Deciphering China’s Security Intentions in Northeast Asia: The Japanese Debate

 

China’s growing military capabilities are an increasing source of consternation for Japan. Areas of concern include China’s activities in the East China Sea, Beijing’s increasing defense budget, and lack of transparency on its military capabilities. In recent years, Beijing’s intensified maritime and aerial activities have been extensively documented and discussed in Japan. This paper examines the perceived “China threat” among Japanese political leaders, the Ministry of Defense (MoD), primary media outlets, and public opinion.

While the two main parties – the leading Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)1 – have distinct policy platforms on security challenges posed by China, there are shared concerns over China’s intensified activities in the maritime and aerial domains in the region. Analysis of the MoD’s 2015 defense white paper reveals Tokyo’s concerns over China’s increasing defense budget and lack of transparency on its military capabilities. I argue that these expressed concerns are somewhat misplaced and that the real problem is found in the destabilizing nature of China’s security policy goals, which have been clearly outlined by Beijing. Analysis of three major daily newspapers, Yomiuri Shimbun, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, and Asahi Shimbun, also reveal that issues such as China’s military buildup, Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea, and new developments in the East China Sea dominate the media debates. While the three provide varying interpretations on the source of the problems and the best way to deal with emerging challenges, issues surrounding the South China Sea are given the most attention in all three. This paper closes with an analysis of recent public polling reflecting Japanese perceptions of China on security issues. Japanese citizens are neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the Sino-Japanese relationship. While their perception about the Sino-Japanese relationship slightly improved in 2015, a plurality thinks that the tense relationship will remain in the foreseeable future.

 

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