On Wednesday, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Japan's 2015 defense white paper, which the Japanese government approved Tuesday. The white paper identified Chinese land reclamation and patrols in the East and South China seas as coercive activities that threaten regional stability. In return, the Chinese accused Japan of threatening Chinese territorial sovereignty, calling on Japan to "refrain from counterproductive tricks." The Chinese noted that the paper comes as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is attempting to remove longtime restrictions on the operations of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces — a decision that has greatly alarmed China, a country that has scarcely forgotten being invaded by Japan in the 1930s. On the surface, the spat appears to be over friction in the East and South China seas. However, it stems from a much deeper Chinese anxiety about Japan's active role in the Asia-Pacific region and abroad, which also threatens China's regional and global ambitions.
China's strategic scope is no longer contained to the East and South China seas. China's sources of raw materials and energy are overseas, as are the markets for its exports. To improve its access to markets and resources, China is in the process of building several economic corridors across Eurasia as part of its Belt and Road strategy. Moreover, Chinese workers now operate all over the globe, often in unstable areas such as the Middle East and North Africa.
Regarding the United States, the traditional protector of the global commons, as either unwilling or unable to safeguard its interests, China sees the need to take global missions into its own hands. The Chinese Military Strategy white paper, published in May, emphasized the need for the military to take an active role to "safeguard the security of China's overseas interests." The military should, then, be able to protect Chinese shipping, evacuate Chinese nationals (as the Chinese did in Yemen in April) and perform humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. The People's Liberation Army Navy has emerged as the chief beneficiary of these mission requirements. China has invested in developing submarines, carrier battle groups and amphibious warfare craft. Although these capabilities are all of use in China's near-seas disputes, the acquisition of the supply ships required to sustain them far from China's shores reveals China's global intent. Beijing will focus on projecting power in its near seas, but these naval capabilities enable China to perform missions in much more distant areas. This raises the question of what China sees as the chief source of long-term competition.
The United States may pose the most potent military threat to China, but Beijing implicitly recognizes that Washington, despite its heavy involvement in the Asia-Pacific, is fundamentally a status quo power. Though the United States rightly claims to be a Pacific power, its heartland is an ocean away from Asia — a fact that keeps the U.S. electorate, if not necessarily U.S. strategists, from fixating on the region exclusively. This understanding, in turn, has historically affected the United States' ability to channel its attention and resources into Asia. During World War II, the United States pursued a Europe-first strategy, even though it was the Japanese that struck the first blow against U.S. forces. During the Cold War, Washington deemed Asia a peripheral interest, directing the bulk of military resources against the Soviet threat in Central Europe even as U.S. forces fought conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
The same geographic constraint will curb Washington's ability to change its posture in Asia. For all its rhetoric on the Pacific rebalance, the shift in U.S. forces to the Asia-Pacific has been far below the grand promises that then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made in 2012. Any intent to seriously alter the status quo will be hampered by U.S. commitments across the globe in areas such as the Middle East. If current events are any indication, these commitments are extremely difficult to shed. The United States is a problem for China not because it has offensive intent, but because its presence gives U.S. allies the cover necessary to aggressively pursue their interests at China's expense, Japan being the most serious threat among these allies.
Japan has a pacifist culture, and the Japanese military is a largely defensive force. Chinese strategists, however, view Japan as a key long-term threat. In part because of Japan's invasion of China, Beijing sees Tokyo as a revisionist power, unsatisfied with the status quo and potentially a much more aggressive threat than the United States. Located on China's maritime periphery, Japan can devote a relatively greater share of its attention to China than the distant United States can. Abe has also worked to expand the freedom of action for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, which have been legally restricted from performing many of the actions of regular militaries.
Though the normalization of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces is alarming for China, one of the key aspects of Abe's policy has been to remove the explicit boundaries on Japanese military activities, giving the military much more leeway to perform missions outside the area of Japan's near periphery. The extension springs from Japan's expansive global interests, which it is inadequately able to protect. Like China, Japan depends on sea-lanes for its survival. Countless Japanese nationals work abroad as well, where they have often been taken hostage and even killed, as in the case of two Japanese citizens who were captured by the Islamic State. But while Japan has many reasons to broaden the scope of its military activity, the Chinese cannot help but take the Japanese defense white paper as another indication that Japan intends to thwart Chinese interests in the region and around the globe.
China sees Japan as matching hostile words with hostile deeds. In the Asia-Pacific region, Japan has increased its sales of ships and arms to countries challenging the Chinese presence in the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. In the Philippines, arms sales have been accompanied by the start of talks to negotiate a visiting forces agreement that could give Japanese ships and surveillance aircraft a permanent foothold from which they could observe or interfere with China's South China Sea activity. With the Japanese expanding the geographic and functional bounds of Japanese Self-Defense Forces, China naturally feels Japan will threaten the security of its seaborne commerce and business interests abroad.
Ultimately, the Japanese are a long-term threat to the Chinese because of their similarities, not their differences. Japan's military developments have taken place parallel with the modernization of China's armed forces. Both militaries are also meant to carry out missions in the same space. After the passage of Japanese security legislation expanding the geographic scope of Japan's military activity later this year, China will be in a fiercer competition with Japan not only in the near seas, but also much farther afield. China and Japan will both need to build the capabilities to guard their distant interests — potentially from each other.