By George Friedman* – Geopolitical Futures
All three countries are competing for power in the Pacific
The United States emerged from World War II with complete control of the Pacific Ocean. Japan emerged from the war occupied and effectively governed by the United States. China, a few years after the end of the war, emerged as a communist state, united after a century of internal conflict, with limited global trade and extreme internal poverty. China and Japan defined their foreign policies in terms of U.S. actions, the Chinese sometimes in concert with the Soviet Union, but since the 1970s working with the United States against the Soviet Union. Each in its own way took its bearings from the United States.
The core American strategy, in place for a century, has been twofold. First, to dominate North America, the United States had to control, at a minimum, the Western North Atlantic and the Eastern Pacific to prevent either invasions or blockades. Second, to maintain its place at the top, it had to make sure that no hegemonic power could emerge from Eurasia. Thus in 1917, following the fall of the Russian czar, the United States sent a massive expeditionary force to France to block German forces transferring from the east. In World War II, when the European balance of power was failing because of France’s collapse, the United States again sent forces to France to contain Germany.
In the Cold War, the United States massed forces to block the Soviets from occupying Western Europe. The threat of a hegemonic power was the ability to construct a naval force to challenge the United States. Control of the seas began with the preservation of a European balance of power.
In another simultaneous war, the United States was forced to defend its position in the Pacific by containing and driving back the Japanese. The threat from Japan was also hegemonic. If it controlled China and Southeast Asia, Japan would have access to manpower, raw materials and ultimately its own technology, posing a threat to the Eastern Pacific and therefore to the Pacific as a whole. The U.S. could not defeat Japan without taking control of the entire Pacific, giving us the Pacific reality that has held to this day.
Japan also had a strategy imposed on it. It is the only industrial power in the world completely lacking in industrial minerals. This peculiarity makes it essential for Japan to have access to these raw materials, from the Pacific Basin and from the Persian Gulf. Any interruption of this access threatens Japan’s ability to function as an industrial power.
The war in the Pacific began with a Japanese attack on China in search of manpower. This was followed by a move into Indochina to secure raw materials. When the United States countered with interference to Japanese access to oil in the Dutch East Indies and embargoed Japanese access to U.S. scrap metal and oil, Japan faced the choice between war and capitulation. It chose war.
Japan’s core strategy played out differently after World War II. The question of access to raw materials remained fundamental, but Japan’s geographical position proved vital to the U.S. defense of the Pacific. In addition to its proximity to Korea, Japan’s geography blocked the Soviets’ open access to the Pacific from Vladivostok. The latter was a fundamental interest of U.S. strategy, and therefore, the resurrection of Japan as a prosperous industrial power became vital to American power.
The inevitable logic of this was that the United States guaranteed Japan’s lines of supply to raw materials. Given the U.S. interest in the Pacific, and over time in the Indian Ocean as well, U.S. and Japanese strategic interests merged, and Japan was not forced to repeat the risks of World War II. The U.S. Navy guaranteed Japan’s access to the straits of Malacca and Hormuz.
China’s primary strategic interest is maintaining its territorial integrity. From the 1840s until 1948, China was in a state of constant regional warfare. The wars had many causes; chief among them was that the coastal region had deep economic ties to Europe and the United States, deeper than its ties to Beijing. The coastal region was relatively prosperous while the interior was not. It was for this reason that Mao, having failed to succeed in a rising in Shanghai to the long march to the interior, raised a peasant army that would seize all of China. Mao closed off China from the world, sinking it into poverty but facilitating unity.
Deng Xiaoping understood that poverty was a threat to Chinese survival. He gambled on repeating the old model – trade with the world – without repeating the old problem of regional inequality and strife. But that inequality has emerged, and the strategic struggle of China is to prevent regional strife. Hence the dictatorship of President Xi Jinping, continual purges of potential threats, and tightened control of the ultimate guarantor of national unity, the People’s Liberation Army.
