Both the optimistic and pessimistic perspectives reflect important realities, and history will decide which was more apt. In the meantime, few Americans are as well-versed in Tokyo’s thinking as Michael J. Green, a Japanologist who was a top Asian hand on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and currently leads the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia. His recent book, “Line of Advantage,” explains Japan’s China strategy to a Western audience. I interviewed him over Zoom to understand the implications of Japan’s geopolitical transformation.
“A lot of people argued that Japan’s culture of pacifism was immutable,” said Green, who first moved to Japan to teach English after college in the 1980s, “but I always felt the Japanese were ultimately realists.” The primary goal of their statecraft has been “not to lose,” he said. Japan organized not to lose economically in the decades after World War II and is “now organizing not to be coerced and defeated by China.”
The turn from pacifism has been sudden. One of Green’s professors compared Japanese politics to “a plate of peas — it never moves,” he recalled. “But if you tilt the plate a little bit, they all roll to one side.”
China is tilting the foundations of order in Asia. For most of the Middle Kingdom’s history, its rulers were focused on Asia’s interior, but now China has “largely settled its land-border problems with every country except India,” Green said. “The last piece for China to secure” is Asia’s maritime periphery.
“The challenge for China, and the reason it is so dangerous for the rest of us,” he said, is that unlike the United States’ Monroe Doctrine in Central America and South America, Beijing’s bid for regional dominance in Asia is “aimed at some of the most important economies and militaries in the world.” Even if China’s naval and air force buildups were “defensive in origin,” it is “extremely offensive and aggressive if you’re Japan, or if you’re the Philippines, or especially if you’re Taiwan.”
Taiwan is now the most likely flash point for war in the region. On a trip to Taiwan and Japan in November, I was struck that Japanese officials seemed more alarmed about the prospect of Chinese aggression against Taiwan than the Taiwanese themselves.
An American military defense of Taiwan against China would probably rely on the US naval base on Okinawa about 400 miles away, making Japanese territory a potential Chinese target. If Japan acquires 500 Tomahawk missiles, as it is reportedly contemplating, China might think twice about such a strike. Then Tokyo could join the United States in a naval war while reducing the likelihood that its homeland would come under attack for the first time since 1945.
Japan started that war with the United States, of course, by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. But for Green, Tokyo set the conflict in motion with a more fundamental strategic error: Its decision to be primarily a land power instead of a sea power. That decision was rooted in Japan’s history and geography. Unlike Britain, the Japanese archipelago is well-protected by oceans, so its fighting forces are focused inward. Japan was run by “a clan system with a very violent system of norms and the samurai ethos,” Green said. Civil war made the army “absolutely dominant.”
Japan’s navy, which emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was less influential. “The army’s instincts were to control land, not sea,” he said, leading to Japan’s occupations of Korea, then Manchuria and China. The clan system “fused with a modern army and also injected into that modern army a very brutal, medieval way of conquest, which is what you saw Japan do in the ’30s and ’40s,” Green explained — a rampage that dangerously upset the balance of power in Asia.
Tokyo’s new strategy focuses on air and sea power to meet China’s maritime ambitions and defend the open trading system that has helped Japan become the world’s third-largest economy. But Asia’s security will still depend on the United States playing an active role it chose not to play in the 1920s and 1930s.
Green worries that American intellectual life isn’t sufficiently attuned to the geopolitics of Asia. As a young aspiring diplomat, he assumed that his time in Japan would be a “palate cleanser before I pursued my career in Europe, like any good East Coast American.” Instead, he said, “I just got hooked.”
When he joined the NSC in 2001, “the Europe office was about three times larger than the Asia office” because of the Clinton administration’s focus on the Balkan wars of the 1990s. American strategists have recognized the necessity of a greater Asia focus for decades, Green said, but the United States’ energy has repeatedly been drawn into Europe and the Middle East — “the Balkans, 9/11, [the Islamic State]Ukraine.”
Academically, the study of international relations emphasizes European history. Students learn about the Peloponnesian wars but are less likely to study the Sino-Japanese war or Mongol conquests. “The academy hasn’t adjusted,” noted Green, who earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins and is a professor at Georgetown.
The main historical difference between European and Asian geopolitics is that in Europe, power dynamics “have long been multipolar.” The Spanish, British, French, Austrians, Russians, Germans and Turks have all been major regional powers at one point or another. When one gets too powerful, “the other powers eventually defeat that rising power and reestablish an equilibrium,” Green said, “and then another one rises.”
The sweep of Asian history, by contrast, has China at its center. “It’s mostly a history of China either being cohesive or disintegrating.” More than in Europe, the distribution of power in Asia hinges on one powerful state.
Sometimes it seems impossible to shake American diplomacy from its European roots. The Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy in December 2021 “was really a European, transatlantic design,” Green told me. Such appearances can help China appeal “to the global south and pan-Asian solidarity.”
In meetings in Tokyo, I also heard unease about the way the Biden administration has presented its democracy agenda. Japan is a democracy, although its high levels of social consensus and the dominance of one party distinguish it from most Western systems.
Japanese elites believe that Tokyo can be an intermediary between the United States and the strategically vital but less-democratic states of Southeast Asia. Japan’s national security strategy, Green said, “emphasizes Japan’s commitment to upholding an international order that’s based on rule of law and human rights,” but “when it comes to human rights violations in Myanmar, or the coup in Thailand, they’re not where we are.”
Japan’s outlook as a maritime power is more like Britain’s in the 19th century than the United States’ “Wilsonian” tradition — that is, focused on protecting commerce and enforcing rules rather than democracy promotion.
Green drew a contrast between Japan’s defense buildup and Germany’s more passive approach to Russia’s aggression. “A lot of scholars in the ’90s and 2000s were saying, ‘Germany good, Japan bad,'” and asking why Japan was “not able to deal with its military past.” Green proposed that maybe Germany was “too successful” on that front.
The war in Ukraine poses a strategic dilemma for Asia’s defense. “If we did nothing in Ukraine,” Green noted, America’s Asian allies “would have been terrified” by the precedent. On the other hand, they “don’t want us sending all of our best equipment” to Eastern Europe rather than East Asia.
Japan’s steps toward rearmament, for Green, show that the post-World War II period of Pax Americana is “completely different from anything ever seen in history.” Unlike the British Empire or the Roman Empire, it has been “based on building up former adversaries as power centers that had their own agency.” Now, “Japan is choosing, not being forced by America, but is choosing to reinforce the international order that America helped to create after the war.”
But at the same time, he said, the fact that Japan is making this “rather desperate” decision should be cause for American humility. Washington is losing the capacity, on its own, to back up the security commitments it has made around the world. That is the paradox of Japan’s strategic transformation: Its defense of the American system is itself a sign of that system’s heightened vulnerability.