Japan and the Philippines hold the distinction of being the countries in Asia where the US has had the deepest military footprint, the first as a result of having lost the Pacific War nearly 77 years ago, the second owing to military conquest at the turn of the 20th century.
Their place as strategic locations of American power has come to the forefront in a very dramatic fashion as the United States escalates its military containment of China. In February, the government of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, announced it was going to give the United States four more military bases in addition to the five it now has. In Japan, the US command announced that US marine units armed with missiles will be deployed to remote Yonagoni island in the passage separating Japan from Taiwan. Also, the Kishida government announced that it will raise military spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, from the traditional 1 percent.
In short, both countries have been promoted to the unenviable status of being frontline states in Washington’s Cold War against China.
The geopolitical context
The reason this is happening is that the US-China relationship which was once a de facto alliance has turned bitter, dangerous, and unpredictable. After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US military began to see China as a potential threat to its unipolar status. However, the need to enlist China as a partner in America’s “war on terror” and, more importantly, the importance of China as a source of cheap labor to US transnationals and cheap products to American consumers took priority over strategic concerns in Washington’s calculations for almost three decades. But with Donald Trump’s coming to office in 2017, Washington’s posture towards Beijing changed from accommodating its global rise to containing China.
In the space of four years, the Trump administration named China an “economic aggressor;” declared a trade war on Beijing; initiated a technological war by banning the use of telecommunications equipment from Chinese firms like Huawei that were deemed national security risks; sought to change the character of China’s state capitalism by demanding a reduced role for the state in the Chinese economy; aimed to decouple China and the US by ending the US’s dependence of China for manufactured goods and China’s dependence on the US for high technology; and put an end to Washington’s benign approach to the TNC-China alliance by discouraging US TNC’s from investing in China and explicitly asking them to leave China and re-shore to the US. American corporations were routinely denounced by Trump officials like former Trade Adviser Peter Navarro as accomplices of China’s destruction of the US’s manufacturing base.
Realizing that they had, like Frankenstein, created a monster with their devil’s bargain of trading technology for short-term profits, many key US TNCs backed Trump’s crusade, bringing to a dramatic close the 25-year-long China-TNC alliance.
Trump steered away from the corporate accommodation with China towards the Pentagon’s view of China as the US’s main global rival, making provocative moves such as installing the THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea over Beijing’s protests, deploying intermediate-range missiles in the Pacific after the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, and heightening aggressive US naval patrolling in the South China Sea.
Upon his assumption of office in 2021, Joseph Biden moved to repair damaged ties with Washington’s allies in order to bring US policy back to a multilateral from a unilateral track. The prime objective, however, was the same: to isolate China. Biden kept Trump’s high tariffs on China and his allies led a successful effort in Congress to pass the Chips and Science Act, which appropriated $250 billion to build up the US’s manufacturing and technological edge to counter China, “embracing in an overwhelming bipartisan vote the most significant government intervention in industrial policy in decades,” as one account put it. The administration then followed up on Trump’s blocking telecommunications technology transfer to Chinese firms like Huawei with a far-reaching ban on the export of advanced microchips to China and on the employment of US citizens and permanent residents in Chinese firms involved in the design and manufacture of artificial intelligence chips, graphic processing units, and central processing units.
Equally important, on the diplomatic front, Biden has been able to obtain a consensus among US allies that China is a rival that threatens the primacy of the west and that the struggle against it would require coordinated political and economic action. Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine early in 2022, Russia, an ally of China, has served as a proxy for China for the purpose of mobilizing NATO and the European Union in an anti-China alliance, a campaign that Washington has carried out successfully. This has had major benefits for Washington’s aim to isolate China militarily in the Asia Pacific, where NATO vessels from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have joined US, Australian, South Korean, and Japanese ships in so-called “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea.
