By Robert D. Kaplan and Matt Gertken
Arguably the greatest book on political realism in the 20th century was University of Chicago Professor Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, published in 1948. In that seminal work, Morgenthau defines the status quo as “the maintenance of the distribution of power that exists at a particular moment in history.” In other words, things shall stay as they are. But it is not quite that clear. For as Morgenthau also explains, “the concept of the ‘status quo’ derives from status quo ante bellum,” which, in turn, implies a return to the distribution of power before a war. The war’s aggressor shall give up his conquered territory, and everything will return to how it was.
The status quo also connotes the victors’ peace: a peace that may be unfair, or even oppressive, but at the same time stands for stability. For a change in the distribution of power, while at times just in a moral sense, simply introduces a measure of instability into the geopolitical equation. And because stability has a moral value all its own, the status quo is sanctified in the international system.
Let us apply this to Asia.
Because Japan was the aggressor in World War II and was vanquished by the U.S. military, it lay prostrate after the war, so that the Pacific Basin became a virtual American naval lake. That was the status quo as it came to be seen. This situation was buttressed by the decades-long reclusiveness of the Pacific’s largest and most populous nation: China. Japanese occupation and civil war left China devastated. The rise to power of Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949 would keep the country preoccupied with itself for decades as it fell prey to destructive development and political schemes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. China was not weak, as the United States would discover in the Korean and Vietnamese wars and later turn to its advantage against the Soviets. But its revolution remained unfinished. The economy did not truly start to develop until the late 1970s, after Mao died. And only in the mid-1990s did China begin its naval expansion in a demonstrable and undeniable way. Thus the United States, in its struggle with the Soviets, got used to a reclusive China and a subordinate Japan. With these two certainties underlying the Cold War’s various animosities, the United States preserved calm in its lake.
But the 21st century has not been kind to this status quo, however convenient it may have been for American interests. China’s naval, air, cyber and ballistic missile buildup over the past two decades has not yet challenged U.S. military supremacy in the region, but it has encroached significantly on the previously unipolar environment. Moreover, to measure China’s progress against U.S. supremacy is to neglect the primary regional balance of power between China and Japan. Tokyo, over the same time period, has come to see China as reaching a sort of critical mass and has accelerated its own military preparations, both in a quantitative and a qualitative sense. Recently, Tokyo has taken to trumpeting its abandonment of quasi-pacifism in order to adjust the world’s expectations to what it sees as a new reality. Japan was already a major naval power — it ranks fourth in total naval tonnage, has more destroyers than any navy besides that of the United States, and its technology and traditions give it a special edge. But now it is moving faster to loosen restrictions on its rules of engagement and to upgrade the capabilities it needs to defend its most distant island holdings.
While Beijing sees Japan’s actions as aggressive, it is primarily China that is altering the status quo. No doubt Japan was once the region’s most ambitious and belligerent power, and no doubt China cannot assume good intentions, but Japan’s current military normalization has little in common with its 1930s militarization, and Tokyo is for the moment mostly reacting to Beijing. China, for instance, has largely succeeded in shaping a global narrative of a legitimate dispute over islands in the East China Sea. But Japan has controlled the Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu in Chinese) for more than 40 years, and China has only recently asserted its claims. Japan’s other territorial disputes, by contrast, show a continuation of the status quo: Russia administers the southern Kuril islands but sees Japan offering dialogue while moving military forces away from that border; South Korea controls the Liancourt Rocks, but any feared Japanese appetite for overturning that status quo remains in check by the Americans. Nor were Japan’s sea-lanes under any conceivable threat of interference from China until recently. Keep in mind that Japan’s supply line anxieties are inherent to its geopolitical position.
Indeed, in the eyes of the Pentagon, Japan now has every reason to tailor its military capabilities in order to take precautions against China’s rise. For years U.S. defense officials have argued that a stronger Japan would help ensure China’s peaceful ascent. Only a few years ago, defense officials and think tank analysts in Washington were fretting that the Japanese might not muster the courage to stand up to China. The explanation for all this is clear: Almost seven decades of U.S. military presence in Japan has created, on an emotional level, a powerful Japan lobby within the American military and on the Pentagon’s E-Ring. This was further buttressed during the Rumsfeld years, when the United States encouraged Japan to spend billions of dollars on defending itself against North Korean missiles and to host a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier strike group, despite Japan’s neuralgic attitude toward nuclear weapons at the time. (See “What Rumsfeld Got Right,” by Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, July 2008.) From a purely geopolitical point of view, a more assertive Japan could someday revive an old threat to the United States, since both are maritime powers. But for now, Washington sees immediate benefits in Japan’s growing willingness to defend itself rather than rely so heavily on the United States.
The real danger Japan poses to the Americans is that attempting to establish a formidable defensive posture could provoke China into a dangerous escalation that, in turn, could ensnare the United States in a confrontation with the latter.
While Japan reacts to a changing of the status quo, China is aware of its own role as an agent of change. Beijing knows that it is an emerging power. It knows that emerging powers disrupt the international system. But it needs to buy time, since it isn’t ready to confront directly and unapologetically the American-led status quo in the Pacific. China’s lack of readiness is heightened by the precarious consolidation of political power and economic reforms that the Xi Jinping administration has undertaken out of necessity. China thus seeks a “new kind of major country relationship,” a phrase Chinese and American diplomats have taken to repeating, whereby the two countries will find some way of accommodating each other to China’s military emergence without causing the disruption and conflict that history books suggest is inevitable. The problem with this rhetoric is that, as the Napoleonic Wars and World War I showed, the awareness that a collapsing status quo often precedes