LOS ANGELES – Japan’s alliance with the United States remains the centerpiece of its strategic policy, yet Washington appears increasingly reluctant to get drawn into Sino-Japanese territorial disputes. If anything, the U.S. seems concerned that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may view U.S. treaty guarantees as a shield for Japan to confront an increasingly assertive China in the East China Sea.
The hard fact is that Washington seems as concerned about a muscular China as it is about a revisionist Japan.
The U.S. has a major stake in maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with both Japan and China. Although Japan remains under the U.S. security umbrella, China — as a permanent U.N. Security Council member, an emerging great power, and the biggest buyer of U.S. Treasuries — matters more to U.S. interest now than possibly any other Asian county.
In fact, the more geopolitical heft China has accumulated and the more assertive it has become in pushing its territorial claims with its neighbors, the more reluctant the U.S. appears to be to take sides in the Asian territorial disputes, although they involve its strategic allies or partners, with Beijing seeking to change the status quo by force.
Washington has made it amply clear that despite its “pivot” toward Asia, it will be neither willing to put Americans at risk to defend its allies’ territorial claims against China nor act in ways that could damage its close political and economic engagement with Beijing.
After all, the “pivot” is intended not to contain China but to undergird the permanence of America’s role as Asia’s balancing power — an objective that has led Washington to tread a course of tacit neutrality on territorial disputes between China and its neighbors. The U.S. has been willing to speak up only when Chinese actions threaten to impinge on its interests, such as ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
To be sure, the U.S. has an interest in preventing the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. But it has no interest in getting entangled in Asia’s territorial feuds. If it can, it would like to find a way to support Japan without alienating China, a tough balancing act.
America’s tightrope-walk imperative seemingly has encouraged China to up the ante against Japan through a campaign of attrition over the control of the Senkakus. Incursions by Chinese ships into the five uninhabited islands’ territorial waters have become almost a daily affair, raising the risks of unintended military escalation. Yet China is unlikely to back off from this confrontation.
Chinese military planners have probably calculated that in a conflict confined to China and Japan in the East China Sea, with U.S. interests not directly at stake, America is unlikely to threaten devastation of China.
The dilemma for the U.S., however, is that if it did little to come to the aid of Japan in this scenario, it would seriously damage the credibility of American “extended deterrence” globally. That is why Washington is intent on averting a Sino-Japanese military conflict.
America’s dilemma, however, means that Japan must assume greater responsibility to protect itself, without being unduly dependent on the U.S. After a decade in which Japanese military spending slumped more than 5 percent while China’s jumped 270 percent, this means making investments to build requisite defense capabilities to ward off aggression.
In addition to mitigating its structural economic problems, this task, paradoxically, entails recourse to the very factor that has instilled disquiet in some quarters — Japanese revisionism. Japan’s U.S.-imposed antiwar Constitution must be changed to allow its “Self-Defense Forces” to become a full-fledged military and to acquire offensive weapon systems.
With 6,800 far-flung islands, Japan needs a more credible air-sea deterrent capability, including first-strike weapon systems like cruise missiles and strategic bombers as well as amphibious infantry forces that can defend the outlying islands. Japan also must accelerate moves to create a single, unified command for its army — the Ground Self-Defense Forces — which, during U.S. occupation, were deliberately divided into several regional commands to keep them institutionally weak as a voice in policymaking.
The U.S. — to help undergird its long-standing role in Asia — has an important stake in maintaining forward military deployments in Japan, especially in Okinawa. Yet Tokyo has legitimate reasons to worry that the U.S. might hesitate to militarily defend Japan if it is attacked by China over the Senkaku dispute.
Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands does not mean that if China employs military force in the dispute, the U.S. would take all necessary actions, including the use of its military capability, to repulse the Chinese action.
After the staggering cost in blood and treasure exacted by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, a war-weary U.S. has absolutely no desire to get involved in another war, especially one where its interests are not directly at stake.
Indeed, Americans are not just war-weary, they are also war-wary. Significantly, the U.S. has taken no position on the Senkaku sovereignty issue.
Put bluntly, Japan must not overly rely on America for protection against China. In fact, the more powerful China grows, the less Japan can depend on U.S. security guarantees. The logical response to its security predicament is for Japan to strengthen its own conventional deterrent capability.
Japan, territorially, is a status quo power vis-a-vis China. Given that defense is always easier than offense, Japan, with more robust air and sea assets, can give China a bloody nose if it were attacked.
As for the U.S., the changing geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific is diminishing the importance of its security alliance with Japan. With the U.S.-China equation at the center of the geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific, the obsolescence of the U.S.-Japan alliance as the strategic anchor of regional stability is now conspicuous, despite occasional claims to the contrary. In the coming years, Japan will find itself increasingly buffeted by developments in the U.S.-China relationship.
China will clearly prefer a Japan that remains dependent on America for its security than a Japan that plays a more independent role. The fact, however, is that the post-1945 system erected by the U.S. is more suited to keep Japan as an American protectorate than to allow Japan to effectively aid the central U.S. objective in the Asia-Pacific — a stable balance of power.
A subtle U.S. policy shift that encourages Tokyo to cut its dependence on America and do more for its own security can assist Japan in building a more secure future for itself that helps block the rise of a Sino-centric Asia.
Whatever Washington decides, it is past time for Japan to get serious about bolstering its defenses, reasserting the right to collective self-defense as permitted under international law, and forging countervailing geostrategic partnerships with like-minded Asian states.
Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).