For too many years, U.S. foreign policy has been excessively preoccupied with the internal and external crises and fiascos of the Mid-eastern and Muslim nations. Although the calamitous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, understandably focused U.S. concerns upon the defeat and deterrence of al Qaeda and other Mid-eastern terrorists, the obsessive preoccupation with issues in that area of the world has been unnecessarily prolonged.Such diplomatic myopia is especially misplaced in light of ominous recent developments in other parts of the world -- developments involving nations of far greater size, population, power, and significance than the largely backward Muslim-dominated states of the Mid-East.
Like the fictional Smaug in his cave, the mighty Chinese Dragon is stirring and spreading its military wings, with ominous implications for peace and stability in its regional neighborhood. A justifiably alarmed Japan looks to its defenses, finds them woefully inadequate, and contemplates strengthening its military posture to a degree that China is likely to find counter-provocative -- raising the prospect of a dangerously escalating game of politico-military poker. Meanwhile, both Koreas warily observe these developments from behind their respective national barricades, while massive and nuclear-armed India observes from a distance, with an eye towards an increasingly advantageous partnership with Japan.It is becoming difficult to keep pace with the daily reports of disturbing developments concerning Chinese military and political ambition, aggressiveness, and expansionism. From the U.S. perspective, China's steady movement towards the completion of a modern Blue Water Navy to challenge the U.S. Seventh Fleet's maritime superiority in the East and South China Seas, and ultimately the Western Pacific, is the probably most disturbing trend. In an especially significant breakthrough, the construction of China's first domestically-produced aircraft carrier was recently commissioned, which will result in a major expansion in the power projection of what is already the largest navy in Asia. In all, China will reportedly add four aircraft carriers to its fleet as part of its current naval expansion.
Inasmuch as China has just surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest trading nation, and most of its trade is maritime, its desire to insure the security of its trade lanes with an improved navy might seem understandable. But other military and diplomatic activities strongly indicate that Chinese naval expansion is more aggressive than defensive in nature – especially since it is not responsive to any aggressive activities or threats from China's generally docile East Asian neighbors or the U.S.
Most recently, it is reported that China is testing an advanced high-speed hypersonic missile, apparently designed to be carried on the back of an ICBM, from which it could be launched and deliver a warhead at a reported ten-times the speed of sound. The projected hypersonic system appears designed to pierce and circumvent U.S. missile defenses, although China demurely denies such a menacing objective. If the basic facts of the reports are true, however, the hypersonic vehicle represents yet another "great leap forward" -- to borrow a Maoist adage -- in China’s seemingly relentless program to expand its military capacities.
Apart from aggressive expansion of its military and naval capacity, China is simultaneously engaged in fairly radical threats and acts of territorial expansionism and irredentism. It has threatened in recent years to wrestle the fishing-rich but uninhabited Senkaku Islands (which it calls Diaoyu) from Japan, whose claims to the islands date back to the Meiji era and which has exercised active sovereignty over those islands since the U.S. handed over administrative control in 1971. Upping the ante, this past November China purported to establish an expanded East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone ("ADIZ") to encompass not only the Senkakus, but other territorially sensitive sectors of the East China Sea that overlap the territorial claims of other nations.If China were to seriously enforce this expansionist ADIZ, it could generate a military crisis of the first order with the U.S. and Japan, not to mention the Republic of Korea (whose territorial sovereignty is also affronted by the ADIZ). Fortunately for all concerned, however, China did not take any hostile responsive action when both the U.S. (with two B-52's) and Japan sent noncompliant aircraft into the ADIZ to challenge the gambit. Nonetheless, China's willingness to engage in politico-military brinksmanship in East Asia may not always produce the kind of manageable modus vivendi that seems to have emerged thus far from the ADIZ declaration. Just one ill-considered and egregious misstep in these sensitive areas could trigger a highly combustible confrontation with the U.S. Seventh Fleet or the JSDF.
