Could Beijing's navy, long contained by a U.S.-led coalition, use humanitarian intervention to expand its regional influence?
Last August, a senior official in the Japanese Defense Ministry declared of a joint military exercise with the U.S. Seventh Fleet, "We'll show China that Japan has the will and the capability to defend the Nansei Islands. This will serve as a deterrent." Officially, the exercises between two of the world's largest blue-water navies had nothing to do with China. But the Japanese official's brash comment reflected the growing, U.S.-led efforts to contain China's rising naval power. A few weeks after the exercises, the friction between Chinese expansion and Japanese containment sparked, with Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing trawler that had wandered into disputed territory spiraling into one of the tense, threat-laden diplomatic stand-offs that have become increasingly common in Japanese-Chinese relations.
The U.S. has, over the past year, exploited this tension to galvanize the rest of East Asia against China and under U.S. stewardship, a dynamic that largely plays out in the seas of the West Pacific. Only two days ago, Japan joined Vietnam and the Philippines to formally protest China's increasingly aggressive efforts to project naval power in the East China Sea, most recently by sending a helicopter to buzz a Japanese destroyer. Today, the Chinese navy is preparing to steam into the East China Sea and towards Japan for a purpose that appears more different than it may actually be: to offer humanitarian and rebuilding assistance to Japan, which is reeling after a massive earthquake and the resulting tsunami.
It's not clear if Japan will accept China's offer; between their own military and the enormous U.S. presence (soon to be complemented by the USS Essex, USS Blue Ridge, and USS Tortuga, all en route), they might not need it. But there's no telling what could happen in the next 24 hours. Disasters and their aftermath are unpredictable; already, 6,000 residents of Fukushima have been evacuated for fear that a nearby nuclear plant could leak radiation.
If Japanese civilians need to be evacuated quickly, or if many more emergency workers need to be deployed, Japan's unique geography means that the best way to move large numbers of people quickly would be with amphibious military ships. But the U.S. Navy's amphibious capability is, at the moment, not at its most capable. Budget cuts targeting amphibious programs, a decade-long emphasis on aircraft carriers and other naval tools that can be applied in Iraq and Afghanistan, and years of delays in upgrading our decrepit amphibious fleet have all left our ability to transport quickly on and off beaches at a low point. But China has a growing fleet of amphibious ships that are new, nearby, and ready to deploy at a moment's notice. Even if it's not by way of amphibious landing, China's massive navy and its proximity mean that, if Japan gets desperate, political and cultural antagonism toward China will probably not be enough to stop them from taking China up on its offer to help.
If China can aid in Japan's humanitarian response to the earthquake, then of course anything that saves lives and helps rebuild is a good thing that neither Japanese nor U.S. politicians will want to stand in the way of, and rightly. But it's important to understand the small but important shift that this would bring to East Asia's delicate balance of power. Over the past year, China has tried many times to project greater influence in its surrounding seas by way of simple, brute force. This has usually backfired, only driving Japan and other Asian states to more tightly unify with the U.S. and against China. Now, China might find that aiding Japan in its time of need could finally bring it the influence it needs. Whether the Chinese navy projects greater influence in the East China Sea and Sea of Japan because it bullied its way in or because a desperate Japan invited them in is ultimately immaterial if the end result is that Chinese ships can sail more freely and in greater numbers.