World politics suddenly got very interesting in the past couple of weeks. China declared an “air defence identification zone” over the East China Sea, a region that includes the Senkaku islands that are “administered” by Japan and claimed by the Chinese. This was a thinly disguised territorial grab even though aircraft are merely required to alert the Chinese authorities and stay in radio contact whilst transversing the zone. The Japanese promptly flew military planes into the zone without informing the Chinese. The Americans followed with two unarmed B-52 bombers. China responded by flying a few sorties itself but did not try to intercept the American or Japanese warplanes.
So, did Obama call Xi’s bluff? Not so fast. Just the week after, the Obama administration informed US commercial flight operators to comply with the Chinese authorities. Predictably, this infuriated the Japanese and the Koreans, who will have an earful for Vice President Joe Biden, who is flying to Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul this week. Biden is expected to urge the three capitals to calm down. The risk of miscalculation in a region bristling with military hardware just took a quantum jump.
The United States faces a delicate balancing act. The US would like to maintain its preponderance in the Western Pacific. Geopolitically, Japan and Britain play the role of gatekeepers of Eurasia. The US cannot bring any significant amount of military power to bear in the key regions of Eurasia that are home to all the great powers, without the cooperation or subjugation of these two states. The two are, therefore, the most important geopolitical allies of the United States. In Japan, it has a great power ally that is not only indispensable for the projection of American power in Northeast Asia, unlike all other regional partners, Japan also has sufficient wherewithal of its own to significantly augment American force projection in the region. US-Japanese ties will only strengthen as China continues to rise.
As China grows more powerful, it will try to become preponderant in its own region. This process is already well underway. The rapidly increasing threat from China is pushing its neighbours – Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines – into American arms. At present, the military gap between the US and China is big enough for the Americans to not be worried. However, as the military gap closes, it will become mighty hard for the United States to project enough power to contain China in its own neighbourhood. This is simply because it is very hard to project power across an ocean as vast as the Pacific, even for a hyperpower like the United States. At some point before the Chinese catchup with the Americans, the United States will no longer be able to balance China so close to the centre of Chinese power.
Indeed, the nature of the challenge is well-understood by US policymakers. China is gearing up to push the American presence back to the “Second Island Chain.” The region between the first and second island chains is populated by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Guam – all US protectorates. If the United States is to remain committed to maintaining its primacy in the Western Pacific – the status quo – there is simply no way to avoid a major confrontation. In the unforgettable words of John J. Mearsheimer, “To put it bluntly, China cannot rise peacefully.” Moreover, the United States will have to expend considerable resources just to maintain the existing security order in Asia. Hugh White has argued that China ought to be accommodated:
The main reason is simply that China no longer accepts U.S. primacy as the basis for the Asian order, and that as its power grows to equal and overtake America’s, the chances of successfully imposing primacy on China are too low, and the risks and costs of trying are too high, to be justified.
Even if China may not become strong enough to dominate Asia itself, it is already strong enough to prevent the U.S. maintaining primacy. If America tries to perpetuate the status quo, there is a very real risk of an escalating contest which neither side could win, and which could very easily flare into a major, and perhaps catastrophic, war.
Unfortunately, Washington is committed to containing China’s rise. US policymakers reckon that China is at best decades away from standing up to the US militarily. They may be quite right. In any case, when has a reigning hegemon ever accommodated a rising power in history? If history is any guide, the United States will follow a hawkish policy, perhaps precipitating a cold war as China closes in on the US. It makes sense for a militarily dominant state to attack a rising power before it closes the military gap.
Now, Japan is a US protectorate. This was relatively unproblematic in the bipolar period since Japan was very far from the centre of Soviet power, located as it was west of the Urals, thousands of miles away. China is right across the pond. In a rising China, Japan faces an existential threat. Unlike the phoney ‘existential threat’ claimed to be posed by a nuclear-armed Iran to Israel, this one is pretty real. Japan has strong reasons to fear abandonment by the United States. The dilemma faced by Washington policymakers is that while water-tight security commitments are sufficient to assuage Japanese fears of abandonment, they encourage Japanese belligerence and increase the risk that the US will be drawn into to a major war by its junior partner.
Should the US go to war with China if the latter seizes the Senkaku islands by force? Fortunately, the United States has plenty of military options short of war that can be deployed to defend the status quo. Indeed, a naval skirmish over the islands will be a major setback for China, even as it serves to re-establish US hegemony in the Western Pacific. The Chinese leadership understands this very well. However, even a limited conflict would undermine the US-China bilateral relationship and hurt US interests over a range of issues of global importance. The United States values its working relationship with the Chinese and is loath to be drawn into a firefight over tiny specks of zero strategic significance. Japanese bravado may be politically useful to Monsieur Abe, but it is a major headache for the unipole.
The official solution has been to hedge. The US has maintained a position of “neutrality,” saying that it would go along with any peaceful bilateral resolution of the territory by Japan and China. Moreover, the US recognizes Japanese administration of the islands. Furthermore, that the United States is opposed to any change of the status quo by force. However, never before has the United States flexed its military muscles over these islands. The dispatch of two B-52s is quite significant. It demonstrates that the United States has been pulled into the regional bipolar game further than it wanted to. This underscores an important point in world affairs: more often than not, “pull factors” are much more important than “push factors.” From this point on, the United States is committed to respond with force if China tries to annex these islands at the risk of losing credibility.
Some commentators scoff at ‘credibility’ issues. For instance, Stephen Walt dismissed the claim that US credibility was undermined by Obama’s backing away from using force against Assad. Sure, credibility is no big deal when dealing with regional powers. The US does not need much credibility in the Levant; it has no vital interests at stake. Nothing short of the establishment of regional hegemony in the Persian Gulf by a hostile power can adversely affect US security in the Middle East. When dealing with great power allies on the other hand, credibility is very important.
If Japan reckons that the US security commitment is not credible, it will either balance China on its own (increase military spending, launch an arms build-up, and develop nuclear weapons), or even worse, bandwagon with China, abandoning the US alliance to become a junior geopolitical ally of its powerful neighbour. The latter would be a major setback for US’ geopolitical position. The former may not be so devastating but it would also reduce US’ leverage over Japan and thereby undermine its power position. Since Japan is indispensable for US power projection in the region, an autonomous Japan is a latent threat to US primacy. US participation in the Asian balance of power would be dependent on its ‘relationship status’ with Japan.
To put it bluntly, the United States cannot afford to lose credibility in Asia. China should refrain from escalating this any further. It is not yet ready.