Review: “China’s Military & the US‐​Japan Alliance in 2030: A Strategic Net Assessment”

This article appeared on China-US Focus on August 29, 2013

Net assessment is a strange enterprise. It mixes the driest, dreariest bean counting with intensely political judgments and debatable projections. At its best, it can go a long way toward understanding not just possible futures, but the thought processes in the foreign policy elite of one's own country. For example, an exceptionally acrimonious debate took place in the late 1980s over net assessment and the conventional balance in Europe.

A new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on the US-China-Japan follows in this tradition of politically illuminating net assessment. Like any report evaluating relations between three countries, decades into the future, and written by committee, the contents are a mixed bag. The least notable aspects of the report are the omnibus data dumps cataloging recent diplomatic and military developments. Indeed, although the military and diplomatic analysis are useful, the important parts of the report are the more intensely political observations that, taken together, indicate that U.S. China policy is headed for trouble.

The report is uncommon in acknowledging central dilemmas in U.S. Asia policy. For example, it admits in places that no matter what steps Washington and Tokyo take, if Chinese economic growth continues at anything near its recent pace, maintaining the extraordinary level of U.S. and allied military dominance in Asia will grow increasingly, perhaps prohibitively costly. Accordingly, the authors argue, change is not merely an option, but almost certainly necessary.

When it comes to Japan, in places the report does not mince words — "Japan is growing more, not less, dependent on the United States for its defense" (p. 5). But not enough consideration is given to how Washington could reverse this trend. Indeed, the report is colored by a tone of exasperation at Tokyo's ambivalence about its role in its own defense, but the authors give short shrift to the — admittedly heretical in Washington — idea that the only way to force a more responsible defense posture on Tokyo would be to cultivate uncertainty about the contexts in which Washington would threaten war with China on Japan's behalf.

Thus, despite conceding that "the more Washington reassures Japan about its security commitment, the less inclined Tokyo might be to strengthen its own defense" (p. 180) the authors shrug and move on to boilerplate language about "developing both a clear and common understanding with Tokyo of the long-term responsibilities" of Tokyo and Washington, without indicating precisely how the conflicting U.S. objectives of reassurance and stimulus might be pursued simultaneously.

Other parts of the report are less useful. U.S. and Chinese desiderata are described in terms of preservation of the status quo or revision to it, with the normative baggage accompanying revisionism and tacit endorsement of the status quo. Less attention is given to the fact that Beijing may view a situation in which the United States wields "predominant political and military influence across the vast reaches of maritime East Asia" (p. 2) as undesirable.

Even so, however, on page 1 the report admits that China's military modernization is being fueled by "specific concerns over increasing U.S. power projection and related capabilities ... as well as growing tensions with the United States and other regional powers." This indicates that even accounting for the sort of policy fine-tuning the report recommends, Washington and Beijing may be headed for more tension. More precisely, the taproot of the tension runs deeper than small policy tweaks are likely to fix. At times the authors seek refuge in denying, without argument, that "Washington and Tokyo are locked into an inevitable, zero-sum contest of military advantage with Beijing." (p. 308) A nontrivial number of U.S. analysts, like the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer, as well as growing numbers of Chinese scholars think this just might characterize the current situation. They might be wrong, but one would expect an argument to that effect.

The report thus refuses to square up to the idea that security competition is frequently zero-sum. It describes as a Chinese strategic objective to "Deter or complicate any potential attempt by Japan (or the United States-Japan alliance) to threaten ... China's maritime economic supply routes to the outside world." But the same section wonders "whether this security strategy also includes efforts to acquire the capability to threaten Japan's economic lifeline." (p. 46) Since so many of these supply routes are shared, either China controls them, someone else controls them, or they are disputed. There is no way to elide the competitive aspect of strategy.

Relatedly, a Beijing reader may note with interest the report's conventional judgment that "preventing the emergence of a hostile power" (p. 177) in East Asia "that could limit or prevent U.S. access" is the first U.S. interest in the region. How does Washington define "hostile power"? Moreover, why do so many Washington analysts, including the Carnegie report, fail to grasp how Washington's current military dominance threatens others in the region who do not feel comfortable leaving their trade and energy supplies at the whim of U.S. foreign policymakers?

In the end, the Carnegie report serves as a useful spur to more criticism of U.S. China policy and Japan's role in same. Looking into the future, the report views two trilateral scenarios as most likely: a slow erosion of the U.S.-Japanese advantage, and a more rapid "significant weakening of allied deterrence capabilities and the unnerving of other Asian nations." (p. 238) Given that no responsible analyst should view either scenario with aplomb, one should hope it serves as a clarion call.