Institute for National Strategic Studies

Balancing Interests in the Strategic Triangle

Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt

THIS TOPIC COULD NOT BE MORE TIMELY OR MORE CENTRAL TO THE ISSUE OF our nation's future. The course of U.S.-Japan-China tripartite relations shapes the security environment of the entire Asian-Pacific region, and at no time in the post-World War II era have the opportunities arising from this relationship been more evident . . . or the challenges more immediate.

When Secretary of State Christopher outlined America's strategy for Asia, he identified four parts:

In short, the relationship among the United States, China, and Japan is at the very heart of every part of our nation's strategy and vision for the future.

Rear Admiral McDevitt is Commandant, National War College. Prior to assuming his present duty, Rear Admiral McDevitt served as Director for Strategy, Plans and Policy (J-5), U.S. Pacific Command, in Hawaii from 1993 to 1995.

The traditional approach of analysis is to present a strategic assessment of the region, and follow with a strategic prescription- ways, means, and ends related to one another in the tradition of Western strategic calculus. On the basis of my experience designing and implementing strategy in PACOM, teaching strategy at the National War College, and thinking about strategy for much of my adult life, I want to take a different approach, beginning with some observations about how one might think about strategy in East Asia.

To begin with, a strategist must think in time-in the long term. Recall the Chinese scholar who, when asked his views on the French Revolution, replied, "It's too soon to tell." There is something to be said for thinking of a great nation as a great ship steering serenely and resolutely through the seas of time, and not as a speed boat darting around dangerous shoals. Quick, short-term maneuvers are the business of tacticians, not strategists, and tactics that do not directly further strategic ends are worse than unproductive-they are positively destructive to the strategic plan. Yes, the first requirement for a sound strategy is definitely a long-term view.

Next a strategist must think about national goals, what a nation and other nations in the region, wish to achieve. It is important to make a distinction here. It is not the working out of lists of interests and means to achieve them that marks a great strategist, but the strategist-s ability to relate calculations to those of other strategists from other nations. With some degree of sarcasm, Winston Churchill once told his strategists, "Even the best plan must sometime take into account the actions of the enemy." Well, our whole effort in East Asia is to avoid making enemies, but the point of the story is still valid. Strategy is about relations among nations, and in the long term, the United States, Japan, and the PRC all have vital interests at stake. Our plans must complement each other if we wish to avoid crisis and conflict.

A third consideration a national strategist must take into account is the physical reality of the region in question. In the main stairwell of the National War College is a huge map of the world with this inscription: "Everything changes but geography." Even taking modern means of transportation and communication into account, geography still exercises a major influence over national strategy in general, and military strategy in particular. For example, it is a hard fact that China dominates the Asian mainland; that Japan is an island nation with few natural resources; that most of the oil for this entire region comes from far away over sea lanes that can easily be interdicted; and that Taiwan will always be 90 miles off the Chinese coast. We can address the tyranny of geography through other means-economic, political, military, and so on-but we cannot change it.

One implication of geography is that China, Russia, Japan, Korea, and the other Asian nations reside permanently in the region, and the United States does not. Thus, the U.S. commitment to a permanent presence will always be open to question. No matter what we say or do, those who live in the region know that the United States could in fact pick up and go home.

On the other hand, while geography dictates that we are not permanent residents in a geographic sense, the fact remains that there are permanent American interests there. The United States is a trading nation. One-half of our sea coast faces Asia, the site of our largest markets and some of our closest friends and strongest allies. The continued creation of American jobs is dependent on selling American products overseas. Without doubt, the importance of American interests in Asia will grow, not shrink) in the coming years. We may not be "planted" in East Asia permanently, but we are bound to the region by permanent interests. And for the last 100 years that has meant maintaining a tangible presence in the region-first by colonies, then by military victory, and today by invitation.

Given these strategic considerations-time, national goals, and geography-the key question a strategist in this region must address is, "Is it possible to accommodate the interests of all the major players in this region-to achieve the ends all wish to achieve-without conflict?"

Looking back at the near term, the answer is "yes." Over the last 20 years, the stable military situation has encouraged both peace and prosperity. The future, however, is opaque. Is it possible to shape a strategic accord, especially among the tripartite powers of the United States, China, and Japan that will provide peace and prosperity for the future?

An optimist would suggest that a strategic accord is inevitable. Prolonged conflict among such large powers, two maritime and one continental, and over such a large area, is unlikely-the cost is simply too high, and the opportunity for harmonization of interests too great. In the long term, the major players in the region will strike a balance among what they want, what others want, and what each is capable of achieving. A scientist might call such a state "equilibrium," a political scientist might label it "balance of power;" preference is for the term, "balance of interests."

