China’s attempt to isolate Japan worsens bilateral relations
While emphasizing the need for improved bilateral relations between Japan and China, the Obama administration's premier Asia expert criticized China’s recent diplomatic efforts to isolate Japan.
In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian affairs of the National Security Council, said, “This approach will undermine the prospects for diplomacy.”
He also criticized China for excluding a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship from its fleet review later this month and explained why the U.S. government decided not to send a Navy vessel, saying, “(It is) a matter of principle and out of solidarity with our ally.”
But Medeiros denied the belief that the Obama administration has changed its policy and hardened its stance toward China.
“Our approach to China has always had elements of cooperation and elements of competition,” he emphasized.
Medeiros also gave a detailed explanation for his recent statement that the United States and China need to focus less on “core interests” but more on “common interests” in building the “new type of major power relations.”
Excerpts of the interview follow:
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Question: What should we read into the unilateral establishment of its ADIZ (air defense identification zone) by China over the East China Sea last November? They continue to enforce it, in spite of the protest or dissuasion from the United States and regional states, including Japan.
Mediros: As the Obama administration said when the ADIZ was announced, we saw it as a provocative and escalatory act that increased tensions in the region and reduced the prospect for diplomacy.
Regardless of whether China had a right to establish the ADIZ, the way China did it was dangerous. It was done unilaterally and without prior consultation with other parties. It was done over disputed territory. China suggested additional ADIZs could be created in the future.
And lastly, some of the procedures associated with the operation of it were quite unclear--including the suggestion of the use of military force--(and) further raised regional concerns and tensions.
So, the way in which China carried this out was very destabilizing.
And we know that China has often stated that the United States has an ADIZ and Japan has an ADIZ and, as a consequence, China has a right to create the ADIZ. That missed the point. Our point to China is just because it has a right to do something does not always mean it’s a good idea.
We assess that one of the goals of establishing this ADIZ was to try to use it to claim China’s administrative control over the airspace over the Senkakus, and we simply do not think that the ADIZ--or any unilateral step like that--is an appropriate or effective way to advance any country’s territorial claims.
Their announcement has not had any effect on our operational activity in the region.
Q: The recent two testimonies by Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel on Capitol Hill have been perceived in Japan to indicate a change of the approach of the U.S. government toward China, from a rather accommodating or engagement-heavy one, which was most typically demonstrated in the speech by National Security Advisor Susan Rice last November, to a more tough or hedging-inclined approach. And your speech at the Brookings Institution on March 28 further enhanced this view.
Did the administration make a change?
A: No. There has been no change in our policy. Our strategy and policy has stayed consistent.
From the very beginning--and I know, because I have been at the center of our China policy since 2009--our approach to China has always had elements of cooperation and elements of competition.
And when we face disagreements, we do not “pull punches.” And we have always sought to be very clear and consistent with the Chinese about our interests and our positions.
If you look carefully at our full record, whether it’s on security policy, whether it’s on trade policy, going back to 2009, this administration has not “pulled punches” with China, but in fact has done the very opposite.
The administration has set very clear benchmarks for what we consider to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Look at our decisions on Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea going back a few years.
Take, for example, in 2009, when China was harassing U.S. naval vessels operating legally in China’s exclusive economic zone. There were two very high-profile incidents. The United States pushed back very hard, very consistently, and as a result that’s not been an issue since then.
Also you may remember, in the fall of 2009, we imposed remedies under Section 421 of the Trade Act in response over a surge in Chinese tire imports. More recently, we won a World Trade Organization case against China’s policies on exports of rare earth elements.
My point is simply our policy has long had the same core elements as part of a mixed strategy.
We have never had an “engagement-heavy approach.” Engagement is an important and necessary part of U.S.-China relations, but also being clear about our differences and protecting our interests is equally important. It’s a balance. If you ask Beijing, they are probably pursing a similar balance.
Q: I think your speech at the Brookings contained fairly strong words vis-a-vis China’s action.
A: What, specifically?
Q: Ukraine, the reaction to what Russia did in Ukraine. You said, “The United States has questions raised by China’s position on Ukraine, given China’s stated commitment to territorial integrity and sovereignty, but yet its de facto support for Russia’s position on Ukraine.”
A: I see.
