Prof. Menchik: Militarization of the South and East China Sea Disputes is a Lose-Lose-Lose Situation

July 22, 2014

Professor Jeremy Menchik of the Fredrick S Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University recently returned from Japan where he was part of a 10-day visit by a delegation of American specialists on Southeast Asia. The trip was organized by the East-West Center in Washington, DC, with support from the Embassy of Japan. The delegation met with officials from the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Security Council, academic experts on Southeast Asia from Kyoto University and the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, as well as with Japanese scholars of economics and gerontology.

The delegation focused on the challenges of a rising China amid declining U.S. and Japanese power. That challenge is readily apparent in the South and East China Seas. China’s claims to the Paracels and Spratley Islands in the South China Sea are contested by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei. And China’s claims to the remote and uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are contested by Japan. Recently, China’s creation of an air defense identification zone over the Senkaku’s prompted the Japanese to send two fighter jets to intercept Chinese aircraft near its territory, and led defense secretary Chuck Hegal to say that the U.S. military would support Japan in the event of a war with China.

Reflecting on the disputes in the South and East China Seas, Prof Menchik noted that, “No one wins in a war with China.”

“None of these disputes can be solved militarily. China needs foreign direct investment and trade with Japan more than it needs the Senkaku Islands. At a time when it has massive energy demands, China could learn a great deal from Japanese energy policy, technological innovation, and its demonstrated history of rapid economic modernization. Japan, meanwhile, faces an aging population and two decades of economic stagnation; it cannot waste resources on a military build-up. Nor is the Japanese legislature or public opinion likely to support Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe desire to “normalize” Japan’s military capability. And with the U.S. planning to shrink its armed forces to pre-2001 levels, it has neither the willingness nor the capability to police these disputes. The U.S. must prepare to be one state among many in a multipolar world.

Now is the time for the United States to strengthen multilateral political institutions, facilitate cooperation between China and Japan including creating a Beijing-Tokyo ‘hotline,’ and try to reduce militarism on all sides. Militarization of the South and East China Sea disputes is a lose-lose-lose situation.”

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