Five Ways Japan and Korea Can Help the U.S. Pivot
So I winged my way down to Washington, DC last Friday to speak at trilateral discussions among American, Japanese, and South Korean scholars and officials about maritime security in Asia. The topic was how the three allies can sustain freedom of the sea as it comes under duress from a rising, increasingly bellicose China. My chief bit of advice: be pessimistic when charting maritime strategy vis-à-vis China. As a great man once said, it’s best to be pessimistic in great affairs: you’re either right, or you’re pleasantly surprised!
That’s sound strategic counsel, isn’t it? Let’s say you want to deter a prospective foe, preserving an uneasy peace or remaking that peace for the better. To deter in peacetime, you must amass imposing capability and demonstrate the resolve to use that capability to win in wartime. If the antagonist believes in your power and your devotion to purpose, he’s apt to be deterred. Having girded yourself for the worst—having planned pessimistically—you’ve boosted the likelihood of your being pleasantly surprised. That’s the logic of assuming the glass is half empty.
How can Japan and South Korea help uphold freedom of the sea while helping assure U.S. military access to an increasingly contested maritime Asia? Five ways come to mind:
Keep expectations in check. U.S. Navy leaders often display a disturbing propensity to tout minor bits of good news relating to China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), as though conducting ship visits, bantering with sailors from the PLAN fleet, or agreeing to abide by the rules of the road at sea or aloft somehow means peace in our time is at hand. If we’re nice and cooperative, and if we refrain from speaking frankly about the chances of armed conflict, then China will reciprocate—and won’t become an enemy.
No. By all means let’s keep up cordial ties. They could do some good around the margins. But when all’s said and done, navies are swords. Swords do not make peace with one another; swordsmen do. Military-to-military contacts haven’t kept China from flouting the law of the sea. Nor are they likely to. Convincing China’s political leadership to desist, on the other hand, would constitute a diplomatic accomplishment worth celebrating. Barring such a breakthrough, it behooves Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul to keep expectations modest—and thus realistic.
Help U.S. forces get into the theater. The strategist Woody Allen once proclaimed that eighty percent of life is just showing up. One of my old skippers, from back when I was a youngster, might add that staying after you show up represents the other twenty percent. That silly old salt—who clearly lacked the wisdom of youth—used to boast to visiting dignitaries that our ship was here! (Wherever here happened to be.) And it carried lots of fuel and supplies, so we could stay here! But he spoke truth. It’s crucial to mount a sustained presence at decisive places on the map.
So much for the stroll down memory lane. To apply the Woody Allen principle, the Japanese and South Korean armed forces can help the U.S. Pacific Fleet show up in Northeast Asia should martial strife ensue. The Japan-based Seventh Fleet is insufficient in numbers and capability to face down the PLA alone—especially now that China has fielded anti-access defenses. Korea and Japan, then, can help themselves by helping America. And by showing China the allies can execute their strategy despite the anti-access threat, they can amplify their deterrent message.
Show up in contested waters. The situation in the South China Sea has devolved into a U.S.-China standoff, more or less. This is a bad thing. All seafaring states, not just America and beleaguered Southeast Asian countries, have a stake in freedom of the sea. Unfettered use of the marine commons is the lineament that binds together the liberal system of trade and commerce. If seafaring states treasure freedom of the sea, they should send ships to disputed expanses to exercise that freedom.
If the allies let China amend or repeal the law of the sea in Southeast Asia because it poses no immediate threat to them, they may see the whole system unravel over time. If Beijing can change international law by fiat in one sea, it can do so elsewhere—including in Northeast Asia. So let’s see the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) put in frequent appearances throughout the China seas—preferably in combined flotillas, to make an even bigger splash. Japan and Korea making common cause in Southeast Asia? Now that would issue a statement.
Strike up a division of labor. If the JMSDF and ROKN took the lead in policing Northeast Asia, as they are well suited to do, their joint endeavors would liberate the U.S. Navy to shoulder the burden elsewhere in the Pacific and Indian oceans. America can safeguard the free sea along the southern arc of Eurasia while Asians assume chief responsibility for the eastern arc. End result: secure sea lanes all along the Asian rimlands.
Keep on cooperating. Keeping up a presence in constabulary operations, most notably the multinational counterpiracy expedition to the Gulf of Aden, would hold open the possibility of similar cooperation with China closer to home. Is it likely that habits of cooperation will radiate from outside into the China seas—expanses Beijing regards as sovereign territory, subject to Chinese domestic law? Nope. To Chinese eyes, policing the South China Sea in concert with foreign navies would look like policing borderlands alongside foreign troops.
That’s a nonstarter in all likelihood. Still, working together is worthwhile in case Beijing undergoes a change of heart. The highly improbable has happened before. Let’s not discount the prospect of a pleasant surprise altogether.