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The True Crisis in the Asia-Pacific

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Asia-Pacific’s most dangerous crisis may be going overlooked due to North Korean threats. Despite the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to the region, Asian allies worry that the United States will not continue to be a steadfast partner.

North Korean bombast has been using up all of the oxygen in the Asia-Pacific, but what may be the region’s most dangerous crisis is raging on a few hundred miles to the south. With front pages focused on Kim Jong-un’s threats and the United States’ shows of force, the ongoing Sino-Japanese impasse has gone overlooked in recent weeks. Even so, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the latter conflict’s long-term implications for peace in Asia.

As tensions in the East China Sea have heated up over the past year, analysts, journalists, and businessmen have been asking two questions: Could Japan and China really come to blows over the Senkaku (or, in Chinese, “Diaoyu”) Islands? Would the United States really allow itself to be drawn into a conflict over a handful of obscure, uninhabited rocks? These questions are based on an errant assumption that the roiling conflict is, at heart, about ownership of the Senkakus. It is not.

China’s Goal: Securing CCP Leadership at Home and Abroad

For Beijing, the conflict with Japan over the Senkakus serves two goals that extend far beyond the islands themselves. The Chinese Communist Party’s primary objective is to stay in power. Having long ago jettisoned the ideological foundations of its regime, the CCP relies on delivering economic growth and on its claim to a nationalist mantle to legitimize its continuing rule. Stoking tensions with wartime foe Japan has long been a part of Beijing’s playbook. The playbook also includes a propaganda effort aimed at sustaining anti-Japan grievances, an effort that continues nearly 70 years after the conclusion of World War II and Tokyo’s adoption of a pacifist constitution, and more than 30 years after Japan began providing economic aid to China (Tokyo has long been China’s biggest donor).

Defending Chinese territory against the (supposedly) once-again-imperialist Japan has been a political winner in China during an ongoing and uncertain leadership transition during which political intrigues have at times uncharacteristically played out on the front pages of Chinese newspapers. Reports that presumptive president Xi Jinping has been managing China’s efforts in the East China Sea since prior to the 18th Party Congress last November are not surprising. Tokyo’s purchase of three of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner last September provided the CCP with a golden opportunity to present itself as the guarantor of China’s security in the face of rapacious foreign threats. Xi took that opportunity and ran with it.

The CCP not only saw an opportunity for a domestic political win, but also to pursue its larger designs in Asia. China, it seems, is fed up with the postwar, U.S.-led international order and intent on once again assuming its historical position as the “Middle Kingdom.” This time around, however, Beijing will rely on raw power rather than the mandate of heaven. As Chinese then-foreign minister Yang Jiechi told his Singaporean counterpart in 2010, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

China’s decision to shift to a more confrontational approach should set off alarm bells in Washington.

China’s attempt to change facts on the ground (or water) around the Senkakus is part and parcel of its efforts to create a new order — one in which international law holds sway only so long as it serves China’s interests, and in which China not only has the military power to coerce and cow its neighbors but can get away with doing so. In pursuing increasingly confrontational policies in the East and South China Seas, China has all but abandoned the pretense that it prefers peaceful solutions to the region’s problems. Diplomatic approaches, apparently, were preferable only until it became clear that other parties to territorial disputes were not willing to simply give in to Chinese demands, even after a decade of smile diplomacy resulted in favorable views of China across Southeast Asia.

In the case of the Senkakus, China has passed up two opportunities to calm tensions. One of Shinzo Abe’s first acts as Japanese prime minister was to send an envoy to Beijing with a personal letter for Xi. While the letter did not include concrete proposals for de-escalating the situation in the East China Sea, it at least marked a diplomatic overture — one to which Beijing did not significantly respond. Tokyo’s February announcement that a Chinese warship had twice “illuminated” Japanese forces with fire control radar provided China with a missed opportunity at de-escalation as well. Beijing could have dismissed or otherwise publicly reprimanded the offending ship’s captain, which would have demonstrated a clear desire to re-stabilize the East China Sea. Instead, Beijing accused the Japanese government of disseminating lies. China, it seems, has little interest in paring back its confrontational stance.

Beijing’s activities in the East China Sea, however, are not targeted at Japan alone. As it has elsewhere in Asia, China aims to challenge the United States’ commitment to an ally. Although then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a positive signal to the region with her assertion last year that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan treaty of alliance, Washington has for the most part demonstrated a palpable desire to stay uninvolved. Clinton’s assurance was not publicly restated when Prime Minister Abe visited Washington in February. Indeed, during the joint appearance before the press, President Obama did not even hint at the ongoing Sino-Japanese standoff at sea, let alone actually mention China or the Senkakus. Chinese media interpreted this as an American snub to the Japanese leader, and not without justification.

