners, participating. For example, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was debated publicly for more than a year, with voices all over the world helping shape the discussion. And when the Bush administration did go to war, that decision was not a great surprise and had been somewhat anticipated by many. Such openness makes democracies’ foreign policies more predictable and therefore less provocative. In China by contrast, decisions often just ‘happen’ with little external accountability or understanding of the process. This leaves surprised outsiders guessing at motives, and, inevitably, suspicious. It is obvious, for example, that China did not expect such a strident response to the ADIZ expansion. Until China explains itself better to the world, its shadowy, factionalized, overly-militarized, and poorly understood foreign policy process will regularly encourage apprehension if not paranoia.

This transparency failure is a major break-point with democratic states and is evident in the several possible explanations of the ADIZ expansion:

1. Belligerence: the Chinese really are picking a fight with Japan. They may figure that US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel’s visit to Japan a couple months ago made Japan into an open challenger to China. America is trying hard to avoid an open confrontation with China. But Japan is increasingly unabashed that is it balancing China directly as a threat. So maybe the Chinese are thinking: ‘Abe’s playing tough; we have to also.’

2. Blowback: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is doing this for domestic legitimacy purposes. CCP ideology since the Tiananmen Square massacre is nationalism, not communism. And Japan is the great foreign enemy in that narrative. So now the CCP is stuck; they have to be tough on Japan – even if they do not want to be – because their citizens demand it.

3. Incompetence: the CCP and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did not really realize just how severely locals and the US would react. Chinese bullying in the South China Sea has worked out reasonably well so far, so maybe they felt they were on a roll and could do the same in the East China Sea. But China’s northeast Asian neighbors are much more capable than in southeast Asia.

4. the Transition: President Xi Jinping wants to make a splash as the new boss. Our knowledge of CCP factions is weak (coastal Shanghai princelings vs hinterland populists is the usual breakdown, with Xi being from the Shanghai clique), but we know Xi was not a shoe-in. There was an internal contest, so Xi might be consolidating power in his new ‘national security council’ with a flashy foreign crisis.

Making a Claim without Making a Claim

Inevitably the answer is some mix of these. The emerging story seems to be that this was a PLA pet-project. Antagonizing Japan is always a winning strategy in Chinese domestic politics, and the PLA helps justify its budget through tension with the Japanese enemy. Xi, being very new, either lacked the bureaucratic clout to stop this, or tacitly supported it. But it is increasingly clear that the PLA did not realize how swiftly Japan, South Korea, and the US would respond.

And while the diplomatic fracas boils on, there is also a subtle long-play at work. The ADIZ is great way to stake a claim without actually staking a formal claim. The international rules for such air zones are vague. Some states do not even have them. Ostensibly they function like buffers to national airspace (over territory), but they carry a whiff of sovereignty and control with them too. For example, Japan’s ADIZ does not include the Liancourt Rocks, because Japan did not want South Korea to expand its ADIZ to include Socotra Rock. In this way, Japan and South Korea both expressed and balanced their competing territorial claims through their ADIZs. (South Korea did recently expand its ADIZ to include Socotra, but that was done in response to China, not Japan.) It appears that China is now trying this too.

China has backed off to where there is no threat of its previously declared ‘emergency measures’ on violation of the zone. That drove much of the early hysteria that China might force down civilian airliners. Instead, Beijing is requesting pre-notification of travel through the zone, and that seems harmless and simple to do. For commercial airlines with little interest in the geopolitics of it all, compliance is easy and wise. Even the US government is now advising US airlines to comply and notify China. But this subtly resets the status quo. It allows China to return in a decade or two and suggest its East China Sea claims have in fact been ratified by the behavior of others. It is for this reason that both Tokyo and Seoul arm-twisted their commercial airlines into non-compliance. This is now game of brinksmanship.

Who could Block China’s Rise?

The ADIZ and East China Sea conflicts are only steps in the larger story of China’s rise and the fear it is generating in its neighbors. China is so large that it is all but impossible to prevent its return to superpowerdom at this point. Under the decadent late Qing dynasty and the misrule of the republicans and then Mao, China was a middle power for more than a century. But now that it is governed far better, its full power potential is being unlocked. Even were the US, Japan, and EU to cease trading with China, in a full-blown effort to block it, its other markets, as well as large internal market, would continue to power its rise. Chinese hegemony is not inevitable, but Chinese power almost certainly is.

