The Pacific is a lot more interesting than it’s been in years, thanks to a great game of ship-building, missile-deploying, and defense-procuring all around the Pacific Rim. More than Europe, the Pacific is in the middle of a geopolitical struggle for security, prosperity, and dominance between three traditional nation-states. Everybody wants to be happy, but not everyone is so sure their neighbors want the same thing for them.
So let’s begin with why Japan and China are at one another
China and Japan are spitting and hissing at one another over a series of rocky, pointless islands that aren’t worth dying over in and of themselves. They are, rather, symbols of the geopolitical struggle over the future of East Asia and the Pacific.
Three powers are capable of influencing the destinies of the myriad of countries in the region – Japan, China, and the United States. All three vitally need to ensure that the Pacific stays open and free for trade (and most importantly, their trade; everyone else can go fuck themselves if it comes down to it). Control of islets, as pointless as they might be as vacation destinations, give control of large swathes of the ocean and whatever riches lie underneath, as well as the ability to set up anti-ship missile batteries and blockade points if anyone needs to get to a-sinkin’ enemy merchant traffic. In reality, merely holding these places creates what’s called “sea denial” and makes life more expensive for rivals. You don’t have to blow up the cargo ship; just looking like you might blow it up is enough to make it waste fuel, time, and money going the long way around your little island.
With the end of the World War II, the Pacific returned to its quiet namesake because the U.S. Navy dominated the waves. Until the 1990s, no nation was really capable of keeping pace with an arms race with the U.S. anyway, so by default the Pacific went to the Americans. Most of the biggest Pacific powers formally or informally joined an American-led Cold War alliance to keep Soviet influence in the Pacific to a minimum; this alliance was so successful that even now the U.S. is the #1 power on these high seas.
Meanwhile, China’s peaceful rise might not be a lie, but it’s not the whole truth, either
China insists again and again that its military build-up is defensive. To ward off any American president who might build a reputation on bullying China (and that’s hardly impossible), China needs to be a serious threat to the American carrier fleets and bases of the Pacific. But that’s not the whole story. China is increasingly resource hungry; it must know it can get access to its trade routes at any time and that nobody can blockade or interfere with its vital links between the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The best way to ensure this is to follow the Americans’ well-worn path – break up potential threats long before they become actual threats.
Thus, for China, putting Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and the Philippines all on the defensive makes more sense
Each of these states could become part of a coalition that could interrupt or harass Chinese shipping, even temporarily, and make life for China harder. So what’s quite sensible is to overawe them with superior military power and make any of their leaders think twice before slapping Chinese-flagged ships with a transit tax or a blockade. China doesn’t need to rebuild Japan’s empire to be secure; it just needs to keep the waves open and the oil, lumber, and other resources it naturally lacks pouring in.
And Japan’s pretty much stuck in the same situation, albeit more drastic
If China is hungry for outside resources, Japan is starving. Its island-nation doesn’t have much that can sustain a modern economy except some quite clever people and some excellent airports, roads, and trains. Everything else has got to be imported. So if China is the guy buying a handgun for fear he’ll be mugged on the way to work, Japan is the isolated mountain man who feels the need for an assault rifle and a bunker full of beans. Japan’s paranoid inclinations have been assuaged by the Americans for the past 60 years, but the last time somebody threatened Japan’s ability to import what it needs, the results weren’t pretty.
Meanwhile, America’s having a global identity disorder as it tries to find the Newest and Best way to dominate the Earth
Remember that America does not want to slip from #1 – ever. In the past 13 years, the U.S. has learned the hard way that staying numero uno has little to do with setting the Middle East right. In fact, if anything, America has learned that so long as the Persian Gulf states remain stable, what happens elsewhere in the region is pretty much irrelevant to American plans. And so America is trying to decide what’s the real geopolitical threat out there – and right now, the answer people keep half-giving is China.
“Half-giving” because China and America have a fucked up relationship based mostly on a mutual love of money. With China owning so much U.S. debt, and Americans buying up so many poisonous or poorly-made Chinese products to save on the monthly grocery run, both sides need one another to deliver a standard of living their citizens expect and want.
But China is a big country with the potential power base to build quite the fleet. Once upon a time, China was sending navies to Africa and the Indian Ocean, but because the emperors got bored the expeditions were given up. China could become the leading power in East Asia again. For China’s leaders, that’s the best possible outcome. Being at the top is the safest place to be and ensures the Communist Party’s hacks get to die in their beds instead of in some post-regime show trial.
Such a situation hardly favors the U.S., of course
Because a China that dominates the Asian Rim then decides its rules. To weaken in the Pacific will affect American power everywhere, and so it can’t be allowed. Thus the Pacific Pivot.
One way to keep China off balance and to save the U.S. some much-needed cash is to encourage the build-up of other national navies that alone can’t challenge the U.S. but combined can prevent China from feeling it can do whatever it wants. Key to that is Japan, which could put together a deadly fleet that might be tough enough to pause Chinese ambitions. But South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam could each also play smaller roles and, best of all, balance one another, saving the U.S. the necessity of having to smack any of them down later on.
Welcome to the Asian arms race, kids! Let’s hope none of them are ever used
Thus Japan is now moving to do just that. Over the next decade or so, the Pacific nations will get better and bigger weapons in preparation for a war none of them really want to fight. But because none of them can trust one another not to behave badly, they will continue the build-up until one side prevails.