China’s neighbors are increasingly nervous about Beijing’s expansive territorial claims and other manifestations of abrasive behavior. They are eager to huddle behind America’s security shield, and Washington seems quite willing to reiterate security guarantees to its allies. Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that the U.S. defense treaty with Japan remained crucial and that America’s determination to protect Japan applied even to the Senkaku islands—the subject of a bitter, ongoing dispute between Tokyo and Beijing. (Japanese officials were willing to overlook Kerry’s verbal gaffe of placing those islands in the South China Sea rather than the East China Sea.)
While East Asian countries that are nervous about China’s power and ambitions are anxious to strengthen their military ties with the United States, there are surprisingly few signs of efforts to develop such ties with each other. Instead, there is an abundance of intramural squabbles, combined with an obsession to preserve “hub and spokes” bilateral security arrangements with Washington. That is the preference of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and other longstanding U.S. allies, and newer regional actors, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore likewise adopt a bilateral rather than a multilateral approach. And in all cases, those countries envision a heavy reliance on U.S. power to protect their interests.
Unfortunately, that also appears to be Washington’s preference. But such a pattern is not healthy either for the United States or the countries in the region worried about Beijing’s intentions. An effective, sustainable regional balance of power to place limits on China’s goals requires far greater cooperation among the nations most at risk.
Instead, key countries are pursuing their own parochial quarrels with neighbors that should logically be security partners. While Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines all bitterly resent Beijing’s breathtakingly broad territorial claims in the South China Sea, those entities show little willingness to temper their own claims or to coordinate their efforts against China. Instead, each nation pursues its agenda as a zero-sum game.
Bilateral quarrels among such countries sometimes become extremely testy. In September 2012, a group of thirty prominent Taiwanese, led by a several national legislators, landed on Taiping, the largest island in the Spratly chain, to inspect the security situation there. The Taiwanese coast guard even conducted an extensive live-fire exercise for the delegation during the visit. When Vietnam strongly protested that exercise—as well as an announced visit by a senior Taiwanese security official—the Taipei government summarily dismissed the protest.
Such squabbling is relatively tame, though, compared to the frequent tensions between Japan and South Korea. Not only do those two countries have their own bitter territorial quarrel, over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan, but animosity has erupted over other issues. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s December 2013 visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo especially inflamed South Korean attitudes. Writing in the January 6, 2014, New York Times , Sung-Yoon Lee, Professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, noted that even before Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, South Korea had rebuffed Japan for over a year regarding closer security ties because of provocative historical slights. “To Washington’s dismay, Mr. Abe’s disregard for Koreans’ sense of the trauma about the Japanese occupation has given South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, no option but to cool relations” even further, Lee concluded. Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are now so testy that one respected scholar on East Asia urges the United States to take a much more active role as mediator .
That is precisely the wrong course, because it will increase the already unhealthy reliance on Washington. If the nations of East Asia are going to create a respectable collective effort to balance China’s power, they need to work out their own differences and forge links of mutual security cooperation. Although the recent increases in national military budgets, especially Japan’s boost, are an encouraging sign, since they reflect greater concern about Beijing’s capabilities and intentions, that development is hardly sufficient. Not only do Tokyo, Seoul and other capitals need to ratchet up spending to a much greater extent than such modest increases indicate, it is imperative for them to become serious about collaborative security efforts.
Washington’s willingness to give constant reassurance to its allies is counterproductive. It removes an important incentive for them to bury their parochial quarrels and develop an East Asian regional security network to counterbalance China’s power. Without that greater regional security cooperation, the dependence on the United States will grow, even as the credibility of U.S. promises is likely to fade. The Obama administration needs to send a message of “tough love” to its East Asian allies, a message that it is time for them to take primary responsibility for the security of their own neighborhood, and not always look to Washington for protection.