Small Wars Journal

U.S. Military Engagement Abroad: A Brief Case Analysis

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 2:04pm

U.S. Military Engagement Abroad: A Brief Case Analysis

James Mwombela


The goal of this paper is to contribute to the debate surrounding the question of whether or not American foreign policy has become excessively interventionist through a very brief case study. I chose to analyze the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands between China and U.S. ally Japan in order to determine if U.S. involvement secures its national interests. In particular, I concentrated on the prospect of a moral hazard, or the creation of an incentive for allies to take advantage of U.S. support by acting aggressively with more powerful foes. Some international politics theorists have argued that U.S. security arrangements create moral hazards that exacerbate tensions between allies and their adversaries and increase the chances of the U.S. being pulled into an unnecessary armed conflict, while other theorists contend that these arrangements constrain allies from engaging in aggressive behavior. In order to reach my conclusion, I analyzed the terms of the U.S.-Japan security arrangement, the ability of U.S. leaders to display credible commitments to defend Japan to both Chinese and Japanese leaders, and the impact of U.S. military presence on both the level of aggression employed by both sides and the security dilemma in the region.    

In an essay titled Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy, Barry Posen argues that present U.S. involvement overseas creates more harm than good for America’s national interests, and, in particular, “U.S. security guarantees encourage plucky allies to challenge more powerful states, confident that Washington will save them in the end -- a classic case of moral hazard.” (Posen). Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth offer a contrasting opinion in their essay, Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement, arguing “If anything, alliances reduce the risk of getting pulled into a conflict. In East Asia, the regional security agreements that Washington struck after World War II were designed, in the words of the political scientist Victor Cha, to ‘constrain anticommunist allies in the region that might engage in aggressive behavior against adversaries that could entrap the United States in an unwanted larger war’” (Brooks). I decided to test these opposing theories through close examination of the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. I found that, although our alliance with Japan presents a small risk of the U.S. being pulled into an armed conflict with China over this dispute, it eases Japanese concern over China’s growing power and deters China from attempting to change the status quo in such a way that would spark united opposition from the U.S. and Japan. The United States’ security arrangement with Japan thus decreases the chances of armed conflict breaking out over this territorial dispute, allowing Washington to protect key security and economic interests in the region.


The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands comprise approximately eight small islets, with a total land area of approximately seven square kilometers. After World War II, the United States assumed administrative responsibilities over the Ryukyu Island chain, which included the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, as dictated by the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan. The U.S. was clear to characterize its administrative control as temporary, and the Japanese government understood that the islands would be returned to them eventually. However, after the U.S. announced their imminent return in 1970, China claimed to have territorial rights to the islands. In response, President Nixon declared that the U.S. would return administrative rights of the island chain to Japan according to the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty but would “in no way prejudice the underlying claims of the Republic of China.” Thus the U.S. returned the islands to their legal situation which preceded the San Francisco Peace Treaty but took a neutral stance with respect to the question of who had true sovereignty over the islands. This stance allowed the U.S. to avoid taking sides in the dispute and upsetting China or Japan at a time when Washington desired cooperation from both states, leaving China and Japan to settle the disagreement on their own (Smith, Paul J).

Rising Tensions

In 2010, tensions between China and Japan peaked after a Chinese fishing boat, reportedly in an attempt to avoid inspection, collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the islands and Japan decided to detain the boat’s captain. Two years later on September 11, 2012, the Japanese government bought three of the five main islands which comprise the Senkaku/Diaoyu island group in a 2.05 billion yen ($26.1 million) deal with private businessman Kunjoki Kurihara, effectively nationalizing the islands. Anti-Japan demonstrations erupted in China, and in early October 2012, chief of the IMF Christine Lagarde warned that the protests had a potential to negatively influence the global economy. This conflict has become complicated by power transition; in the 1970s and 80s, Japan boasted an economy that was unrivaled in East Asia and a stronger military than China. Japan has since found itself in the midst of an economic and military decline while a rising China has surpassed it in both categories. China is taking advantage of its increasingly favorable relative power position in the region by attempting to change the status quo in regards to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and Japan has noticed and attempted to protect itself from China’s bullying. As China’s naval power and presence in the East and South China Seas has grown, both Japanese and American military observers have expressed an opinion that China’s military expansion is geared towards their territorial claims. Japan’s 2012 defense white paper reported that the Chinese Air Force has deployed aircraft close to Japan’s airspace in the East China Sea, and it also stated “It is believed that [China’s] naval vessels operated near the drilling facilities of the Kashi oil and gas fields in September 2005, partly because China tried to demonstrate [its] naval capabilities of acquiring, maintaining, and protecting its maritime rights and interests.” That same document expressed concern that China has not displayed the level of transparency expected of a responsible major power in its key military operations and procurement. China has shown no signs of easing its aggressive tactics, and concern over China’s military strategy has motivated Japan to beef up its security and surveillance in these contested areas, causing many to fear that this dispute could escalate to armed conflict (Smith, Paul J).

