Neo-Classical Realism and Post-2012 China-Japan Power Politics

The aforementioned events and the Senkaku nationalization reflected the broader structural dynamics of Neo-Realism/Structural Realism. Within an increasingly unbalanced multipolar regional order, Japan advanced its territorial and maritime rights in a way that reflected its growing uneasiness at China’s expanding clout and at Washington’s faltering commitment to Japanese security. Fearful of a Chinese over-reaction to Japan’s nationalization, the US signaled prudence and tried to contain Tokyo for fear of entrapment in a Sino-Japanese confrontation, while the new Chinese leadership ditched China’s low-profile strategy, by codifying Xi’s dictum: “striving for achievements” (fenfa youwei; see previous chapter). Following the nationalization, Japanese policymakers would not accede to Chinese demands to reverse to the status quo ante, nor would they acknowledge the existence of a dispute, nor would they accept Chinese attempts at establishing a “new normal” of shared administrative control. Instead they embarked, under the new Abe administration, into a quiet “game of chicken” aimed at China’s reverse to the status quo ante: an end to Chinese coercive operations around the disputed islands. The ensuing Sino-Japanese “power game” meant that both states rushed for leverage vis-a-vis the counterpart, and both refurbished domestic and international diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives with an eye on the antagonist. Arguably, China mainly eyed Washington’s moves, because it understood the US as the player with most leverage, but substantial competition with its most immediate neighbor was evident. The logic of power politics permeated state behavior in multipolar East Asia.

Militarily, Japan and China pursued a balancing policy to keep the opponent at bay, although Beijing aimed mostly at deterring the Asia- Pacific’s major military power, the US. Balancing is defined as the policy that opposes the stronger or more threatening state(s) by enhancing indigenous capabilities (internal balancing) or security ties with third parties (external balancing) in order to maintain a state of equilibrium.14 Realist scholars disagree over the aim and intensity of balancing policies: “Offensive Realism” posits that the maximization of power drives states’ quest for security. Thus, structural incentives push states to an incessant and rational pursuit of power gains relative to other states.15 John Mearsheimer is the leading proponent of this theory and he has understood China and Japan’s interaction along the same logic: an ascendant and revisionist China triggers Japan’s exercises at containing it.16 On the contrary, “Defensive Realism” holds that states’ security maximization is not synonymous with power maximization, given the importance of factors such as threat perceptions,17 geographic distance,18 and the very recognition of the pitfalls and self-fulfilling prophecies embedded in a security dilemma.19 Many scholars subscribe to the defensive declination of Structural Realism with regard to contemporary Japan, on the grounds that the mere maximization of power would expose states to greater insecurity by easily enticing countervailing balancing experiments, a view subscribed by other defensive realist scholars of Japan’s security policy, Paul Midford and Tsuyoshi Kawasaki.20

This study is open ended to the variety of Realism that best describes the Japanese and Chinese foreign policy, but it posits that states hardly formulate threat assessments based solely on a computation of material capabilities detained by other states. Criticism of Realist predicaments in East Asia has failed to appreciate the logic of Japan’s under-balancing posture toward its Trans-Pacific ally, because it overlooked the subtle difference between traditional Balance-of-Power and Balance-of-Threat theory.21 The latter mixes Constructivist sensibilities toward identity and perceptions with Waltzian Neo-Realism. Stephen Walt has convincingly showed that policymakers may balance against much weaker opponents, given geographic proximity, size, ideology, recent historical interactions, and perceived intentions. That is, states balance against perceived threats rather than against power (i.e., capabilities) per se, as posited by conventional Structural Realist theory. To that effect, states rationalize their balancing strategies along the distribution of power in the international system, and along the state elite’s threat assessment.22 Balancing is henceforth defined as short for “balance of threat,” not “balance of power” proper.

NCR further builds upon Waltz, Mearsheimer, and Walt’s research agenda. Regional unbalanced multipolarity acted as the independent variable behind Japan and China’s more assertive and balancing-oriented foreign policy, if often mixed with a nagging sense of insecurity. But growing multipolarity and power transition alone cannot explain the nature of the Sino- Japanese standoff following the 2012 nationalization. By opening the black box of the Japanese and Chinese states, the nationalistic and progressively centripetal Abe and Xi administrations constituted the key “intervening variable” that ignited the Sino-Japanese power game in full force.

At the level of domestic politics, both governments reflected the growing clout of nationalistic constituencies, which were previously a minority. Japanese and US China-watchers trace back China’s assertive behavior to late 2009, when the country overtook Japan as the world’s second wealthiest economy. Sustained high-level economic growth in China and the dismal state of its post-financial crisis competitors, most notably the US, served only to strengthen Chinese policymakers’ confidence in regional security matters or, more simply, to embolden hardline interest groups that were previously a minority.23 In Japan, the aforementioned arch-conservative political association, Sosei Nippon, came to exert clout within the country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Abe—the group’s chairman—owes his impressive 2012 political comeback in no small part to the support he received from Sosei Nippon members.24 At any rate, Abe believed in the association’s rightwing idealism.25 Hence, notwithstanding the Japanese public’s deep-rooted apathy on nationalistic issues, the composition of the Japanese political establishment following the December 2012 elections skewed to the right, in turn influencing—if not merely allowing for—the stronger policy stances undertaken by “Abe 2.0.”

