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Give the Pivot to Asia Some Teeth

The U.S. must ensure a great power rivalry doesn't explode between Japan and China.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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In May of 1916, the greatest naval battle of World War I hurled the two great battleship fleets of Great Britain and Germany into a conflagration that seems more similar to the age of wooden ships and iron men than to contemporary times.

This seems a strange place to begin discussing events in East Asia, particularly in light of the high level talks that Taiwan and China are holding (their first since 1949), and the issue of family reunions being placed back on the table between North and South Korea. However, both of these, like so much that is covered in the media, ignores the issue of great power conflict.

At a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that the tensions between China and Japan are similar to the situation that Britain and Germany found themselves in pre-World War I — having strong trade relationships was not enough to deter strategic differences. There has been an ensuing debate about the translation of the remark, but the truth of the statement remains.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The acolytes who believe that globalization will serve the interest of peace should remember that national interest and geopolitical dictates rule the waves that cause the ship of state to toss and turn. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang offered an aggressive response to Abe’s remarks stating, “What is the significance of making such comparisons? Instead of making an issue of this, it is better for Japan to reflect on its war of aggression.” He continued declaring that any possibility of a meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as Abe has suggested, was out of the question.

China has continued to enflame tensions by its actions in the Pacific, most recently attempting to create a Chinese Air Identification Zone over the Japanese Senkaku Islands. The United States responded by sending two B-52 bombers through the zone stating this “was a demonstration of long-established international rights to freedom of navigation and transit through international airspace.” Abe has been assertive in demanding recognition of Japanese sovereign territorial rights. However, these contemporary flareups are overshadowed by Abe’s grander strategic agenda: the revision of the enforced pacifism of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. We may be witnessing the rise of a new national security doctrine by the Japanese.

Only a few days ago, Abe stated, “As it has been 68 years since its enactment now, national debate should be further deepened toward a revision of the constitution to grasp the changing times. Now is the time for Japan to take a big step forward toward a new nation-building effort.” He has gone further by identifying a goal date for this change. Abe, who has been busy creating an American-style National Security Council, has made it clear that by 2020 Japan should return to being a normal player in international relations and a stabilizing force in the region.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on Chinese hacking.]

Thus, the world witnesses the return of old great power politics to Asia. Although Abe has used the term “active pacifism” to describe this new doctrine, it is doubtful that the foreign policy elite in Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul and Moscow will accept this as anything other than a carefully constructed veil. As with any national security doctrine, the rhetoric and theory must match the practical and the policy.

In response to China’s reorientation toward a blue water navy, enhanced area denial and anti-access strategy, Abe is shifting the defense budget, focusing on plans to add seven destroyers to Japan's navy, including two equipped with advanced Aegis guided-missile systems, bringing the size of its destroyer fleet to 54. It also plans six new submarines, raising its total to 22, and 20 fighter jets, increasing the total to 280. Japan plans to buy anti-missile destroyers, submarines, 52 amphibious vehicles, surveillance drones, U.S. fighter planes and 17 Boeing Osprey aircraft, capable of vertical take-off. It appears that the thrust of the military equipment Japan is investing in is sea and air weapons to defend islands claimed by China, with a special focus on the disputed Senkaku islands. Japanese government guidelines call for ¥24.7 trillion ($239 billion) in defense spending over the next five years.

One question that should be raised is why Japan has chosen this time for such a shift. Japan must ensure its energy supply chain and trade routes. In the past, it has relied on the U.S. Navy to do this. Although the Obama administration has been supportive of Japan over the Air Identification Zone, the announced Asian pivot needs to have real teeth. The United States must act decisively and robustly in East Asia if it wishes to forestall or at least blunt an arms race and rise in tensions. There is no benefit for multipolar great power conflict in the region and the only power to create the conditions for peace and stability is the United States. The choice is between chaos and order.