And it seems that the Yomiuri Shimbun is quite pleased by this, according to its editorial today. Citing America’s debate on the same matter, Yomiuri notes the report’s calling attention to China’s pursuit of blue-water naval capabilities and long-range aviation capabilities. (Interestingly, Yomiuri published this editorial on the same day that Asahi devoted its entire editorial space to an editorial marking the seventieth anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which is recognized as marking the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War — pointing at the need for Sino-Japanese reconciliation.)
Not having read the report yet, I will limit my judgments to Yomiuri‘s position, which blithely talks about the threat posed by China’s rapid military modernization without actually bothering to note what threat China poses exactly. It seems fair for a reader to ask whether Yomiuri has specific scenarios in mind, or if it’s just peddling the same hysteria found in some quarters of American policy debate. As I (and others) have argued before, the casual assumption that Chinese military modernization — especially at sea — is necessarily a threat to the region is inappropriate, and ought to be challenged by those interested in maintaining peace and order in the Asia-Pacific. Rather than issue the occasional alarmist report, the US, Japan, Australia, and other powers in the region should be thinking about how to co-opt China’s military strength, not making self-fulfilling prophecies of military struggles to come.
Indeed, given the deepening mutual interdependence between China and the region’s powers, none of them can afford to be too antagonistic. (Australia’s recent publication of a defense report that peddles the same line as Japan’s is baffling, given that Australia is, if anything, more dependent on maintaining a healthy relationship with China.) Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo surely don’t need to be told that. So why these reports?
Arguably it has as much to do with the need to justify expensive defense programs (creating a budgetary enemy), as with the actual threat posed by China to their interests. Australia of late has been having an active debate about its future defense doctrine, rooted in having the ability to defend Australia alone if necessary (see this article at Defense Industry Daily on Australia’s new airpower thinking). Hmm, defense of Australia — what country would Australia have to defend itself against, and what expensive technologies would it need to purchase in order to do so?
In Japan, meanwhile, the government has, despite a decade of falling defense expenditures, focused on enhancing its naval capabilities and airpower. Indeed, Prime Minister Abe has approached the US once again about purchasing F-22s as Japan’s next air superiority fighter — despite oft-stated US doubts about selling. (These doubts can be found spelled out in a recent Congressional Research Service report, available for download here.) For the Japanese government, approaching the US about the F-22, it can’t hurt to have a thick report in hand showing the threat posed by China to Japan (and a newspaper headline or two reinforcing the threat).
Level heads in these three governments must steadfastly resist the alarmist rhetoric emanating from China hawks and their allies in the media and the defense industry. The region is too complicated — and the stakes too important — to fall into simple fear-mongering.