Q: But you are saying that it’s a response to what China did, and it doesn’t represent a change in U.S. policy toward China.
A: Correct. No fundamental change in our policy. So, what I would say is we have had a very consistent policy framework since 2009.
As U.S.-China relations evolved and China’s international behavior evolved, it resulted in policy responses from us.
So, Danny Russel’s testimony was the result of the fact that we saw--and as he pointed out--a number of instances, in which we saw China using various legal and administrative means to advance its claims.
Q: Like the ADIZ?
A: The ADIZ was one of them, yes. The Hainan fishing regulations are another. There are other areas he points to.
Q: And yours mainly relate to China’s reaction to Russia’s action in Ukraine?
A: Right. So, as you know, the Ukraine situation is a relatively new situation, and my comments were to explain that we are concerned about China’s effort to, on the one hand, claim total, complete support for territorial integrity and sovereignty but yet, in the face of the single greatest violation of that principle in decades, China is agnostic and unwilling to criticize Russia, even on a referendum, particularly given China’s concerns over such types of events in 2008.
Q: With regard to “new model of major power relations” with China, it always brings out “respect for each other’s core interests and major concerns” as a part of its definition of this concept. And you stated in the speech at the Brookings, “We need to focus less on core interests and focus more on common interests.” Why?
A: What I was trying to do was to put forward how this administration thinks about the concept of a “new model,” because China so regularly touts its definition.
In that context, I felt that it was necessary to provide a clarification of what we see as the content and value of the new model. And there has been a lot of discussion about the “new model,” that somehow it’s a “G-2,” for example.
It is not. Rather, we see the concept as a way to encourage--to ensure that China’s rise is a force of stability in the region. And one of the most important ways to do that is to ensure that we’re working together more on regional and global challenges.
When we say a “new model,” the question is, what’s new? And my point is it’s new only insofar as we are able to develop patterns of interaction and habits of cooperation that allow us to avoid the historic trap of an established power and a rising power inevitably coming into conflict.
Q: Is it really a good idea to work with China based on the concept that it proposed? It looks like the United States is allowing China to shape your choice, rather than the other way around. And it makes the United States look weak.
A: As I said, we have a clear idea of what the new model is about and what it is not, going back to Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton’s spring 2012 speech in addition to my recent public comments at the Brookings.
Q: Isn’t it better that the United States come up with your own idea and impose it on China?
A: We have always had our own idea of what the new model is, and we have been very clear from the beginning about what it means. And that has been reflected in our strategy toward China, which has not changed since we started talking about the new model with them.
The new model is an aspiration and merely that at this point. Look at what we have done since we have started talking about the new model.
The ways in which we balance the cooperative and the competitive aspects of the relationship have not changed. Our behavior in Asia speaks for itself. And, when we have disagreements, like on territorial issues, like on issues like Ukraine, the United States has been very clear.
Q: Why did the United States decline to send a Navy vessel to the International Fleet Review that China is hosting on the margins of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium?
A: When we learned that Japan was not invited to the fleet review, we decided as a matter of principle and out of solidarity with our ally, that the U.S. Navy should not send a ship.
As you know, we have made clear in public and private our desire for Japan and China to engage in maritime confidence-building measures. We were disappointed that China missed this opportunity to directly engage with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in a multilateral setting.
Q: Let me turn to Japan-U.S. relations. How do you evaluate the recent statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he does not intend to revise the Kono statement, which expressed an apology about the “comfort women” issue?
A: Well, we warmly welcome his statements reaffirming both the Murayama and Kono statements, and we think it’s a very useful approach that creates an even more permissive environment for the United States and Japan to work together in East Asia on economic, diplomatic and security issues.
Japan is an ally, which means that our interests and our values are very closely aligned. When President (Barack) Obama arrives in Tokyo, you will see the practical manifestations of that.
We are very pleased with the leadership that Prime Minister Abe has shown in the last year.
He has made hard decisions, politically difficult decisions, that have opened important opportunities in the U.S.-Japan relationship, whether it’s joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement negotiations or making major progress in the Futenma Replacement Facility issue, opening up the process for revising the Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation or enhancing our cooperation and coordination on Southeast Asia.
These are all important leadership moves that we applaud and want to do more of in the coming weeks.
