Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Asia pivot comes back to bite the US

It's time for the United States to engage in a full-throated celebration of the pivot to Asia with what I think is going to be President Barack Obama's "America F*ck Yeah" tour of Asian democracies in April. The trip requires more than a little spadework, given the rather fraught situation in Asia.

It is not just that the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Japan are at each other's throats. Nor is the sole problem that the Philippines has declared that the South China Sea is the new Sudetenland and the PRC must be met with confrontation, not negotiation. The issue is that the United States is less than completely happy with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sharp elbows and the fractures they create in the pivot's united front.

There has been a fascinating flurry of op-eds in US prestige media (Bloomberg, NY Times, Washington Post, and Business Week) highly critical of Abe and his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine - a visit that took place in December 2013. Concerned chin-stroking at the end of February 2014 is a little late, it would seem.

As for the highly insulting detail that Prime Minister Abe listened to US Vice President Joe Biden's importunities for an hour before blowing him off and visiting the shrine for the war dead - that was leaked at the end of January.

So why, all of a sudden, does the US have its knickers in a knot concerning last year's display of Abe's rather unambiguous historical-revisionist inclinations? Well, reading my exclusive China Matters divinatory entrails (paywalled! Just kidding) I believe this furor has much to do with President Obama's announced visit to Asia.

As of now, China is not on the itinerary. Japan and the Philippines are. So is South Korea, reportedly after some strenuous lobbying.

The trip looks like a celebration of the pivot, that China-containment strategy that dares not speak its name but is meant to secure America's leading position in East Asia by pushing China's relations with its neighbors in a more polarized and confrontational condition, playing into US military superiority.

More than that, it will make up for ground lost by the dismaying cancellation of President Obama's previous Asia trip (because of the US debt ceiling farce) and demonstrate to a dubious world that, despite appearances to the contrary, the United States is still brimming with resolve, the master of events, leader of the coalition of Asian democracies, indeed the universally hailed hegemon of Asia.

I look at President Obama's trip as one of those imperial tours favored by the Roman and Chinese emperors to demonstrate that the empire's writ still ran in the borderlands.

However, a certain Asian democracy is openly hedging its bets against the day that the United States changes its mind and decides that its true interests lie somewhere more along the dreaded G2 axis (cooperation between the US and the PRC to order affairs in ways not necessarily to the liking of the other nations of the Pacific.) That nation, of course, is Japan.

Prime Minister Abe, thanks to his lineage and his personal experience, is in a good position to remember the many times when the United States decided that US and Japanese interests did not necessarily coincide.

They include slights as old as the Portsmouth Treaty (when Teddy Roosevelt decided that Japan was too green a member of the imperial club to enjoy the full fruits of its victory over Tsarist Russia) to that whole World War II unpleasantness (which Abe's revisionist group consider to be entirely the fault of the United States), to the sudden recognition of the PRC, the torpedoing of the Japanese economy by the Plaza Accord imposed by the United States, and the unnerving undertone of G2 chatter that occasionally pervades US diplomacy.

On a personal level, Prime Minister Abe undoubtedly also remembers how he loyally supported George W Bush's confrontational North Korea policy in 2005, only to see Japan - and Abe's signature issue, the abductees - brushed aside in former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia Chris Hill's and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's haste to conclude a transitory agreement with the North.

On a happier note, Prime Minister Abe probably also recalls that when she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was a staunch opponent of G2 and an avid supporter of the Asia pivot, with the underlying strategy of employing the alliance with Japan as the keystone of US policy in Asia. The full story perhaps needs an entire book, but it is worth remembering that President Obama was reportedly prepared to drop the affirmation of the disputed Senkakus islands as falling under the US-Japan security treaty [1] - presumably in response to some Chinese blandishment.