Dangerous and Unpredictable
China is primarily a land power but faces a potential threat from the United States. China depends heavily on maritime trade. Given the geography of the South China and the East China seas, blockading China is a potential American strategy. Since China regards the United States as dangerous and unpredictable, China must assume this as a possible American action and take action to forestall it.
The United States cannot tolerate the possibility of China marshaling manpower, raw material and technology to protect its access to global sea lanes because guaranteeing that access would require the United States to retreat from the far Western Pacific. Japan cannot tolerate such an evolution because it would leave Japan dependent on China for access to its essential resources and therefore subject to paying a high political price. The Chinese cannot tolerate the United States being in a position to blockade China and savage its economy, potentially weakening Chinese unity.
Neither Japan nor China can be certain of U.S. intentions, since the U.S. has the most room for maneuver. The primary strategy of avoiding hegemons is ideal, but a line through the islands of the Western Pacific to Australia is not an existential threat to the United States. The U.S. doing this does pose an existential threat to Japan. The United States maintaining a naval presence near the Chinese littoral region poses an existential threat to China.
It is in the interest of the Chinese, therefore, to maximize the risk to U.S. naval forces in the region. This does not require war, since the U.S. does not face an existential threat. Rather, the goal must be to create a balance of power where China has the option of initiating conflict with a degree of confidence in heavily damaging the U.S. fleet and accepting damage to China. If China can demonstrate this ability, and the urgent need to act at a time of its choice, the United States might choose to decline combat and retreat. Obviously, this would consist of a missile-based strategy and not a surface battle. And that would lead the U.S. to seek to threaten the survival of land-based missiles. This would be the contest in its simplest form. It would not only give China unfettered access to global sea lanes but would give it offensive capability as well.
For Japan, any decision by the United States to retreat would represent an existential challenge, since the key sea lanes on which Japan depends would now be held by China. No nation can base its national survival on the willingness of another nation to guarantee its interests. The Japanese don’t think the U.S. would retreat but they can’t be certain. Therefore, the Japanese strategy must be to create a threat to China sufficiently damaging that China will not challenge Japanese interests. Unlike the U.S., which might be induced to shift its posture because of the threat environment, Japan has no option, and therefore the threat of even a limited response is extremely high.
Given that Japan is the third-largest economy in the world, with an extremely capable technological base and a stable social order, the ability of Japan to generate such a threat in a relatively short time presents a danger to China. China has no preemptive power at this point because of the United States’ guarantees to Japan. For Japan, the goal here would be like the one Charles de Gaulle had for France. He developed the French nuclear capability not to destroy an enemy but, in his words, to “tear an arm off.”
There are of course other players involved in this three-way game, particularly Australia and India. But in the end, while valuable in the current environment for political and operational support, Australia remains under the U.S. security umbrella. India, unlikely as it is to have a trans-Himalayan war with China, sees its operations as political gestures.
It’s important to understand in this situation that while the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. from China’s near-abroad would not be an existential threat to the U.S., the evolution of events following this could become one. The U.S. fought Japan because it understood that ceding the Western Pacific to Japan would merely postpone the conflict. The same would be true with withdrawal from the Chinese periphery. Control of the Eastern Pacific is essential to the United States, and Washington has learned that this requires an overwhelming power in the western position to deter hostile action by China (or Russia before it) at the point of the greatest advantage to the United States. Therefore, while neither China nor Japan can be certain what the U.S. might do, the cold calculation is this: If the United States does not stand on this line, it will likely have to stand on another, less advantageous line.
China will continue to invest in sea lane denial weapons while it works to maintain stability at home. Japan will develop at least prototypes of advanced weapons while enjoying U.S.-provided access to the sea. And the U.S. will continue to make certain that it has a full spectrum of responses to China, while not forcing it into an impossible position where risk-taking is the only option.
*George Friedman (Hungarian: Friedman György, Budapest, February 1, 1949) is Hungarian-born U.S. geopolitical forecaster, and strategist on international affairs. He is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an online publication that analyzes and forecasts the course of global events.