‘Uncle Sam, are you friend or foe?’: China

According to Tsuneo Watanabe (2014) of the Tokyo Foundation, U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis China has quietly shifted from cooperative engagement to risk hedging, the brainchild of longtime director of the Office of Net Assessment in the Department of Defense (DoD) Andrew W. Marshall. Indeed, risk hedging is openly embraced by the Obama administration, with notable acolytes of Marshall including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M. Campbell. Such a hedging policy applied to China, explains Watanabe (2014), quoting the DoD’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, would involve “a balanced approach, one that seeks cooperation but also creates prudent hedges against the possibility that cooperative approaches by themselves may fail to preclude future conflict.” (para. 14) Although Watanabe (2014) admits the DoD’s next Quadrennial Defense Review, published in 2010, says the U.S. should avoid thinking of China as a potential adversary requiring containment, he notes that the same report explicitly advocates a more aggressive counteraction of Chinese military expansion.

Marshall’s stratagem is cryptic, moreover, as to the manner, not to mention the magnitude, of its prescribed hedges against China. Watanabe (2014) describes these hedges as a series of precise projections of American power whose objective is “to shape China’s course along a peaceful trajectory.” (sec. 2, para. 16) But the hedging policy roughed out in such terms bears a striking similarity to the containment policy, which U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan, writing for Foreign Affairs in 1947, introduced as “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” (sec. 3, para. 1)

But until the U.S. discards/updates its Cold War-era military alliances with Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific, Marshall’s policy of risk hedging––or whatever newfangled turn of phrase the Obama administration dredges up to give its general strategy against China a makeover––will serve merely to perpetuate Kennan’s tactics of containment, argue Chinese government officials. Jane Perlez of the New York Times, reporting last November on a Chinese reclamation project in the Spratly Islands which would extend Beijing’s influence deep into the South China Sea, wrote: “[At a November 21-22 international conference held by the China Association for Military Science] China’s defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, who rarely speaks in public, said that China wanted countries to ‘transcend Cold War thinking,’ a reference to the American alliances in the Asia-Pacific region that China contends are used as a containment strategy.” (Perlez, 2014, para. 8)

To be sure, the notion that Washington’s continued support of Japan would vex China is completely understandably––especially in the face of Japan’s growing ultra-conservatism and hostility towards its neighbors. From its genesis after World War II, the U.S.-Japan security alliance, revised to its present form in 1960 with the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, was intended as a restraint on Russia and China. Though with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the U.S.-Japan security treaty was less identifiable as a bulwark against communism, a 2013 Congressional Research Service report observed that nonetheless recent security concerns have kept the alliance focused squarely on China: “Security challenges in the region, particularly nuclear and missile tests by North Korea and increased Chinese maritime activities, have reinforced U.S.-Japan cooperation in recent years. … The U.S.-Japan alliance, missing a strategic anchor since the end of the Cold War, may have found a new guiding rationale in shaping the environment for China’s rise.” (Chanlett-Avery & Rinehart, 2013, Summary, para. 1)

I have taken the liberty of including below an abridged timeline of specific points of friction between the U.S. and China over the former’s support of Japan, compiled from news reports, academic journals and the like. My timeline is intended to provide a general idea of the nature of recent actions taken by the U.S. for Japan and at the expense of China. Therefore it is by no means comprehensive.

March 15, 2013 – After a recent escalation in tensions with North Korea marked by Pyongyang’s withdrawal from all non-aggression pacts with its southern counterpart Seoul, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that “the Pentagon would add 14 new anti-missile interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska––an effective reversal of an early Obama administration decision––and move ahead with the deployment of a second missile-defense radar in Japan.” (Reuters: Stewart & Alexander, 2013, para. 2) The Stewart and Alexander (2013) article observed, “U.S. officials say its missile defense systems are not designed to counter the large number of ICBMS in arsenals in China or Russia and are focused instead on the threat from North Korea or, potentially, Iran.” (para. 10)

However, such intimations of an imminent nuclear threat from North Korea came on the heels of other more nuanced impressions of the situation, viz. that of David Albright, a physicist and founder of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security. Writing in February 2013 for 38 North, a publication by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (John Hopkins University), Albright cautioned: “Can North Korea miniaturize its nuclear warheads to fit on its ballistic missiles? … Although such a prospect appears to be several years off, the chance that North Korea could mount and deploy a warhead on the shorter range Nodong missile is a more critical concern. Moreover, North Korea has given indications that it is thinking about deploying its nuclear weapons on such delivery systems.” (para. 2) With that being said, Albright was careful to add a caveat to his alarming verdict, that “Accurately assessing North Korea’s progress in building deliverable nuclear weapons is never easy since it is intensely secretive and U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities are limited. … Analysts of all opinions are [therefore] unable to know the true situation and can assess only the estimated state of North Korea’s progress.” (para. 5)

As for Iran, in November 2012 the International Atomic Energy Agency’s quarterly report on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program concluded that notwithstanding recent progress re centrifugal installation at nuclear facilities in Fordow and Natanz, “Iran remains years, not months away from having a workable nuclear arsenal if it were to choose to pursue that capability.” (Davenport, Kimball, & Thielmann, 2012, p. 2)

October 3, 2013 – The U.S. and Japan unveiled plans to broaden their military alliance, in a long-awaited victory for Washington which had lobbied time and again for Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF) to contribute more to American military operations around the world. China’s rise was undeniably a central motive for these new plans, with the announced agreement stating, in characteristic oblique fashion, that the U.S. and Japan should be prepared to terminate the spread of “coercive and destabilizing behaviors” in the Asia-Pacific (The New York Times: Steinhauer & Fackler, 2013, para. 10).

