Or to put it differently, does Washington wish to grade China on these matters the way it would grade itself? Was the Iraq war responsible? Are America’s dozens of formal treaty allies constructive? If so, would Chinese alliances with say, Cuba and Venezuela also be constructive? Double standards and fuzzy thinking are at the center of the pivot.
The second major problem with the pivot is that instead of playing the role of offshore balancer, monitoring the balance in Asia and ensuring that no power militarily dominates the region, Washington insists on making China’s rise primarily about U.S.-China competition.
In part, this is a consequence of Washington’s hub-and-spokes system of alliances in Asia. As Georgetown’s Victor Cha, who worked on Asia policy in the National Security Council of George W. Bush, points out, the hub-and-spokes system of alliances in Asia was designed on the basis of what he calls a “powerplay” rationale, in which the United States created a number of asymmetric, bilateral alliances in order, in each case, to “exert maximum control over [its] smaller ally’s actions.” Further, Cha writes, Washington sought to “amplify U.S. control and minimize any collusion among its alliance partners.”
Whatever the logic of infantilizing America’s Asian clients during the Cold War, that logic falls short today. Put bluntly, Asian states have a lot more at stake in China’s growing power. Western analysts like Ian Bremmer and David Gordon argue that the U.S. needs Japan as its “best ally” in Asia, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thinks that “the U.S. needs Japan as much as Japan needs the U.S.”
This is exactly wrong. Japan needs the United States far more than Washington needs Tokyo. Without America, Japan would have to scramble to increase its defense spending and strengthen its posture dramatically, possibly including developing nuclear weapons, or else risk putting its sovereignty in even greater jeopardy than it is today. Without Japan, American sovereignty would not be in danger. Although Japan is a friendly state, an important trading partner, and like-minded about China, it has far more at stake when it comes to China’s rise, and ought to be reminded of this more often.
When it comes to free riding on U.S. military exertions, Tokyo is hardly the worst offender. This year, after a decade of cuts, Tokyo has proposed increasing defense spending by close to 2 percent. Although one percent of Japan’s GDP is not akin to America’s 4 percent of GDP in absolute terms, $53 billion is a fair amount to be spending on defense, particularly given Japan’s appropriate concentration on the Maritime Self-Defense Force. Still this figure is dwarfed by China’s budget both in absolute terms—the best estimates are that China’s budget is between $150-160 billion per annum, depending on currency estimates—and as a percentage of GDP.
One can hardly fault Japan for spending less than China on defense overall, but the fact that it spends less as a percent of GDP should frustrate Americans—who, after all, are bound by treaty to defend Japan.
If Washington were to create some distance between itself and its allies and partners in the region, they would likely spend more on their own defense and collaborate with each other more, independently from the United States. In a recent paper published by the Cato Institute, I deal with the three most common objections to this reasoning: that existing allies cannot balance against China effectively on their own; that they could do so but would refuse to; and finally that if they could and did balance on their own, this would have worse consequences than keeping Washington as the Asian balancer of first resort.
In time, however, U.S. policymakers are going to be forced to rethink the contradiction at the core of its Asia policy. As China continues to narrow the relative balance of power, it will become more and more difficult for Washington to constrain China’s behavior. If states in the region bank on the next 60 years looking like the last 60, the region and the world could be headed for trouble.
Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. This article is adapted from his recent policy analysis, “China, America, and the Pivot to Asia.”