During the Group of Seven summit of leading industrial nations in The Hague on March 24, the Crimea situation was a top priority, but another topic of discussion also dominated the meeting--China.
In the G-7's first meeting after Russia was cast out of the Group of Eight for annexing Crimea, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the occasion to bring up the concern that tougher sanctions on Russia could lead to a strengthening of ties between Moscow and Beijing.
“China has maintained silence, but we must pay attention to the fact that Russia has said that it is grateful to the people of China,” Abe told the other G-7 leaders. “If Russia is forced into a corner and allies itself with China, it will send shock waves throughout Asia.”
Abe’s concern is that closer cooperation between China and Russia would increase the former’s presence in Asia. Thus the exclusion of Russia from the Group of Eight could ultimately lead to heightened diplomatic tensions between Japan and China, which are already running high over the territorial row involving the Senkaku Islands and other issues.
In his effort to counter China, Abe has approached Russia, with whom Japan also has a territorial dispute involving the Northern Territories off the coast of Hokkaido.
Japan wants to avoid the scenario of simultaneously facing threats from China and Russia due to exacerbated tensions with both.
During the G-7 meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with Abe, voicing concerns over closer China-Russia relations.
Merkel, who was sitting next to Abe, responded to him by pointing out that China has clearly sided with Russia rather than maintaining a neutral stance over its annexation of Crimea.
Russian fuel imports comprise one-third of the natural gas Germany consumes, meaning its relations with Moscow are of vital importance. Thus the country also wants to avoid a scenario where the China-Russia alliance unbalances the power relationship between Berlin and Moscow.
While his country’s two leading allies in Asia and Europe voiced their concerns over closer China-Russia relations, U.S. President Barack Obama only gave an evasive reply, saying that he was taking into account the China factor. One of the reasons behind Obama’s apparent reluctance to unnecessarily provoke Beijing could be that he is concerned over China’s growing economy and increasing military capabilities.
The unemployment rate in the United States has hovered around 7 percent, meaning Obama has failed to achieve one of the main campaign pledges he made during the first presidential election in 2008. At the time, he said he would lead the economy back to the path of recovery.
A central pillar of the Obama administration's basic security and economic strategy was the pivot toward Asia. The idea was to counter China’s growing military presence while also taking advantage of its economic growth and massive economy, which now is the world’s second largest.
But Washington’s response to the crisis in Crimea has cast doubts among not only European countries but also among its Asian allies as to whether it is willing or capable of defending its allies if a similar crisis surfaces elsewhere.
The Obama administration’s response has only heightened concern that “the United States may not stand up and fight a war for Japan if the Senkaku Islands are invaded,” said officials at the foreign and defense ministries.
China is apparently trying to take advantage of U.S. hesitancy to use military force, which has become clearer as the Crimea crisis unfolds.
During a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Beijing on April 15, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that China wants to show the world that Asian countries can resolve security issues in the region on their own.
The two ministers said that the success of the upcoming Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, scheduled to be held in Shanghai in May and which Russian President Vladimir Putin is invited, is the two countries’ highest priority.
They said that the conference will “establish a new vision of regional security in Asia,” a statement which effectively signals that the two countries will try to build a security framework in Asia without the United States.
China has taken steps to counter the U.S. military presence in Asia with the construction of a new aircraft carrier and the continued development of its missile capabilities.
“It has been argued within the People’s Liberation Army that its military strength will rival that of the United States within five to 10 years, given a decline in U.S. influence,” said a source close to the PLA’s central leadership.
Washington, and rightly so, is strongly concerned that the fallout from the Crimea crisis will affect the geopolitical situation in Asia.
In a U.S. Senate committee meeting on April 3, Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state and Obama's diplomatic point man for East Asia, said that there is no doubt that China is closely observing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the international community's response to it.
During a joint news conference with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on April 6, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he will call for China to show more respect to its neighbors.
“Coercion, intimidation is a very deadly thing that leads only to conflict,” Hagel said during the news conference in Tokyo. “I think we are seeing some clear evidence of a lack of respect and intimidation and coercion in Europe today in what the Russians have done in Ukraine.”
When Hagel visited China after Japan, Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, criticized Hagel’s remarks in Tokyo, saying “the people of China have a grievance over the remarks (Hagel made) in Japan.”
This month, Obama is visiting Japan, as well as the Philippines, which also has its own territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.
China has frequently deployed surveillance vessels to waters near their disputed territories. Japan and the Philippines expect the U.S. president to take a strong stance over Beijing’s actions.
Obama needs to carefully walk a tightrope during his visit to Asia, where it is clear that one of his top priorities is to strengthen economic ties with China. The U.S. allies in Asia are closely watching what solutions the president provides.
(This article was written by Ryota Emman and Kotaro Ono in Tokyo, Takashi Oshima in Washington and Nozomu Hayashi in Beijing.)
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN