It’s getting harder to pick the most noteworthy headline among geopolitical events in East Asia. For the second time in two weeks, a high-ranking South Korean defense official has abruptly resigned (this time, the army chief of staff). His departure followed intelligence disclosures suggesting that North Korea has as many as four uranium-enrichment sites in operation, a level of activity previously unsuspected by the South Korean public. But are those developments more portentous than the most recent communications from Japan? And what about the Russian patrol aircraft that interrupted the U.S.-Japan naval exercise last week?
Japan’s announcements on defense this month figure collectively as the augury of a seminal shift. It’s not all that unusual for Tokyo to announce an increase in the size of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). But the reason invoked on this occasion amounts to a crack in the foundation of the U.S.-guaranteed security regime in the Far East. Japan plans to reorient its defense policy toward the emerging threat from China — and plans, in general, to defend its interests against Chinese and North Korean threats more proactively than at any time since 1945.
The Japanese will officially abandon the Cold War–era “basic defense doctrine,” which provided for territorial defense but not for the projection of military power beyond Japan’s recognized borders. Besides adding more submarines to the fleet, they will look at a military build-up in the southern chain of Japanese islands, near the Senkaku archipelago disputed with China. And on Sunday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan startled South Koreans by telling an audience that Japan would consider changing JSDF policy to allow for the deploying of troops to South Korea to rescue Japanese citizens.
The point here is not that any such move by Japan is suspicious. The point is that Japan perceives the need for a new, more active security posture. The tacit U.S. guarantee since World War II has been a balance in the Far East: the three great powers there — Russia, China, and Japan — held in check with a network of alliances and military presence. In the past two decades, however, the U.S. has failed to effectively counter what are arguably the most important threats to stability in the region: Chinese maritime aggression and the North Korean nuclear-weapons program. Against that backdrop, the Obama administration’s determined reliance on China to deal with North Korea looks — from the Asian side of the Pacific — like ceding China too much power. If America will not broker a balanced stasis, Russia and China will arm themselves for emerging opportunities, and everyone else will follow suit.
Meanwhile, Russia is probing and making shows of force wherever possible. The intrusion of Russian patrol aircraft in the naval exercise held by the U.S. and Japan last week was remarkable for the fact that it was an actual intrusion. Military aircraft monitor foreign exercises all the time, but usually from a distance. The Russian planes approached so closely last week that the exercise was suspended while fighters were scrambled to intercept them.
The Nixon administration concluded a 1972 agreement with Soviet Russia to avoid such provocations in air and naval activity. Indeed, it was Nixon who, during the same period, re-established relations with China, returned Okinawa to Japan, and signed landmark defense agreements with Thailand and the Philippines. He hoped that these measures, desirable in their own right, would contribute to an environment of stabilized tension in which the two Vietnams could coexist. Although the hopes for Vietnam were dashed, his larger arrangements have stood for nearly 40 years. But they will not last much longer. The older pattern that obtains in the absence of U.S. power is reasserting itself.