Asia's Cold War: Japan on the Front Lines of a U.S.-China Conflict

As the expansive military and economic competition between the United States and China intensifies, Japan stands on the frontier of West and East with a new Cold War brewing between the world's top two powers.

Tokyo is among Washington's closest foreign allies and has been since the U.S. defeated Japan in World War II, later forging a security treaty that formed a cornerstone of deterrence against advances from the Soviet Union and China—two communist powers who ultimately broke with one another and became entangled in their own feud.

Today, however, the dynamics of the old, largely Eurocentric Cold War have shifted toward Asia, along with the balance of global economic power.

"In the Cold War structure, it was the United States versus the Soviet Union, and China took the side of the U.S. Now its the U.S. versus China with Russia on the side of China," Doshisha University professor Murata Koji told Newsweek. "During the Cold War, Europe was on the front lines. The Asia-Pacific has now become the front line of the Cold War between the U.S. and China."

"Japan's position is similar to that of West Germany," he explained. "In the Cold War, Japan and Germany were defeated countries. Germany was divided and Japan was not. Japan was isolated at that time as an island country. Now Japan is surrounded by North Korea, China and Russia. And, unlike the Soviet Union then, China is now a rising economic power."

us trump japan abe china xi
President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting at the G20 Summit in Osaka, June 28. Tokyo stands both physically and strategically between Washington and Beijing as their rivalry escalates. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. had always managed to economically outpace the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and, by at least 1990, Japan too had surpassed the Soviet Union in terms of GDP, with West Germany coming in at fourth. At that time, China wasn't even in the top ten. Now, it's soon set to replace America's position as number one in GDP for the first time in 150 years. And by some measures, it already has.

At the same time, China's military spending has also surged. Though its $250 billion in 2018 still fall far short of the U.S.' unmatched $649 billion, a growing Chinese defense budget has been a cause for concern in Japan, which lagged in ninth place at $49 billion and remained significantly constrained by constitutional restrictions and financial woes.

China had a long way to go before it could match the U.S.' unparalleled military dominance, but the gap between Beijing and Tokyo's own capabilities has broadened drastically, creating a worrying disparity made more complex by the realities of international trade.

"This will not change no matter what Japan and China's bilateral relationship looks like, but maybe a good bilateral relationship is better than a bad one. They have a huge market and up to 1.3 billion people and really could develop huge opportunities for the Japanese market," a Japanese foreign ministry official told Newsweek, noting this would only be possible if China followed "an international rules-based order."

The economic factor deeply complicates Japan's position as the U.S. and China engage in a global trade war of tit-for-tat tariffs. Another Japanese government official noted that this was especially the case as "China is rapidly growing. Asia as a whole is developing. Europe and the U.S. were the center of the world economy, but the gravity of economic power is shifting."

"The U.S. is Japan's only ally, a core partner in terms of politics and diplomacy, and China is our neighbor, we have very good, friendly relations economic relations," the official added, noting at the same time "deep-rooted concerns" about certain Chinese trade practices. "The U.S.-China trade conflict is bilateral, but it has major implications for the global economy and the global supply chain. We're watching the situation with a high level of interest."

The intricacies of a globalized economy with the U.S. and China at the forefront have set their competition apart from that of yesterday's Cold War.

top gdp by nation ppp chart economies
A chart shows the world's top dozen national economies by purchasing power parity (PPP) as of 2018, along with projected growth for next year.


"I always say this is not going to be a second Cold War," former Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Tanaka Hitoshi, who now serves as chairman of the Japan Research Institute's Institute for International Strategy, told Newsweek.

"The major difference is that during the Cold War there was a very strong military construct ensuring no major war because of the mutually assured destruction policy, ICBMs and nuclear weapons deterring each other. The West's policy was to contain the Soviet Union and there was not much economic interdependency with the Soviet bloc, almost none," he explained.

"Now, we see a situation in which China is catching up in terms of economic capabilities, there is major inter-dependency between the U.S. and China, China and Japan, we have no intent on destroying China, we would just like to make sure Chinese behavior is correct, that it follows the rule of law," Tanaka added. "There is no such thing as containment...we are probably not able to contain China."

In a similar vein, one Japanese Foreign Ministry official remarked that "China is very big, it's rapidly developing and increasing influence all over the world. It's something you can't escape."

"We're kind of in a special relationship, we're neighbors with thousands of years of bilateral relations, we also have a history of war, our relationship is very complicated," the official said, calling their ties "politicized" and recommending "we need to escape from this situation, construct a more stable relationship, and more closely consult on how to cooperate."

