In a rather unnoticed development, Shinzo Abe’s administration in Japan has been determinedly nibbling away at the Obama administration’s freedom of action in Asia, seeking to foreclose positions and options that fall outside the contain/confront China spectrum so desirable to Japan.
The United States may never fall into the “tail wagging the dog” relationship with Japan, at least in its own mind; but the cost of Asian security initiatives that are at cross purposes with Japanese desires will increase until, perhaps, they don’t seem worth it. And my feeling is, Abe’s getting more than a little help from the US defense/security establishment thanks to Abe’s effort to push the US-Japan security alliance closer to the center of the relationship. China hawks in Japan and the United States may also be drawing energy from President Obama’s evolving lame duck status, and the prospect that Hillary Clinton as president will be all in on a China-bashing strategy.
When a country has a security relationship with the US it not only engages with the US government from a position of strength as an ally; it can look to the full range of enthusiasts, activists, sympathetic theorists, and even paid apologists to lobby on its behalf, their advocacy energized by the money sluicing through the security/defense industrial complex.
For instance, a lot of people in the US lobby for Israel because they love Israel. But I daresay the energy of the advocacy of some lobbyists is amplified because the defense relationship with Israel not only is a matter of billions of dollars flowing toward Israel (and some of it flowing back into the hands of vital, US-based lobbyists), but also because a more Israel-friendly US policy translates into aid for Egypt & Jordan, and heightened procurement and military presence in the Middle East, big business for US contractors and, waaaaaaaaaaaaay down the food chain, money from corporations and foundations to junket politicians, nourish think tanks, pay the bar bills of PR flaks, and schmooze journalists.
I belatedly arrived at this epiphany thanks to an Indian pundit, Brahma Chellaney, who openly advocated for an India-Japan security relationship (and the pleasures of jointly confronting the PRC and raising tensions in the region) on the grounds that:
[T]he world’s most stable economic partnerships, such as the Atlantic community and the Japan-US partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties lacking that strategic underpinning tend to be less stable and even volatile, as is apparent from China’s economic relations with Japan, India, and the US.
In other words, when two countries have committed themselves to confronting a third, they perforce strengthen their mutual economic ties.
Cultivating security alliances as a way of creating a new, non-PRC matrix of economic and security interests is not just a matter of India-Japan relations, by the way. Abe is pursuing a similar formula in Japan’s dealings with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, hoping that security arrangements will force an estrangement with the PRC to Japan’s benefit. Abe’s desire to find a way around Japan’s pacifist constitution and resume Japanese arms exports probably has a lot to do with this strategy.
I tend to believe the win-win model delivers more overall economic benefits across the region, but maybe Chellaney’s right in a way. For some key stakeholders, there’s more money in tensions than in peace. That’s certainly the case for the defense industry and the national security apparatus, regardless of what civilian providers of goods and services might think. For people and organizations that work the war side of the street, “Peaceful Asia” is boring and unprofitable. I’m sure the the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the “lefty” think tank that has made a career out of promoting the “pivot to Asia” as a strategic and political panacea, dreads the day when the China threat evaporates and its output is reduced to interns producing anxious analyses on the rising power of the PRC national basketball team.
Don’t worry, it’s not gonna happen anytime soon. We probably won’t get AirSea Battle, the budget busting proposal for unilateral US dominance in the Eastern Hemisphere, but we did get the “Pivot to Asia” and it is clear that the military and spook alliances have decided that the Global War on Terror is burned out, the War on Drugs isn’t going to bring the big payday, but China anxiety can still be spun into mission and budgetary gold.
In this context, I see Japan as playing a role analogous to Israel. It will execute an increasingly independent foreign policy, near to “tail wagging the dog” extremes, but it will cleave to the US security alliance. Not just because it wants backup muscle for any scrape with the PRC, but because the security relationship helps it to mobilize US in-country support to guide US policy in a pro-Japanese direction—and, potentially, US trade and investment in a more Japan-friendly direction.
Something I think bears pointing out is the fact that Japan—indeed Prime Minister Abe, thanks to his exalted ancestors—is intimately familiar with this process, since Japan experienced it on the negative side in the 1930s. The US State Department was famously split between pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese advocates, and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang of course could call on the most famous lobbying power ever known—the “China Lobby”—to help tip the scales to convince the United States that its interests lay in backing a helpless continental giant, China, against an obstreperous Pacific power, Japan.
The result was that rising Japan was classified as the “threat,” an extensive embargo-today we’d call them sanctions—was instituted, and Japan was condemned as an alien and potentially hostile system (especially when compared to democratic China), and finally a war shattered Japan and its empire, in the minds of Abe and the conservative nationalists, unjustifiably so. And I think Japan has decided it will never find itself in that situation again. Today, the security alliance not only protects Japan against China; it neutralizes US efforts to demonize and isolate Japan (to a certain extent; for the younger generation, I direct your attention to the 1970s and 80s, when Japan, not the PRC, was the designated Asian economic threat to American well-being).
