The Road to Beijing Runs Through Tokyo

Image Source.

As much of the material here at The Stage narrates the history of Chinese warfare, diplomacy, and strategic thought or analyzes contemporary Chinese politics and international relations, I am occasionally asked a question that goes something like this: “Mr. Greer, if you had to recommend one book to help me understand how the United States should respond to the rise of China, what would it be?”

The question is a good one. My answer always surprises: historian Kenneth Pyle’s Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose.

The choice seems odd, but only because of a flawed set of assumptions Americans bring to the table when U.S.-Sino relations are up for discussion. In the midst of her first bid for the presidency Hillary Clinton succinctly affirmed the worst of these errors. Said she:

“Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.” [1]  

In writing this Mrs. Clinton spoke for much of America’s foreign policy establishment. Alas, the popularity of this idea does not prove its truth. The central problem with this declaration is that U.S.-Sino relations do not occur in a vacuum. By design Washington’s political and military relationship with Beijing is filtered through an East Asian alliance system built at great cost by American soldiers and statesmen. The hub of this system is Japan. Because of this America cannot have a purely bilateral relationship with China; the road to Beijing run through Tokyo. America’s challenge in the early years of the 21st century is to manage this trilateral relationship.

Those who reflect on the history of American dealings in Asia will see the value of this approach. Sunzi’s famous dictum, “know your enemies” is sound advice [2], but the recurring lesson of the American historical experience is slightly different: know your friends. America’s allies have caused her more harm than most of her enemies ever managed. The United States did not defeat the Japanese Empire in the Second World War because American decision makers had a nuanced understanding of Japanese culture, society, and politics. In contrast, Americans’ inability to grasp the real motivations of war time allies like Stalin, Mao, and Chiang Kai-Shek meant America ‘lost the peace’ in many theaters once the war was over. [3] Likewise, America’s travails in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq had much less to do with damage inflicted by America’s sworn enemies than by a failure to perceive where the interests of our friends in Baghdad, Rawalpindi, and Saigon diverged from our own. It is possible to completely obliterate an enemy without ever truly understanding him. Working effectively with allies is trickier.  Effective alliances do not rely on coercion, but coordination and communication. It is difficult—if not impossible—to act in concert with an ally if you do not first become familiar with their culture, understand the constraints domestic politics places on them, and gain a keen sense for how they perceive their own interests.

The trouble is that there are very few Americans who understand–or even care–about how the Japanese define their national interests. Dr. Pyle puts it nicely in the first pages of Japan Rising: “the Japanese have historically been poor communicators, and few U.S. leaders have had the interest, much less the background, to understand the intricacies of Japanese culture.” For Americans, Japan remains “a puzzle.” [4]  Despite the number of policy documents and official pronouncements declaring that “Japan is the keystone of the U.S. involvement in Asia,” or that America and Japan share a “a special relationship” [5], there is little evidence that American policy makers and strategists account for Japanese perceptions and interests when charting the course of Sino-American relations. To see the extent of our problem one only needs to dip into the burgeoning debate over “Offshore control,” “AirSea Battle,”  and other strategic and operational concepts designed to aid the United States in a contest of arms in the west Pacific. Those debating the merits of these concepts often include nuanced discussion of how both the general public and the decision making elites of China and America might respond to the success or failure of these proposed campaigns. It is much harder to find any serious analysis of how Japanese leaders would react to the same scenarios, or what decisions their populace might compel them to make. [6]

This is despite the fact that no American initiative in Northeast Asia can succeed without Japan’s full cooperation. We must remember that everything America does in its relations with China and the Koreas will have an immediate impact upon Japan’s security and its geopolitical position. If Americans do not understand (or bother to think) about how the Japanese perceive changes in U.S. strategy then there is real risk that Japanese statesmen will—unintentionally or by design—undermine American undertakings.

Thus the importance of Japan Rising. I will not give a full summary of the book here, for other reviewers have done this already and have done a fairly good job of it. For our purposes it is enough to say that Japan Rising traces the history of Japanese foreign policy from the time of the Meiji Restoration to the present day, searching for consistent patterns and themes that recur across the modern era. Pyle disagrees with the many commenters that emphasize the liberal, pacifist ethos of contemporary Japanese culture and who suggest that this will mark Japan’s approach to international crises in the future. He also argues against those that characterize Japanese society as inherently irrational and unpredictable, defined by random vacillations from one extreme to another. In Dr. Pyle’s eyes the last 200 years of Japanese history have actually shown a remarkable consistency. He describes Japanese statecraft as the product of a conservative and hyper-realist political culture that puts the demands of foreign politics above domestic concerns and takes an unabashedly opportunist approach to improving Japan’s position in the international system. The statesmen who practice this art are acutely aware of which way international winds are blowing. Their actions do not stem from any deap-seated values or ideological constructs except a Machiavellian impulse to adapt to the world as it is instead of trying to forge a new world in their own image. Thus the Japanese leadership stands ready to abandon anything—ideologies, alliances, the entire political order their society is built upon, if necessary—that might stop them from adapting to a changing world and attaining a promised place in a new global order.