Obligated Defender

In the early 1970s, Japanese leaders discovered that article 5 of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty, which states that the United States is bound to protect “the territories under the Administration of Japan,” can be applied to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and Washington has continued to confirm this since then (Smith, Paul J). Consequently, if China and Japan found themselves in an armed conflict over the islands, the U.S. would be obliged to join on Japan’s side. This would intensify already existing Chinese-U.S. tensions which have their own potential for escalation.

China seems to be pushing the envelope as far as possible short of outright military force, because, from China’s perspective, it would be against their interests to fight a war with a U.S.-backed Japan. The U.S. military is still the strongest in the world, and Beijing would much prefer to continue to inch closer to the U.S. economically and militarily than fight a war with grim prospects over some islands. China has demonstrated this by attempting to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Japan. The increase in Chinese ships near the Senkaku/Diaoyou islands was perceived by some to be an attempt to undermine Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security agreement by demonstrating that it has some administrative control over the territory. In response, Hillary Clinton announced in early 2013 that the U.S. would not tolerate attempts to undermine Japanese administrative rights to the islands (Manyin). China then declared the islands a “core interest,” a move perceived by many as an attempt to persuade the U.S. and Japan to back down. According to Su Xiaohui, strategic studies research fellow for the China Institute of International Peace, China uses the term “core interest” sparingly to communicate that “it is not negotiable and China will defend it with all our might.” However, Xiaohui also pointed out the need for Beijing to exercise caution: “It is not only a problem between China and Japan. It is related to the US position, the South China Sea issue, etc. If we failed in dealing with the problem appropriately, the spillover effect would be disastrous” (Minnick).

Keeping the Peace

U.S. forces pulling out of Asia would eliminate a key deterrent preventing China from using military force to pursue its territorial claims, causing Tokyo to have greater concern over the safety of its territorial claims. Allen Carlson’s article, Keeping the Peace at Sea: Why the Dragon Doesn’t Want War argues that China’s goals of facilitating stability in the regional and global economy and quelling domestic nationalist sentiment alone will prevent China from initiating armed conflict, but this argument does not address the fact that U.S. presence eases the security dilemma in the region (Carlson).  Although one may think that U.S. support would cause Japan to deal with China more aggressively, Japan’s responses to China’s aggressive tactics have been focused on defending the territories it administers. Japan’s restrained response to China’s latest aggressive behavior, the establishment of a new air defense zone covering the islands, demonstrates a commitment to “not initiating the escalation of tensions on our side” (Hayashi). However, without U.S. support, Japan would have an increased incentive to act aggressively in order to protect the Senkaku/Diaoyou islands and undermine China’s influence in the region before relative power positions shift even more in China’s favor. Chinese leaders would also have difficulty credibly committing to an agreement with Japan in the island dispute, because there is no sign that China’s power growth will slow down any time soon.

A U.S. exit from Asia would leave the safety of Japan’s territorial claims to the mercy of China’s superior military, igniting an arms race that could spread throughout the region. Washington welcomed Japanese officials last July to view confidential nuclear facilities in a gesture of assurance of U.S. nuclear posture and that Japan is protected from nuclear attack by the threat of U.S. retaliation (Makino). Without U.S. support, Japan would feel compelled to beef up its military security/surveillance methods even more than it already has and probably procure nuclear weapons. Other Asian nations such as the Philippines and South Korea would probably respond by pursuing nuclear weapons of their own as a defense measure against Chinese and North Korean aggression. As the authors of Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement pointed out, Taiwan and South Korea tried to acquire nuclear weapons during the Cold War and probably would have if not for U.S. security ties (Brooks). The rapid escalation of arms races would increase the chances of armed conflict breaking out between China and Japan due to miscalculation. It would also likely present what political scientists call a state of equivalent retaliation, a situation in which both sides believe that it is imperative to respond to any and all perceived slights, because it would be difficult to judge whether the other state’s accumulation and movement of warships and aircraft near disputed territories is intended to defend or attack (Carlson). The spread of nuclear arms throughout the region would raise the chances of disaster occurring through accidents or the seizure of nuclear weapons by terrorists or other dangerous third party groups.

