Comedy of errors in East China Sea

Posted on July 21, 2012


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Defense Strategic Review at the Pentagon in Washington Jan. 5, 2012. Obama unveiled a defense strategy on Thursday that calls for greater U.S. military presence in Asia and envisions cutting troops in Europe as the Pentagon seeks to reduce spending by nearly half a trillion dollars after a decade of war.
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America’s “pivot to Asia” has placed it out on a limb in the western Pacific.

It looks as though a lot of its stated strategic priorities are spurious.

There is no threat to freedom of navigation.

Support of an ASEAN+Japan united front vs the People’s Republic of China (PRC) increases instability and makes a peaceful settlement of overlapping resource development and exploitation interests less likely.

And China’s unproven submarine-based nuclear deterrent doesn’t look as if it’s worth the effort to bottle it up in the PRC’s coastal waters.

It looks like the dirty secret of US policy in the region is that it welcomes instability: a virtuous cycle of assertiveness and resentment that polarizes relations between the PRC and Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines, and pushes the tinier folk into the welcoming arms of the United States.

A clever policy.

But, as a noted philosopher once said, there’s a fine line between clever … and stupid.

We might be tiptoeing close to that line in the matter of Japan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

This story simply is not following the “China bullies innocent and helpless neighbor” script, either in the media or in the diplomatic arena formed by the US-Japan-China triangle.

First of all, it can be asserted with some confidence that the Senkakus, as Japan calls them, or Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese are not a core interest, historically or otherwise, of Japan but are a relatively recent imperial acquisition dating to its development of a modern blue-water navy that allowed it to project power beyond its coastal waters and colonize Taiwan. A quick glance at a map will persuade an impartial observer that these uninhabited rocks – 100 nautical miles from Kaohsiung but 500 miles away from Okinawa, let alone the Japanese main islands – fall into Taiwan’s bailiwick.

Here’s what one informed party recently declared:

Japan’s arguments are based on a cabinet decision made in 1895 to incorporate the Senkaku Islands within Okinawa prefecture. While the statement is often made that the Senkakus are “Japan’s inherent territory”, can territory really be called inherent if it has only belonged to Japan for about 100 years?

On the other hand, it is clear from a historical standpoint that China extended military influence over the area around the Senkaku Islands from about the 14th century. China therefore argues that since the Senkakus are part of Taiwan and because Taiwan is a part of China, therefore the Senkakus belong to China.

Because Japan relinquished its territorial rights to the Chishima [Kuril] islands and Taiwan under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, China’s argument cannot be described as completely baseless, even though there may be a difference of interpretation.

While this may be difficult for the Japanese to accept, they should first recognize that the Senkaku Islands are not Japan’s “inherent territory”, but a “disputed area”.

This analysis was not proffered by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; it was provided to Asahi Shimbun by one Ukeru Magosaki, who “was a Foreign Ministry diplomat who served as director general of what was then the Intelligence and Analysis Bureau”. [1]

Members of the Japanese coast guard with Zhan Qixiong, the captain of a Chinese fishing boat, who is accused of ramming a patrol vessel. Photograph: Reuters

The weakness of Japan’s claim to these distant islands demands the most nuanced provocation to keep the focus on the PRC as the bad guy throwing his weight around.

A noteworthy example was 2010’s Senkaku/Daioyutai dust-up over the matter of the collision of Chinese Captain Zhan Qixiong’s fishing vessel with Japanese patrol boats.

Focus was successfully kept both on the hot-headed captain’s initial transgression and the PRC’s subsequent rare-earth-related shenanigans, while calculated escalation of the incident by Japanese cabinet minister Seiji Maehara (his decision to prosecute Zhan in a Japanese court in a deliberate provocation) was easily ignored, at least in the Western press.

This year’s provocation is a little more difficult to spin: Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s campaign to purchase some of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from their private owner.

Maehara is a slick, pro-American neoliberal anxious to play Tony Blair in Asia and enable the US agenda in the region.

Ishihara is a right-wing, rising-sun racist of the old school (the polite term of art is “unrepentant nationalist”), previously best known for a piece of America-bashing titled The Japan That Can Say No and for denying the Nanjing Massacre. Ishihara is publicly and unapologetically using the island purchase to yank China’s chain and generate some more political heat for his party faction and himself.

Japan’s national government has been forced into the ridiculous position of getting in a bidding war with Ishihara, only to be told by the unknown private owner of the islands that Ishihara is the preferred buyer because the owner represents a family “with major land holdings that reportedly distrusts the central government because much of its land was seized by the state during and after World War II”. [2]

Ishihara is gleefully refusing to back down from the central government, claiming that to do so would break faith with the Japanese nationalists who have already selflessly contributed the equivalent of US$17 million to the purchase fund. He further roiled the waters by declaring his desire to land a team on one of the Senkakus to examine the Tokyo governorate’s expected future property, apparently because only an on-the-spot land survey could establish fair value for these uninhabited rocks.