A combined economic, diplomatic, and military posture against Beijing was articulated in the administration’s National Security Strategy unveiled in late October 2022, which Biden himself summed up as identifying China as the “most consequential geopolitical challenge” faced by the United States. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the significance of the document was that the “post-Cold War era is over.” That era had been marked by détente and cooperation between China and successive US administrations.
It was not lost on Beijing that the US document was a declaration of enmity short of war.
Japan as a frontline state
This overview is necessary to emphasize that the conflict between the US and China is one that is global in scope, where a great deal of what is fueling it is an aggressive response of Washington to what it sees as the challenge to its position of hegemony posed by China.
Territorially, however, Japan is on the frontlines of the new Cold War, especially when it comes to its military dimension. Being a frontline of the new Cold War will have major consequences for Japan. Japan has the distinction of being the third biggest economy in the world but also one of the least sovereign when it comes to the possession and use of force, the monopoly of which, Max Weber wrote, is the defining feature of a state. The foundation of the security relationship between Japan and the United States rests is the Peace Treaty of 1951 which was renegotiated in 1960. John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State who presided over the treaty negotiations characterized it as a “continuation of the occupation by other means.” This description is apt since, as one defense expert reminds us over 70 years later, the treaty and its administrative annex “officially granted the United States the ‘rights, power, and authority’ within and adjacent to the facilities it controlled, including land, airspace, and territorial waters. This meant that the US military could station troops and material, collect intelligence, and stage regional military exercises when and how it saw fit. Second, the agreement guaranteed the United States access to Japanese ports and airports and gave the US military the right to use all public utilities and services in Japan. Third, in the event of imminent or actual hostilities, the Japanese government was obligated to consult the US government ‘with a view to taking necessary joint measures for the defense of that area.’ These administrative agreement clauses meant that, while Japan was sovereign, it didn’t have a true monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its territory. This monopoly was ceded in, in part, to the US government.”
With Japan’s status as an economic powerhouse, it is easy to forget that it continues to be, as Dulles put it, a militarily occupied country. There are some 70,000 US troops in approximately 85 bases and major facilities that are spread out on 31,000 hectares throughout the country, from Misawa Air Force Base 400 miles north of Tokyo to the vast US base complex that occupies nearly one-fourth of the island of Okinawa. Because Okinawa makes up only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land area but accounts for nearly 75 percent of US military facilities, it is often easy for the rest of the country to pass off the military occupation as an “Okinawa issue.”
That is an unfortunate illusion since most of the other bases in other parts of the country are essential parts of the US war machine, in particular, Yokosuka Naval Base, near Yokohama, which is the homeport of the US Seventh Fleet that serves as the backbone of the American naval presence in the contested South China Sea. Simply by virtue of being the main territorial host of the US regional garrison state in the Western Pacific, Japan is integrally implicated in Washington’s containment strategy towards China which is now in full swing.
Aside from more intense preparations for war carried out by US forces within their Japanese garrison state that are largely without the purview of the government of Japan, what else should one expect?
Well, first of all, expect the costs of maintaining US troops and bases here to rise, under Washington’s pressure. Indeed, the Diet last year already raised the so-called host-nation support, passing a 1.05 trillion yen ($8.6 billion) budget for the next five years.
Then, mentioned earlier, the Kishida government is raising military spending from the traditional 1 percent to 2 percent of GDP in the next five years, or 43 trillion yen. That figure comes to 13 percent of total projected national tax revenues. Meeting the demands of a more aggressive containment policy will involve increasing severe fiscal strains. With the demands of militarization outrunning national revenues, the government will have to borrow more from the private sector, leading its indebtedness to rise above the current 220 debt-to-GDP ratios.