This was the case until the tag team of secretary of state Clinton and former Japanese foreign minister Seiji Maehara exploited (or, in my view, concocted) the whole 2010 Senkaku Captain Zhan/rare earth imbroglio [2] that led to the exact opposite outcome - open affirmation that the Senkakus were covered [3]. Subsequently, it became clear that Clinton had decided to ditch engagement and treat the PRC's maritime issues as a pretext for a confrontainment policy against China, and use the policy as the foundation of the militarized pivot to Asia.

But Clinton is gone, at least for the time being, and the decidedly less confrontational Secretary of State John Kerry seems to have been able to take the reins of US diplomacy.

Kerry's focus on the Middle East has occasioned nervous/resentful mumblings from supporters of the Japan relationship in Washington, for the stated reason that his focus on the Far East is insufficient and the pivot is languishing. An unstated reason may be that the PRC, because of its somewhat important role in Iran and Syria matters, may be inching toward a quasi-G2 relationship with Kerry that might result in some favors being done for the PRC at the expense of the pivot democracies.

One such favor, I previously speculated, might have been the US demand that Japan return some weapons grade plutonium [4] it had received from the United States a long time ago.

In any case, I felt that it was necessary for Kerry to establish his tough-on-China credentials, and I believe he did that by sending out Evan Medeiros, of the US National Security Council, to make a big noise about how the US would not tolerate a South China Sea air defense identification zone. [5] And the PRC, which, I believe, had already disclaimed any current intention for an South China Sea ADIZ, promptly said they were considering no such move, thereby allowing Kerry to shift, albeit incrementally, out of the despised Chamberlain-appeasement doghouse into the blessed realm of Churchillian resolve.

So President Obama can go to Asia secure in the knowledge that America's "stick a thumb in China's eye" credentials are relatively secure. With this context, what to make of the concerted campaign to rain on Prime Minister Abe's parade?

I think it's because President Obama wants to use his April trip to affirm the pivot and, more importantly, the indispensable US leadership role in it. That means cracking the whip on Japan and demonstrating that the US will not allowed itself to get tangled up in the Abe administration's hopes and dreams for a Japan that is able to exploit the US alliance as an element in its own plans to restore Japan's sovereignty and military and diplomatic clout in Asia.

It would take a special kind of denial to ignore the fact that Prime Minister Abe is abubble with plans to expand Japan's diplomatic and security footprint in Asia all the way from the Kuriles to Myanmar and India [6], or to disregard the fact that these ambitions do not fit cleanly within a hierarchical structure with the US pivot on top, with the US-Japan security alliance as the next layer, and Japan's relationship with the other Asian democracies guided by the pivot, the security alliance, and the power and the glory of American strategic vision. [7]

This unpleasant state of affairs is demonstrated by the conundrum that seems to underlay the Abe-bashing: the growing rift between South Korea and Japan.

One of the nagging problems of the pivot has been the rancor between the administrations of Abe in Japan and Park Geun-hye in South Korea, and also Seoul's un-pivoty predilection for sidling over into the PRC economic and diplomatic camp.

Abe, contrary to the ostensible doctrine of pivot solidarity, seems happy to determinedly and systematically exacerbate the bad blood between Japan and South Korea, not just with Yasukuni but with dismissive remarks by his allies on the lessons of World War II and the comfort women. And, contrary to the idea that the United States coordinates the pivot, Abe has also been most dismissive of US efforts to insert itself in the dispute.

According to Peter Ennis of Japan Dispatch, the Yasukuni kerfuffle played out as part of the US effort to mediate a rapprochement between Japan and South Korea. [8]

Per Ennis, Vice President Biden thought he had an understanding that Abe would not visit Yasukuni and communicated that perception to President Park. When it transpired that Abe was indeed planning to visit Yasukuni, Biden made the infamous phone call to try to persuade him not to go, and Abe in essence told him to get stuffed.
Not only did he tell Biden to get stuffed, Abe apparently personally leaked the details of this embarrassment to one of his favorite papers, according to Ennis:
On December 12, Biden himself phoned Abe, and in a lengthy, tense conversation pressed the prime minister to not visit Yasukuni. Sankei Shimbun on January 30, citing unnamed "government sources", provided a detailed account of the conversation - an account the vice president's office does not dispute.

