Westerners are nothing if not breathless about China. Books describing its rise often have titles like When China Rules the World, Contest for Supremacy, Eclipse(of the U.S. by China), and so on. China is such a preoccupation that the U.S. has now “pivoted” to Asia. And the U.S. Department of Defense, eager to cash-in on the China hype in an era of sequestration and domestic exhaustion with the “Global War on Terror,” tells us now that the U.S. must shift to an Air-Sea Battle concept (ASB).
In a not-so-amazing coincidence, ASB is chock of full of the sorts of costly, high-profile, air and maritime mega-platforms the military-industrial complex adores. China’s single, barely functional aircraft carrier—the second one is not due for awhile—is a god-send to hawks and neo-cons everywhere. Even as the U.S. scales back in the Middle East, defense can seemingly never be cut. Indeed, the terrible irony of the pivot to Asia from the Middle East is that ASB platforms like satellites, drones, up-armored aircraft carriers, stealth jets and littoral ships will cost so much that staying focused on the Middle East may well be less expensive. (For a running debate on ASB, start here.)
Before the U.S. goes down this path, with the obvious tit-for-tat arming spiral it may provoke, it is worth noting how many other hurdles China’s rise faces beyond the U.S. military in the western Pacific. Richard Haas recently argued that “foreign policy begins at home.” As the U.S. pivots out of the Middle Eastern quagmire, perhaps America can take some time off to “nation-build at home,” as the president promised, before it rushes headlong into this expensive, provocative ASB posture. The U.S. foreign policy community’s zeal to always find something to do with U.S. power should not blind us to the many local obstacles China faces. The pivot to Asia, like the war in Iraq, is not a necessity; it is a choice. And U.S. voters who would like resources to go to schools, health care, infrastructure, deficit reduction, and so on, should know this:
1. Japan. This is the most obvious reason China will never become hegemon in Asia, much less genuinely challenge the U.S. at the global level. Westerners tend to downplay Japan, because of its terrible deflationary funk over the last two decades. It is true that Japan has slipped far from its glory days when Paul Kennedy put it on the cover the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy. Its military, although numerically smaller than China’s, is far better trained and technologically proficient. And China’s recent replacement of Japan as the world’s second-largest economy seems to have galvanized Japanese voters to a new level of seriousness about getting Japan back on track under Abe.
Sino-Japanese competition goes back to the 19th century, or arguably the Ming dynasty when Japan was the troublesome, badly behaved “little brother” to Confucian China. This hardly means that the two nations are fated to come into conflict. But it does suggest that Japan will not acquiesce to anything like Chinese hegemony or a Sinic Monroe Doctrine. For all the talk about the Middle Kingdom coming back, recall that only one Japanese shogun (Yoshimitsu) ever acknowledged Japan’s inferior status in the older tributary order. Certain Chinese officials, unaccustomed to speaking in front of responsible media, may say foolish things, but in a strictly balance-of-power sense, we can expect the Japanese to go eye-to-eye before accepting Chinese regional primacy.
Like almost everyone else in Asia, Japan is eager to trade with China, but not to be dominated by it. Chinese may say Japan is being “unleashed” (as one colleague once put it at a conference I attended), but so what? Japan is not the revanchist or imperialist China says it is. As Jennifer Lind has noted repeatedly, Japan has come a long way. Bushido militarism is two generations dead, and Tokyo restricts itself to a defense spending cap at just one percent of GDP. Indeed, China shamelessly uses such rhetoric for domestic legitimacy purposes, as well as to deter Japanese re-armament. But if China does not like it, well, too bad? Either they can behave better or face a tougher, more heavily armed Japan. World War II cannot be a permanent, go-to excuse for China to dredge up whenever it wishes to block Japan and grease its own rise. Japan is highly unlikely to roll over for anything like Chinese dominance because of a war seventy years ago.