An unfair peace : The status quo!


The real danger Japan poses to the Americans

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The Asian Status Quo

By Robert D. Kaplan and Matt Gertken – Because Japan was the aggressor in World War II and was vanquished by the U.S. military, it lay prostrate after the war, so that the Pacific Basin became a virtual American naval lake. That was the status quo as it came to be seen. This situation was buttressed by the decades-long reclusiveness of the Pacific’s largest and most populous nation: China. Japanese occupation and civil war left China devastated. The rise to power of Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949 would keep the country preoccupied with itself for decades as it fell prey to destructive development and political schemes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. China was not weak, as the United States would discover in the Korean and Vietnamese wars and later turn to its advantage against the Soviets. But its revolution remained unfinished. The economy did not truly start to develop until the late 1970s, after Mao died. And only in the mid-1990s did China begin its naval expansion in a demonstrable and undeniable way. Thus the United States, in its struggle with the Soviets, got used to a reclusive China and a subordinate Japan. With these two certainties underlying the Cold War’s various animosities, the United States preserved calm in its lake.

But the 21st century has not been kind to this status quo, however convenient it may have been for American interests. China’s naval, air, cyber and ballistic missile buildup over the past two decades has not yet challenged U.S. military supremacy in the region, but it has encroached significantly on the previously unipolar environment. Moreover, to measure China’s progress against U.S. supremacy is to neglect the primary regional balance of power between China and Japan. Tokyo, over the same time period, has come to see China as reaching a sort of critical mass and has accelerated its own military preparations, both in a quantitative and a qualitative sense. Recently, Tokyo has taken to trumpeting its abandonment of quasi-pacifism in order to adjust the world’s expectations to what it sees as a new reality. Japan was already a major naval power — it ranks fourth in total naval tonnage, has more destroyers than any navy besides that of the United States, and its technology and traditions give it a special edge. But now it is moving faster to loosen restrictions on its rules of engagement and to upgrade the capabilities it needs to defend its most distant island holdings.

While Beijing sees Japan’s actions as aggressive, it is primarily China that is altering the status quo. No doubt Japan was once the region’s most ambitious and belligerent power, and no doubt China cannot assume good intentions, but Japan’s current military normalization has little in common with its 1930s militarization, and Tokyo is for the moment mostly reacting to Beijing. China, for instance, has largely succeeded in shaping a global narrative of a legitimate dispute over islands in the East China Sea. But Japan has controlled the Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu in Chinese) for more than 40 years, and China has only recently asserted its claims. Japan’s other territorial disputes, by contrast, show a continuation of the status quo: Russia administers the southern Kuril islands but sees Japan offering dialogue while moving military forces away from that border; South Korea controls the Liancourt Rocks, but any feared Japanese appetite for overturning that status quo remains in check by the Americans. Nor were Japan’s sea-lanes under any conceivable threat of interference from China until recently. Keep in mind that Japan’s supply line anxieties are inherent to its geopolitical position.

Full analysis.

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