(Insiders in Tokyo, citing the close ties between Sankei and Abe, believe the account of the conversation comes directly from Abe himself - an assessment shared by key US officials.) In their conversation, Biden said to Abe: "I told President Park that 'I don't think Mr Abe will visit Yasukuni Shrine.' If you indicate you will not visit the shrine, I think Ms Park will agree to meet you."

Abe has long been incensed about what he considers American hectoring against his nationalist convictions, and he told Biden that he intended to visit Yasukuni at some point.
Immediately after Prime Minister Abe - we assume - maliciously leaked the intelligence that he had spurned Vice President Biden's appeal to give satisfaction to Park on the Yasukuni issue, a thunderous op-ed by the concentrated firepower of Richard Armitage, Victor Cha, and Michael Green appeared in the Washington Post calling for President Obama to visit Seoul. [9] It was also subsequently announced that South Korea had been added to the itinerary and Japan would not be acting as North Asia's exclusive host for the Obama visit.

Take that!
Now, in addition to Abe's desire to trample on the feelings of Biden and Park to wave his freak flag high on the issue of his nationalist revisionist beliefs, I think there were a few other forces at work.

First of all, as I've argued elsewhere, Abe does not have a comfortable relationship with the Obama administration. His US avatar is Dick Cheney, with whom Abe tried to coordinate a China-containment policy during his first term [10], and his natural allies are the US Republican right wing and pro-Japan/anti-China hawks in the US security and defense establishment.

I think the pointed and public humiliation of Biden was a signal from Abe that he was not under the thumb of the White House, and his allies in the United States could take advantage of the Obama administration's embarrassment to question the efficacy and execution of the administration's Japan policy (and its effort to steer a middle course between the PRC and Japan), and lobby for the further evolution of US policy in Asia toward openly Japan-centric doctrine of deterrence and confrontation with the PRC..

Second, South Korea and Japan are direct peer competitors in Asia. When south Korean president Lee Myung-bak was in charge, he openly tried to seize the mantle of Asian leadership (and American ally numero uno) from Japan, which was flailing through its non-Liberal Democratic Party interregnum. Abe, with his nationalist inclinations, is distinctly hostile to Korean presumption.

If one wants to play the deep game, Japan no less than the PRC fears Korean reunification and the emergence of an Asian democracy that might dwarf Japan in economic and national vigor. One of the less-reported stories is Abe's continual game of footsie with North Korea, with clandestine meetings between Japanese and diplomats of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and, in addition, the offer of Switzerland (and I suspect, India) to put their good offices at Japan's disposal for mediation.

The ostensible context for this back and forth is to obtain closure on the miserable issue of the Japanese abductees; I suspect the real objective is to achieve some sort of direct rapprochement with North Korea that will give Japan the direct inside track, ditch the PRC-led Five Party Talks regime on negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear policy, wrong-foot the US, PRC, and South Korea in the impending dash for North Korea's under-developed mineral and human resources - and keep the DPRK alive and the peninsula comfortably split.

In other words, South Korea is welcome to explore its options as a continental power within the PRC's sphere of influence, using Shandong as its cheap labor hinterland instead of northern Korea. Japan will be happy to eat South Korea's lunch in maritime, democratic Asia, thank you very much.

Third, as Abe works to recover Japan's full military, defense, and security sovereignty, he has no interest in the United States arrogating to itself the privilege of setting Japan's regional diplomatic agenda. If anything, it looks like Abe wants to have extensive engagement with the United States, but he wants it in the context of peer-to-peer bilateral relations negotiated through explicit mechanisms like the security alliance and the Trans-Pacific Partnership - the free-trade agreement being pursued by Washington.

