If The U.S. And Japan Don't Deter China, Dominos Will Fall

Yoichi Funabashi, former editor-in-chief of Japan’s leading paper, Asahi Shimbun, is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and a member of The WorldPost Editorial Board. He spoke with The WorldPost last week.

THE WORLDPOST: How should the U.S. and Japan deal with the rising tensions with China over territorial claims in the East China Sea?

FUNABASHI: It is imperative for the U.S. and Japan to strengthen deterrence against the background of China’s more assertive posturing, particularly with respect to their territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands.

"If the US does not act robustly enough in defense of Japan, then its commitments anywhere will be called into question. Its credibility as an ally will be fundamentally undermined. We will see a new “domino effect” across the Asia-Pacific."

Historically, the U.S.-Japan alliance has been structured as a kind of division of labor where the US used Okinawa and other installations as a base to project power and stabilize the region while Japan’s own territorial defense role has been blurred, Japan has supported U.S. global strategy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but left its own backyard to the American umbrella.

This is the first time ever that a conflict has arisen directly related to Japan’s territorial security. That is testing the alliance. For the first time, Japan fears that it has a security risk where it cannot automatically rely on American protection. And it also fears that the U.S. may be tempted to avoid “entanglement” with the US-Japan alliance over the Sino-Japanese territorial, and possibly military, conflicts.

Senkaku is very different from the other disputes in the South China Sea. The United States controlled the region around Senkaku between 1945 and 1972 before Okinawa became part of Japan. Okinawa remains one of the largest US air and marine bases anywhere, one of the “three pillars” of its global defense posture. Also, it is very close to Senkaku, which is why these islands are a focal point for security.

For all these reasons, the U.S. and Japan cannot just stand by as China becomes more aggressive. Unless China backs off, the US will at some point be obliged to intervene or force Japan to act on its own. But at what point, in what way?

The situation is truly perilous. This is not just Japan and China fighting over some rocks in unknown waters; it is the heart of the U.S. military alliance system. If the U.S. does not act robustly enough in defense of Japan, then its commitments anywhere will be called into question. Its credibility as an ally will be fundamentally undermined.

In that event, we may see a new “domino effect” in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. There are plenty of other maritime security threats in the East and South China Sea that have been contained by the U.S. presence. If Japan questions the US commitment, so will everyone else: South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.

It is therefore imperative for the U.S. and Japan to map out a new strategy. Military planners in the U.S. are keenly aware of all this. They have sent a clear message to Japanese political leaders that Japan should refrain from nationalist agitation and provocative acts.

Restraint combined with a deterrence I call “quiet deterrence.” There are four elements to this quiet deterrence strategy.

First, we need to make clear that the U.S.-Japan alliance is not designed to contain and encircle China, or make it an enemy. That is not doable. It is too big. It is too interdependent. And we are all too interlinked economically.

Second, we must make it clear to China that becoming more aggressive will be counter-productive for its own interests; that aggressive acts will dismantle the stability –- which has been the condition of its rapid development -- that has arisen from its “peaceful rise” posture. If it continues to follow this course, China will breed hostility instead of cooperation and undermine the successful foreign policy it has pursued for the last 30 years.

We must make it clear that the growing power of the military, navy and oil “mafias” in China who are pressing this new aggressive course are putting China’s development at risk.

In the West, in turn, we need to be aware of this internal dynamic and not inflame the nationalist sentiments which will further empower these forces.

When dealing with the maritime disputes, we have to take into account China’s tendency toward “reactive assertiveness.” China always has a pre-meditated action plan to change the status quo on the ground. China has tended to restrain itself while pressuring neighboring countries into a provocation. When the neighboring countries over-react, then China will seize the moment to make a permanent geo-political change.

You may remember former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s “passive aggressive” behavior. China’s approach is not dis-similar from that.

So, a deterrence strategy must be very careful not to play into China’s narrative.

THE WORLDPOST: Yet, this is just what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did recently by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine where, among others, the souls of WWII war criminals are enshrined?

FUNABASHI: That was very unfortunate. Definitely, this act played into the hands of those in China with a more aggressive posture.

The third element of quiet deterrence is to build a coalition of the other like-minded countries in the region to pursue this strategy. In doing so, we must not force the ASEAN countries somehow to decide between the US and China. No ASEAN country wants to make that unpleasant choice. All of them want security, and they all want prosperity, which is very much linked to trade with China.

So, don’t try to divide ASEAN.

Finally, we should not make the mistake of giving only a military cast to deterrence. It has to be bolstered by economic and financial dimensions and be rooted in the larger international order.

In light of this, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is critical. It would be a big mistake to exclude China from this proposed free-trade pact. Including China, perhaps in a later stage, will bolster those who support China’s “opening up and reform” policies against the forces of fledgling nationalism in the military and elsewhere.

By inducing China to reduce the role of its state-owned enterprises as a condition for joining TPP, we can help China avoid “the middle income trap” and further empower the growing middle class that will be an ally for a continuing “peaceful rise” and against counter-productive aggressive behavior.

This is the most crucial strategic bridge we can build with China. It is the greatest deterrence.

Bringing China into a free trade zone with the US and the rest of Asia will consolidate all the stabilizing forces in Asia and, at the same time, dampen the nationalist tendencies not only in China, but in Japan and South Korea as well.