So I am beginning to think there is a nexus of Japanese and American security/defense types who have discovered that hyping the China threat yields wonderful symmetries. For Japan, it strengthens American commitment to the alliance in moral as well as material terms. For the United States, it promises a big, prolonged payday as an anti-China security regime centered on Japan is strengthened in Asia.
However, even hawkish Presidents are not, I believe, comfortable with this dynamic, since threat inflation, beyond rewarding deserving defense contractors and their political allies, also busts budgets. And locking in to a single threat narrative—and a core ally—tends to make the White House a passenger on the war train, rather than master of events.
It is my sense that the Obama administration is quietly tussling with the defense/security establishment over how confrontational to be with the PRC, and to avoid putting most of its strategic eggs in Shinzo Abe’s basket.
The most recent manifestation was Shinzo Abe’s rather transparent efforts to drive the alliance into an “imminent Chinese threat” direction by harrumphing over the PRC’s East China Sea ADIZ declaration, and by invoking 1914 parallels (with Japan as good ol’ Britain and the PRC in the role of hulking, authoritarian Kaiserland; 1939 analogies were more apt but could not be trotted out, for obvious reasons) between Japan and the PRC at Davos.
To a remarkable extent, Abe’s speech was bookended by reports and opinions inside the US that the Obama administration, personified by Joe Biden, who holds the PRC engagement brief, was too soft on the PRC and a more confrontational policy was required. Abe subsequently backed off the 1914 analogy, perhaps thanks to some disapproving pushback from the Obama administration, with some rather convoluted rhetoric and finger-pointing at a private company that had provided inferior translation services to Abe at Davos.
Then a new inflection point was reached by Japanese mischief-making over purported Chinese plans to declare another Air Defense Intelligence Zone over the South China Sea. At the time of the East China Sea ADIZ kerfluffle late last year, Secretary of State John Kerry had stated that the US frowned upon any SCS ADIZ, which at the time I noted was probably a US move to stay a step ahead in the next ADIZ crisis, rather than get blindsided and forced to back another Japanese response (which it did rather half-heartedly, refusing to follow Abe’s inflammatory directive that national civilian air carriers should ignore the SCS ADIZ).
The story played out in an interview that Evan Medeiros of the US National Security Council gave to the Kyodo News Service, in which he vociferously and pre-emptively opposed any PRC declaration of a South China Sea ADIZ.
“We oppose China’s establishment of an ADIZ in other areas, including the South China Sea” where China is involved in territorial rows with Southeast Asian countries, Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, said in an interview with Kyodo News.
“We have been very clear with the Chinese that we would see that (setting of another ADIZ) as a provocative and destabilizing development that would result in changes in our presence and military posture in the region,” Medeiros said.
“We do not accept, we do not acknowledge, we do not recognize China’s declared ADIZ,” Medeiros said. Washington has said the Senkakus are covered by its security treaty with Tokyo, which obliges the United States to defend Japan.
Top U.S. officials have criticized China for setting up without prior consultation such a defense zone that overlaps with similar zones operated by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Medeiros dismissed a view that the United States would try harder to join hands with China and lead decision-making on international issues under a so-called Group of Two framework. “Nobody wants it,” Medeiros said, referring to the G-2 concept.
The NSC official said there are “serious sources of competition in the U.S.-China relationship and that these need to be managed.”
“When we look at major powers in East Asia who share our interests, who share our values, and who are actively working with us to solve problems, Japan is at the top of the list,” he said.
Medeiros remarks were greeted with hosannas by CNAS’ Ely Ratner on Twitter:
— Ely Ratner (@elyratner) January 31, 2014
In “G2” the US and PRC call the shots in the proposed Asian order; understandably, it is anathema to Japan. In passing it might be noted that, according to a statement made by Wen Jiabao while he was still premier, the PRC also rejected a G2 arrangement, which perhaps softens Medeiros’ “Nobody wants it” slap. However, I did not interpret Medeiros’ ostentatious manhood-brandishing as a belated rediscovery of American resolve against “assertive” China and in favor of democratic Japan. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Note that Medeiros’ statement was given to Kyodo, and apparently not to one of the august American outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post in charge of delivering America’s most dire ultimatums. Also, despite the categorical condemnation of the East China Sea ADIZ, Medeiros did not demand that the PRC withdraw it, which would have been insupportable to the PRC and triggered a major crisis in relations. Instead, he tossed a softball, taking aim at rumors that the PRC would declare an SCS ADIZ in the near future, a contention on which the PRC could placate the United States (and help burnish its “tough on China” credentials) at relatively low cost.
