China’s military buildup and age of new entente: Considering Japan-Russia relations from strategic perspective


Balance of power

International politics shifts, basically affected by changes in the balance of power. Of all factors for the changes of balance of power, what is unique to modern  international society since the 19th century is the economic growth of a single country that can bring change to the balance of power.

Unlike classical examples, such as annexation of other  territories or  the formation of alliances, this kind of  change is invisible for the outside world, and it is hard to determine the point of time when a country has begun presenting a growing threat .

China has had a bitter experience in Asia. The Ching dynasty, which had its eyes opened following the Opium War, reorganized the nation and proudly built a formidable North Sea Fleet. The country, however, failing to realize Japan’s rapid rise since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, did not change its perception of Japan as a miniscule state until the year before the war. That resulted in its defeat in the war 1894-5, invited interventions of western imperialistic powers, and its semi-colonization over the next several decades.

The balance of power over China today is comparable to relations between the UK and Germany exactly one hundred years ago , the period which led to WWI. Germany’s economy grew rapidly after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and the country overtook the UK in production of iron and other products. Germany’s naval power closed in on the UK especially speedily after the establishment of the Fleet Law in 1897.  And 10 years later, around 1907, views of Germany as a threat abounded, like China today. Both wariness about Germany’s growing strength and hopes for its peaceful development existed, just like today.

Although the two arguments were not settled, international politics was naturally headed for a direction of forming a balance to counter it, and the UK, France, and Russia consequently concluded the Triple Entente. Indeed, the year 1907 was called a year of the entente.

China shifted direction to military buildup in 1997

China’s economy has been growing rapidly since it launched the reform and open-door policy in 1978. The country began making serious efforts toward military buildup in 1997, the year after tensions rose over the Taiwan Strait. China’s military budget has shown a double-digit increase for almost two decades. However, it has accomplished true double-digit growth excluding inflation only since 1997.

Also, a large portion of China’s military budget was explained as requirement for supporting the enormous army in the country. It is assumed, however, that the country has reduced the number of troops by 500,000 since 1997 and that the resources for the 500,000 troops have been used instead for modernizing the military.

China’s military threat is an everyday topic in the world. While the argument has not been settled, diplomatic moves have begun to appear.

The United States has strengthened cooperation with India against the principle of nuclear nonproliferation. Japan and Australia have also released a joint security declaration. Those countries have all explicitly indicated that the moves were not aimed at any third countries. The pacts concluded in 1907 were simply to eliminate sources of conflicts between the UK and France and between the UK and Russia, and they were called  ententes that had no bearing on third countries. But as a result, economic and military powers uncontrollable by international pacts remained to be the real problem and that eventually resulted in WWI.

Heading toward another world war?

As the year 2007 might be called  a year of a new entente. At this stage, the lack of an entente between Japan and Russia is apparent to everyone. In other words, Japan is lagging behind China, which has settled border issues with Russia and other countries.

How to deal with China’s ever growing presence in the world is the most vital issue for Japan’s national strategy of the 21st century. Other international issues are far less serious for Japan’s security.

I do not deny Japan’s legal and historic claims to the Northern Territories. I also think Japan has its right over Sakhalin in view of the history since the days of Rinzo Mamiya. In that context, I am somewhat close to the Japanese Communist Party, which asserts Japan’s sovereignty beyond the four islands. But for the sake of national interests, I believe strategic thinking should take precedence over legal and historic views.

The China-as-a-threat argument has just begun. In the case of Germany, the “naval scare” did not explode in the UK until 1909. Historian William Gooch described the period before then as “anxiety” and the time after that as a “nightmare.” If things go like this, experts’ prediction that China will become a threat after the Olympics might come true.

In that event, Japan in view of the balance of power might be pressed to set one of its politically tied hands free after settling the Northern Territories issue not only from the basic territorial argument but also from a bigger strategic perspective.

Russia, too, as a country that shares a border with China and is susceptible to its growing military might, would be all the more required to have thinking that is more flexible than Japan’s from a strategic perspective.

Tokuko Shironitta/白新田十久子
Political Specialist/政治部スペシャリスト