Secretary of State John Kerry did mention the Senkakus in his remarks alongside Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida during the latter’s visit to Washington, but only by way of complimenting Tokyo for exercising restraint. There was no suggestion that China should do the same. Speaking more forcefully last week in Tokyo, Kerry did assert that “we oppose any unilateral or coercive action that would somehow aim at changing the status quo” — but, again, there was no specific mention of China, and this vague warning may have been aimed, however subtly, at both Tokyo and Beijing.

The CCP relies on delivering economic growth and on its claims to a nationalist mantle to legitimize its continuing rule.

This is not the first time the United States has balked at supporting an ally in confrontation with China. When the Philippines and China faced off over the Scarborough Shoal last spring, Washington assured Manila of its commitment to the alliance, but didn’t take steps aimed at avoiding the ultimately unfavorable outcome: China in possession of the shoal. Earlier, in the summer of 2010, China protested strongly against plans for a joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercise to be held in international waters in the Yellow Sea following North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. The United States relented and held the exercises elsewhere. (After North Korea shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong Island later that year, the United States did go ahead with Yellow Sea maneuvers).

And so, even as the Obama administration claims it is “pivoting” to Asia, its Asian allies worry that America will not continue to be the steadfast partner it has been in the past. China’s military build-up, moreover, is making it more difficult for U.S. forces to operate unhindered in the Western Pacific, challenging America’s very ability (and, consequently, its will) to be a dependable ally. If the United States does not adequately address this trend and convince its allies and China that Washington’s commitment to its Asian alliances remains unshaken, Beijing will conclude it has successfully decoupled America from Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and others. Such a conclusion — accurate or not — will portend an even more aggressive China, prone to the use of coercion and force to achieve its ends. Only Beijing looks forward to a Chinese-dominated order in Asia.

Japan’s Aim: Showing Backbone and Maintaining the Status Quo

For Japan, which does not officially recognize that a territorial dispute exists, its confrontation with China over the Senkakus is about maintaining the status quo. First and foremost, it wants to maintain — or, at this point, return to — business as usual in the contested territory itself. Tokyo simply wants to continue doing what it has done since the 1970s: administer the islands; freely patrol the nearby waters; and deal with the occasional incident, such as the landing of Chinese citizens on an island, on an ad hoc basis. Until the past couple of years, the Senkaku issue was rarely more than a minor thorn in the side of China-Japan relations. Tokyo would very much like to return to that state of affairs.

But as with China, the confrontation over the Senkakus is about more than the islands themselves. Tokyo understands as well as anybody — and, perhaps, better than Washington — that Beijing is aiming to overthrow the regional order and, with it, the relative peace that order has maintained over the last three decades. In sticking to its guns in the East China Sea, Japan is working to counter that larger effort. That is why when Abe discusses security in the Asia-Pacific, he talks about working with the United States to “secure the freedom of the seas and to secure a region which is governed based on laws, not on force.”

Tokyo’s purchase of three of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner last September provided the CCP with a golden opportunity to present itself as the guarantor of China’s security in the face of rapacious foreign threats.

In his speech earlier this year at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Abe described Japan as “a rules promoter, a [global] commons guardian, and an effective ally and partner to the U.S. and other democracies.” The Senkakus dispute may not be about freedom of the seas per se, but Abe recognizes that if China achieves its goals there via force or coercion, it can certainly also do so against much weaker states in Southeast Asia, especially as success in the east would allow Beijing to concentrate maritime resources in the south. And China’s designs on nearly the entirety of the South China Sea do have immediate implications for freedom of the seas and open access to the global commons.

Moreover, in expressing a desire to partner with other democracies, Abe is hinting at another goal — a potential evolution of the regional order quite at odds with China’s vision. Writing not long after his inauguration, Abe addressed this evolution more directly:

I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific …

I would also invite Britain and France to stage a comeback in terms of participating in strengthening Asia’s security. The sea-faring democracies in Japan’s part of the world would be much better off with their renewed presence …

To improve Sino-Japanese relations, Japan must first anchor its ties on the other side of the Pacific; for, at the end of the day, Japan’s diplomacy must always be rooted in democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights … I firmly believe that, in 2013 and beyond, the Asia-Pacific region’s future prosperity should rest on [these universal values] as well.

