An Ominous Pledge
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Defense (Flickr)

An Ominous Pledge

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The recent tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have garnered much attention. While some analysts have noted that the territorial dispute could easily spiral into a trade war, others have hailed the episode as a harbinger of the potential danger of China’s rise in the coming years.

But this is, of course, not a new story—Japan formally annexed the Senkakus in 1895, and the Chinese have claimed the territory for decades. What’s more, the two parties had a row over the uninhabited islands in the autumn of 2010. While this particular episode may already be subsiding, a repeat incident reminds us the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue is not likely to be settled any time soon.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is a particularly thorny one because of the way it involves the United States. American officials have long maintained that the islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan security guarantee, because they fall under Japanese administrative control. In this most recent episode, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reminded both the Chinese and the Japanese of this important fact. What this means in treaty terms is that an unprovoked attack on Japan in the Senkakus can trigger military intervention by the U.S. That the islands are chiefly inhabited by goats is of little consolation here. The territory falls under the U.S.’ extended deterrent “umbrella,” and as such, could be a flashpoint in the Pacific in the years to come.

The United States has extended deterrence to close allies since the beginning of the Cold War. It has extended a formal security guarantee to Japan since 1951. Throughout the Cold War, scholars and policymakers were keenly aware of an inherent “credibility problem” that came along with this type of alliance. If a major war broke out, would the United States really be willing to resort to nuclear weapons on behalf of an ally given the potentially devastating consequences it would face? In other words, could it really promise to trade Paris for Washington, or Bonn for New York? This debate raged for decades. So why is the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue any different than the extended deterrence dilemmas of yesteryear? There are at least two reasons. 

The first is a problem of assurance.  In any extended deterrence relationship, the party providing the guarantee has to convince the recipient that it really will come to its aid if it is attacked. It is relatively easy for the U.S. to make this case with regard to Japan’s home islands . The United States maintains several bases in Japan, and troops have been deployed there since the end of World War II. If Japan was attacked, it is entirely likely that U.S. citizens, as well as Japanese would be victims, making a coordinated response all the more credible. The U.S. and Japan have also spent decades working out what a joint allied response to an attack would look like. Beyond logistical military planning, these open channels of communication serve to reassure the Japanese politically that the U.S. will fulfill its treaty commitments in the event of a conflict. 

The Senkakus are different however. Because the islands are uninhabited, the question of what would constitute an unprovoked attack on Japan is less clear. There are no citizens, either Japanese or American, who are at risk, and there are certainly no military bases or “trip wire” forces.  And despite the U.S. position that the treaty covers the Senkakus, one could not blame the Japanese for worrying that their alliance partner may not see the same vested interest in defending the islands as they would in defending Tokyo. Behind closed doors, U.S. officials have presumably reiterated and explicated their commitment to defending the islands. But American officials may not have an incentive to doggedly insist that the U.S. military will defend the Senkakus as though they were the American homeland.

The reason for this is the problem of moral hazard. An ironclad alliance promise for joint defense of the islands could theoretically create some perverse incentives when the next row with China occurs. An unflappable belief in U.S. support on this particular issue could lead the Japanese take a harder line than they would if they were slightly less sure about how the security guarantee applied to the islands. There is no reason to believe that the Japanese would escalate a crisis irresponsibly, and crisis communication between the allies has historically been excellent. But a further complication is this: In both the recent row and the 2010 standoff, both China and Japan engaged in very low-level provocations. One hopes that the conflict will not rise above this threshold at any point in the future. But if a Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute were to involve a serious use of force in the future, it could be very difficult to decide “who started it.” Was the Chinese movement of maritime vessels the first move, or was the Japanese purchase of the islands a provocation? In the first case the U.S. security guarantee is triggered; in the second case it is not. These alliance problems are extremely difficult, but make it is easy to see why the Senkakus are their own extended deterrence dilemma for both Tokyo and Washington.

The second problem is one of deterrence.  During the Cold War, lines of amity and enmity were reasonably clear, especially for the first two decades of that standoff. The United States had allies in NATO, its bilateral alliances in East Asia, and pacts like ANZUS and SEATO. They were all more or less constructed in opposition to the Soviet (and Chinese) communist threat. These lines got blurrier during Détente, and following Nixon’s opening to the PRC, but the basic point still stood: It was reasonably obvious who was to be deterred and who was to be reassured. When a crisis erupted (say, the various standoffs over Berlin), the United States could send clear signals that it intended to defend its allies unequivocally. These signals included things like public statements of support and enhanced military cooperation (e.g. symbols of commitment like joint exercises). But in this particular conflict, this kind of signaling is not desirable. 

The reason for this is that China is not an adversary, and the Obama administration has been careful not to treat it as such. The U.S. has taken pains to stay publicly neutral on this iteration of the territorial dispute, despite its obvious treaty commitments. Just last week, Secretary Panetta announced the decision to place new missile defense radar in Japan—an important, but fairly routine sort of signal of military interest in an ally during a time of crisis. The next day, however, Panetta was in China, with the primary goal of building better military-to-military ties with Beijing. The U.S. has long exhorted the Chinese to be more forthcoming about the nature of its growing military capabilities, and enhanced military-to-military ties are crucial. Panetta’s visit to a Chinese naval base was an important step towards defense transparency between the two great powers. The United States’ interest in mitigating military uncertainty with China will not and should not be a passing one. But this brings with it its own set of challenges. The Chinese have long worried that U.S. security commitments are an effort to contain the PRC. U.S. goals vis-à-vis China will have a major effect on the way that the U.S. can signal to the Japanese in times of difficulty.

Contrast this, if you will, to the kinds of signals that are appropriate to send to the ROK. Following North Korean nuclear and missile tests or acts of serious provocation like the sinking of the Cheonon or shelling of Yeonpeon, the U.S. routinely reiterates its unequivocal commitment to stand by South Korea. The two countries hold very public joint military exercises, and have decided to retain their longstanding joint force structure for a few more years.  The U.S.-ROK-DPRK military dynamic is by no means a desirable one, but it involves a very different type of communication than the Sino-Japanese-American relationship, especially where deterrence and reassurance are concerned.

So what is to be done about the extended deterrence dilemma in the East China Sea? It is clear that carefully calibrated diplomacy will be required to meet these assurance and deterrence challenges. There will be no room for Cold War-like rhetoric that supports our allies at the expense of alienating crucial partners.  One important initiative is already under way. 

In 2011, the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee announced the Extended Deterrence Dialogues—a standing consultative mechanism that allows the allies to stay in close communication on issues relating to the security guarantee during peacetime. A similar institution, called the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee was created for the U.S.-ROK alliance. Since 1966, NATO has had a Nuclear Planning Group, which allows for allied consultation on crucial defense-related matters, and these initiatives are welcome additions to U.S. partnerships in East Asia. Peacetime consultation mechanisms encourage alliance cohesion, and make it more likely that allies will be on the same page if and when crises do occur. And standing channels for communication like the EDD mean that public, but potentially polarizing demonstrations of the U.S. commitment to Japan may not be required during crises to reassure this important ally.

Closer peacetime communication and planning between the U.S. and Japan and increased military transparency between the U.S. and China will both go a long way in helping to mitigate the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes of the future. But striking a balance between these priorities will be difficult. There is no question that on crucial questions of extended deterrence, we are in uncharted waters. 

Mira Rapp-Hooper is a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University where she is completing a dissertation on extended deterrence and alliance politics.

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