At the time, I interpreted Medeiros’ remarks as an attempt to shore up the administration’s flanks against accusations from right and left that it was soft on China and not backing Japan to the hilt; and, beneath the Japan-love rhetoric, a clear signal to the PRC that, if the PRC valued the United States as a genuine interlocutor and partial counterweight to Japanese ambitions in Asia, it would respect the US demand. If it didn’t, then the Obama administration would have no alternative but to align itself with the pro-Japan position held by much of the US security defense establishment and the PRC would have no security relationship with the United States worthy of the name.
This opinion was supported by a prompt declaration by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. As Xinhua reported:
China on Saturday dismissed allegations by some Japanese reports that it is to set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea and expressed optimism over regional situation.
“In a general view, the Chinese side has yet to feel any air security threat from the ASEAN countries and is optimistic about its relations with the neighboring countries and the general situation in the South China Sea region,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said in a press release Saturday.
Earlier this week, the Asahi Shimbun daily of Japan reported that China has drafted proposals for the Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea.
Hong said the right-wing forces of Japan have repeatedly clamored about the alleged plan of China to set up ADIZ over the South China Sea. He said this move is of ulterior motive and simply aimed to shift international attention from and cover up the plot to change Japan’s pacifist constitution and expand its military power.
“We sternly warned these forces not to mislead public opinions with rumors and play up tensions for their own selfish benefit,” Hong said.
Hong stressed that China and the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) share a bright future for their relations. He said China and the ASEAN countries are working together to implement the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea in a comprehensive and effective way to safeguard peace and stability in the region.
In response to reports about U.S. officials’ comments on the issue, Hong said China hopes the relevant parties remain cautious about their words and deeds, maintain a calm and objective stance, make joint efforts with China and thus make concrete contributions to peace, stability and security in the air and sea of the region.
Hong said China, as a sovereign country, has all the legitimate rights to adopt all measures, including setting up ADIZ, to safeguard national security in response to the situation of air security. No one should make irresponsible comments on this, Hong said.
The declaration that China had no intention of declaring a SCS ADIZ at the present time since as yet there was “no security threat” down there was clearly a dig at Japan, and a signal that the PRC wants to limit itself to one confrontation in Asia at a time.
The seemingly “in your face” anti China/pro-Japan posturing by Medeiros was blithely swept aside and the Japanese dog was further kicked with the accusation that the entire “China to declare SCS ADIZ” rumor had been maliciously fomented by Japan in order to advance its regional strategy; an accusation that might most likely be true, and also emphasized the idea, also quite true, that the US should take any public and private representations from Japan (and, I might add, delivered by the sizable contingents of Japan’s advocates in the US) concerning the PRC’s intentions with a sizable grain of salt.
Even so, I expect this is only a partial and temporary victory. Because the US-Japan alliance is founded on the security alliance bedrock, Japan holds an overwhelming advantage in the Washington debate. The PRC will always appear shrill and marginalized, an antagonist preoccupied with stubbornly resisting its profitable classification as a strategic enemy.
Things also do not bode well for China in 2017, when President Obama is outta here and Hillary Clinton will probably be in charge. President Obama’s slow descent into lame-duck status and the prospect of an imminent Clinton presidency are probably also already factors in energizing hawkish anti-PRC/pro-Japan opinion in the US.
As Secretary of State, Clinton was a major advocate of the “pivot to Asia” and, more importantly, a major enabler of Japan’s move to the center of the Asian security equation with her relentless China-bashing, cynical exploitation of the rare-earths crisis, and working with Japan to push the dishonest and counterproductive “China is a threat to freedom of navigation in the SCS” canard. Clinton also made the dubious and perhaps fatally opportunistic decision to discard the Senkaku formula that had governed ever since Nixon returned the islands to Japanese control in 1972 (but withheld judgment on their sovereignty) and had guided the Obama administration until then by declaring that the Senkakus were covered by the US-Japan security treaty.
The PRC was happy to see Secretary Clinton go; I doubt it will be happy to see her return as President (and the hope of making some hay while the sun shines during the last two years of the Obama administration, I believe, drives PRC policy to a certain extent). I fear President Clinton will still be guided by her conviction that the US-PRC game is zero-sum, China only understands force, and an aggressive Japanese security ally is an always beneficial and indispensable tool for bashing China. She will have a difficult time acknowledging and confronting any errors, omissions, and unfavorable consequences of the pivot to Asia, since the pivot is her baby.
And when a genuine Asian crisis does materialize, perhaps thanks to Japanese culpability in egging on Taiwan’s anti-PRC DPP party (which will very likely also be in power in 2017) in affirming Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus or, worst case, announcing an independence referendum, the United States will find itself unable or unwilling to rebuke Japan for its pretensions and demand that the PRC back down instead. Asia (and the world) may not be a happy place to be just then.