Q: Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University reportedly said, “I thought Abe’s defense proposals and his package was a good package. The mistake was wrapping it in an old 1930s wrapping paper.” I wonder whether Abe’s handling of those history-related issues makes your job harder to work on the alliance enhancement.
A: What I would say is that we want a Japan that is strong, influential and credible in Asia, and anything that contributes to those goals, the United States is strongly supportive of.
The president is very pleased with the leadership that Prime Minister Abe has shown in developing our economic ties, our security ties, our diplomatic cooperation, and he looks forward to visiting Japan to identify the new phase of our alliance cooperation going forward.
Q: Abe is pushing a politically controversial issue of lifting the ban on the right to collective self-defense. Could you tell me how important it is, from the U.S. point of view, perhaps in terms of moving the Japan-U.S. Defense Guidelines review process forward?
A: The issue of collective self-defense and reinterpreting your Constitution is an issue for the people of Japan to decide with their government.
What I would say is that the United Sates is completely supportive of the bilateral Defense Guidelines review that is ongoing, and we want to maximize the opportunity presented to us, because it’s the first time in 17 years that we have done this. And we welcome any and all actions that allow us to revise the Guidelines in ways that make our alliance stronger and, especially, more interoperable.
Q: One of the challenges with this right to collective self-defense is the way the Koreans view it. They think it’s a very aggressive measure that could be targeted at them. But the intention of the Japanese government is totally opposite; it will be useful for the defense of South Korea in time of a contingency. I wonder if the United States would help Japan to persuade the Koreans about the nature of this policy initiative.
A: Well, we welcome opportunities for Japan and the Japanese leadership to raise these issues and describe them to the people of South Korea. Obviously, the United States, as an ally, as we continue with this process of reviewing our bilateral Defense Guidelines, we will also be in consultation with the Koreans, so they understand exactly what it is and what it isn’t.
In this context, let me just underscore that the U.S.-Japan alliance plays a critical role in the security of the Korean Peninsula.
Q: Next about the presidential visit to Japan and the region toward the end of April. What does the U.S. government intend to accomplish through this upcoming visit to the region, especially to Japan?
A: Well, first of all, this trip is critical at this time, because it is meant to underscore, first and foremost, the intensity of this administration’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific rebalancing. As you know, there has been--and continues to be--many questions about this commitment.
The fact that the president will be going back to the region for an entire week, to visit four countries, during a period of significant international challenges in the Middle East and in Europe, specifically Ukraine, further highlights and underscores how genuinely committed the president is, because the Asia-Pacific is becoming so central to American security and economic interests.
But, more broadly, the trip also underscores the diverse goals and the comprehensive nature of our rebalance strategy.
The president is visiting two Northeast Asian countries, then visiting two Southeast Asian countries. He is visiting three allies and a very new and increasingly close partner, in Malaysia.
And, in all of them, he is going to highlight the diversity of our interactions--economic, security, diplomatic, people-to-people and cultural.
Q: What is the purpose of visiting Malaysia this time around? And how does the ongoing multilateral efforts to locate the missing Malaysian airliner impact the presidential visit?
A: Well, regarding the missing Malaysian airliner, the U.S. government is working in lock step with the Malaysian government to find this airliner as soon as possible.
Multiple U.S. agencies are in Kuala Lumpur working very closely, providing their expertise, their experience, their technology, to ensure that we find this plane as quickly as possible.
We appreciate the hard work and leadership the current government has demonstrated in addressing this awful situation. We applaud them during this difficult period.
So, from our perspective, this just underscores the potential in the U.S.-Malaysia relationship, when the United States and Malaysia work hand in hand, including in such an unfortunate and sad circumstance.
More broadly, with Malaysia, one of the main reasons the president is going is because no president has visited Malaysia in 48 years. Under Prime Minister Najib (Razak), our relationship has reached new levels of cooperation, whether it’s on counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, not to mention the fact that they have joined the TPP negotiations.
In all of these areas, Prime Minister Najib has really stepped up and indicated that he wants to work more closely with the United States. So, the trip is an opportunity for us to highlight all that we’ve done since Prime Minister Najib came into office.
It’s an opportunity for the president and the prime minister to talk about what they have done in the operation related to the airplane, and then to look toward the future.
Q: Let us discuss the TPP. Is there still a chance for Japan and the United States to work out some sort of agreement by the time of the president’s visit to Japan?
