Monday, March 25, 2013

The dangerous drift towards world war in Asia

The six-storey "A-Dome", the old Industrial Promotion Hall, was directly below the blast, 600 meters above, and for that reason survived as a gaunt half-wrecked structure when almost everything else was flattened instantly for a radius of two kilometres

At ground zero in Hiroshima the inscription for victims of the world's first Atomic bomb is a pledge. We will never again repeat the evil of war

The Japanese original is vague on who "we" is, but the English translation tactfully refers to mankind as a whole. 

Families come from all over Japan in a pilgrimage to visit the peace shrine. They look through the Cenotaph to the "A-Dome", the old Industrial Promotion Hall. This six-story building that was directly below the blast, 600 metres above, and for that reason survived as a gaunt half-wrecked structure when almost everything else was flattened instantly for a radius of two kilometres.
They walk through the museum in total silence learning the details of what happened on August 1945, and the gruesome aftermath. The learn about the 2000 degree heat shock that lasted three seconds and incinerated anybody in the epicentre instantly, but left those in the suburbs to die more slowly with burnt skin hanging from their bodies. 

They read the day-by-day diaries of the survivors, and the second shock of radiation a week or so later as they came out in a rash of purple spots, and started to vomit their inner organs. Some 140,000 were dead within five months, mostly civilians, including Korean and Chinese forced labourers. 

This is what the Japanese are brought up on, so different from the "Patriotic Education" campaign in China for the last twenty years. Beijing's policy has whipped up revanchist hatred against the Japanese for the sins of the 1930s and 1940s, no doubt to divert popular wrath away from a Communist Party tarnished by corruption. 

Japan's national ideology is pacifist, and this is written into Article 9 of its constitution, which states that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." 

This peace complex adds a strange twist to events. It inhibits Japan as a muscular China presses its claim on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands -- a cluster of uninhabited rocks near Taiwan -- and as Chinese warships push deep into Japanese waters. 

Yet there is no doubt that Japan will fight. 

"We simply cannot tolerate any challenge now, or in the future. No nation should underestimate the firmness of our resolve," said Shinzo Abe, the hawkish premier bent on national revival.
After talking to Japanese officials in Tokyo over the last few days, I have the strong impression not only that they are ready to fight, but also that they expect to win, and furthermore that conflict may come at any moment. 

"They are sending ships and even aircraft into our territory every day. It is intense provocation. We're making every effort not to be provoked but they are using fire-control radar. This is one step away from conflict and we are very worried," said a top government official. 

Nothing has changed since outgoing US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said China and Japan were drifting towards war, except for the Japanese defence budget. Spending on warships and aircraft will jump by 23pc this year. 

Internal Japanese documents say the situation has become "extremely dangerous" since the Chinese locked their weapons-guiding fire-control radar on a Japanese helicopter and then a destroyer in January, a dramatic escalation. The claim is denied by Beijing. 

It was the risk of such incidents spinning out of control during the Cold War that led to the creation of the red-telephone "Hotline" between the US and the Soviet Union. No such hotline exists between Tokyo and Beijing. 

Over at the revamped Defence Ministry -- no longer the meek Self-Defence Force -- a top military planner showed me maps detailing the movement of Chinese DDG warships and Yuan-class submarines through Japanese waters. The pressure point is Okinawa, a fresh source of controversy as Chinese academics start laying claim to that island as well. "If they can build a radar site in the Senkakus, it would be major strategic asset," he said. 

"What we don't know is whether Chinese officers follow any international code of conduct? Do they understand what is banned and not banned?" 

"Does the Communist Party control their own military? Two thousand years ago under the Han Dynasty, the emperor put his right hand on the wheel of his chariot and told his general that everything inside the borders was the domain of the emperor, and everything outside was left to the commander. That has plagued China throughout its history, and it is the delicate issue we now face," he said. 

I pass these comments on to readers with a health warning since I have not heard the Chinese side of the story, at least not in such intimate detail, but what is clear is that trust between China and Japan has almost completely broken down. The East China Sea has become the most explosive fault-line in the world. 

Professor Huang Jing from Singapore University and a former adviser to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) says a rising cadre of officers has slipped the leash and picked up attitudes all too like the Japan's firebrand officers in the 1930s, when they defied orders from Tokyo. He said these young bloods are on a "collision course" with the US-dominated global system. 

The Japanese are keeping their fingers crossed that China's new team under Xi Jinping will try to repair relations, reassured that the new foreign minister spent seven years in Tokyo. But again, as one diplomat cautioned, that may make him even more hawkish to prove his colours. 

As `black swans' go, an outright war between the two great powers of Asia would surely be dramatic, and it could not easily be contained since America is bound by treaties to defend Japan if it is attacked. This includes an attack on the Senkaku islands. 

One shudders to think what would happen if China and the US itself came to blows in any form. It would be an earthquake for the global strategic and economic order. The Chinese and US economies are locked together in a sort of `Chimerica', a single dollar-based trading system. China owns $2 trillion of US debt. Much of the US manufacturing base is in the Pearl River Delta or the lower Yangtse. 

Washington is scrupulously neutral over legal claims of sovereignty -- an issue that soon gets bogged down in the minutiae of the Potsdam Declaration -- but it stands by Japan on the core principle of the post-War order, that international borders may not be changed by force or coercion. 

That is patently what China is doing, both in Japanese waters and the South China Sea, where it now lays sovereign claim to the whole region, much to the chagrin of Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia. Though Russia got away with it in Georgia in 2008. 

Almost every land border in the world is disputed by somebody, based on some historic claim or other. The proper venue is the border tribunal in The Hague. 

At first sight, the `Asian Pivot' of the Obama admininstration looks like a containment ring of allies from Korea stretching down through South East Asia all the way to India, a pact to check the rising giant. 

You might say this is a replica of the encirclement policy to contan Germany before the First World War, when Kaiser Wilhelm was playing his own Senkaku games. The Agadir crisis comes to mind. The risks of such a strategy is that it feeds a sense of paranoia and becomes self-fulfilling.
Yet there is a hint of ambiguity in US body language. Secretary of State John Kerry waxed eloquent about US-China ties at his confirmation hearing, but hardly mentioned Japan. The White House reception for Mr Abe in February was cool. There is a vocal lobby in Washington warning that Japanese nationalists are drawing the US into a disastrous clash with China against its national interest. 

If China's purpose with these naval forays is to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo -- and to test the willingness of a war-weary America to stand behind allies -- it is hard to know what conclusion Beijing may have drawn from the events of the last six months. 

America is sending the same sorts of signals as England at the onset of the First World War. Nuanced diplomacy -- reflecting a divided Parliament -- allowed the Germans and the French to draw different conclusions in those crucial weeks of July and August 1914. 

What frightens me most is talk from certain quarters in Beijing that the US is a busted flush, bled dry by the financial crisis, crippled by military over-stretch in the Middle East, and that now is the moment to test the paper tiger. 

This is a fatal misjudgement of course. To adapt an old saying, "America is never as strong as she looks: America is never as weak as she looks", and much the same could be said about Japan.  The Telegraph

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