Incentives, Incentives

Although U.S. commitment to defend the Senkaku/Diayou islands on behalf of Japan introduces the possibility of the U.S. being pulled into an armed conflict with China, it decreases the chances of such conflict actually breaking out. China crossing the line would present U.S. leaders with a situation in which failure to provide adequate aid to Japan would undermine U.S. ability to credibly commit to agreements with any of its allies. However, an armed conflict initiated by Japan would provide the U.S. with an incentive to provide only minimal support as punishment and an example to deter other allies from aggressive behavior, and other countries would be more likely to consider this action morally justified, leaving the United States’s reputation intact. U.S. and Japanese officials have also discussed “worst-case” contingency plans if China moves to capture the islands, plans which would lose effectiveness if Japan went on the offensive (“U.S., Japan). These factors provide Japan with confidence that the U.S. will provide adequate support in the case of a Chinese-initiated conflict while simultaneously discouraging Japan from acting aggressively. China, on the other hand, cannot afford to risk sparking an almost certainly disastrous war in the midst of its power ascendance with a U.S. backed Japan over some islands. The proportional increases in U.S.-Japanese joint defense and surveillance exercises in response to Chinese aggression and the international political costs which the U.S. would incur if it defaulted on its treaty obligation have allowed the U.S. to credibly commit to defend Japan and deter China from using military force to pursue its territorial claims (Smith, A. Sheila; "The Senkaku). If the U.S. were to leave Japan on its own, the expanding relative power gap between China and Japan would create difficulty for China in credibly committing to an agreement with Japan and incentivize Japan to act aggressively before China becomes an even greater threat to their territorial claims. Furthermore, this decision would probably initiate an arms race and increases in security and surveillance surrounding the islands which would increase the chances of armed conflict breaking out due to miscalculation or the difficulty in differentiating between intent to attack and intent to defend. Therefore, at least in the case of East Asia, the argument echoed in Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth’s paper provides a better foreign policy strategy for promoting peace and global economic stability than Posen’s recommendation.

Works Cited

Brooks, Ikenberry, Wohlforth. "Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement." Foreign

Affairs. Council of Foreign Relations,  Jan. 2013. Web. 16 July 2013.

Carson, Allen. "China Keeps the Peace at Sea: Why the Dragon Doesn't Want War." Foreign

Affairs. Council of Foreign Relations, 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 16 July 2013.

Hayashi, Yuka and Page, Jeremy. “U.S., Japan Warn China In Island Row.” The Wall Street

Journal Asia. Dow Jones & Company, 25 November, 2013. Web. 02 January 2013.

Makino, Yoshihiro. "U.S. Shows Nuclear Facilities to Reassure Japan, Allies on

Deterrence.” The Asahi Shimbun, 30 July 2013. Web. 14 July 2013.

Manyin, Mark E. Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Islands Dispute: U.S. Treaty Obligations. Issue

brief no. 42761. Congressional Research Service, n.d. Web

Minnick, Wendell. "China-Japan Island Dispute Could Become

Flashpoint." Defense News, 4 May 2013. Web. 23 July 2013.

Posen, Barry. "Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy." Foreign Affairs. Council

of Foreign Relations,  Jan. 2013. Web. 16 July 2013.

Smith, Paul J. "The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Controversy: A Crisis Postponed." Naval War

College Review 66.2 (n.d.): 27-44. EBSCO-Military & Government Collection. Web. 14 July 2013.

Smith, A. Sheila. “A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea: Contingency Planning

Memorandum No. 18.” Foreign Affairs. Council of Foreign Relations, Apr. 2013. Web. 12 November 2013   

"The Senkaku Boomerang." Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 01 Nov

2013. ProQuest. Web. 06 January 2014 .

"U.S., Japan Make Plans for Problems in Senkakus." Japan Update. Ryukyu Press, 27 March

2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

About the Author(s)

James Mwombela is a senior at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an Economics and Political Science Double Major. This is his first publication and was completed with the aid of research completed during an internship at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.