Third, there is going to be a deeper engagement by the Japan Self Defense Forces in military operations outside Japan, a move that has been prepared by the so-called Abe Doctrine of “collective security” formulated by the assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. One refers here to something beyond peacekeeping operations to actual combat deployments on air, sea, and land. Aside from the violation of the letter and spirit of Article Nine of the Constitution this represents, there is also the issue of the impact of the strains on the JSDF of a more offensive orientation. Japan’s demographic crisis is already having a major effect on the JSDF, contributing to its struggle to meet its recruitment quotas. As one analyst has noted, “the JSDF is scraping together whomever it can get and hoping technology fills the gap.” Being forced to participate in extended operations in East Asia and beyond will strain the JSDF’s capabilities, and one of the key casualties will likely be non-offensive operations like rescue operations and disaster relief, which have been responsible for the JSDF’s positive image in the eyes of many.
Finally, a renewed effort to do away with Article 9 is likely, with more active support from Washington, which has long since abandoned the Occupation's policy of disarming Japan and, instead, aggressively supported its rearmament. With the older generations that were committed to Article 9 becoming less influential as a source of public pressure, it is not at all certain that this symbol of Japan’s pacifist culture will not fall, eliminating the key psychological barrier to Washington’s renewed containment militarism. In any event, should Washington and the Japanese far-right insist on it, a renewed struggle over Article 9 will be polarizing and destabilizing.
Frontline state Philippines
Let us now turn to the Philippines.
If indeed geography is destiny, the Philippines is Exhibit A. Perhaps no one captured the enduring strategic value of the archipelago better than General Arthur MacArthur, father of the more famous Douglas, who led the expedition that subjugated the country in 1899. In the Philippines, the elder MacArthur wrote,
is the finest group of islands in the world. Its strategic location is unexcelled by any other position in the globe. The China Sea, which separates it by something like 750 miles from the continent, is nothing more nor less than a safety moat. It lies on the flank of what might be called several thousand miles of coastline; it is the center of that position. It is therefore relatively better placed than Japan, which is on a flank, and therefore from the other extremity; likewise India, on another flank. It affords a means of protecting American interests which with the very least output of physical power has the effect of a commanding position in itself to retard hostile action.
These words have a very contemporary ring as the Philippines becomes a key pawn in Washington’s increasingly militarized strategy to contain China. As noted earlier, the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, will provide the US with four more bases, in addition to the five it already operates.
Reacting to recent events, many people are asking why the US bases are back since they still have memories of the US leaving the huge Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base when the Philippine Senate rejected a renegotiated bases agreement in 1991.
The main reason has to do with China’s military moves in the South China Sea in the early and mid-1990s.
The most significant step Beijing took was the creeping occupation of Mischief Reef, which lay within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, under the pretext of building “wind shelters” for Chinese fishermen. In response, Washington and Manila negotiated a new military agreement. The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), completed in 1998, provided for the periodic deployment of thousands of US troops to participate in military exercises with their Filipino counterparts. This was followed by what eventually became a permanent deployment of US Special Forces on the island of Basilan in the Southern Philippines as part of President George W Bush’s War on Terror. The post-Marcos 1987 constitution banned the permanent presence of foreign troops, so to get around the ban, the Special Forces and other US troops were portrayed as being in the country on a “rotational basis,” in order to engage in exercises with Filipino troops and provide them with “technical advice,” and without authority to use firearms except in self-defense.
China’s territorial incursions became bolder and more frequent in the 2000s and, in 2009, it submitted to the United Nations its controversial Nine-Dash-Line map that claimed as Chinese territory some 90 percent of the South China Sea, including significant sections of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ’s) of five Southeast Asian states: Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Things came to head during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, from 2010 to 2016. Chinese coast guard vessels began aggressively driving off Filipino fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds, one of the richest of which was Scarborough Shoal, some 138 miles from the Philippines, which lay within the 200-mile EEZ of the country. After a one and a half month-long confrontation between Chinese and Philippine vessels, the Chinese ended up seizing the shoal.
The response of Aquino III was twofold. The first was to elevate the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which eventually declared invalid China’s claims. Not surprisingly, China did not recognize the PCA’s ruling, but the court’s opinion did amount to a moral victory for the Philippines. But the administration’s more consequential move was to enter into the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Obama administration, which placed no limits on the number of bases, weaponry, and troops that the US could have or could bring into the Philippines. Presented as an executive agreement and not as a treaty, the deal drew anger from nationalists who demanded Senate concurrence. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that not being a treaty, the deal did not need the approval of the Senate.