November 27, 2013 – The U.S. pledged its support for Japan in the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute after China established in defiance of international norms a new airspace defense zone called the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). This after “Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel assured his Japanese counterpart in a phone call that the two nations’ defense pact covered the small islands.” (Reuters: Felsenthal & Alexander, 2013, para. 2) Though the Felsenthal and Alexander (2013) article noted that the U.S. refuses to cast judgment on the sovereignty of the islands “but recognizes that Tokyo has administrative control over them and the United States is therefore bound to defend Japan in the event of an armed conflict” (para. 7), Washington’s stamp of approval, whatever its intentions, gives unprecedented international credibility to its recipient, a widely acknowledged fact for which China took issue.

April 6, 2014 – Following an announcement that the U.S. had ordered two additional ballistic missile destroyers to Japan ostensibly in response to the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, comparing China’s aggressive handling of the Senkaku dispute to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, advised Beijing to treat its neighbors, namely Japan, with more respect. Said Hagel after a meeting with his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera: “We must be very careful and we must be very clear, all nations of the world, that in the 21st century this [Russia’s takeover of Crimea] will not stand, you cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimidation, whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe.” (The Guardian/Associated Press: “Chuck Hagel says,” 2014, para. 4)

April 23-25, 2014 – President Obama, in Tokyo for three days as part of a four-nation tour of Asia, stated that it is (as it should be) the policy of the U.S. to deny China access to the Senkaku Islands. “Article five [of the U.S.-Japan security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration including [the] Senkaku Islands,” said the president, adding, “We do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally.” (BBC News: “Obama Asia tour:,” 2014, para. 10) Though Pres. Obama declared that “our engagement with China does not and will not come at the expense of Japan or any other ally,” he later attempted to mollify China (Reuters: Sieg & Spetalnick, 2014, para. 6). The Chinese state news agency Xinhua would have none of it, saying, “The United States should reappraise its anachronistic hegemonic alliance system and stop pampering its chums like Japan and the Philippines that have been igniting regional tensions with provocative moves.” (Reuters: Sieg & Spetalnick, 2014, para. 20)

May 31, 2014 – Defense Secretary Hagel, speaking in the same vein as Pres. Obama the previous month, again criticized China’s handling of the Senkaku dispute. Said Hagel: “In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea … We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims.” (Reuters: Brunnstrom & Yee, 2014, para. 3, 5)

End of timeline.

From this brief account of recent events in East Asia, one may draw the following conclusion: that Gen. Chang’s objection last November to the U.S.-Japan alliance is well-understood and indeed, in some respects reasonable in view of 1) the U.S.’s unwavering support for Japan re the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute, and 2) the U.S.’s continual military reinforcement of Japan under the exaggerated pretext of readying the SDF for the threat posed by North Korea. Recent dealings between the U.S. and Japan concerning China may not yet exhibit the insolently intrusive nature of a containment strategy, but they are certainly forceful enough that one does wonder if Marshall’s freshly minted policy of risk hedging is as large a step away from Cold War thinking as the Obama administration would have the world believe.


Albright, D. (2013, February 13). North Korean Miniaturization. 38 North. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://38north.org/2013/02/albright021313/
Brunnstrom, D., & Yee, L. (2014, May 31). U.S. and China square off at Asia security forum. Reuters. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/31/us-asia-security-idUSKBN0EB03520140531
Chanlett-Avery, E., & Rinehart, I. (2013). The U.S.-Japan Alliance. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33740.pdf
Chuck Hagel says US will send two ballistic missile destroyers to Japan. (2014, April 6). The Guardian. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/06/chuck-hagel-us-send-missile-destroyers-japan-north-korean-threat
Davenport, K., Kimball, D., & Thielmann, G. (2012, November 16). The November 2012 IAEA Report on Iran and Its Implications. The Arms Control Association. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.armscontrol.org/files/Iran_Brief_11_16_2012.pdf
Felsenthal, M., & Alexander, D. (2013, November 27). U.S. affirms support for Japan in islands dispute with China. Reuters. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/27/us-usa-china-idUSBRE9AQ0T920131127
Kennan, G. (1947, July). The Sources of Soviet Conduct. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/23331/x/the-sources-of-soviet-conduct
Obama Asia tour: US-Japan treaty ‘covers disputed islands’. (2014, April 24). BBC News. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27137272
Perlez, J. (2014, November 23). China Said to Turn Reef Into Airstrip in Disputed Water. The New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/24/world/asia/china-said-to-be-building-airstrip-capable-area-in-disputed-waters.html?_r=0
Sieg, L., & Spetalnick, M. (2014, April 23). Obama seeks to ease Asian allies’ doubts during visit to Japan. Reuters. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/23/us-japan-usa-obama-interview-idUSBREA3L1YD20140423
Steinhauer, J., & Fackler, M. (2013, October 3). U.S. and Japan Agree to Broaden Military Alliance. The New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/world/asia/japan-and-us-agree-to-broaden-military-alliance.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Stewart, P., & Alexander, D. (2013, March 15). U.S. to bolster missile defenses to counter North Korea threat: Hagel. Reuters. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/15/us-korea-north-usa-defense-idUSBRE92E0SV20130315
Watanabe, T. (2014, January 31). US Engagement Policy toward China (2): Realism, Liberalism, and Pragmatism. The Tokyo Foundation. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.tokyofoundation.org/en/articles/2014/us-engagement-policy-toward-china2

Copyright © 2015 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on February 27, 2015, in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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