So who could prevent Chinese dominance in Asia despite Chinese power? Four states: Russia, India, the US, or Japan.

Like many of China’s neighbors, Russia will trade with China but has no interest in Chinese hegemony. President Putin has lately visited with other states in Asia to let this be known. But Russia is very weak in Asia. The bulk of its population and industry are in European Russia with almost no presence in the vast expanse of Siberia. Also under Putin, Russia is both in decline and an unreliable ally to democratic Asian states.

India is an important long-term obstacle to China. It has the sheer size to compete head-to-head with China, and it is, thankfully, a democracy. Japanese diplomacy has recently recognized this. One easy prediction about the course of Asian international politics in the next several decades is a tightening Indo-Japanese relationship. Both are liberal democracies, proximate to China, fearful of its rise, in territorial disputes with it, and allied to the United States. Unfortunately, India today, like Russia, is too economically weak to seriously contest China. It is also badly tied down by its constant troubles with Pakistan (which is supported by China for this very reason) and Islamic terrorism. India has also made it clear to the US that it is not interested in open alignment against China. Given that China’s primary expansions have been to the east, in the seas, there is no immediate Indian cause for anti-Chinese alignment

That leaves the US and Japan, which is basically how the analyst community is now reading east Asia after the Chinese ADIZ expansion this month: US and Japan vs. China. Unlike India and Russia, Japan’s economy is actually capable of challenging China, because its massive technology advantage acts as a huge multiplier of Japanese power. That is, even though Japan is numerically much smaller than China, including its armed forces, its substantial technological edge over China means its individual soldiers and weapons systems are substantially more capable than their Chinese counterparts. It is an open secret, for example, that Japan could build a nuclear weapon in just a few months if it wished. Japan’s GDP is only slightly smaller than China’s, and Abenomics appears to be re-igniting the Japanese economy. If Abe can pull Japan back into sustained growth with his ‘third arrow’ of structural reform, Japan may be capable of competing head-to-head with China – as Abe seems to hope.

Finally, China is unlikely to actually invade Japanese territory. The struggle for East Asia will mostly take place at sea, in the air, and in space. A Sino-Japanese clash is most likely in the East China Sea over Senkaku. Ships, stealth planes, drones, satellites, missiles, and missile defense will be the primary systems of such a clash. Mastery of the ‘networked battlefield’ through ‘C4ISR’ (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) will be decisive over such large open spaces, and here the US and Japan are far ahead. Japan has been a maritime power for decades, while China is still primarily a land power.

The Japanese Challenge

The US too is an obvious competitor to China, but it faces tougher limits than I believe are often admitted in the Asian security debate. Its debt and deficit are badly out of control; much of American deficit spending is funded by Chinese savings, a spigot that would immediately close in a conflict. And the US public is wary of more wars in Asia after the poor results of the war on terrorism. Although the Obama administration has pushed hard the notion of an American ‘pivot’ to Asia, I am very skeptical; I have argued in previous volumes of this magazine that the pivot is limited by low US public interest in Asia and high US (often Christian) interest in the Middle East.

So the US is unlikely to openly challenge China. China does not challenge US security as directly as it does Japan or the states of the South China Sea. States such as the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, or Vietnam are simply too small, while India and Russia are too weak, at least today. Hence my argument here for Japan as a unique bulwark to Chinese hegemony. Only Japan is both genuinely capable and a front-line state. Indeed, it was usually Japan in Asia’s past that was the primary challenger to Chinese dominance. That geopolitical structure has not changed.

It is not clear that Japan wishes such a role, although Abe’s election seems to suggest that the Japanese public is waking up to this challenge. If Japan does not lead regarding China, the US will not take this up alone. The US cannot force Japan into a foreign policy it does not want. This is ultimately a decision Japan must make for itself. China is simply too large now (and America too financially strapped) for Japan to ‘buck-pass’ its national defense to the US much longer. The recent ADIZ expansion is just the start of the Japanese challenge to check China’s rise.”

Filed under: Asia, China, India, International Relations Theory, Japan, Russia, United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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