China's provocative behavior in the East China Sea seems particularly ill-timed in one key respect. It plays directly into the hands of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's determination to expand Japan's military capacity and to return Japan to a more "normal" role as an effective power player in international affairs. An increasingly belligerent China, coupled with the reckless bluster and unsettling gambits of the seemingly mad dictator of North Korea, provides Mr. Abe with compelling external justification for his efforts to expand the strength, capacity, and missions of the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) – the constitutional euphemism for the Japanese Armed Forces.Japan has come a long way from the rigidly pacifist post-World War II policies imposed by the U.S. Occupation and codified by Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Although Article 9 purports to "renounce war as a sovereign right of the [Japanese] nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes," and also forewears the maintenance of "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential," the JSDF now has by some estimates the fifth largest military budget in the world. Moreover, the JSDF's arsenal and capacity are expanding under Mr. Abe's nationalistic leadership, with military spending having increased by 2.6% last year. This past November, moreover, the Japanese Diet passed legislation establishing Japan's first National Security Council, modeled on that of the United States. The new arrangements are expected to strengthen Prime Minister Abe's hand in directing and controlling a unified defense policy. This is a far cry from the pacifist Japan that used to recoil in horror and vapors at the thought of nuclear-armed U.S. carriers merely stopping for port and liberty calls at Yokosuka.
Although Mr. Abe's more muscular defense policies have provoked speculation that Japan may be on the brink of repealing or amending Article 9, such speculation is fanciful, or at least quite premature. Powerful countervailing considerations of domestic politics, foreign policy, and regional military stability militate decisively (at least for now) against what would be widely regarded as a drastic and destabilizing step. There is little indication that the Japanese polity is supportive of what would undoubtedly be a deeply controversial repeal campaign, and the potentially severe external reactions on the part of the Chinese and the two Koreas provide additional strong deterrence.In any event, however, as long as the JSDF's mission, forces, and capacities can be plausibly characterized as defensive, Art. 9 should not prevent Japan from making pragmatic and substantial improvements in the capacities of the ground, air, and naval components of the JSDF. In short, Mr. Abe and the LDP can be expected to continue substantial expansion and strengthening of Japan's defense capacity and mission without engaging in unnecessarily provocative rhetoric or political posturing. The more likely, and sounder, approach will be to speak softly, but carry a bigger and more lethal defensive stick.
Nonetheless, Japanese rhetorical and political restraint may not suffice to sooth the regional tension and turmoil generated by the increasingly belligerent attitude and actions of the PRC. Nor is the United States very likely to provide a forceful counterweight to China's expansionist adventures in the East and South China Seas. To the extent that the Obama Administration has an East Asian policy at all, it seems to be one of relative weakness, vagueness, and apathy.
Still, the United States is not the only power that could play the role of White Knight on the increasingly dangerous chessboard of East Asia. India, a nuclear power (with an estimated 100 nuclear weapons) with both human and technological resources comparable to those of China, appears to be moving towards an increasingly friendly and supportive relationship with Japan. Both of these great Asian democracies face territorial, economic, and political threats from China. As the Times of India reported on January 7, Japan and India have initiated concrete steps to strengthen their diplomatic and military cooperation, "with an eye firmly on China." According to the Times, the measures to be pursued by the two nations include joint combat exercises, military exchanges, and cooperation in counter-terrorism, anti-piracy, and maritime security. China is undoubtedly keeping a nervous eye on this developing bilateral cooperation between the capable and resourceful democratic powers on its flanks.
The question remains whether Japan's apparent determination to pursue a strengthened diplomatic and military posture in East Asia, coupled with its enhanced ties with the Indian giant on China's Western flank, will induce Beijing to adopt a more prudent and cautious policy towards Japan and other neighbors in the East and South China Seas. Recent Chinese behavior, however, has not been particularly encouraging in that respect.
If China instead decides to intensify and expand its diplomatic and military belligerence in the region, the East China Sea could supplant the Persian Gulf as the world's most incendiary trouble spot.