Since ISIL has captured America’s attention by its rapid conquest of much of Iraq and Syria, it has been the focus of American diplomacy, if American diplomacy can be said to have a focus. But given America’s ties with East Asia, events in East Asia pose a greater threat, and provide a greater opportunity. America should build up naval strength so as to retain its position as the key diplomatic player in the region.
A recent poll of Chinese and Japanese citizens by Genron/China Daily finds that 53% of the Chinese respondents and 29% of Japanese respondents expect a war between China and Japan. The poll also finds that 93% of Japanese respondents have a negative view of China and that 87% of Chinese respondents have a negative view of Japan. Tensions in the region are high, and a war would have severe economic ramifications around the world.
This tension arises from China’s economic, military and diplomatic rise, and the aggressive way the Chinese have exercised this newfound clout. The Chinese are well aware that their economy is growing much faster than America’s and that America has chosen to decrease its defense, particularly naval, spending, at the same time as Chinese military, particularly naval, spending is rapidly increasing.
As a result of this confidence, China is asserting its territorial and geopolitical ambitions, including in many cases through the unapologetic display of naval power. Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and even Indonesia have faced Chinese escalation of nautical territorial disputes; India and China continue to dispute the ownership of Arunchal Pradesh/South Tibet; and China continues to claim the entire nation of Taiwan as Chinese territory. Increasing Chinese naval power and geopolitical ambition present a major and destabilizing threat.
As is wont to happen when a country accrues power and uses it against its neighbors, neighboring states have moved to resist. Unsurprisingly, a regional naval arms race is underway. China and India are both developing aircraft carrier fleets; Vietnam is upgrading its navy and other states in the region are purchasing boats and modernizing their fleets.
Most states concerned by Chinese aggression have moved to increase their naval strength. Australia has built a new type of LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) ship, and Japan has built a flat-topped destroyer that some speculate could be used to launch aircraft. Japan, Australia and India have also increased their military cooperation with each other and their naval aid to less powerful states such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Especially notable are the recent Japanese agreements with India regarding economic, diplomatic and nuclear cooperation.
We now come to the opportunity. All the regional powers know that America has significant economic and diplomatic interests in the region which are best served by regional peace and stability. The countries under Chinese threat would be reassured by an increased American military presence in the region. This would represent a credible commitment by America to the safety and security of countries under Chinese threat. The Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia” might have had this effect but deep defense budget cuts have neutralized it.
Taken together, America and those countries under American protection from China would be vastly more powerful than China. Without American protection, however, states in the region would be less powerful than China. They thus need American diplomatic and military support.
Critically, though, America would not be entering into an anti-China coalition analogous to the Cold War containment of the Soviet Union. America has deep, long-standing and extremely important interests in its relationship with China as well. Rather, America would re-establish itself as an influential arbiter of regional disputes. Since American strength would be necessary to prevent China from attaining its goals in regional disputes, America, by either supporting or not supporting China’s adversary in the dispute, could choose whether China would or would not attain its ends. Thus, China would also come to depend on America in securing its interests in the region.
Such a solution would not be new. When Egypt attacked Israel in 1973, America made itself necessary to the security and interests of both Egypt and Israel, first by resupplying Israel, thus preventing an Egyptian victory, and then by using Israel’s resultant position of dependence on the United States to make Israel cease its counteroffensive, which threatened the survival of the Egyptian military. America thereby became the arbiter of disputes in the region, sidelining the Soviet Union.
America can strengthen its position as the arbiter of disputes in East Asia with naval power. Aside from the territorial conflict with India, all the potential disputes are on the water and a naval arms race is underway. America has the most skilled and powerful navy in the world, with unparalleled experience dealing with operations involving multiple militaries, including those of some nations potentially in conflict with China. America thus has the capability to create the necessary balance of power to become the arbiter of disputes.
For America to regain this position, the American commitment must be credible. While the United States Navy is currently much more powerful in the Pacific than the Chinese Navy, China is rapidly arming to close the gap, while the United States is allowing its navy to wither away at an alarming rate, from 594 ships in 1987 to 289 today, reducing our ability to dispatch forces where they are needed around the globe. Until America reverses that erosion, our naval power will be unreliable, and insufficient to enable America to settle regional disputes. In the absence of credible American naval force, American statements about events in East Asia have as much credibility as the bark of a toothless dog. To be relevant, we must have teeth.
Thomas Moriarty is a writer living in New York City.