Assertive engagement: An updated US-Japan strategy for China

(From the National Interest)

By Dennis Blair, Hiroko Maeda

China’s phenomenal economic growth of the past quarter century has been both enabled and welcomed by the United States and Japan. However, with the economic influence and greatly increased military capability funded by that growth, China has developed the power and influence to assert its claims and interests at the expense of other countries in the region and beyond. A combination of historical grievances and authoritarian impulses has fueled China’s persistent and increasingly insistent campaign to expand its current territory and influence around the world. The current American and Japanese strategy of encouraging common economic and diplomatic interests with China, while maintaining military deterrence against direct aggression, is no longer adequate to protect both countries’ interests against Chinese activities such as gray-zone aggression and intellectual-property theft. The U.S.-Japan alliance needs to adopt a more active strategy of its own—“Assertive Engagement”—to protect bilateral interests, while still cooperating with China in forging common responses to common concerns, and equitable and peaceful compromises where interests conflict.

The Current Strategy

Sailors launch Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU) and soldiers assigned the Japan Ground Self Defense Force from the well-deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20) during amphibious assault training in June 2015. US Navy photo.

Sailors launch Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU) and soldiers assigned the Japan Ground Self Defense Force from the well-deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20) during amphibious assault training in June 2015. US Navy photo.

The current strategy of the United States and Japan was first announced in the April 1996 Joint Declaration on Security by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton. Although it has been given different names, the strategy has been remarkably consistent. It has emphasized the concepts of institutionalization and reassurance to channel Chinese behavior, along with internal and external balancing to prepare for stronger opposition to Chinese actions, should that prove necessary. The United States and Japan have employed a mix of cooperation in economic, diplomatic and even some minor military areas—modest military modernization and redeployment of forces and declarations of military red lines on select issues and efforts with like-minded states to strengthen rulemaking in the Asia-Pacific in ways that shape China’s choices.

The objective of this mixed strategy has been to encourage China’s economic development and elicit its participation in solving common geopolitical issues, but limit China’s inclination to expand its power and influence through military coercion or conquest. This strategy of the past two decades has been largely successful: Japanese and American companies have made large profits in China, China has cooperated on selected geopolitical issues such as Iranian sanctions, and China has not expanded its borders. However, the current strategy is inadequate for dealing with China in the future.

Underlying the past strategy was an implicit expectation that in time China would decide decisively to follow one of the two paths. Instead, however, we have seen a clear American and Japanese bias towards interpreting Chinese behavior as following the preferred path of development. A typical example was the final paragraph of President Obama’s remarks following President Xi’s visit to the White House in September 2015: “President Xi, I want to thank you again for expanding your commitment to cooperation between our nations. I believe that it’s another reminder that as we work to narrow our differences, we can continue to advance our mutual interests for the benefit not only of our two peoples, but for the benefit of the world.” Two months later, a trilateral summit among Japan, China and the Republic of Korea resulted in no fewer than six communiqués concerning joint cooperation. Read more

 



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