Here in Tokyo, such worries about China are already well-entrenched — and provoking as much anxiety as are developments on the Korean Peninsula. But they are also the source of something paradoxically hopeful: an impetus, albeit still tentative, for reform and renewal.
In the past two decades, Japan has become all too synonymous with decline, hobbled by anemic growth, dysfunctional politics and death-spiral demographics.
But, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing concentrates the mind like a noose, and for the Japanese, China’s recent assertiveness — in particular, its continuing dispatch of ships and aircraft to a group of East China Sea islands (called the Senkakus by the Japanese and the Diaoyu by China) — has previewed the future they face if Beijing keeps rising and Tokyo keeps falling. It is an East Asia, many here fear, that will be governed not by the rules-based international order the United States has nurtured but rather by Thucydides’s dictum in the Melian Dialogue: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Behind closed doors, as a result, Japanese leaders and officials speak with new urgency about the necessity of painful and long-deferred reforms — including structural, economic and defense-related measures — that, until recently, seemed politically infeasible.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which required going against deeply entrenched interests in the governing Liberal Democratic Party, is one example. There are encouraging signs that more will follow. While no one is eager to say so publicly, fear of being eclipsed by China is a major reason this decisiveness is now possible.
Of course, no one in Tokyo welcomes deteriorating relations with Beijing. Contrary to cliches about Japan’s resurgent nationalism, leaders have sought to contain and deescalate the confrontation over the Senkakus, exercising caution.
But Tokyo is right to worry about the implications of the growing gap between Chinese and Japanese power, and the United States has an overwhelming interest in a Japan that gets off the sidelines and back on its feet — economically, diplomatically and militarily.
In fact, nothing would bolster the Obama administration’s rebalance of East Asia more than a reinvigorated Japan. While most of the Asian countries that China has tried to intimidate in recent years have been developing powers — considerably weaker and poorer than Beijing — Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy and a high-tech powerhouse that, despite spending less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, possesses one of the most advanced militaries in Asia.