A: I am confident that President Obama and Prime Minister Abe share a common appreciation of the strategic value of the TPP. Concluding the TPP is essential to creating a modern, 21st-century economic architecture in the region, and we want Japan to be at the center of that in East Asia.
That said, at this point I don’t want to get ahead of our negotiators. They are working hard to bridge the remaining gaps.
I would just hope that the government of Japan and people of Japan understand the strategic significance, both in terms of contributing to Prime Minister Abe’s own reform agenda, reinforcing his third arrow tool kit, but also to ensure that Japan remains active, vibrant, and at the center of trade and investment flows in East Asia.
Q: Next, let me ask about the Japan-U.S.-ROK trilateral summit talks in The Hague in March. What kind of role did the United States play to make it happen?
A: Well, first of all, this is a shared achievement. President Obama, President Park (Geun-hye) and Prime Minister Abe are all due equal credit for ensuring the success of this.
We were very pleased with the outcome, the meeting itself was a signal of the importance of trilateral security cooperation for shaping the security architecture in East Asia, but also sending strong deterrence messages to North Korea, especially at a time in which it seems to be moving toward a provocation cycle.
In terms of the U.S. role, we played the role that we always play, which is encouraging two members of our alliance family to come together to work on a critical and common security threat, which is North Korea.
Q: What does it take to make this harbinger improvement of Japan-ROK relations into a more substantial one?
A: Well, I think, first and foremost, it takes vision, determination and leadership on the part of both President Park and Prime Minister Abe to improve their relationship.
These are difficult issues, and it requires both leaders to keep looking toward the future and making sure that they are able to develop a relationship that is as forward-thinking as possible.
Q: The next topic is Japan-China relations. You said in the recent speech regarding U.S.-China relations, “the relationship operates best when there is leader-to-leader communication in a direct, clear, way.” And I believe this applies to the Japan-China relationship as well. And, as you know, there is a total absence of this kind of leader-to-leader communication. What would be the realistic way to solve this problem?
A: At a minimum, dialogue needs to be resumed, and it needs to be resumed at a senior level. Even if leader-to-leader dialogue isn’t the first initiative, it’s important that some momentum be generated, and the United States is strongly supportive of that.
In particular, we think there needs to be dialogue about crisis management mechanisms, to make sure that incidents in the air or at sea don’t escalate.
Q: Would the United States push the Japan-China relationship for improvement?
A: We regularly stress to the leadership in China that it’s essential to maintain open channels of communication.
China’s effort to isolate Japan and criticize its leadership will only worsen the current situation and could have long-term negative effects on the perceptions of the people in both countries. In the short term, this approach will undermine the prospects for diplomacy, not improve them.
Q: Finally, the impact of the Ukraine situation on the Asia-Pacific region. You pointed out in the recent speech that China’s action regarding the Ukraine situation produced “uncertainty about how China defines its interests and how it pursues them.” Can you elaborate on that?
A: Well, very specifically, what I mean is China regularly, publicly, says that territorial integrity and sovereignty are of the utmost importance, but yet, in the face of a violation of them by Russia through its actions in Ukraine, China has remained agnostic, and has provided essentially de facto support to Russia. For example, it has abstained in U.N. Security Council and U.N. General Assemby votes.
So, the question is, “Does China feel that there are some conditions that are actually attached to its support for territorial integrity and sovereignty?” It is raising questions all over the world about China’s intentions.
Q: What is the impact of the Ukraine situation, the Russian annexation of Crimea, on the U.S. rebalance to Asia?
A: No effect. We’re going ahead “full steam forward.” Secretary of Defense (Chuck) Hagel will be out in Asia soon, only to be followed by the president. If that’s not a sign of our commitment, what is?
If anything, our continued diplomacy in Asia amid these other challenges underscores the importance of the United States remaining as active and strong in the Asia-Pacific as possible, to prevent any kind of similar actions in this region.
Q: But doesn’t it have a negative impact on the allocation of assets and resources, on the part of the United States, because you have to invest and allocate a great amount of time and energy of the people and also, perhaps, physical assets, to Europe?
A: I am not aware of any effect on the U.S. defense posture and presence in the region.
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Evan Medeiros is senior director for Asian affairs of the National Security Council of the United States.
By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent