In May the world was jolted to learn that China sank Vietnamese vessels that were trying to stop Beijing from putting an oil rig in the South China Sea (SCS). Along with its vast reserves of untapped natural gas, the South China Sea is also important as a shipping route. The Republic of Korea (ROK), a rising regional power and close economic partner to China, has a vested interest in any conflict in the SCS. South Korea’s economic growth strategy in the last decade has been heavily export oriented, and currently, exports account for over half of the country’s GDP. This increased dependence on exports has affected the ROK-China relationship. Last year, China accounted for over a quarter of South Korea’s total exports.
Tag Archives | Japan-U.S. Relations
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement at Davos that the relationship between Japan and China is the same as that between Great Britain and Germany prior to the First World War has drawn a sharp response from world leaders.
The political turmoil in the East China Sea between Japan and China has reached unprecedented heights to a level where leaders of both countries are not talking to each other. The situation is quite alarming considering the huge economic repercussions a conflict between the two countries could have on the world economy. The Japanese prime minister’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last year coupled with aggressive nationalist policies have worsened the situation. The recent air defense identification zone (ADIZ) declared by China over the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu Islands has caused the situation to deteriorate further as Japan considers these islands as part of Japan. Both the countries are playing a game of cat and mouse and testing each other’s capabilities and limits.
Japan fears China’s rise and its rapid military modernization in the region as a threat to its very existence. What Japan fears is that China might gain control of both the East China and South China Seas thereby holding Japan ransom and crippling its already struggling economy. Japan’s recent National Security Strategy clearly identifies China as the troublemaker in the region. In response to China’s military buildup, Japan has increased its defense budget to counter a perceived Chinese threat. The bulk of the defense budget will be spent on acquiring maritime surveillance units. Japan will spend around $250 billion USD over the next 5 years to keep Chinese forces in check. Concerns about China’s opaque decision-making process and its intentions in the region are troubling for Japan. China’s use of force and coercion to enforce its claims with blatant disregard for international law and order has propelled the Japanese government to have a look at its peace constitution, which enforces a ban on offensive military capabilities.
US President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan this week came at an opportune time, given the growing friction between Asia’s two largest military powers over disputed territories.
Just last week, Japan began its first military expansion in more than 40 years by breaking ground on a radar station on Yonaguri, a tropical island off Taiwan. Japan intends to send 100-150 soldiers to man its new military lookout station on Yonaguni, which is home to 1,500 people and just 150 km (93 miles) from the disputed Japanese-held Senkaku islands claimed by both China and Taiwan. Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, who attended a ceremony on Yonaguni island to mark the start of construction, suggested the military presence could be enlarged to other islands in the seas southwest of Japan’s main islands. Perhaps in retaliation, the Shanghai Maritime Court seized a Japanese vessel for failing to respond to a compensation order stemming from a wartime contractual dispute. The action was taken just prior to Obama’s visit and appears to be the first time that an asset of a Japanese company has been confiscated in a lawsuit concerning wartime compensation.
Faced with the dilemma of choosing sides during his visit to Tokyo, President Obama reiterated Washington’s backing of the US-Japan security treaty, stating “Article five covers all territories under Japan’s administration including (the) Senkaku islands,” referring to the archipelago which Beijing calls the Diaoyus and the Taiwanese refer to as the Tiaoyutai. Clearly not wishing to be drawn into a military conflict, Obama called for a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute over the islands, adding “We do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally, and what is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”
Last fall, President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative, the so-called “Asia pivot,” suffered a big setback when the budget mess in Washington forced him to cancel a long-scheduled trip to Asia.
The trip was supposed to reassure U.S. allies and partners about the administration’s commitment to the region. I argued back then that while Mr. Obama would always be able to reschedule, the key question is whether he will have anything substantive in hand once he shows up. As the president begins a week-long tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, we now know the answer: No. The strategic shift to Asia, which Washington launched with much hoopla two years ago, is premised on two key efforts: 1.) the buildup of U.S. military forces that is plainly directed against China, and 2.) the ambitious set of trade and investment negotiations known as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) that would contest Beijing’s economic hegemony in East Asia. Both initiatives are currently in deep trouble.
Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security advisor, contends that the pivot remains “a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy” and calls the president’s trip “an important opportunity to underscore our continued focus on the Asia-Pacific region.” But many question whether the administration has the budgetary resources to back up its rhetoric. As one commentator observes, “The whole exercise risks looking like an inversion of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous advice to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’ The pivot has generated plenty of loud talk – but the stick looks rather small.”
I would recommend that readers who have not yet done so create a Twitter account and subscribe to my feed (@chinahand). To my embarrassment and surprise, I’ve churned out over 800 tweets since I started up my feed last November. Some of it is meaningless ephemera, of course. But sometimes the twitter stream carries in it telling or insightful tweets that illustrate the dynamics of debate over US foreign policy as it evolves over a month, a week, or maybe even a day and are worth retweeting. And, of course, I put in my own two cents worth, hopefully in a telling and insightful fashion, on subjects that are perhaps too fleeting or developing too quickly for a post, but are significant nonetheless.
For instance, I’ve become more attuned to the back-and-forth between US pro-Japan China hawks and the (relative) moderates in the Obama administration and the role of the Abe administration’s role as observer, participant, and victim or beneficiary depending on how the debate evolves. One set of my tweets addressed the PRC inserting itself into a spat between the United States and Japan concerning Japan’s footdragging in returning a few hundred kilos of weapon-grade plutonium.
The United States government, be it the White House, the security strategists, the civilian leadership, or the military brass apparently has no qualms about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to affirm Japan’s right to practice “collective self defense” or CSD.
In the face of public disapproval, resistance by the impotent political opposition, and gentle pushback from the LDP’s minority partner, Abe looks to implement collective self defense by asserting the government’s right to repurpose the provisions of the pacifist constitution without formal revision or reinterpretation, but through a simple statement by the Cabinet. US supporters have been cheering him on in this awkward process, like anxious soccer parents on the sidelines trying to will a clumsy toddler into nudging the ball into an empty net.
Whether or not this is a good idea, especially as it will permit Japan to restructure its security relationship with its future Asian allies without US mediation, history will, as they say, judge. But it looks like the United States is all in, on the basis that collective self defense will enable Japanese military forces to assist the US. I assume Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (term as ambassador and, indeed, total public career to date: three months) lacks the political or foreign policy throw-weight to freelance on key US-Japan issues, so this statement of support for collective self defense is probably an authoritative indicator of Obama administration preferences:
From Radiation - Exposure and its treatment: A modern handbook, “During the Manhattan Project, a squad of infantry soldiers without protection dug foxholes a quarter mile from one of the Alamogordo bomb tests. When the atom bomb exploded atop its tower, it was so bright a soldier said he saw through his eyelids, through the blood vessels, skin and muscles of his arm, to the grains of sand on the side of his foxhole. After the blast, the squad marched to ground zero as ordered and disassembled their rifles…The squad reassembled their rifles and marched out through clouds of dust. All of them got serious radiation sickness.”
“All of them recovered, went home and had families. Their children were normal. At 20 years past their exposure they started to die of lymphomas and sarcomas. By 30 years, all of them had died of some type of cancer. Even with a dose that nearly kills you, it takes decades to develop cancer – if you do.”
“The U.S. Navy took proactive measures throughout and following the disaster relief efforts to control, reduce and mitigate the levels of Fukushima-related contamination on U.S. Navy ships and aircraft.” – Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Anthony Falvo
[Update: In 2013, Japan Focus published two superb pieces by investigative reporter Roger Witherspoon on the US military's response to radioactive contamination during Operation Tomodachi: click here and here. His interviews with servicemen and women who served on the Reagan--and in many other locations and capacities during the relief operation, describe the harrowing circumstances of trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to predict and dodge the Fukushima plume and deal with onboard contamination of people as well as equipment. Witherspoon's account begs the question of why the Department of Defense saw fit to discontinue the Todomachi Medical Registry, which would have established baseline data for exposed personnel and monitored them for health problems. CH 2/5/14]
As was reported in 2011, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was exposed to radiation contamination from Fukushima during its earthquake/tsunami rescue operations—“Operation Tomodachi”-off the Japan coast. The original coverage minimized the significance of the contamination, saying it was equivalent to an extra month’s background radiation.
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.
And is Joe Biden the Designated Whipping Boy?
There has always been an implicit contradiction between Shinzo Abe’s declared desire to “bring Japan back” and the US wish to lead “Free Asia.” The divergence of aims has been obscured by the eagerness of the US defense establishment to encourage Japan’s increasing heft as a “security” “defense” “active pacifist”; well, let’s just say “military” power, in order to add to the credibility of US hegemony in the Western Pacific, and Japan’s awareness that US military backing - if properly exploited by invoking the US-Japan Security Treaty - can give Japan a significant leg up in its confrontation with the People’s Republic of China.
The Abe administration has performed exactly as desired by American military strategists, both in its willingness, nay eagerness to build up its military and endorse the concept of “collective self defense,” and on the highly contentious issue of shoving the Futenma airbase relocation down the throats of the resisting Okinawan people by a combination of financial blandishments and crude political pressure. However, there are signs that the are tensions in the US-Japan romance, largely because the Obama administration is serious about exploiting the potential of its “honest broker” role to carve out a role for itself as the even-handed interlocutor between Japan and China - a role that the PRC is encouraging in order to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington - and is therefore not giving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the full-throated support that he believes he needs and deserves.
Recently, the Japanese cabinet, in announcing plans to purchase 28 additional U.S. F-35 fighters (in addition to 42 already contracted), affirmed a policy of maintaining Japanese air superiority over China.
The F-35 may indeed contribute to Japanese air superiority in unexpected and to the United States in undesirable ways. I found it interesting that the Abe administration has gone all-in on the F-35, a U.S. “jack of all trades and master of none” fifth generation (stealth) multi-purpose warplane that gets no love from the zoom-and-boom crowd, and has apparently reconciled itself to not buying any F-22 Raptors.
The F-35’s development history (and cost and schedule overrun statistics) makes for sobering reading. The US fleet of 2,400 planes will cost $400 billion to develop and build—and another $1.1 trillion to operate over its projected 50 year life. It remains to be seen if the plane is remembered as a monument of sustained US pre-eminence-or a Great Wall of China-style tombstone for an empire-ending megaboondoggle.
Myth: Shinzo Abe is a leading member of the team of world and Asian democracies standing up to China in the name of universal values like “freedom of navigation” and to help ensure the shared peace and prosperity of Asia.
Reality: Shinzo Abe is a revisionist nationalist using friction with China to pursue Japanese national interests, put Japan on the right side of a zero-sum economic equation opposite the PRC, maximize Japan’s independence of action as a regional hegemon, hopefully peacefully, but if not…
Mission for the Western media: Manage the cognitive dissonance between comforting myth and disturbing reality for the sake of its faithful readers.
The big story in Asia affairs today is a little trip that was supposed to stay a secret: the dispatch of Isao Iijima, adviser to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to meet with senior officials in North Korea, thereby breaking the united US/South Korean/Japanese front in negotiations with Pyongyang.
It is the first instance of an overt divergence between Japanese and US diplomatic and security strategies, something that has been implicit in Japan’s sometimes-inflammatory brand of nationalism under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - and Abe’s determination to move Japan beyond its traditional role of obedient US ally to independent regional force.
The United States has been quietly disapproving of Japan’s China strategy - witness Kurt Campbell’s statement that the US advised Japan against nationalizing the Senkaku islands - and provocative nationalist hi-jinks on issues like the Yasukuni Shrine, but excused them as politically motivated exercises in domestic base-pandering. However, the North Korean trip has revealed the cloven hoof beneath the robe, as far as Japan’s independent aspirations in Asia are concerned. Japan Times made it clear that the US was not consulted in advance about the trip; US special representative for North Korea Glyn Davies was only briefed after the visit: Japan briefed the United States on Thursday about the surprise visit to North Korea by an adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After meeting with his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo, Glyn Davies, US. special representative for North Korea policy, said he hopes to gain more “insights” into Isao Iijima’s unannounced trip in the coming days.
Behind the current impasse among China, Japan and Taiwan over five tiny specks of land in the East China Sea is an influential rightwing movement in Japan that initiated the crisis in the first place.
A crisis that Japanese nationalists are using it to undermine Japan’s post-World War II peace constitution and, possibly, break the half-century taboo on building nuclear weapons. The dispute over the islands China calls the Diaoyus, Taiwan the Diaoyutais, and Japan the Senkakus, is long-standing, but it boiled over when the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, provoked a confrontation with China by trying to buy the uninhabited islands from their owners. When the Japanese government bought three of the islands, ostensibly to keep them out of Ishihara’s hands, China accused Japan of “stealing” the disputed archipelago.
Ishihara, who has long pressed for building nuclear weapons, is generally portrayed as a bit of a loose cannon—The Economist calls him the “old rogue of the Japanese right”—but he is hardly an anomaly. Toru Hashimoto, leader of the rightwing National Japan Restoration Association and just re-elected mayor of Osaka, is cut from the same cloth. Hashimoto and Ishihara both deny Japan’s record of brutality during World War II—in particular, the horrendous Nanking Massacre in China and the sexual enslavement of Korean women—sentiments echoed by some of Japan’s leading political figures, many of whom advocate Japan acquiring nuclear weapons.