Whether animated by economic success, weakened political control over the military during the ongoing leadership transition, or perception of Western weakness, China has been playing an increasingly assertive role throughout the Asia‐Pacific.
The result has been territorial disputes throughout the region. Beijing’s relations with the Philippines and Vietnam have turned truculent. But the former’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has become especially bitter. The territory is controlled by Japan, but the PRC has been sending paramilitary and surveillance ships into the surrounding waters. Although no one really expects the two nations to come to blows, some analysts have noted the possibility of war resulting from mistake or miscalculation.
Washington has taken no position on the respective territorial claims, but two years ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that the islands fell under the U.S.-Japan defense treaty. Ironically, the Senkakus (as the Japanese call the islands) are located near Okinawa, which has the highest concentration of U.S. forces in Asia.
Nevertheless, many Japanese remain skeptical that Americans are prepared to go to war with Beijing to enforce Tokyo’s claims. For good reason—doing so would be madness. Even the small possibility of such a conflict demonstrates the need for revisiting the misnamed “mutual” security agreement.
Last week, Japanese defense minister Satoshi Morimoto proposed updating the alliance defense guidelines to include the Senkakus. He cited “the problem of China’s increasing maritime activities.” Because of the changing security environment, he added, “I want to start a revision of the present state of the U.S.-Japan alliance.”
The last change was in 1997, in response to increased tensions with North Korea. Now Japan, which can’t even have a military according to a strict reading of the U.S.-imposed post‐World War II constitution, wants to add another enemy for America to fight.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which took power three years ago. Although the DPJ moderated its tone during the campaign, the party earlier had pledged to “do away with the dependent relationship in which Japan ultimately has no alternative but to act in accordance with U.S. wishes, replacing it with a mature alliance based on independence and equality.”
But just like some presidential candidates in South Korea, a succession of DPJ prime ministers abandoned the fight for independence and sought even greater U.S. defense subsidies. Despite persistent frustration in Okinawa over the extraordinary burden created by the large American military presence, the DPJ also repudiated its promise to reduce the U.S. footprint there. Tokyo simply abandoned Okinawans to their fate.
The reason is simple. Although Japan possesses the world’s third largest economy, it prefers not to pay for its own defense. Tokyo could and should do more to protect itself and its region, but need not do so as long as Washington is willing to fill the breach.
Not certain that the U.S. would back Japan against the PRC in a war over some barren rocks (which, Tokyo hopes, are surrounded by hydrocarbon deposits), the Noda government wants Washington to make an explicit promise to do so. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems only too willing to make such a commitment. Washington officials apparently were angry over Tokyo’s decision to cancel joint military exercises that would have simulated recapture of an island. Japan decided such a step was too provocative, but the Obama administration believed the cancellation signaled weakness to Beijing.
It is well past time for Washington to stop acting as the world’s 911 number.
Tokyo can deter China. Despite only spending about one percent of its GDP on the military, Japan has created a modern and capable “Self‐Defense Force.” The “Maritime Self‐Defense Force” possesses forty‐eight ships and eighteen submarines as well as seven naval air wings. The “Air Self‐Defense Force” deploys seven combat air wings. If the Noda government began to spend in accordance with its economic resources and perceived security threats, it could quickly create a force which Beijing would have no desire to confront.
Of course, history still hangs over the region. Tokyo’s neighbors would prefer that Japan do little, but that should be of no account to the U.S. nearly seven decades after the end of World War II. These countries can engage in histrionics over the depredations of a long‐defeated militaristic empire only because they expect salvation from the United States in any crisis. Forced to defend themselves, they would quickly reconsider the benefits of Japan‐bashing.
Although the PRC has a large economy, it remains a poor nation. It is surrounded by nations with which it has been at war. Beijing’s relationship with New Delhi, in particular, remains tense. China has been increasing military outlays, but it has devoted much of its effort to the most obvious potential conflict, Taiwan. Despite its bluster, the PRC cannot afford war with Japan, especially over such minimal stakes.
Moreover, Beijing’s increasing aggressiveness should be a wake‐up call for the other states in the region to overcome their differences and cooperate. Individually they are outclassed by the colossus to the north, but collectively they have the political and military wherewithal to constrain China. As long as they can rely on America, however, they need not make the effort. The Philippines is particularly notable for its risible defense efforts and pitiful dependence on Washington.
Obviously Asia matters to the United States. However, no power, including the PRC, is capable of dominating the region. Washington should remain watchful and wary, acting as an off‐shore balancer, ready to act if an overwhelming, hegemonic threat eventually arises. Even if China seeks to play that role, the threat is years, or decades, away. In the meantime, the PRC’s neighbors should be responsible for their own security, especially that of disputed territories.
Today the United States hands out security guarantees like a hotel putting chocolates on pillows. Defense promises are viewed as cheap and warranting wide distribution. Of course, the assumption is that Washington’s promises will never be called upon. Unfortunately, history is filled with examples when security guarantees failed to deter war, including World Wars I and II. The risk is especially great when there is a disparity of interest: both China and Japan care a lot about the islands, while the United States does not care one whit. Thus, Beijing and Tokyo are ready to take big risks while doubting that Washington really is prepared to go to war—which, of course, is why the Noda government wants to rewrite the security guidelines.
Promising to go to war creates another danger for America. When weaker countries are able to get a big brother to stand behind them, they take greater risks. Neither Serbia nor Austria‐Hungary, backed by Russia and Germany, respectively, was prepared to back down during the summer of 1914. More recently, both Taiwan and Georgia have presumed Washington’s support and taunted China and Russia, respectively. Georgia lacked the piece of paper sought by Tokyo and in 2008 paid a high price. Today Japan is cautious. But if it is convinced that it can rely on the U.S. military, Tokyo may very well take a more confrontational stance with the PRC. Which would be in no one’s interest.
Not content with decades of defense by Washington and a continuing guarantee of its internationally recognized territory, Japan wants more. In its view, America should defend everything Tokyo claims to own, irrespective of the legitimacy of those claims and the potential conflicts which could result. Agreeing to such a demand would make no sense even in good economic times. But Uncle Sam is effectively bankrupt, borrowing money from China to spend to defend Japan from China. This is no time to expand U.S. military commitments—to Tokyo or anyone else.
Before being corrupted by the allure of power, the DPJ wanted to end Japan’s unnatural defense dependence on the U.S. The Obama administration should help Tokyo take the first step. Washington should make clear that if Japan claims the Senkaku Islands, Japan can defend the Senkaku Islands.