In response to China’s patrolling harassment, Japan has decided to strengthen its defense capabilities by significantly increasing its defense budget and effectively reinforcing military deployments in its southwestern region with more advanced fighter jets and patrol vessels.
With the rising escalation of military tension, if diplomatic mediation between Tokyo and Beijing does not work out, the risks of an unwanted military clash between the world’s second and third-largest economies could become imminent, and the stakes of this could be momentous.
Some argue that China’s latest antagonistic behaviors were triggered by Japan’s reckless policy of nationalizing three of the disputed islands, and partially stirred by some Southeast Asian nations’ provocative actions in the South China Sea, while others contend that China was deliberately challenging the existing power structure of East Asia established by the US in the aftermath of World War II.
Undeniably, without its economic achievement and military modernization over the past decades, China would not have had sufficient resolve or competence to take decisive military action in defending its sovereignty claims on both issues, given that its hostile behavior could be interpreted by the US as a challenge to the “status quo” and provoke pre-emptive intervention.
After the decade-long “anti-terror” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the massive blow the 2008 global financial crisis dealt the US economy, many believed that the US is a debilitated and declining hegemon.
Since it has been vexed with a domestic fiscal plight, the US does not have the willingness or ability to resume its global military outreach. This could open a window of opportunity for China to revamp its power structure in East Asia.
However, with the first US Pacific president elected in 2008, US President Barack Obama’s administration has swiftly shifted the US’ strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region by taking a wide range of diplomatic, economic, military and strategic steps to intensify its role and fortify the US’ interests in the region.
This latest policy shift has been termed a US “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia. The ultimate goal of this, according to US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, is to promote US interests by helping to shape the norms and rules of the Asia-Pacific region, and to ensure respect for international law, freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution on disagreements without threats or coercion. To realize Obama’s claim that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future,” the US has taken various steps in deepening its engagements with Asian countries.
For instance, in the military realm, the US announced new troop deployments in Australia and Singapore, reinvigorated its formal alliances, such as with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and extended its strategic partners to include India, Indonesia, New Zealand and Vietnam.