At this point, before proceeding any further, one must ask why China was acting in the way it was acting in the South China Sea. The answer is related to events in Taiwan, which lies at the northern edge of the South China Sea, in the mid-1990s.
While Beijing considers its sovereignty over Taiwan non-negotiable, its strategy has been to promote cross-strait economic integration as the main mechanism that would eventually lead to reunification. In Taiwan, however, being tough on Beijing plays well with voters, and nothing plays better than the threat to declare independence or assume the trappings of sovereign power. When Taiwanese leaders display such behavior, Beijing has felt constrained to put them in their place. In certain circumstances, Beijing has felt compelled to go beyond words and resort to sending missiles to the waters around Taiwan. Taiwan President Lee Teng Hui’s visit to the United States in 1995 was one such occasion, as was, more recently, the hosting of former US House of Representative Nancy Pelosi in August 2022 by Tsai Ing-wen, the current head of state. While both events created diplomatic crises, the first had momentous strategic consequences.
When China launched missile drills to teach Taiwan a lesson in 1995 and 1996, the Clinton administration sent two supercarriers, the USS Independence and the USS Nimitz, to the Taiwan Straits in March 1996. This was the biggest display of US power since the Vietnam War and it was intended to underline Washington’s determination to defend Taiwan by force. Washington’s intervention was cold water splashed on Beijing’s face, for it showed just how vulnerable the coastal region of east and southeast China, the industrial heart of the country, was to US naval firepower.
It was from this realization that China’s strategy in East and South China unfolded over the next two decades. As analyst Gregory Poling notes, “One can draw a straight line from the PLAN’s [People’s Liberation Army Navy] humiliation in 1996 to its near-peer status with the US Navy today.” Overall, China’s strategic posture is defensive, but in the East and South China Seas, it is engaged in the “tactical offensive” aimed at enlarging its defense perimeter against US naval and air power. As defense analyst, Samir Tata writes, “As a land power, the Middle Kingdom does not have to worry about the unlikely possibility of a conventional American assault on the mainland via amphibious landing by sea, parachuting troops by aid, or an expeditionary force marching through a land invasion route. What it is vulnerable to is US control of the seas outside China’s 12-nautical mile maritime boundaries. From such an over-the-horizon maritime vantage point, the US navy has the capability to cripple Chinese infrastructure along the eastern seaboard by long-range shelling, missiles, and unmanned aerial bombing.”
In response to this dilemma, the Chinese have evolved a strategy of “forward edge” defense consisting of expanding its maritime defense perimeter and fortifying islands and other formations in the South China Sea that it now occupies or has seized from the Philippines with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems (A2/AD, or “anti-access/area denial” in military parlance) designed to shoot down hostile incoming missiles and aircraft in the few seconds before they hit the mainland. Though defensive in its strategic intent, what has enraged Beijing’s neighbors is the unilateral way Beijing has gone about implementing A2/AD, with little consultation and in clear violation of such landmark agreements as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas that accords them EEZ’s.
The puzzling Duterte interlude
The coming to power of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 was heralded as bringing about a major shift in US-Philippine relations. Dismissive of concerns about the mounting extra-judicial executions in his bloody war on drugs, Duterte successfully harnessed that undercurrent of resentment at colonial subjugation that has always coexisted with the admiration of things American in the Filipino psyche to promote a populist anti-Americanism. He also aligned with China, with his administration downplaying the significance of the Hague ruling and refusing to take up the cudgels for Filipino fishermen shooed away from their traditional fishing grounds by Chinese Coast Guard vessels.
