When a technologically advanced country with a $40 billion defense budget, a highly trained military, and a tight defense alliance with the United States calls you “overbearing,” maybe it’s time to start listening. Japan released its annual defense white paper yesterday, and while it is filled with discussions of global terrorism, North Korea, and other cheery issues, it is Tokyo’s increasing willingness to call a spade a spade in Asia that is getting attention. It may be one thing for Vietnam or the Philippines to complain about China’s bullying, but quite another for Asia’s oldest democracy and the world’s third-largest economy to do so.
In truth, Japan has been steadily changing both its security strategy and its rhetoric in recent years. Last year it published its five-year equivalent of the Quadrennial Defense Review, and made official a change in strategy from worrying about an attack on its northern territories (from Russia) to focusing on the security of its far-flung southwestern island chain that stretches from Kyushu to Taiwan. Japan’s vital sea lanes run through these waters, which separate the East China Sea from the western Pacific, and it is precisely in these areas that China has increased its naval presence. Yesterday’s white paper focused in no small measure on the continuing maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and its southern neighbors; this waterway is even more important to the global economy and is the hinge between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s claim of the entire South China Sea, while fanciful and unenforceable, has nonetheless resulted in an increase in tensions and jockeying for position among China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other nations.
The pressure on the United States to maintain a credible naval and air presence in East Asia is increasing. While Washington has been loath to do anything that would derail a working relationship with Beijing, China’s assertive actions are forcing the issue. The longer Beijing refuses to abide by international norms, the more it feels comfortable sending out larger and larger patrols of ships or flying its aircraft near or into the sovereign airspace of smaller nations, and the more other countries look to the stabilizing role of the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
Unfortunately, senior U.S. service leaders have made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to play that same role when they lose at least $400 billion from their budgets. The distances involved in Asia are enormous, and it can take weeks for ships to transit from Hawaii or even Japan down to the South China Sea. The stress of continuous deployment of our armed forces throughout the region makes it hard to increase the tempo of operations in times of tension or crisis, and we can’t even be sure we have enough ships and planes to do what we want (regardless of our superior technology and training).
In truth, the U.S. will be relying on partner nations like Japan to take up more of the burden in coming years. For the most part, these other countries can only modestly increase their military commitments. Japan is one of the few that could make a significant difference in the naval and air balance of power, if it chose to do so. For that reason, Beijing might stop and think just what it is going to get out of antagonizing all its neighbors.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Harvard University Press).