But with Washington upping the ante in its multibillion-dollar bout with Beijing and pushing back against its military moves in the South China Sea—a busy, resource-rich Pacific span of more than a million and a half square miles, much of which is claimed by China—Tokyo has no choice but to somehow play a role.

"If you look at the history of Japan after the war, we chose the path of not being a big military power, instead we became an economic power, and that was successful," Sasae Kenichiro, former Japanese ambassador to the U.S., told Newsweek. "Other powers are building up their militaries, what would you do? We need to work on our own defense. Obviously, we can't shoulder all that burden and that's why the Japan-U.S. alliance is so important."

highest military defense budget countries chart
A chart shows the top 10 national defense spenders of 2018 as reported by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).


Japan's own armed forces have vastly modernized over the years as well. It has purchased F-35 fifth-generation fighter jets and was set to remodel its own Izumo-class helicopter carriers into fixed-wing aircraft carriers capable of accommodating the state-of-the-art warplane. The military has also invested heavily in the domains of cyberspace, outer space and electromagnetic warfare.

Unlike most militaries, however, the Self-Defense Forces primarily function as just that, with the U.S. tasked with most offensive capabilities in the event of a conflict. Some, like National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies Vice President Michishita Narushige, suggested that if Beijing were to try to assert itself in a so-called "gray zone" area such as the Senkaku Islands, a Japan-administered East China Sea territory also claimed by China, Washington may not want to risk an all-out war.

"If China attacks the Senkaku Islands, the U.S. might decide to stay out and not engage with China unnecessarily," Michishita told Newsweek, calling for a robust Japanese defense posture. "We may have to take care of ourselves on our own. It's not likely, but just in case."

Murata also argued that "we have to protect Senkaku" and "if the U.S. hesitates to get involved, American credibility will be extremely damaged." Several experts and officials brought up such "gray zone" theaters, especially as both Russia and South Korea drifted toward China, obscuring the lines of fire in today's complex rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

Ohara Bonji, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, compared the U.S.-China dispute to "a new Cold War structure" since "they both do not want war, they're showing their capabilities, not only militarily, but through economic power and diplomatic influence as well. They are fighting political warfare, they're using every means they can."

And for the first time in over three decades, the U.S. was set to have a new means at its disposal⁠—medium-range and intermediate-range land-launched missiles. The U.S. left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty it struck with the Soviet Union in 1987, accusing Moscow of having since developed a weapon in violation of the bilateral deal.

In those same 32 years, China was not subject to such restraints. It developed an array of mid-range missiles that, unlike the majority of the since-decommissioned U.S. and Soviet arsenal, is based in Asia. The U.S. waited less than three weeks after ditching the treaty to test its first INF-busting cruise missile last month and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper demonstrated enthusiasm for deploying such weapons in the Pacific theater, potentially within "months," as he headed to Japan in early August.

"When the INF Treaty was established, the Cold War was in the West, Russia could reach Europe, now if they were to put these missiles in Asia, they would be able to hit us," Tanaka told Newsweek. "The U.S. decided to get [these missiles] destroyed, now the U.S. decided to leave the treaty, this creates a more threatening situation to Asia and Japan as well."

While some Japanese officials said such weapons were necessary to deter potential aggression from the likes of North Korea—whose recent military and diplomatic moves were considered by the Foreign Ministry to be the most "severe challenge Japan faced—and China—whose build-up was termed the top "strategic issue in the mid- and longer-term"—others expressed caution, especially as the nuclear-capable aspects of such missiles could trigger difficult memories of the country's history as the only nation to have ever been targeted by such a weapon of mass destruction.

Discussing Esper's visit, one Japanese Defense Ministry official told Newsweek that there were "no detailed talks about the future deployment of U.S. missiles systems in Japan." The official also acknowledged that could change.

"We are very concerned about the regional security environment without the INF," the official added. "Not only the regional security environment, but also from the viewpoint of arms control, so we'd like to closely talk with the U.S. on how to respond and how to deal with that issue."

Having invested its entire defense outlook on the U.S. alliance, however, many in Tokyo were looking closely to Washington for guidance as its contest with Beijing strayed further into uncharted waters.

"Since the end of the Cold War, Japan's capabilities have decreased and the danger increased," Murata told Newsweek, noting that "the Japanese defense budget is limited, and it seems the U.S. is asking Japan to be more and more involved in world affairs, while Japan's certainty about the reliability of the U.S. has fluctuated."

Tanaka also shared this concern: "We've not seen a comprehensive vision, a comprehensive strategy on the part of the U.S. Meanwhile U.S. credibility is going down. What are you thinking about? Where are you?"