When it came to the US, however, Duterte was more bark than bite. He did not interfere with the close relationship between the US and Philippine military, which came into play when US Special Forces assisted Philippine troops in the bloody retaking of the southern city of Marawi from Muslim fundamentalists in 2017. Neither did he follow through on his vow in 2020 to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement. Indeed, by the end of his term, Duterte was extolling the VFA, voicing approval of the AUKUS security pact joining Australia, Britain, and the United States, reestablishing the Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, and launching expanded joint military exercises with the US. While not repudiating his close relationship with China, Duterte ended his presidency in June 2022 on a cordial note with Washington that contrasted sharply with the bitter row with President Barack Obama that launched his term.
Washington is on the offensive
Beijing’s unilateral acts in the South China Sea have provided Washington with ammunition in its containment strategy towards China, which has been operative since the Obama years. But Washington’s rhetoric now elicits worries among some ASEAN governments that they are being drawn into a regional confrontation that is not in their interest. Particularly alarming has been a recently leaked memo from General Mike Minihan, who heads up the US Air Mobility Command, that asserts, "My gut tells me will fight in 2025." Minihan, it bears noting, is not the first to predict conflict with China in the immediate future. Adm. Michael M. Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, said in October last year that the US should prepare to fight in 2022 or 2023. Even earlier, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, said that the Chinese threat to Taiwan would “manifest” in the next six years, by 2027.
Even without such statements, the level of hostile activity in the South China Sea has been alarming. During a visit to Vietnam I made as a congressman in 2014, top Vietnamese officials expressed concern at how, owing to a lack of rules of engagement, a ship collision by an American and Chinese ship “playing chicken", according to them a common occurrence, could immediately escalate to a more intense level of conflict.
Like the Philippines, Vietnam has criticized Beijing’s moves and its vessels have engaged Chinese Coast Guard ships in water-hosing jousts in the South China Sea. The aggressive posture of the Biden administration, however, has led Hanoi to affirm a posture of neutrality in the brewing superpower confrontation. In a recent visit to Beijing, the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Truong, assured Chinese President Xi Jin Ping that his government would continue to hew to its “Four Noes” foreign policy approach in the region, that is, that Vietnam would not join military alliances, not side with one country against another, not give other countries permission to set up military bases or use its territory to carry out military activities against other countries, and not use force – or threaten to use force – in international relations.
The new president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, is much more pliable and playable than either the Vietnamese leadership and this is most likely related to the fact that his family has vast financial and real estate holdings globally that the long financial arm of the United States can freeze should he choose the wrong side in the escalating conflict between Beijing and Washington. This element of personal interest plays a role, but far more decisive is the longstanding elite alliance and institutional relationships between Manila and Washington.
It is difficult at present to see Japan and the Philippines adhering to a neutral position like that of Vietnam in the conflict between the United States and China. The US military is much too entrenched in them territorially, institutionally, and in terms of the symbiosis among elites.
Still one has to be wary of deterministic analysis. Is a move towards a more neutral stance or at least a more nuanced strategic position nearly foreclosed? Washington’s reckless rush to drag the Philippines and Japan to its containment strategy may, in fact, backfire, with consequences different from that that Washington desires. As the peoples of both countries begin to experience the dangers and economic costs of participating in the “Contain China Alliance,” this might lead to the reinvigoration of the peace movement in Japan and the popular movement in the Philippines that was probably the key factor that brought down the curtains on Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base in 1991.
Also critical for an alternative scenario to the headlong rush to contain China militarily is China’s behavior itself. If it were, for instance, to drop its unilateral behavior and seriously opened itself to negotiating a code of conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), perhaps as a first step towards more multilateral arrangements in dealing with territorial, resource, and military issues, the complexion of things could change fairly quickly, whether the US likes it or not. Again, it is important not to be deterministic. After all, Beijing dropped its “Zero Covid” policy overnight when it was shown to be a strategy without an exit.
Like China’s Zero Covid policy, the American strategy of aggressive containment is one without any exit except ever-increasing tensions and possibly war, and if that were the outcome, there will be no winners.