Ask Obama and Romney This: What if China squares off with Japan?

An emerging, and little discussed, dilemma

Over the final days of the campaign, CJR is running a series of pieces under the headline “Ask Obama This” and “Ask Romney This,” suggesting themes and questions that reporters and pundits can put to the presidential candidates. So far we’ve asked President Obama about his short term jobs plan and about housing, and Governor Romney about his plans for the Middle East. This installment asks both candidates about a little discussed aspect of China policy.

The presidential candidates are certain to continue talking about Benghazi, about Iran, about the broader Middle East, and perhaps about things involving China like trade, protectionism, currency manipulation, and the like. The public should be told, however, how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney interpret our treaty obligations toward Japan in light of that nation’s mounting and dangerous confrontation with China.

Since 1951, the United States has been bound to Japan by a mutual defense treaty, given muscle by the presence of large and costly American bases that host approximately 36,000 US troops in that country. For most of the history of the pact, things have been reasonably quiet in the Far East. The biggest practical threat to Japan has come from the behavior of an erratic but fundamentally weak North Korea.

But in recent months, quietly at first, and now with increasing clamor, that situation has begun to change. It has always stood to reason that China would seek to reclaim its historic place as the preeminent power in East Asia. That day is upon us, and the consequences for American policy are far reaching.

One way this could play out: the United States may have to decide how will it fulfill its defense obligations to its Japanese ally if armed confrontation were to break out between Japan and China over a collection of tiny islands claimed by the two countries (and by Taiwan). These islands lie between Taiwan and Okinawa, itself a main base of American forces in the region.

From the American perspective, are these islands, known variously as the Senkaku and the Diaoyu, by the Japanese and Chinese respectively, worth fighting and dying for?

If the answer is Yes, how will siding with Japan affect America’s relations with China going forward? How will it affect America’s posture in the Far East in general? Will this lead to direct and perhaps sustained confrontation with China; to the commencement of a frankly adversarial relationship with an incipient superpower?

If the answer is No, How can the Japanese-US alliance survive? What will happen when, as one might easily conceive, our disenchanted Japanese partners invite the United States to vacate its bases in Okinawa, which have always existed against strong local opposition?

If neither of these scenarios are palatable, how can the United States help find a third way in the East China Sea? How can it get each of these countries to climb down and reach compromise?

Like most international security questions, these questions don’t exist in isolation. A significant backdrop for them is America’s own defense policy toward the region, one that calls for a “pivot” of American Marines and naval assets to face growing Chinese might.

China has made expansive claims toward much of the South China Sea, antagonizing many of the states of that area, including the Philippines and Vietnam, among others, who seek American engagement as a counterweight to China.

Romney has called for substantially increased military spending, including greatly increased funds for naval shipbuilding. Whether through President Obama’s pivot or Romney’s naval buildup, does the United States have the resources to invite more open competition with China in its own backyard?

Can it expect to play a defusing mediator’s role between China and Japan, while openly balancing against China in the South China Sea?

Is the United States destined to have much greater military competition with China in the Western Pacific? If not, how can this be avoided? These are serious questions for the candidates, and they will continue to be good questions for the next president too, and maybe the one after that.

Related stories: Ask Romney This: What will you do about the Middle East?

Ask Obama This: What about housing?

Ask Obama This: Where’s your short-term jobs plan?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2003 to 2008, he was Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times. His latest book, China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, will be released this May. He is currently writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.