This vision represents a natural evolution of Asia’s current regional order and foresees a future in which Asia’s liberal democracies share greater responsibility with the United States for keeping the peace. It is also a vision rather incompatible with Beijing’s preferred China-centric future. Tokyo knows that if it backs down in the face of Chinese threats, Abe’s “democratic diamond” would be dead on arrival.

Of course, such an eventuality would also diminish Japanese national security. First off, Japan’s conventional deterrence would be weakened, just as it was in the fall of 2010 when it caved to Beijing’s demands for the release of a Chinese fishing boat captain who had been arrested after his ship collided with Japanese coast guard vessels. Secondly, ultimate Chinese success in the Senkakus could lead to a permanent Chinese naval presence less than 100 miles from Japan’s southwestern islands.

It must be noted that nationalism plays a role in Japan’s approach to the standoff, just as it does in China’s. Abe’s election, six years after his first stint as prime minister, is evidence of an emergent nationalistic streak among Japan’s population. But unlike China’s state-sponsored and state-indoctrinating nationalism, Japan’s is more organic. In some ways, in fact, it is responsive to China’s own. Many Japanese have seemingly tired of China’s frequent nationalistic broadsides. They are tired of being berated for Japan’s actions in World War II, and of repeatedly apologizing for the sins of their fathers (or grandfathers and great grandfathers). Mostly, perhaps, they are indignant and maybe a little fearful due to the instances of mass anti-Japanese violence that Beijing periodically permits, or even encourages.

China, it seems, is fed up with the postwar, U.S.-led international order and intent on once again assuming its historical position as the ‘Middle Kingdom.’

As in every democratic country, there are irresponsible nationalists in Japan. But Abe is not one of them. Japan is not returning to the fascist imperialism of darker days, as Beijing so often asserts. Japanese citizens are still very much torn on the question of revising their pacifist constitution. But like their Chinese counterparts, they feel they are deserving of a little respect, and that they have nothing to be ashamed of. For Japan’s people, the Senkakus dispute is not simply about a question of sovereignty. It’s about not being bullied. It’s about showing backbone. Given that sentiment, Abe cannot afford to look weak on the home front.

The United States’s Role

The Obama administration may conclude that it simply does not care about the ultimate disposition of the Senkaku Islands. But it should care very much about how the dispute is resolved. China’s decision to shift to a more confrontational approach should set off alarm bells in Washington.

So what should Washington do? First, the administration should reiterate that the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands. Second, Washington should convey to Beijing that it considers China’s use of coercion and force to settle disputes as detrimental to core American interests. President Obama and Secretary Kerry should repeat Hillary Clinton’s January warning, which Japan welcomed but which was undercut by her impending departure: “we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration and we urge all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means” (emphasis added) — notice the difference between this formulation and Kerry’s, cited above, which warned against unilateral actions undermining the status quo rather than those undermining Japanese administration. Third, President Obama should endorse Abe’s “democratic diamond” proposal and work with him to bring it to fruition. It should be made clear that Washington recognizes a Chinese threat to the established regional order — which has kept the peace for all and allowed all to prosper — and that the Asia-Pacific’s democracies, working together, are best positioned to ensure that order’s survival.

At this point, it seems unlikely that China will return to the smile diplomacy of the previous decade. Confrontation may have become a semi-permanent state of affairs in Asia. But the United States can either encourage or discourage increasingly aggressive Chinese behavior. At present, U.S. policy is not well tailored to achieving the latter.

Conclusion

The confrontation over the Senkakus is about more than contested sovereignty claims. There is, of course, an ongoing tactical tussle in the waters around the islands, with Japan intent on continuing to administer the disputed territory as it has for decades and China attempting to alter the reality of Tokyo’s control there. An accident, a miscalculation, or, indeed, a calculated act, could lead simmering tensions to boil over. Of course, both countries want to protect their sovereignty. Both want to ensure access to the natural resources beneath the seabed in the waters around the islands. But much more is at stake than a handful of tiny islands and undersea hydrocarbons.

The conflict playing out in the East China Sea right now is a microcosm of the larger competition being waged for Asia’s future. The sovereignty dispute could, frightfully, serve as a casus belli for a third Sino-Japanese war — and that war might not have such limited aims.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Mazza also writes “A Look at China’s ‘Political Meritocracy,’” “Two Wars and the 38th Parallel,” and “The Top Five Ways Things Could Go Wrong in the Hermit Kingdom.” Ilan Berman examines “Cutting the Iran-China Connection,” Michael Auslin notes “Beijing's Paranoid Worldview,” and James Pethokoukis comments “It Looks Like China Hasn’t Been Totally Lying About Its GDP Growth.”

 

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

 

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