Naval Gazing in Asia

One reason why it's probably too early to declare the end of the U.S.-Japan alliance: China.

Guang Niu/Getty Images
Guang Niu/Getty Images

If you follow East Asian affairs, you might have heard by now that Tokyo and Washington are squabbling over the future of a U.S. military base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Angry Japanese demonstrators have demanded the base’s removal. The Japanese government has waffled, the Americans have blustered. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on her way to Japan to discuss the issue with the government in Tokyo.

But that story is actually nothing new. It’s part of a long saga that goes back for decades; the latest twist has to do with the arrival in office, last year, of the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama. During the election campaign Hatoyama pledged that he would get the base closed — never mind a previous agreement between Tokyo and Washington designed to lessen burdens on the local population without closing the base altogether. The U.S. Defense Department expressed its displeasure in unusually crude terms, and the rumble was on. The resulting back and forth has poisoned relations between the two countries. Some experts have even taken to fretting that the fracas is endangering the half-century-old U.S.-Japan alliance.

There’s another story from the same part of the world, however, that isn’t getting quite as much press outside of the countries involved — and it’s one that leads to some rather different conclusions about the continued relevance of U.S.-Japan ties. The short version: Irritation at the United States could prove less definitive than mounting fear of China. Earlier this month, a Japanese coast guard vessel was surveying the seafloor in an area considered by Tokyo to be part of its "Exclusive Economic Zone" (EEZ) in the East China Sea. The Chinese have a rather different opinion on the matter, and on this particular occasion they decided to send a message. A Chinese "marine surveillance ship" showed up and basically drove the Japanese ship out of the area.

And that’s not all. In the middle of April, a group of 10 vessels (including two submarines) from the Chinese Navy turned up in international waters not far from Okinawa. The Japanese defense minister called the presence of such a large group of ships "unprecedented" and vowed to bring the matter under investigation. A week earlier a Chinese helicopter zoomed into within 90 meters (295 feet) of a Japanese destroyer that was monitoring another Chinese naval force maneuvering off the Japanese coast. Nerves in Tokyo are officially rattled. The conservative newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun has accused the year-old government in Tokyo of abetting China’s bad behavior by bending over backward to please the Chinese. (Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan won an election that essentially ended half a century of solo rule by the rival Liberal Democratic Party, had also made improving relations with China one of his priorities.) Hideaki Kaneda, a retired vice-admiral who is now director of the Okazaki Institute think tank in Tokyo, faults the government for waiting too long to scold the Chinese after some of the recent incidents. He says that both the political elite and the broader public are "deeply concerned about the Chinese moves."

That Japan and China should be sparring like this is by no means a given. In many respects the two countries’ relationship has never been better. China overtook the United States as Japan’s leading trade partner back in 2006. It was largely demand from China that helped to pull Japan out of the recent economic crisis. And, of course, Hatoyama’s expressed intention to improve relations ought to have helped a bit as well. Not that things were all that bad to begin with, says Robert Dujarric, a security expert at Tokyo’s Temple University: "Every prime minister since Koizumi wanted to engage with China," referring to Junichiro Koizumi, who left office in 2006.

So what’s going on here? Some skeptics — like Tokyo-based political consultant Michael Cucek — say it’s mostly smoke and mirrors: "Both the [Japanese] Self-Defense Force and the [Chinese] People’s Liberation Army have an interest in intensifying the sense of tension between the two countries in order to loosen budgetary purse strings and for reasons of domestic prestige."

There’s undoubtedly an element of truth to this. Yet one suspects that parochial interests don’t explain the whole story. As Kaneda points out, the Japanese government’s defense policy over the past decade has been anything but hawkish: The Japanese military has watched defense spending slide for each of the past seven years. China’s defense budget, meanwhile, has risen sharply — admittedly from a relatively small base. And the trend of Chinese naval ships pushing their way into areas they used to shun is clear enough. One Japanese government official told the Financial Times that the incidents involving Chinese vessels passing through that same area off Okinawa has been steadily climbing over the past three years.

Beneath the two countries’ wrangling on the high seas lies a complicated tangle of legal and political issues. There are, for example, still unresolved territorial disputes between the two governments — especially the one involving a set of islands (known as Diaoyutai to the Chinese and as the Senkakus to Japan) located between Taiwan and the tip of Japan’s southern Ryukyu Island chain (of which Okinawa Island is part).

Perhaps even more contentious, though, is the issue of natural resources. Both China and Japan are desperate for energy to power their industries. (The jury is still out, by the way, but it looks likely that China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy recently — which presumably makes the tensions between the two a matter of some relevance to the world at large.) Tokyo and Beijing adhere to starkly different definitions of their respective EEZs — and both fear establishing bad precedents if they give up so much as a square inch of ocean. In short, even though many economic issues bring the two closer together, there are others that drive them apart.

There is one more layer to the maneuvering, though, and that has to do with Japan’s role as America’s closest and most powerful ally in the Western Pacific. China’s present leadership seems to have made a strategic decision that the Middle Kingdom no longer has to hide its light under a bushel– and that projecting military power is a legitimate way of defending its expanding interests. John Tkacik, who headed China intelligence analysis at the U.S. State Department during the Clinton administration, says, "China is now asserting that it, not Japan, is the preeminent Asian power and that both the Chinese people and the masses of Asia must acknowledge China’s new preeminence." He notes that many of the recent Chinese maneuverings have taken place in waters near those islands that are claimed by both China and Japan. The Chinese, he says, are testing to see how far the Americans are really prepared to stand up for Japan’s side of the argument. "China is probing the U.S.-Japan alliance for fissures."

Of late the Chinese military has become more assertive in Southeast Asia, unnerving some countries there by using naval forces to assert its claims to the contested Spratly Islands, for example. Beijing has also demonstrated that it’s prepared to stake out strategic strong points in the Indian Ocean region, even when that aggravates its biggest regional rival, India. And, of course, ensuring Taiwan’s eventual accession to mainland rule remains a paramount goal of Chinese state policy — so the PLA has been busily working to acquire the technology (like long-range anti-ship missiles) to ensure that it can push back against the U.S. Seventh Fleet if it needs to. (Chinese leaders have a painfully clear memory of how the Clinton administration forced them into a humiliating climbdown over Taiwan back in the mid-1990s, when the United States deployed its then-unassailable fleet to the Taiwan Strait. That was then.)

Sumihiko Kawamura, another Japanese ex-admiral, says that the U.S., Japan, and their regional allies should respond by conducting more joint naval maneuvers, coordinating efforts to monitor Chinese naval movements, and pushing the Chinese "to observe the international standard of modus operandi at the high sea." Kawamura also points out that the Chinese have been mysteriously reluctant to conclude an "incidents at sea" agreement with the Japanese and the Americans. The first such agreement, concluded between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, succeeded in dramatically reducing the sorts of in-your-face naval maneuvers that could have easily led to accidental escalation with potentially disastrous consequences. Establishing some sort of hotline between naval headquarters on both sides of the East China Sea might not be a bad idea, either.

Pretty much all of the experts agree that war remains unlikely. One thing is reasonably certain, though: As China rises, a certain degree of tension with its neighbors is probably unavoidable. The trick will be keeping such tensions at a manageable level. And that is precisely the reason why it’s probably a bit early to be worrying about the end of the U.S.-Japan alliance. For better or for worse, Tokyo and Washington still have clear reasons for making common cause in the realm of security.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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