His vision for the US-Japan relationship certainly does not entail listening to Joe Biden and the Obama administration's brainstorms about Asia, especially when they are intended to demonstrate America's honest-broker cred, ie an attempt to show South Korea and China that the US can constrain Japan's behavior in a meaningful way.

Abe has gone along with the United States on two rather dismal initiatives that the Pentagon adores - collective self-defense and relocation of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa. [11] Therefore, by his lights, he probably thinks the United States should, as a matter of mutual respect and alliance loyalty to America's most important partner in Asia, put up with the crap he wants to dish out to China and South Korea.

Parenthetically, the Obama administration pointedly did not go as far as Abe in instructing civilian carriers to disregard the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone declared by Beijing, which was, by one perspective, a matter of supreme moderation and common sense but, from Abe's perspective, left him out on a limb looking a bit stupid - but also gave him a pretext to complain about equivocal US backing as a justification for Japan's growing independence in security policy.

I believe that, as I've predicted for the last year or so [12], the pivot chickens are now, inevitably coming home to roost. The decision to manufacture a Chinese maritime threat has encouraged the frontline Asian democracies, especially Japan, to a point that US leadership is on the cusp of overt challenge.

Japan, South Korea, and China may be well aware of US intentions, but are less convinced of US capabilities in delivering on the promise of a unified, carefully managed and modulated pivot strategy that empowers the US through a militarized containment strategy against China while preserving the honest broker role for the US and stifling the independent-minded initiatives of the frontline pivot allies.

Instead, it appears that Japan, especially, is quietly going rogue and will do its best to exploit the pivot to pursue its own regional agendas while calling on the US for the support at crunch time which, as the pivot advocate, it must perforce deliver.

So instead of the implacable united front against China that is the raison d'etre of the pivot, we have an alliance in flux, a deterrent that is equivocal and ripe for testing by the PRC, and increasingly close and tense encounters in the maritime zone.

In other words, a recipe for ... something, not sure what, but certainly not peace, stability, and shared prosperity that Hillary Clinton promised to deliver with the pivot.

Japan is sufficiently invested in the US relationship to support the alliance and even the Obama administration as it begins its long but inevitable descent into lame-duck status.

But meticulously orchestrated American announcements, initiatives, and trips to Asia can only do so much as Japan and Asian allies that increasingly look to Japan for regional leadership see the need and benefits of going their own separate ways.

They say the sun doesn't rise because the rooster crows. But in this case it did. I think President Obama is learning that the sun did rise because the rooster crowed - ie, that Japanese assertiveness is a direct consequence of the empowerment of the hawkish establishment in Japan by the US pivot doctrine.

Trouble is, now that the sun is rising, it looks like it will keep rising on its own. And there's little that the American rooster can do about it.

1. See "Japan spins anti-China merry-go-round", Asia Times Online, October 29, 2010.
2. See "Japan poured oil on troubled waters", Asia Times Online, October 2, 2010.
3. See "Lower Temperature of Chinese Relations with Japan and the U.S. from "Nippy" to "Chilly"", China Matters, October 29, 2010.
4.See "World War III Will Be Pre-Fought on Twitter", China Matters, February 19, 2014.
5. See "Obama Administration Quietly Pushes Back Against Japan Lobby", China Matters, February 02, 2014
6. See "India Places Its Asian Bet on Japan: Roiling the Waters of the Asia-Pacific", Japan Focus, June 17, 2013.
7. See "Yasukuni Blues: Understanding Shinzo Abe's Historical Revisionism", China Matters, December 26, 2013
8. See "Kerry, Kishida emphasize alliance, sidestep simmering tensions", Japan Dispatch, February 9, 2014.
9. See "Obama should add Seoul to his Asia itinerary", Washington Post, January 31, 2014.
10. See "Pacific allies aim for India upgrade", news.com.au, March 15, 2007
11. See "What Me Worry?," China Matters, February 11, 2014

12. See "Clinton's strained swan song in China", Asia Times Online, September 11, 2012.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

Courtesy Joyo News

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