Current Japanese Security Policy towards China and Neoclassical Realism: Testing IR Theories

Published date01 December 2015
Date01 December 2015
Subject MatterArticles
Current Japanese Security
Policy towards China and
Neoclassical Realism:
Testing IR Theories
Clifton W. Sherrill1
Richard A. Hough2
This article examines various theoretical viewpoints, assessing their success in
explaining Japan’s current security policy towards China. With a variety of theo-
retically salient factors in place, including a dynamic balance of power, extant
regional institutions, economic interdependence and a highly publicized paci-
fist identity, Japan’s China policy presents a prime opportunity to test different
international relations theories. We review four theories of interest, structural
realism, neoliberal institutionalism, liberal interdependence and constructivism,
finding limited support for structural realist and constructivist predictions. We
then offer a neoclassical realist model, building from a realist foundation but
accounting for the influence of state structure, strategic culture and parochial
interests of governing elites.
International relations theory, neoclassical realism, Japanese security policy,
structural realism, liberal interdependence
Fundamental differences over the drivers of foreign policy and the potential for
international cooperation mark the study of international relations (IR). Realist,
liberal and constructivist frameworks draw the greatest attention; however,
Assistant Professor of International Relations, Troy University, Okinawa Campus, Japan.
2 Independent Scholar, Freelance Writer and Consultant on East Asian international affairs, Tokyo,
Corresponding author:
Clifton W. Sherrill, 18 FSS/FSDE, Unit 5134, Box 40, APO, AP 96368-5134, Japan.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
2(3) 237–265
2015 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797015601912
238 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 2(3)
consensus on the explanatory power of any particular theory remains elusive.
During the Cold War, realist explanations were ascendant; yet, the current
dominant strand thereof, structural realism, failed to explain the Cold War’s end
or the increased economic interdependence that rose sharply thereafter (Gaddis,
1992–1993, pp. 31–34). Liberal theories explain cooperation, but have more
trouble accounting for the seemingly irrational (inefficient) conflicts that plague
the interstate system. Constructivist works offer insight into how norms can
arise and how they might influence foreign policy, but to date, constructivism
struggles to explain actual state policies better than other alternatives.
Dismissive of theoretical purists, some scholars contend ‘the complex links
between power, interest, and norms defy analytical capture by any one paradigm.
They are made more intelligible by drawing selectively on different paradigms—
that is, by analytical eclecticism, not parsimony’ (Katzenstein & Okawara, 2001,
p. 154; see also Manicom, 2006). Yet, if eclecticism is understood as supporting
the competitive application of multiple theories to the same scenario, it becomes
of limited use for policy makers. As different assumptions result in different
policy prescriptions, the policy maker must still determine which theory applies
in which context. A more useful approach is to work towards what Makinda terms
a ‘self-conscious eclecticism’—the melding of variables from different approaches
into a ‘single coherent framework’ (2000, p. 206). With that goal, the emerging
theory of neoclassical realism provides some promise. To be sure, neoclassical
realism is not ‘agnostic’ regarding ‘first principles’ of epistemology, as encour-
aged by some advocates of eclecticism (Sil, 2000, pp. 376–380; Sil & Katzenstein,
2010, p. 421). It privileges positivist notions and is built upon a rationalist founda-
tion emphasizing power; yet it recognizes that perceptions, structure, culture and
self-interested agents can influence particular policy choices. While eclectic in
terms of seeking to integrate insights from liberal and constructivist scholarship in
a context-dependent manner, neoclassical realism remains grounded in the realist
This article examines various theoretical viewpoints, assessing their success in
explaining current Japanese security policy towards China. As China’s material
power has increased, Japanese policy makers have had to assess what this change
means for Japan’s security and how Japan should respond. At the heart of the
matter are basic questions: should Japan balance against increasing Chinese
power, why or why not, and, if yes, how? Although a single case study lacks exter-
nal validity, it can offer insight as to causation. Given the abundance of theoreti-
cally important factors present in the bilateral relationship between Japan and
China, it provides a unique opportunity to test theories against one another while
minimizing the possibility of confounding influences.
Herein, we review theories from each of the three leading IR frameworks,
examining structural realism, neoliberal institutionalism, liberal interdependence
and social constructivism. Deriving specific hypotheses from each theory, we
consider the evidence, looking specifically for indications of the theory’s causal
logic at work in the security policy of Japan towards China. In the following
section, we briefly recount the theories, generating hypotheses and considering
the evidence for each. Finding some support for structural realist and constructivist

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