International relations scholars of the Realist persuasion have long held that when faced with a security threat, states balance against it in two ways. The first way is through internal balancing; that is, by strengthening one’s own capabilities. This is the preferred balancing mechanism for states, according to realists, as it doesn’t force states to rely on allies’ goodwill in meeting their commitments, and doesn’t risk the state being dragged into others’ fights.
However, oftentimes the power disparity between a rising state and its adversaries means that internal balancing alone will not suffice in countering it. In these instances, realists contend, states will seek to align with third parties who also view the powerful state as a threat.
Although the social sciences are nowhere near as exact as the natural ones, East Asia over the past few months have largely followed this pattern, especially with regards to the Philippines and Japan—the two states who have been engaged in the most prolonged and intense maritime standoffs with China in recent years.
Thus, after wrangling with China in the Scarborough Shoal last year, the Philippines unveiled a US$1.8 billion military modernization plan that is heavy on weapons acquisition. Similarly, shortly after taking office in December, Shinzo Abe’s administration asked for two increases in in defense spending in January alone, even though Tokyo hadn’t raised military spending since 2002.
He has also sought to redefine the Japanese Self Defense Forces considerably, allowing them to undertake a far more expansive array of operations than in the past. Notably, one change Abe has been advocating particularly hard for is allowing the SDF to come to the aid of allied nations under the banner of self-defense.
But ultimately neither of these countries can unilaterally compete with China’s military power over the long-run. This is already true of the Philippines, given that in 2011 Beijing’s GDP was over 30 times as large as Manila’s economic output. Not surprisingly, Manila has decided to augment its own military build-up with an aggressive campaign to bring just about anyone to its side, from ASEAN and the U.S., to international courts, Russia and now Japan.
Although Japan could likely defend the Senkaku Islands from China’s military today, the long-term trends are ominous for Tokyo. Accepting this reality, Japan has prudently set out to also strengthen ties with just about everyone as well, from Southeast Asia and the United States, to Russia, Taiwan, India, and even the Middle East. Indeed, Abe has gone so far as to all but invite the former European colonial powers to reassume their previous role in Asia.
Thus far, despite talks of Japan selling ships to the Philippines, Manila and Tokyo have been following parallel but separate tracks in dealing with their maritime dispute with China. This ended this week with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera’s visit to the Philippines this week.
“We face a very similar situation in the East China Sea of Japan. The Japan side is very concerned that this kind of situation in the South China Sea could affect the situation in the East China Sea,” Onodera told reporters after meeting with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltair Gazmin.
“We [therefore] agreed that we will further cooperate in terms of defense of remote islands as well as defense of territory or territorial sea as well as protection of maritime interest," he added, while also voicing Tokyo’s support for the Philippines’ effort to have the UN rule on the South China Sea dispute (despite Japan’s refusal to even acknowledge a dispute exists in the East China Sea).
Onodera’s visit coincided with a large-scale U.S.-Philippine military exercise near the Scarborough Shoal, one that followed closely on the heels of a sizeable U.S. military exercise involving Japan. Interestingly, following a meeting with Onodera’s visit this week, Philippine Defense Secretary Gazmin announced that Manila was looking to build new naval and air bases at the former U.S. base in Subic Bay, and that the U.S. would be granted greater access to these bases—including basing equipment there. Gazmin also said the Philippines would be interested in having other powers have access to the bases, citing Japan as one such power.
“If and when there is agreement on the access, then there will be equipment coming in from the (United) States,” Gazmin said.
“Now as far as Japan is concerned, we do welcome other countries — particularly Japan since Japan is a strategic partner — in accordance with our existing protocols.”
Make no mistake— this budding U.S.-Japan-Philippine axis is made in China. That’s not to say Beijing alone is at fault for all its maritime clashes. Indeed, in the case of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, it was Japan which first challenged the status-quo.
Still, as China’s power grows it will be held to a higher standard than some of its weaker neighbors, if only because these neighbors will see their futures as increasingly dependent on maintaining unity in the face of the Chinese leviathan. And this is and always has been China’s Achilles’ heel; while any cohesive Chinese state that occupies its current borders is destined to tower over the region, it will never be powerful enough to defeat large coalitions of its numerous neighbors.
Traditionally, Chinese leaders have sought to deal with the possibility of strategic encirclement by using “barbarians to check barbarians.” At various times over the last year or two, Beijing has seemed to abandon this divide and conquer strategy entirely, in favor of one that increases friction with nearly every power in the region, often unnecessarily. A good example is the passports Beijing issued last year that showed China stretching from India to the entirety of the South China Sea.
The result has been, as demonstrated in a recent report by the Center of a New American Security, rapidly increasing ties between China’s neighbors, often independent of the United States. The Taiwan-Japan fishery agreement and Japan and Philippines strengthening defense ties are just two of the latest examples of this.
Unfortunately, China’s senior leaders often seem oblivious to how their own actions are producing these changes, and instead remain convinced they are a part of a larger conspiracy hatched in Washington.
But, as Joe Nye has pointed out repeatedly over the last decade and a half, starting with Bill Clinton post-Cold War U.S. administrations rejected a containment strategy against China because they reasoned it would be “difficult to persuade other countries to join a coalition to contain China unless China resorted to bullying tactics, as the Soviets did after World War II. Only China, by its behavior, could organize the containment of China by others.”
In other words, Chinese foreign policy is making Washington’s job easier.