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A Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere?

A Resurgent China confronts Japan.

12:00 AM, Mar 22, 2007 • By ERNEST W. LEFEVER
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IN 1937, while Hitler was tightening his grip on Germany and Stalin was killing "unreliable" Russian generals, Emperor Hirohito invaded China and massacred over 200,000 civilians in the Nationalist capital of Nanking. This was the brutal prelude to Japan's far-flung co-prosperity sphere in Asia that was finally crushed in 1945 with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That was 62 years ago. History rarely repeats itself precisely, but sometimes, as if the Fates seeks retribution, the tables are turned. Today there are ominous signs that an increasingly rich and powerful China may be contemplating its own co-prosperity sphere.

Recent news from China is not reassuring. In early March, Beijing announced a 17.8 percent increase in its military spending, this after 15 years of double-digit increases. Add to this the troubling and still unresolved crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear arms program. Some experts, including John R. Bolton, who has had experience negotiating with North Korea, believe that Kim Jong-Il has more surprises up his sleeve if the U.S.-six-nation agreement breaks down.

Even before its recent announcement, Beijing was rapidly building a massive nuclear arsenal, including ICBMs, nuclear-armed submarines, and the capacity to destroy U.S. military satellites.

It was also testing the waters in the Pacific. Last October 27th, a Chinese diesel-powered attack sub armed with cruise missiles surfaced five miles from the USS Kitty Hawk, a vessel in a U.S. aircraft carrier group patrolling near Japan. Later, China said it was a "chance encounter" and it had no intention of harming the Kitty Hawk. But Beijing rejected a U.S.-proposed agreement to prevent such provocative incidents.

Noting even more ominous signals from Beijing, including the January 11 test of an anti-satellite weapon, the United States suspended joint space talks with China. Concurrently, the Pentagon stepped up its contingency plans for attacking North Korea's Yongbyon plutonium-processing facility.

From the early post World War II years, China has been the patron and protector of the secretive and bellicose North Korean regime, but there are signs that Beijing does not trust Pyongyang with nuclear weapons. This is not necessarily good news. Beijing may simply want to have a monopoly on "communist" nukes and missiles in the region.

If one adds to the developments in China the unpredictability of Russia as a nuclear power, the United States is the only reliable nuclear power with a presence in the North Pacific. It has been said that nuclear weapons are morally neutral. They are, but those who possess them are neither morally neutral nor equally responsible.

Granting that the United States is the only reliable nuclear power in the Pacific, one can argue that two responsible nuclear states would have a more stabilizing impact in the region than the two less predictable nuclear powers--China or Russia. Thus a nuclear Japan might help balance a nuclear China, deter Chinese imperial designs, and enhance regional stability.

There are other reasons why Japan should bear a greater share of the burden. Developments there may not be as dramatic as those in Beijing and Pyongyang, but Tokyo's behavior over the past several years suggest a restlessness with Article 9 of Japan's constitution that prohibits a full-fledged defense establishment. Early this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan's Liberal Democratic party changed the name of the country's Defense Agency to the Ministry of Defense to demonstrate "both domestically and internationally the maturity of Japanese democracy." He also wants to amend Article 9, even though it has not prevented Japan from sending troops to international peacekeeping operations or contributing $13 billion to support the American-led Gulf war to liberate Kuwait in 1991.

To defend Japan and South Korea, the United States deploys some 66,000 ground and air forces and substantial naval assets in the region, mainly in Japan and South Korea. But America is decreasing its forces. It recently announced a decision to relocate 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, a move supported by Abe, who agreed to share the $15 billion cost.

Moving to its defense budget, Japan is not carrying its full military burden. As the world's second richest nation, its GDP is twice that of China's, but Japan spends far less on defense. As of 2006, Tokyo's annual military budget was 1 percent of its GDP, or $44.32 billion. China's military budget was 4.3 percent of its GDP, or $81.48 billion. If Japan spent the same percentage of its GDP on its military as China, Tokyo's defense budget would exceed $200 billion. The U.S. with a GDP of $4.66 trillion, spends $518.1 billion on defense, or 4.06 percent compared to Japan's 1 percent.