What would a "balance of interests" look like in this region? For the United States it means an environment of peace, stability, and access that promotes prosperity by providing an open door market for U.S. exports. This environment also has an ideological piece. As the world's oldest democracy, it is our responsibility and in our interest to advocate and press for the continued spread of democratic principles and mores. These are not new interests; in fact, they are quite old. Our interests have been remarkably consistent for more than a century of engagement in East Asia. We have employed all the instruments of statecraft to maintain an open door and resorted to military power when any single power attempted to close that door and exclude the United States from the region.

The numbers are familiar, but it cannot be emphasized too often how much the U.S. economic future is intertwined with the markets and the economies of East Asia. This region long ago surpassed Western Europe to become the largest regional trading partner of the United States both as a supplier of U.S. imports and as a customer for exports. More than a third of total U.S. trade is now conducted with this region, more than $424 billion in 1994. Japan alone constitutes the largest market for U.S. agricultural products, and nearly a fifth of all U.S. direct investment-more than $108 is in this region. In fact, Asia matters more now than ever before because creating export-related jobs is an avowed U.S. strategy. These investments, these jobs, and these markets are all at risk if conflict breaks out or stability is threatened. And, we believe such instability is least likely to develop in the long term when markets are open, when a balancing U.S. military force is present, and when people have a say, consistent with their own culture, in how they are governed. These are the interests we would want protected if a "balance of interests" is to be developed in East Asia.

Japan has similar interests-to include open markets which they have skillfully exploited, especially in South East Asia, and freedom of navigation that guarantees their life's blood of trade and oil. Consequently, they also have a vital stake in maintaining a strong U.S. military presence in the region, a presence synonymous with the stability that has made their economic growth possible.

But Japan has one additional interest that must be satisfied if we are going to ensure a true balance in the region: Japan must ensure its own physical security. Hard work, innovation. and history of military success against weak neighbors aside, Japan is a relatively small nation living in the shadow of large historically hostile neighbors. In response, Japan has built an excellent self-defense force-modern, professional, and competent-that is quite competent-that is quite capable of defending its own territorial integrity and is close to being able to defend air and sea lanes out to 1,000 miles from the home islands. The recent Japanese White Paper is evidence that they plan to continue to maintain a first-rate, close-in defensive capability even as they continue modest support for internationally sanctioned military operations. But the linchpin of Japanese defense remains its alliance with the United States, and the strong force the United States maintains throughout the region. From a Japanese point of view, any balancing of interests within the region must allow for both an adequate and capable Japanese Defense Force and a continued strong U.S. presence.

China shares the interest in economic prosperity that open markets and military stability provide, although with its continental position and large army it need be less concerned about the behavior of its neighbors than does Japan. However, China has another major interest that must be satisfied if a peaceful "balance of interests" with Japan and the United States is to be achieved-the need to be taken seriously and receive the accord expected of a Great Power.

The point often made by pundits and experts alike is that managing the emergence of China is the challenge of the next century, but from my perspective, China has already emerged and is already a great power. Her territorial integrity is assured by an adequate military and understanding with her continental neighbors. Nuclear weapons, ICBMS, a thriving economy, a seat on the Security Council, and political stability at home are the facts that suggest that China is a great power.

Chinese nationalism, which has replaced communism as a unifying philosophy in the country, is strongly rooted in the minds of many, perhaps most, Chinese. According to informed observers, most Chinese elite believe China is on the cusp of fulfilling the centuries old role of China as a "middle kingdom." Chinese from everywhere on the, political spectrum are imbued with an "exuberant nationalism" akin to that which griped America last century. While it is always a mistake to carry historical analogy too far, it does seem that a sense of manifest destiny may be the Chinese spirit of the age.

Some do not see a history of expansionism in China, and to a degree that is true, if you consider that the tributary system was maintained more through suasion than force of arms. But China also has a Cold War history of acting like a great power comfortable with the use of force. Since 1945, China has engaged in armed combat with India, Russia, Vietnam, South Korea, and the United State and has actively supported insurgencies throughout Southeast Asia. In other words, the Chinese do not shrink from the use of military force to further their interests.

This is not to suggest that conflict is inevitable-it is mentioned as a reminder that we must take China seriously. We should not delude ourselves into believing China can be "managed;" one does not manage a great power. We should be realistic about our ability to "shape constructive Chinese behavior." One need only read the ancient Chinese strategists to be reminded that the Chinese have a long tradition of sophisticated and nuanced strategic thought. China will act in what it believes are its best interests, and United States and Japan must do the same.

What is best for everyone concerned is to establish a balance of these interests; to make our own goals clear; to articulate to Japan and China what our interests are and why; to be sensitive to the same sort of messages from others; and to understand that there is a natural equilibrium between all parties concerned if we are imaginative, patient, and above all consistent. Let me say it again: Strategy is about shaping what happens in the long term.

What could cause the balance to be upset at some point in the future? What could destroy the relative stability we have enjoyed recently? The answer itself provides us a warning: any abrupt action that threatens the interests of the other members of this tripartite relationship and forces them to react, to defend those vital interests without time or flexibility to reestablish the balance, risks destroying the framework that has yielded stability. One cause might be the irresponsible actions of some other power that required decisive action-naked aggression by North Korea, for example-that would leave no room for maneuver or negotiation. Curiously enough, the threat of North Korean aggression, which in the past put the United States, China, and Japan at odds, actually served as a catalyst to pull them together, at least informally, more recently. Again, there were no altruists in that group. They worked together because peace and stability served their individual interests.

A second development that might upset the balance of interest in the region would be the rash or ill-considered action by one of the members of the tripartite relationship themselves. For China, this might well result from overreaching, pushing too hard in an attempt to exercise a variant of great-power status the Chinese leaders seem to favor. Saber rattling at Taiwan, pushing the envelope on nuclear proliferation, the ill-advised foray to Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, lack of cooperation in enforcing economic agreements, and in general throwing their weight around-all this has greatly alarmed the region and in fact suggests that the PRC ought to brush up on its Sun Tzu. For the United States, underreaching-reducing or withdrawing military presence and attempting to remain engaged and exert influence from afar solely through nonmilitary means-might be such an act. In fact, a primary focus in our discussions with both Japan and more importantly China is that we intend to remain militarily present in East-Asia over the long term and will not weary or tire because it is in our interest to be present.

For Japan, a misstep that would undermine the balance of interests in the region might be reaching in the wrong way-reducing economic and political involvement outside their borders; abandoning their budding military involvement in international programs; or creating a capability for offensive military power projection not justified for self- defense or international cooperation.

A third development that might destroy the balance of interests in the region would be the return of a power we have not abided today-Russia. We ought to be as concerned about Russian reemergence as a respectable military power and hence a political force in East Asia. We spend a lot of time talking about when a legitimate Chinese power projection capability might emerge. Despite the deplorable shape of their force structure, Russia would actually require a much shorter timeline than China to put together a credible capability, for power projection within the region, a conventional complement to their still strong nuclear forces. We should not ignore Russia in regional strategic calculations.

Finally, a word or two about the issue that has riveted attention over the past few months: China and Taiwan. When you think through this issue with the strategic objective of balancing interests and avoiding confrontations in mind, you realize what a masterpiece the authors of our "One China" policy created some two decades ago. It was a policy designed to balance interests-to satisfy everyone's strategic needs, at least in the short term-recognizing that some other solution would present itself when the time was right. It has succeeded brilliantly. The dramatic political and economic success of Taiwan-the economic take-off of China have all transpired since the three communiques and Taiwan Relations Act were put in place.

That same requirement to balance strategic needs continues today. The danger is that one or both parties might upset the strategic equilibrium, taking some precipitous action that generates the need for strategic reaction before the political situation is ripe for a solution. What that solution might be cannot be predicted. That is for the Chinese on both sides of the straits to work out. But the time for that solution is not now. Forcing this issue-by China or Taiwan-will destroy the strategic balance and disrupt future relations. Earlier it was mentioned that Taiwan will always be 90 miles from China. They must accommodate this reality.

This is not to suggest we simply ignore the problem. As Secretary of State Christopher said, "Managing our differences with China on Taiwan and other issues does not mean downplaying their importance.... Our differences with China are an argument for engagement, not for containment or isolation."

How many times have we heard our friends in Southeast Asia talk about "the Asian Way"-forestall action, maintain contact, increase communication, and talk . . . talk . . . talk-until the time for gradual change and a new equilibrium-a new balance of interests-arrives.

Balance of interests does not come about by accident. It is created, by clearly articulating one's own interests, carrying that message across the full range of politicomilitary dialogue. It is created by patience and consistency, without pressing beyond the reasonable and natural limits others will be willing to accent.

We can achieve such a balance among the United States, Japan, and the PRC, and, yes, Russia, and identify within their individual interests the foundation for a stable Pacific community. It will take hard work to articulate our interests, to listen and understand the interests of others, and to be patient while finding a balance all can accept. Creating a balance begins with the exchange of ideas. So we must articulate our interests, understand the interests of others, and find a balance we all can accept, and then use that balance of interests to create a foundation for a stable Pacific community.

| Return to Top | Return to Contents |