The ongoing rift between Japan and China over opposing claims to a group of islands in the East China Sea has accelerated the erosion of relations between the world’s second and third largest economies. Although claims to oil deposits, shipping lanes, and fishing territories simmer at the surface of the dispute, a large degree of tension is rooted in historical and nationalistic claims to the territory such as persisting Chinese anger over Japanese occupation of China’s territories between 1931 and 1945. While their shared history plays a major role in shaping the current animosities between Japan and China over the islands, there is, as there has been in many disputes in Asia, a third player involved: the United States.

Photo courtesy of Secretary of Defense, public domain.

In its most recent effort to swing the foreign policy pendulum towards Asia, the Obama administration sent US Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta to Japan and China, where his presence added yet another layer of tension to the island dispute. Before traveling to Beijing for high-level meetings with China’s top leadership, Mr. Panetta stopped in Tokyo to finalize an agreement on the installation of a new Japanese advanced missile-defence radar system. According to the US Department of Defense (DOD), the X-band radar “detects ballistic missiles early in their flight and provides precise tracking information for targeting systems.”[1] The agreement is symbolic of the robust and enduring military partnership between the US and Japan, long viewed by China as an attempt by the US to balance against its rising power.

Although Mr. Panetta has insisted the new antimissile system is not targeted at China, but instead at the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, the timing of the agreement amidst the current island dispute has inadvertently highlighted the US-Japanese military alliance, sparking anger within Chinese leadership.

In an attempt to quell Chinese suspicions, Mr. Panetta assured Beijing that the US was not taking sides in the island dispute, urging both parties to “work together to find a peaceful resolution to these issues.”[2] Despite these claims, it seems readily feasible that the purpose of the new antimissile system is not circumscribed to the threat of North Korea, and might in fact hold an additional, if not central, aim of protecting US interests in Asia against a rising China.

The establishment of the new US-backed Japanese antimissile system can be viewed as a part of President Obama’s broader plan to refocus, or “pivot” American foreign policy toward Asia. This shift has been manifested not only in the reinforcement of military alliances with countries like Japan, but also in US efforts to bolster its Pacific military presence as illustrated in President Obama’s decision to establish a base of 2,500 US marines in Australia. According the New York Times, the broader purpose of Mr. Panetta’s recent trip was “intended to show allies that the United States’ planned strategic rebalancing toward Asia is a reality, not just talk.”[3] The question remains, however, as to how much of this “rebalancing” is aimed specifically at quelling the growing power of China.

A scholarly perspective of President Obama’s recent moves in Asia offers the possibility that the US is engaging in what is sometimes called “powerplay.” This strategy, according to Victor Cha, refers to “the construction of an asymmetric alliance designed to exert maximum control over the smaller ally’s actions.”[4]  A network of these alliances forms a “hub and spokes” system, whereby the US, at the hub, can pursue its regional interests without fear of a group overthrow that might otherwise occur within a multilateral alliance. Instances of this strategy were evident in the Cold War, when the US built a series of asymmetric, military-related alliances in East Asia with countries including Taiwan (1945), South Korea (1952), and Japan (1951), as a means to “ring in” the Soviet threat.

While during the Cold War such alliances were used to constrain Soviet influence in the Pacific region, today they may be used for the similar purpose of balancing China’s power. For example, in 1997 the US and Japan adopted a series of revised defense cooperation guidelines in a reinforcement of their military alliance. As recently as April of this year, the two countries signed a renewed bi-lateral defense-cooperation agreement. Mr. Panetta’s trip to Tokyo, as well as the recent conclusion of US-Japanese military exercises in the Pacific, may be seen as evidence of the enduring military partnership. Similarly, US alliances with Taiwan and South Korea have transcended the Cold War, and new US relationships in the region, including with Myanmar, have emerged.

Perhaps then, Chinese suspicions over the new US-backed Japanese antimissile system are not unreasonable. Beijing’s fears that the new technology will nullify the threat of its nuclear card, in turn fostering Japan’s confidence in its ability to act aggressively, are quite grounded. In the context of the ongoing Island dispute, these fears are all the more pertinent. Beijing may point to recent assaults by the Japanese Coastguard on both Chinese and Taiwanese fishing boats in the disputed region as evidence of Japan’s emboldened character following Mr. Panetta’s trip. It seems clear then, that the US plays a large, if not central, role in shaping the outcome of regional conflicts is Asia, even those rooted in deep historical rivalry. Mr. Panetta’s trip represents yet another instance of US powerplay in Asia, and has the potential to seriously impact the future policy choices of both Japan and China in the island dispute.



[1] D.O.D, 2012. Panetta Calls Beijing Meetings ‘Substantive, Productive.’ Press Release, 20 September 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shanker, Thom. “In China, Panetta Syas American Focus on Asia Is No Threat.” New York Times Online. 18 September.

[4] Cha, Victor D., 2010. “Powerplay: Origins of the U.S. Alliance System in Asia.” International Security, 34 (3), p. 158.