NCR also appreciates the formative role of state leaders’ ideology in the practice of Realpolitik. After all, firsthand or recent vindication of personal beliefs is a powerful driver of human behavior;26 policy learning likely informed Abe and Xi’s uncompromising posture. In 2006-08 China accommodated to an increasingly assertive and still economically vital Japan. Since Abe likely understood that Beijing’s softened position in the mid-2000s was a result of Japan’s hardened stance, the bilateral tension Abe confronted over the Senkaku/Diaoyu standoff required a forceful reprise of earlier balancing strategies; according to Abe, these would have allowed Tokyo to negotiate with Beijing from a position of strength.27 Moreover, The DPJ’s 2010 trawler incident fiasco—where Premier Kan Naoto capitulated to Chinese retaliation with the release of the Chinese fishing boat’s captain—arguably constituted a mirror opposite lesson for both China and Japan. It cemented the beliefin China that the counterpart would have succumbed to political and economic pressure; failure to stand up to the opponent’s challenge was opprobrium for both. From Beijing’s perspective, a weak reaction would have reified Japan’s already strong claim over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and from Tokyo’s perspective, a weak response would have emboldened Chinese coercive behavior. At any rate, Abe’s foreign policy team’s taste for power politics, as well as their perception over their earlier successes, was outmatched by Xi Jinping’s outlook, one that aimed at rejuvenating the nation also through coercive attempts at unilaterally pursuing Chinese claims in the East and South China Seas.

Japanese foreign policymaking was progressively concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office, the Kantei, the centrality of which in the formulation of Japan’s foreign and security policy coincided with Abe’s comeback in late 2012. After all, the nomination of the relatively inexperienced Kishida Fumio as Foreign Minister, the effective dismissal of Administrative ViceMinister Kawai Chikao only nine months after his nomination by the previous government,28 and his replacement with a diplomat close to Abe, Akitaka Saiki, represented a novelty in a country where risk-adverse bureaucrats have often managed public affairs playing by the book of bureaucratic politics and standard operating procedures. The abrupt personalization and politicization of bureaucratic appointments marked a departure from previous consensus-driven decision-making practice.29

With regard to China, critics may counter-argue that Xi Jinping’s Japan policy was hijacked by grassroots nationalism. In other words, Xi has pursued an assertive foreign policy and rode the nationalistic tiger solely to prop up the legitimacy of his government at the delicate time of the 2012/2013 leadership transition. Indeed, following Xi’s progressive consolidation of power, Beijing defused confrontations with an increasingly assertive Japan prior to the November 2014 APEC Summit. But it did so only halfheartedly. By 2015 and early 2016 China somewhat calmed the ECS in the face of Japan’s economic and military-diplomatic pushback, but Beijing strategically refocused its energies to the massive construction over coral reefs and rocks in the hotly disputed Spratly Islands. Moreover, China started to eye the consolidation of its naval facilities in the Indian Ocean and beyond to secure its sea lanes. In other words, Xi Jinping’s China still jostled for position in the regional chessboard to prevent encirclement and, possibly, secure its primacy. Although China and Japan staged a modest rapprochement by late 2014, neither the Abe nor the Xi administration abandoned their taste for an assertive foreign policy. Moreover, Xi too proved capable of centralizing power through the direct control of new LSGs and streamlined the decision-making system through a Central National Security Commission (CNSC), whose inauguration roughly coincided with Japan’s equivalent. China’s consistent assertiveness following the progressive consolidation of power of the Xi administration suggests that CCP policymakers in Beijing were very much in command, and in favor of a hawkish foreign policy.

To be sure, by mid-summer 2015, a new wave of negative Chinese propaganda insisted on anti-Japan narratives that were, however, more closely targeted at Abe.30 It was possible that powerful opposition within the CCP aimed at shaking Xi’s limitedly conciliatory stance vis-a-vis Japan in order to score political points and delegitimize his rule. After all, Jiang Zemin’s notoriously anti-Japan “Shanghai faction” had proved a major foe against the accommodating Hu Jintao administration back in 2005 and this needed to consolidate power at home prior to inaugurate the 2006 detente.31 In August Xi sent coded threats to Jiang through the Renmin Ribao to impede his meddling in Chinese politics.32 Only time will tell with certainty what role Japan played in intra-party factional turf wars following the 2012 nationalization. To a certain extent, Xi unleashed a nationalistic tiger that he was unable to dismount even if he wanted to. Yet, his administration’s redoubled efforts in the SCS, and eventually in the ECS, following the shallow 2014 Sino-Japanese truce indicated strong evidence of Xi’s own nationalistic colors.

Given the primacy of strong state leaders with a taste for power politics, Japanese and Chinese foreign policy unmistakably adjusted accordingly. The two governments acted on the seemingly vindicated conviction that only strength was conducive to taming the counterpart, and bring it to the negotiating table on favorable terms. Japanese policymakers thought that minor concessions on the territorial dispute would only whet Beijing’s appetite, and favored a policy of resolute “strategic patience,” accompanied by a Realpolitik designed to balancing China politically and militarily, and to increase Japan’s economic leverage. But in the 2010s Japan was not in a position of undeniable politico-economic strength vis-a-vis China; by 2014 Chinese policymakers probably thought that time was on their side in the medium to long term, and they needed not to make considerable concessions to Tokyo during the post-November 2014 detente, only buy time. These dynamics informed the bilateral power game.

The insecurity embedded in an increasingly unbalanced multipolar order in East Asia was the underlying incentive behind Sino-Japanese rivalry, China and Japan’s more assertive foreign policy, and their security and identity politics’ renaissance. The next chapters highlight the logic of power politics behind Japan and China’s military, economic, and communication forays, which were inaugurated along the onset of the Senkaku/Diaoyu standoff.

Through the employment of NCR this chapter has demonstrated that the standoff resulted from the slow international trends proper of Structural Realism, upon which said assertive initiatives ultimately depended from. At the same time, the Abe and Xi administrations were the key players, which assertively responded to the incentives and strictures of a growingly destabilizing regional multipolarity by steering the countries’ foreign policy in a definite direction.

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