How to Square the Asian Circle

Friday, January 30, 1998

The recent release of new guidelines for the Japan American Security Alliance (JASA) highlights an important dilemma confronting the United States in Asia: The two principal elements of our security policy in the region--an alliance with Japan and engagement of China--are in conflict.

The conflict springs from several sources. Beijing suspects that engagement is a euphemism for a U.S. strategy of containment designed to keep China's ascending economic and military power in check. China is also concerned that a revitalized JASA may weigh (adversely, from China's standpoint) in the balance of forces that will determine Taiwan's future. Beijing may also fear that, intentionally or inadvertently, revitalizing JASA risks reigniting Japanese militarism. This fear may seem remote in the United States, but China remains acutely aware of Japan's depredations in Manchuria in the 1930s, its atrocities during World War II, and its continued unwillingness to acknowledge its guilt for this history formally.

China will thus view the new JASA guidelines with acute concern. The new guidelines include an expanded role for Japan's naval forces in protecting sea-lanes of communication extending from Japan; closer linkages between U.S. and Japanese military command, control, and communication systems; closer coupling of U.S. and Japanese logistical support and maintenance; and collaborative research and development activities, perhaps encompassing theater missile-defense technologies. Any JASA role regarding Taiwan, however, has been deliberately omitted from the new guidelines.

The United States and China should establish a permanent joint council -- a body that would consult regularly on issues of security and stability.

Each of these measures, let alone all of them, will heighten previously existing Chinese suspicions that U.S. pronouncements about engagement are just empty rhetoric. It doesn't help that the Chinese character most closely approximating the term engagement also signifies containment.

From the U.S. standpoint, upgrading Japan's Self-Defense Forces and linking them more closely to U.S. forward-based forces are amply warranted if Japan is to assume a fairer share of the joint alliance burden. In part, that's because the Japanese forces are relatively small in size and limited in capabilities. Indeed, Japan's military spending, at just under 1 percent of gross domestic product (compared with more than 3 percent for the United States), is the lowest military spending share of any of America's allies in Asia or Europe. U.S. officials thus believe that revitalizing JASA is not only legitimate but overdue.

Clearly, the sharply contrasting U.S. and Chinese views are a reflection of the familiar axiom "where you stand depends on where you sit." Still, the Clinton administration faces a conflict between its policy toward China and its policy toward Japan. To solve this conflict, the administration ought to take a lesson from a similar collision between two precepts of U.S. security policy in Europe. There, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) eastward enlargement to embrace Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic collided with efforts to improve relations with Russia and encourage its continued reform and progress.

And so, last spring, NATO secretary-general Javier Solana and Russian president Boris Yeltsin signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between Russia and NATO. The act's principal aims and commitments include "developing a partnership between NATO and Russia . . . strengthening security and stability" and "refraining from the use of force." The two sides formally agreed to "mutual transparency in creating and implementing defense policy and military doctrines."

To pursue these aims, the NATO-Russian agreement established a Permanent Joint Council to meet regularly to consult on "issues of common interest related to security and stability," including arms control, military cooperation, and "mutually agreed cooperative projects in defense-related economic, environmental, and scientific fields."

To be sure, some of this is rhetorical and symbolic. The precedent can be adapted in Asia, however, to mitigate the conflict between revitalizing JASA and the U.S. engagement of China. The United States and China should negotiate an "Enabling Agreement on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security" with broad objectives similar to those set forth in the Founding Act between NATO and Russia. The Enabling Agreement should establish a permanent joint council that would consult regularly on issues of security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. This council, which would involve the Pentagon and the leadership of the People's Liberation Army, would provide for the exchange of information on planned military exercises, military training, defense policy in general, and defense budgeting, as well as any other topics the two sides may wish to discuss. This would be a valuable step toward easing friction between the United States and China and avoiding misunderstandings before and during possible military crises.