Not everyone will be convinced by Pyle’s arguments. I am not convinced by all of them. But they are the kinds of arguments every American concerned with the United States future relations with China or the Koreas needs to think deeply about. Reading Japan Rising will force them to do so.  This is why I surprise friends hoping I will point them to another book on China. Figuring out whether Pyle’s vision of Japanese statecraft is correct or whether the other paradigms described above come closer to the truth should be a central priority of American diplomats, statesmen, and citizens. American policy cannot succeed if the United States and Japan are working at cross purposes. If the United States wants to get its China policy “right” it must get its Japan policy right first.

I suspect that some of my readers will find this argument disconcerting. Much of what I write attempts to make Chinese history, society, and politics understandable to those without any experience in the East Asia.  Many readers attracted to this site are themselves “China hands” who have made this task a professional pursuit. Such efforts are noteworthy and laudable. As a China hand myself, it is not surprising that I agree with the common  lament that there are not enough Americans with a nuanced understanding of Chinese culture and that those who have this understanding should be taken more seriously by the powers that be. The problem is real. But it is not dire. Given how parochial the American people are (and ever shall be) we have actually not done too bad on this count. These days even rural American grade schools offer classes in Chinese, while new, fancy initiatives to help the next generation of leaders become familiar with China (like the Schwarzman Scholars) are set up every month.  Efforts like these will only increase in size and number as we move into the future. We live in an age where ambitious make their way to Beijing.

 Far fewer make their way to Tokyo. Herein lies my concern. If the China hands are under-appreciated, the Japan hands are unknown. Few are the programs that teach Japanese or to send young American businessmen and scholars to Japan. No one talks about how critical the U.S.-Japanese relationship is to the 21st century, nor how it will be the key to preserving global peace and stability. There is no recognition that Americans need a deep understanding of how their closest allies in East Asia think. But we do need this understanding, the decisions made in Tokyo will decide the future of peace and stability in East Asia, and for the moment there is no country more critical to the success of American strategy than Japan. The lack of attention Americans pay to Japanese affairs is troublesome. In the long run it may prove disastrous. 

See also: T. Greer, “It is Time to Talk Honestly About the U.S.-Japanese Alliance,The Scholar’s Stage (10 August 2014).


[1] Hilary Rodham Clinton, “Security and Opportunity in the 21st Century,” Foreign Affairs (September 2007).

[2] Sunzi Bingfa, ch. 3

[3] S.C.M. Paine admirably describes both how Americans were able to defeat the Japanese despite their ignorance of Japanese culture (or even Japanese war aims) and how a failure to understand the interests and intent of her Russian and Chinese allies doomed the United State’s efforts to establish a peaceful post war order in East Asa in The Wars For Asia: 1911-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). I’ve said it before, I will say it again: everybody should read this book.

[4] Kenneth Pyle, Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose (Cambridge, MA: PublicAffairs Books, 2007), 15, 1.

[5] ibid., 350

[6] The literature on this question is voluminous. I will only provide here a few select examples of pieces I thought were particularly insightful–but which nonetheless downplayed Japan’s role as an independent decision maker. See Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich and Jim Thomas, AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, May 2010); Douglas Pfeiffer, “China, the German Analogy, and the AirSea Operational Concept,” Orbis (Winter 2011); T.X. Hammes, Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict (National Defense University Strategic Forum, June 2012); Elbridge Colby, “Don’t Sweat AirSea Battle,” National Interest (31 July 2013); Sean Mirksi, “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct, and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 3 (2013); Evan Montgomery, “Reconsidering a Naval Blockade of China: A Response to Mirski,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 4 (2013); Amitai Etzioni, “AirSea Battle: A Dangerous Way To Deal With China,” The Diplomat (3 September 2013); Bill Dries, “How to Have a Big Disastrous War With ChinaNational Interest (27 June 2014); Robert Klein, “Keeping a Large War Small: Offshore Control Vs. Airsea Battle? The Case For Area Denial,Small Wars Journal (5 November 2015); Mark Morris, “Air-Sea Battle Vs. Offshore Control: Which Offers a Better Theory of Victory?” War on the Rocks (26 November 2014); Robert Haddock, “The Struggle for a Strategy,Proceedings 141, no. 1 (January 2015). 

Leave a Comment

One Comment