Opinion | A Dangerous Game Is Underway in Asia

By Equipo
11 Min Read

This month, President Biden threw one of the most lavish state dinners in Washington’s recent memory. Celebrities and billionaires flocked to the White House to dine in honor of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, posing for photos in front of an elaborate display of Japanese fans. Jeff Bezos dropped by; Paul Simon provided the entertainment.

The spectacle was part of a carefully orchestrated series of events to showcase the renewed U.S.-Japan relationship — and the notable transformation of the United States’ security alliances in Asia. The next day, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines was also in the U.S. capital for a historic U.S.-Japan-Philippines summit, during which a new trilateral security partnership was announced.

Both events were directed at the same audience: China.

Over the past several years, Washington has built a series of multilateral security arrangements like these in the Asia-Pacific region. Although U.S. officials claim that the recent mobilization of allies and partners is not aimed at China, don’t believe it. Indeed, Mr. Kishida emphasized in a speech to Congress on April 11 that China presents “the greatest strategic challenge” both to Japan and to the international community.

China’s recent activity is, of course, concerning. Its military has acquired ever more potent ways to counter U.S. and allied capabilities in the Western Pacific and has behaved aggressively in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere, alarming its neighbors.

But Washington’s pursuit of an increasingly complex lattice of security ties is a dangerous game. Those ties include upgrades in defense capabilities, more joint military exercises, deeper intelligence sharing, new initiatives on defense production and technology cooperation and the enhancement of contingency planning and military coordination. All of that may make Beijing more cautious about the blatant use of military force in the region. But the new alliance structure is not, on its own, a long-term guarantor of regional peace and stability — and could even increase the risk of stumbling into a conflict.

The security partnership rolled out this month in Washington is only the latest in a string of new defense configurations that reach across Asia and the Pacific. In 2017 the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, was revived, promoting collaboration among the United States, Japan, Australia and India. In September 2021, Australia, Britain and the United States began their partnership, known as AUKUS, and the United States, Japan and South Korea committed to closer cooperation in a summit at Camp David last August.

All of these moves have been motivated primarily by concern over Beijing, which has, in turn, castigated these countries as being part of a U.S.-led effort to create an Asian version of NATO designed to contain China. None amount to a collective defense pact like the NATO treaty, whose Article 5 considers an armed attack on one member as “an attack against them all.” But China will nevertheless almost certainly regard the latest agreement among the United States, Japan and the Philippines — with which it is engaged in an active territorial dispute — as further confirmation of a Washington-led attempt to threaten its interests.

It’s not yet clear how Beijing will respond. But it may double down on the expansion of its military capabilities and intensify its use of military and paramilitary force to assert its territorial claims in the region, especially regarding the sensitive issue of Taiwan. Beijing could also promote further Chinese military cooperation with Russia in the form of enhanced military exercises and deployments.

The net result may be an Asia-Pacific region that is even more divided and dangerous than it is today, marked by a deepening arms race. In this increasingly contentious and militarized environment, the chance of some political incident or military accident triggering a devastating regional war is likely to grow. This is especially likely, given the absence of meaningful U.S. and allied crisis communication channels with China to prevent such an incident from spiraling out of control.

To prevent this nightmare, the U.S. and its allies and partners must invest much more in diplomacy with China, in addition to bolstering military deterrence.

For a start, the United States and key allies like Japan should make a sustained effort to establish a durable crisis prevention and management dialogue with China involving each nation’s foreign policy and security agencies. So far, such dialogues have been limited primarily to military channels and topics. It is critical that both civilian and military officials understand the many possible sources of inadvertent crises and develop ways to prevent them or manage them if they occur. This process should include the establishment of an agreed-upon set of leaders’ best practices for crisis management and a trusted but unofficial channel through which the relevant parties can discuss crisis-averting understandings.

The immediate focus for the United States and Japan should be on avoiding actions that add to tensions across the Taiwan Strait. The deployment of American military trainers to Taiwan on what looks like a permanent basis and suggestions by some U.S. officials and policy analysts that Taiwan be treated as a security linchpin within the overall U.S. defense posture in Asia are needlessly provocative. They also openly contradict America’s longstanding “one China” policy, under which the United States ended the deployment of all U.S. military forces to Taiwan and does not view Taiwan as a key U.S. security location, caring only that the Taiwan issue be handled peacefully and without coercion.

Japan, for its part, has also become more circumspect about its own “one China” policy by being reluctant to reaffirm explicitly that Tokyo does not support Taiwan’s independence. Recent statements by some political leaders in Tokyo about Japanese military forces being ready to help defend Taiwan will almost certainly inflame Chinese leaders, who remember that Japan seized Taiwan after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and ’95.

Washington and Tokyo should clearly reaffirm their previous commitments on the China-Taiwan dispute. Tokyo also should confirm that it does not support any unilateral move by Taiwan toward independence and resist U.S. efforts to compel Japan to commit to Taiwan’s defense. Although American officials have reportedly been prodding Japan to join military planning for a Taiwan conflict, a large majority of Japanese residents do not favor fighting to defend Taiwan. Tokyo can best contribute to deterring China by focusing on strengthening its ability to defend its own islands.

Washington and its allies should shift to a more positive approach to China, aimed at fostering accommodation and restraint. This could include working to secure credible mutual assurances regarding limits on Chinese military deployments, such as amphibious forces and missile capabilities relevant to Taiwan, in return for U.S. limits on the levels and types of arms that it sells to the island. They could also explore increasing security cooperation with China regarding cyberattacks, the defense of sea lanes and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as better collaboration to combat climate change and the outbreak of another pandemic.

China, of course, has its own role to play. In the end, Beijing, like the United States, wants to avoid a crisis and conflict in the region. Given that, it should respond to a more cooperative American and allied approach by moderating its own coercive behavior regarding maritime disputes.

None of this will be easy, given the intense suspicion that now exists between Beijing and Washington and its allies. But new thinking and new diplomatic efforts could incentivize China to reciprocate in meaningful ways. At the very least, it’s necessary to try. Focusing on military deterrence alone won’t work. Trying to find a way to cooperate with China is the best way — perhaps the only way — to steer the world away from disaster.

Mike M. Mochizuki is a professor at George Washington University and a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Michael D. Swaine is a senior research fellow focusing on China-related security topics at the Quincy Institute.

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