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Militarizing East Asia

Jan 19, 2023
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The 2+2 meeting of Japanese and U.S. foreign and defense ministers was held on Jan. 11 in Washington. This was the first high-level consultation between the two governments after they each published their new national security defense strategies. As was evident from the subsequent joint statement and news briefing, the U.S.-Japan alliance has accomplished unprecedented integration in strategy and approach to policy goals. Both countries believe integrated military deterrence will bring security to the region. History, however, has repeatedly proved that a security outlook that prioritizes military power and is based on deterrence is unlikely to bring about sustainable security.

First, the trend of militarizing the diplomatic framework of the U.S.-Japan 2+2 ministerial meetings is increasingly marginalizing the role of diplomacy in the pursuit of security. The official name of the U.S.-Japan 2+2 is U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee. Security is not only a comprehensive concept, but also a mutual one. There are various ways to achieve security, but diplomacy remains important. Theoretically, foreign ministers should play leading roles in a ministerial-level regime for foreign and defense chiefs. How to realize security via diplomacy should be an important subject. Yet the statement shows an overwhelming tilt toward the military.

In the joint statement, the sections on modernizing and optimizing the alliance  are full of military and war terminology. The functions of the U.S. secretary of state and Japanese foreign minister, as well as the U.S. defense secretary and Japanese defense minister, have homogenized. In essence, this amounts to the marginalization, even embodiment, of militarized diplomacy.

Japan once proposed the concept of a “comprehensive security guarantee” and has actively promoted the idea of a “human security guarantee,” which was widely acclaimed internationally. The U.S., meanwhile, has maintained its longstanding focus on military security when it comes to national security and has redoubled its efforts to enhance and retain an overwhelming focus on the military’s supreme significance after the Cold War. This is part of a bid to suppress potential enemies and achieve security. Such thinking has in turn led Americans to believe that diplomatic processes are too lengthy and inefficient compared with military means and that diplomacy can be persuasive and effective only when it is backed up with a strong military.

Behind the increasingly evident post-Cold War trend of militarizing diplomacy is an unwillingness to resolve international disputes via diplomatic dialogue. Facts show that military suppression and even preemptive military strikes don’t bring security; on the contrary, they usually result in chaos and greater insecurity, as evidenced by two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The militarization of diplomacy has led to continuous escalation of crises over security hot spot issues in many regions — the North Korea and Iran nuclear issues being examples. Unfortunately, the Japanese security strategy has grown more Americanized in recent years, which is not conducive to sustainable security in East Asia.

Second, a military deterrence-based outlook on security is incompatible with seeking security by means of diplomatic dialogue in East Asia since the end of the Cold War. The joint statement of the 2+2 meeting mentioned “deterrence” eight times, and the capacity for military deterrence has become a hallmark of the U.S.-Japan alliance. While military strength is an indispensable component of national security, a security outlook based mainly on deterrence will lead to insecure outcomes.

First, the question of whether or not deterrence will work isn’t one-sided. It doesn’t rest solely on the will of those who deter but also on the perception of those to be deterred. In the absence of effective diplomacy and dialogue, the logic of the one-sided assumption that strengthening military power will automatically make the other side surrender short-circuits cognition, misleads policy and is dangerous in practice.

Second, a deterrence-based outlook on security is built on the premise of identifying an imagined enemy in advance, which will not only trigger a continuous upward spiral of negative perceptions between countries but also sink those who launched the deterrence in a dilemma over exactly how much capacity for deterrence will suffice. Once an imagined enemy is identified, hostile dynamism will follow on such levels as military power and rhetoric, which in turn will stimulate reciprocal responses from the other side, easily creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

The  2+2 meeting labeled China the “biggest strategic challenge” and North Korea and Russia as serious threats. For Japan, this means taking three of its four neighboring nations across the sea as imagined enemies. But imagining two major countries — China and Russia — as enemies will bog Japan down in an endless dilemma: The more it increases its military prowess, the more it will feel insecure.

After the Cold War ended, many Western scholars and observers came to believe that East Asia would become a hotbed of military conflict. Over the past three decades, the region has generally maintained peace, an important factor in which has been the ASEAN-dominated multilateral framework of regional politics and diplomacy. This has succeeded in seeking security via dialogue, rather than dividends brought by a military alliance with the U.S..     

To achieve sustainable security in East Asia, it is important to continuously drive home the historical fact that diplomatic dialogue is the foremost channel for realizing success. There should be regional consensus on this, an vigilance to prevent the spread of the false notion that security depends on military deterrence.

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