Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.04.16

What's New?: A New Model of Military-to-Military Relations

JBpress on April 11, 2014

No other speech by a U.S. Secretary of Defense has more clearly defined an American military interpretation of the New Type of Major Power Relations with China. Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke on April 8 to a group of officer students at the National Defense University in Beijing. What he said, however, was apparently not warmly welcomed by the suspicious audience in uniform.

However, those in Tokyo who wish the U.S. to be more supportive of Japan's position on the Senkaku Islands seem equally suspicious. They are also skeptical about Beijing's original "New Type of Major Power Relations" concept that was proposed to Washington by Beijing. They almost panicked when National Security Adviser Susan Rice used it somewhat positively in her recent Asia policy speech.

Such concerns exist even among the silent majority of Japanese. Would the U.S. really use force against Putin's Russia, if and when his military invade and seize a small portion of, say, Lithuania? This was a question I raised to a European diplomat last week and the person actually declined to give a clear-cut answer. The same question, of course, can be raised over the Senkakus as well.

Nonetheless, many Asia hands in Washington D.C. believe that it is not only unnecessary but even dangerous for the United States to take sides in territorial disputes in the East or South China Sea. On the other hand, many conservatives in Tokyo disagree and claim that the U.S. should send a more appropriate message to the increasingly assertive Chinese navy and maritime authorities.

In this respect, Secretary Hagel's speech and his remarks in the Q&A session thereafter were very forthcoming. Had Japan's mainstream media covered the speech in depth, it might have been a relief to conservative Japanese. In his speech, Chuck Hagel said that "Here in the Asia-Pacific and around the world, the United States believes in maintaining a stable, rules-based order built on:

- free and open access to sea lanes and air space - and now, cyberspace;

- liberal trade and economic policies that foster widely-shared prosperity;

- halting the proliferation of dangerous and destabilizing weapons of mass destruction;

- deterring aggression; and

- clear, predictable, consistent, and peaceful methods of resolving disputes consistent with international law."

Secretary Hagel also stated that "America's 'rebalancing' to the Asia-Pacific is about ensuring its presence and engagement" and re-affirms its "commitments to our treaty allies - Japan, Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines." He further asked China to echo the United States in being more open about their "capabilities, intentions, and disagreements."

Interpreting those diplomatic expressions, the following must be Hagel's real messages:

America will not allow China to interfere in open air, waters, space and cyberspace. Beijing shall not change the status quo by force, coercion or intimidation. China must not allow North Korea or Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Beijing should adopt more liberal and transparent policies and not challenge the existing maritime order in western Pacific maintained by the U.S.

For those Americans who are opposed to taking sides, lo and behold! In the Q&A session, one of the Chinese students made the criticism that, "You are apparently taking sides when it comes to the issue with the Philippines. And when it comes to the East China Sea, you're taking sides with Japan!" Yes, it is already China's perception that the U.S. has taken sides in East Asian territorial disputes.

For those Japanese who are not satisfied with the level of U.S. neutrality, rest assured! While claiming that "The United States has not changed its policy on disputes," Hagel did say, "The Philippines and Japan are long-time allies of the United States and we have treaty obligations with those two nations. I hope that clears up any confusion." Did this answer clear that up? Of course not.

The silent majority of Japanese need not be alarmed. A new model of military-to-military relations has not come out of the blue. Hagel seems, contrary to the Chinese interpretation, to be focusing on dialogues and transparency. It is also encouraging that the two nations agreed to establish an army-to-army dialogue mechanism and an Asia-Pacific security dialogue, no matter what they really mean.

My friend with the New York Times woke me up in the middle of the night in Berlin requesting my comments. I was quoted as saying, "If Japan is attacked, and the Americans decline to respond, then it is time for the Americans to pull out of their bases here. Without those bases, America is not going to be a Pacific power anymore. America knows that."

The most important message of mine, however, was not quoted. This was, "Alliance is about trust. It is almost irrelevant to ask whether a country actually defends its ally or not in a specific crisis situation." Recent remarks by Secretary Hagel both in Tokyo and Beijing reminded me of the essence of alliance relations.