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U.S. Policy Options in Japan Regarding a Rising China


U.S. Policy Options in Japan Regarding a Rising China

ZHUHAI, CHINA NOVEMBER 18, 2019: Fishing vessels in the South China Sea. Artyom Ivanov/TASS (Photo by Artyom IvanovTASS via Getty Images)

      China rapidly grew into the world’s second largest economy after opening its doors in 1978. The emerging power’s economic success allows it to continually improve its conventional and nuclear capabilities. A rising China poses a threat to U.S. allies in East Asia, most notably Japan. Japan falls under the umbrella of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence – if China acts against Japan, the United States will be obligated to respond. Japan’s alliance with the United States remains its main defense. The Trump administration weakened the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Japan, both in the eyes of the Chinese and the Japanese. As such, the current U.S. administration must reconsider its policy options to negate a rising China. Biden should consider three policy options: encourage Japan to develop nuclear weapons, increase U.S. conventional forces in defense of Japan, or adopt a grand strategy of neo-isolationism. I ultimately recommend that Biden reinforces the U.S. conventional commitment to Japan, while emphasizing the defensive nature of that commitment.

        The development of a Japanese nuclear arsenal would create an effective deterrent against China. A nuclear threat must be credible in order for deterrence to work. The previous administration’s behavior towards U.S. allies weakened the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence to Japan. Trump’s administration pulled out of multiple agreements, including the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China may feel more empowered against Japan if it believes that the United States will not retaliate. By developing a nuclear arsenal, Japan would be less reliant on the United States. China would see the development of nuclear weapons as a credible threat and be less likely to act aggressively. The United States could continue supporting Japan without shouldering as much of the cost of defense. The development of Japanese nuclear weapons would also benefit U.S. relations with North Korea. In 2017, North Korea tested missiles able to reach mainland United States. Japan is situated approximately 700 miles from North Korea — if a nearby U.S. ally acquires nuclear weapons, it would deter North Korea from acting aggressively towards the United States.

         Encouraging nuclear development in East Asia comes at a great risk for both the United States and the international community. It could create a security dilemma domino effect – if Japan builds up its arsenal in response to insecurity created by China, China and North Korea will become increasingly insecure. These two nuclear states would in turn increase their own nuclear capabilities. Even current non-nuclear states could see the spread of nuclear weapons as a threat – South Korea may consider acquiring nuclear weapons. Encouraging nuclear development in Japan risks creating an arms race across Asia. The creation of more nuclear weapons, whether or not they are intended offensively, would increase the likelihood of nuclear war. The more weapons that circulate in the region, the higher the possibility that someone will use them. 

         Alternatively, the United States could decide to increase the capability of conventional forces dedicated to protecting Japan. This policy route would act within the boundaries of international norms; it does not threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Since the focus will be solely on conventional capabilities, this policy will reinforce the United States’ military commitment to Japan without encouraging proliferation. Additionally, this option greatly reduces the risk of igniting a nuclear arms race. Nuclear states will not be faced with an immediate nuclear threat, and the security dilemma on nuclear level will be much less severe.

         Increasing conventional capabilities does risk creating a security dilemma on a conventional level. The reinforcement of the U.S. conventional commitment to Japan could provoke China, who may decide to respond with conventional warfare. Considering the strength of Chinese forces, a conventional strike could be debilitating for Japan. On top of the economic costs of reinforcing conventional forces, the United States may have to face the human cost of a war with China. Conventional wars have the potential to turn nuclear, especially when nuclear states are involved. Considering both China and the United States possess nuclear weapons, a conventional war involving between the two has an increased probability of escalating.

         The United States could adopt a grand strategy of neo-isolationism, which would prevent U.S. involvement in an East Asian war. Neo-isolationism infers that the United States would step back from its alliances in Europe and Asia. The United States would no longer bear the burden of protecting Japan. It cost the United States nearly $34 billion to keep military forces in Japan from 2016 to 2019, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. By ending alliances, the United States could reallocate billions of dollars to domestic issues. Because of the size and survivability of U.S. nuclear weapons, the United States would still maintain a sufficient nuclear deterrent against its adversaries.

         A shift to neo-isolationism would critically impact the United States’ reputation. The international community generally dislikes when states withdraw from prior commitments, as exemplified by Trump’s time in office. The United States would lose access to the various benefits of alliances – the economic benefits of trade, additional military aid, and support from the international community. The most significant cost of neo-isolationism is the loss of influence in the international community. Right now, the United States acts as a global hegemon. The respect and economic power held by the United States allows it to impose its influence globally. If the United States resigns from its commitments, it would have a harder time influencing other states to act within its interests. The United States would thus resort to military power to exert influence, which would be costly and inconvenient.

         The damage done to U.S. alliances by the Trump administration begs the question – how will the Biden administration address this issue? Will it continue down a treacherous road towards isolationism, or will it re-emphasize its commitments? In his first year of presidency, Biden has sent mixed messages. He rejoined the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but he withdrew forces from a 20-year commitment in Afghanistan.  Biden’s alliances in East Asia will deeply impact how China behaves throughout the rest of this administration. As such, Biden’s administration should consider the second policy option. Reinforcing the U.S. conventional commitment to Japan will emphasize the United States’ dedication to its alliances without risking nuclear proliferation. Biden should simultaneously emphasize the defensive nature of this commitment to avoid exacerbating the security dilemma in Asia.