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Japan-China Relations: Post-Obama Pivot Outlook

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Trans-Pacific View

Japan-China Relations: Post-Obama Pivot Outlook

Insights from Jennifer Lind.

Japan-China Relations: Post-Obama Pivot Outlook
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Jennifer Lind – Associate Professor in the Department of Government, Dartmouth College and Faculty Associate at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University; author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Cornell University Press, 2008) and past consultant for RAND and the Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Defense  – is the 61st in “The Rebalance Insight Series”.

How might the U.S. rebalance to Asia change under a new U.S. president?

Expect a Hillary Clinton presidency to remain committed to the rebalance. She was, after all, a major spokesperson for the policy in the Obama administration. More broadly, Clinton is very much a proponent of a deep engagement or liberal internationalist strategy, so as president she would be concerned with maintaining U.S. power, credibility, and influence in East Asia.

A Clinton White House would depart in some ways from President Obama’s policies in the region. Of course, Clinton opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama has been strongly advocating. And Obama was notably dismissive of reputational arguments to use force to uphold American credibility; Clinton might be a believer in those. If so, given increased Chinese assertiveness in its island disputes, this would prescribe a more activist U.S. policy in those disputes, and would raise the risk of a U.S.-China crisis.

Elaborate on the military aspects of a more “activist” U.S. policy.

A Clinton presidency might bring the White House closer to the views of PACOM [U.S. Pacific Command]. The White House – balancing the multifaceted, deeply integrated, broad U.S. relationship with China – seems more dovish than PACOM, which under Admiral Harry Harris has been bluntly warning about Chinese aggressiveness. Under Clinton, who is known to be more hawkish than Obama, the White House may shift more toward the PACOM side of the spectrum.

A Donald Trump presidency is of course a very different story. His policy agenda is, as the New York Times recently put it, “opaque and improvisational.” But from what we can tell, Trump is campaigning against a liberal internationalist platform, so assuming he would pursue such an agenda while in office, his presidency would bring big changes.

Trump has talked a lot about U.S. allies needing to spend more on defense. This part is not unusual; all politicians say they want the U.S. allies to spend more and do more. What sets Trump apart is that, as he puts it, he’s prepared to “walk” if they don’t.

Liberal internationalists accept buck-passing by rich allies because: a) they fear the effects of regional arms races, so want to prevent them, and b) liberal internationalists believe that if America has influence in other countries’ security policies, this will translate to economic and other gains for the United States.

Now, what we can infer from Trump’s statements is that he does not want to use U.S. money or military power to prevent regional arms races – so that if Japan and China end up fighting a war, that’s their problem. Furthermore, Trump doesn’t believe that American influence has brought the United States significant gains. He actually believes the opposite – he emphasizes the “bad deals” our government has made. So expect a President Trump to change those deals. Whether he will just join the long line of presidents entreating our allies to spend more, or will actually “walk” is anyone’s guess.

What is the potential impact of a Clinton presidency on Japan-China relations?

Japan-China relations are worsening because of larger forces than who sits in the White House. China is a rising great power; the rise of a great power always creates unease among existing great powers. Remember the 1980s, when Americans were concerned about the rise of Japan – a democracy and U.S. ally! Worse, Japan and China have a territorial dispute that could serve as a flashpoint for conflict. So these factors point to a competitive strategic relationship at this time, regardless of who leads the United States.

A Clinton presidency would continue the U.S. rebalance, strengthening U.S.-Japan deterrence of China. Tokyo and Washington would likely continue to build partnerships with Asian democracies that also feel threatened by China’s rise. On the one hand, all of this will be upsetting to China, which already feels that the United States is trying to “contain” it. On the other hand, the alliance, especially if they have other partners, would present a stronger deterrent that Beijing would be less likely to test.

What about a Trump presidency? If a Trump-led U.S. “walks,” what are options for Japan, a U.S. security ally?

If Trump doesn’t get a “good deal” from Japan and prepares to “walk,” then Japan might take one of two paths. Japan could resign itself to demographic and economic decline, continue to spend little on defense, and just decide to live in China’s Asia and hope for the best. That’s the path of least resistance. In such a world, Japan and China would continue to trade and interact productively together in many ways, but China would have the ability to push Japan around when it felt like it (which could be a lot).

Alternatively, Japan could react to a U.S. “walk” by acquiring the power projection and nuclear weapons capabilities that it currently lacks. One gets the feeling that this is the path Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would want to take, but one wonders if the country would be up for it. On this path, Japan might increase defense spending significantly: to two or three percent of GDP. This would be a major increase, but would still be less than what great powers that are facing threats normally spend.

Today when I talk to Japanese people about numbers like this, they react with total incredulity. Japan also currently has no desire to go nuclear (and among the public it’s stronger than this; there is powerful anti-nuclear sentiment). But if the Japanese see that first path as sufficiently distasteful, this path may start to look less improbable. This of course would create the regional arms racing that the proponents of liberal internationalism fear – it would be very bad news for China-Japan relations.

How should Washington and Tokyo mitigate the risks of Beijing’s growing assertiveness on regional security issues?

The answer is deterrence. China has grown more assertive in pushing its territorial claims, particularly toward weaker neighbors such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Appeals to international law won’t have an effect, as the recent adjudication showed. Beijing will continue to push its claims if it believes it can get away with it at reasonable cost and risk. So the answer is deterrence: to increase the cost and risk to China. I think Washington and Tokyo are doing a good job with this in the East China Sea, but they need to decide if they want to do the same in the South China Sea. They need to decide whether Chinese control of this area – strategically, symbolically, economically – is sufficiently unacceptable that preventing it merits the costs and risks that Japan and the U.S. would themselves assume from a balancing effort.