Nicholas Spykman died 70 years ago, more than two years before Japan’s defeat, but his analysis of America’s role in the world, and the challenges she will face in the Far East, sounds almost prophetic today. The Dutch-born Yale professor caused a scandal when he wrote in 1942—only months after Pearl Harbor—that America’s chief regional rival after the war would be China, rather than Japan. He took Japan’s eventual defeat for granted and argued that, after the war, the United States would need to protect Japan, help her recover, and turn her into a junior partner in order to establish a balance of power capable of containing a resurgent China.
Spykman’s assessment was strictly geopolitical. He did not foresee communist victory in the Chinese civil war, and the character of the regime in Beijing was immaterial to his conclusion that China’s power potential—many times greater than that of Japan—would sooner or later translate into the new Middle Kingdom’s bid for hegemony in the “Asiatic Mediterranean,” as he called the South China Sea. “When China becomes strong,” he wrote, “her present economic penetration in that region will undoubtedly take political overtones.” In order to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon, Spykman argued, the United States should adopt the role of an off-shore balancer at both maritime ends of the Eurasian heartland, comparable to that of Great Britain vis-à-vis continental Europe in the three centuries that followed the War of Spanish Succession, but on a global scale.
The U.S. postwar Asian strategy has been eminently Spykmanesque, even though its early prophet remained largely unknown to the American public until Robert D. Kap lan’s Revenge of Geography was published in 2012. The essence of that strategy had been concealed by Cold War rhetoric until the fruits of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, coupled with a shift in China’s foreign-policy discourse, framed the issue in geopolitical terms yet again in the early 1990’s. The problem was a variant of the old issue of thalassocracy versus tellucracy, which has been vexing strategists ever since the Peloponnesian War, this time with Korea and Taiwan as its foci.
“I think the fact that we’re here says a lot whether or not we will be here if there was a crisis,” Rear Admiral Mark C. Montgomery, commander of Carrier Strike Group Five, based in Yokosuka, said in an interview on board the U.S.S. George Washington on October 24. He was not asked to explain what exactly would constitute a “crisis,” however, and what his ships, aircraft, and men would do if one erupted. It is not the job of commanders to ponder such issues, but to respond to crises as instructed from Washington.
No doubt China’s invasion of Taiwan would be a “crisis” par excellence, but it is not going to happen. The planners in Beijing believe that reunification will come slowly and incrementally, with economic ties and interests leading the way, and they have been the masters of patience for millennia. But what about another war between China and India in the rainforests of Arunachal Pradesh, or in the windswept wastelands of the Tibetan plateau (Aksai Chin), thousands of miles from Admiral Montgomery’s home port in Japan? What about a violent unraveling of the North Korean regime, with Beijing rejecting the peninsula’s reunification on Seoul’s terms? What about a Chinese clash with Vietnam, erupting this time over the disputed Paracel Islands? What if a major shift in the balance of power occurs without a shot being fired, with China starting to build a major naval base in the Indian Ocean—in, say, southern Burma, following an agreement with the government in Rangoon—within easy reach of the all-important Straits of Malacca? That would be perfectly legal, yet geostrategically disruptive in the extreme.
The response of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment to such questions over the past two decades has been uneven. The areas of consensus are fairly clear. First, the United States, as a maritime and merchant nation dependent on unhindered access to foreign markets, cannot allow the spontaneous—some would say “chaotic”—development of power relations in the region with which she exchanges almost as much in goods and services as with the rest of the world combined. Second, America cannot give up on her multilateral and bilateral security arrangements in the region—above all, with Japan and South Korea—without triggering dangerously unpredictable instability and nuclear proliferation, and without dealing a fatal blow to U.S. credibility in other parts of the world. And finally, by disengaging from its Asian commitments, Washington would risk having to get involved at a later date, under less-favorable circumstances and at a much steeper cost. Accordingly, analyzing “Sources of Conflict in the 21st Century” in 1998, a group of authors associated with the RAND Corporation insisted that preventing the rise of an Asian hegemon is a vital national interest that demands a determined and unyielding policy of containment. In 2002 Henry Kissinger argued that the United States should remain actively present in Asia in order to prevent the emergence of a major power disinclined to maintaining the status quo, or an unfriendly bloc led by that power.
So far, so conventional. The devil is in the details, as ever, and this is where the consensus ends. The divergence comes, broadly speaking, over the question of whether the United States should pursue preponderance—in essence, preventing any change in the existing balance—or offshore balancing, which allows for some degree of flexibility in accommodating other parties’ claims. China’s economic, demographic, and military rise has already made the former approach unrealistic. It is beyond the power of the United States to maintain the Pax Americana established in its current form in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
No less problematic is the notion of America’s “interdependence” with formal or likely allies, because it leads to strategic overextension by the United States. A case in point is Japan’s and South Korea’s defense spending, where fictitious burden sharing should give way to some serious burden shifting. Both are perfectly capable of paying for their own defense, the cost of maintaining a U.S. military presence included.
Interdependence may also encourage risky behavior by weak nations, which are emboldened to be audacious in their policymaking because they feel protected by America. A case in point is the Philippines, which has a dispute with China over Scarborough and Second Thomas shoals in the South China Sea—insignificant islets that may nevertheless yield rich natural resources to the country controlling them. Addressing a joint ASEAN-China meeting on October 11, Secretary of State John Kerry angered the Chinese by supporting international arbitration, giving tacit backing to the Philippines’ position in the dispute. “As everybody can see, the South China Sea has been calm and tranquil,” a Chinese spokesman retorted, “so if some country really wants to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea, it should stop stirring up waves.” China insists that all territorial and maritime rights and interests should be settled “between direct claimants . . . through bilateral and friendly negotiation.” The Chinese position mirrors the sound, long-standing American practice of seeking to resolve disputes with bilateral agreements in preference to negotiations with the United Nations.