This means that Chinese missiles can hit every ship going through the south of the South China Sea. And what has America done to stop China? The USA has been conducting what they call “freedom of navigation” operations to demonstrate that they care and will not accept the Chinese illegal claim. They have been sending navy ships to sail near the waters of these artificial islands, but not doing more. This is to warn China. But China has developed de facto control over these islands.
China has effectively changed the strategic balance in the South China Sea and the other regional countries cannot do anything. Indeed, Xi has told America that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for USA and China to share: the east side of Hawaii would be American and the west side would be Chinese. If America accepts such an arrangement, it would place all East Asian countries under Chinese tutelage.
Japan thinks the peaceful rise of China is good for the world and for East Asia. If China accepts global leadership, it would reduce the burden of many rich nations of Europe, America and Japan carry today. But China; especially under Xi, is inclined to use force even if it meant violating international law. Japan is increasingly growing to see China as a challenge rather than as a partner.
Under Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believed in a bipolar world, with China as America’s partner in managing the international order – that is if China accepts to grow peacefully. But China has changed its attitude and that is why Trump has said China is a competitor not a partner. So he has begun a trade war with China; meaning now USA and China are in strategic competition.
The Japanese believe in the existing post World War Two international order – its rule of law, free trade etc. They have profited from it. China too accepts parts of this system but not all of them. Increasingly China is not trying to police the South China Sea but rather to dominate it by imposing her territorial sovereignty. It has sunk Vietnamese ships, captured Philippines ships. China’s patrol-ships are not really patrol ships but big military vessels.
The question facing the pacific therefore is: will this changing regional situation not force Japan to re-arm? Can Japan rely on the U.S. for her defence?
Taking to intellectuals and academics in Tokyo, it became clear to me that there is a rethinking of strategy in Tokyo.
If the situation continues to worsen, Japan may decide to rearm. It has enough enriched weapons-grade plutonium to build nuclear weapons – even in 30 days. But it has never done so because it’s very unpopular. This is because Japan is the only country ever to suffer a nuclear attack. And if Japan built nuclear weapons, would they have the moral authority to against North Korea’s nuclear program? Besides what would be the attitude of China and South Korea, not to mention America towards a nuclear-armed Japan?
Finally, if Japan rearms, and even acquires nuclear weapons, what would be the attitude of China and the USA? What would be the effect of this on countries like North Korea and South Korea, which have disputes with Japan? This could change the attitude of all the nations of that region – Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. An arms race in the Pacific Ocean has potential to lead to the collapse of the existing global order and spark a war. And, it is clear, a war in the Pacific cannot be localised; it would immediately spread into a global conflagration.