This farce is not popular among Japan’s foreign-policy specialists, among whom must be numbered its ambassador to China, ex-businessman Uichiro Niwa.

Niwa was recalled from Beijing for a day.

The New York Times’ Martin Fackler described Niwa’s recall as part of a strategizing session on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue. [3]

In fact, Niwa was recalled for consultations to Tokyo because he was on record as questioning the island-purchase scheme and, according to Asahi Shimbun, it was necessary to bring him back to make sure he would loyally and professionally support a foreign-policy gambit he personally considers to be stupid.

The government instructed its ambassador to China to “accurately” convey to Beijing its stance that the disputed Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory and to protest repeated incursions by Chinese vessels into Japanese waters.

The move was intended to send a strong message to China and rein in Ambassador Uichiro Niwa for making comments that do not always reflect the government’s position …

Niwa, who is known for his pro-China stance, had been recalled to Tokyo earlier that day at [Foreign Affairs Minister Koichiro] Genba’s instructions in what a senior ministry official described as a “diplomatic gesture”.

Genba told Niwa it was his job to accurately relay the Japanese government’s position to the Chinese side, sources said …

Japan’s stand is that there is no territorial dispute with China because the Senkaku Islands are part of Japanese territory. Therefore, the government says the question of purchasing the islets cannot be a diplomatic issue.

Genba on July 15 again reminded Niwa to toe the Japanese government’s line and not speak out of turn. [4]

Under a different set of circumstances one might think that the United States would also pitch in, in its self-professed role as honest broker and guardian of the peace of the western Pacific, and communicate to Japan that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands purchase scheme is embarrassing and counterproductive.

However, that would shift the focus from the evils of the would-be hegemons in Beijing to the has-been hegemons of Tokyo.

Currently, the Senkaku/Diaoyu purchase has been framed as strictly a Japanese internal matter, the transfer of title from a private owner to some lucky bureau of, it is hoped, the national government.

Not only China is being told to butt out; so is, perhaps much to its relief, the United States.

In keeping with the “internal matter” framing, Genba (whose name is also romanized as Gemba) explicitly rebutted press reports that the issue had been discussed between US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Japan’s leaders:

Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said Tuesday [July 10] neither he nor Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda spoke with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the issue of the possible state purchase of some of the Senkaku Islands when Clinton visited over the weekend.

Gemba made the remark at a press conference, contradicting a senior US State Department official’s reported remark that Clinton, during the visit, sought Tokyo’s explanation about its plan to put some of the islands under state ownership [5]

Noda’s government may be trying to “nationalize” the crisis in order to avoid “internationalizing” it, ie turning it into a football kicked among the US, Japan and China, to Japan’s detriment.

However, Japan’s pursuit of its own agenda of confrontation with the PRC is also part of a disturbing evolution – or devolution – in the geopolitical order in Asia.

A major justification for the US presence in Asia was the need for the United States to lead the coalition of democracies and not-quite democracies anxious to contain communist China because Japan had forfeited its claim to regional security leadership because of a certain foreign-policy misstep, World War II, that had resulted in Japan attacking, invading and/or occupying virtually every member of what became the postwar anti-China coalition.

The theory was that Japan would stick to its own defensive knitting, as mandated by its so-called peace constitution. The United States would fill the subsequent regional security vacuum with its own doctrine and forces.

Today Japan considers its wartime guilt thoroughly expiated, thank you very much, and wants a free hand in dealing with its economic and military competitor across the East China Sea. The peace constitution is on the way out and it is assumed that Japan is simply a cabinet meeting away from fabricating its sizable store of weapons-grade plutonium into a warhead, plunking it atop one of the rockets it developed as part of its otherwise unnecessary space program, and declaring itself as a nuclear-weapon power.

The US government would not be pleased at this turn of events, since a primary justification for a near-universal willingness – shared even by China – to keep the United States engaged in the region to a certain extent was the US role in preventing a conventional and nuclear arms race in East Asia.

A Japan with nuclear weapons might recapitulate the unfortunate precedent of Israel – not an obedient client but the tail that wags the dog, placing enormous pressure on the United States to react and accommodate its ally instead of lead it.

Judging from the Senkaku/Diaoyu shenanigans, Japanese governments may be on the way to becoming as willing as recent Israeli governments to engage in brinksmanship driven by domestic politics and by the perception that an atmosphere of perpetual crisis may be the best way to keep the United States engaged in the region on Japan’s terms, and prevent a Sino-American strategic rapprochement that might leave Japan out in the cold.

It can be argued that this policy has already paid the desired dividend.

According to published reports, in 2010 the US administration had privately advised the Japanese government that it would decline to include the Senkaku Islands explicitly in the scope of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. [6]

The Japan Times also noted: “Tokyo may have to take countermeasures in light of China’s increasing activities in the East China Sea, according to the sources.”

By a remarkable coincidence, soon after the US administration advised the Japanese government of its lack of interest in starting World War III over the Senkakus, Seiji Maehara not only provoked a regional crisis over the misbehavior of a Chinese fishing vessel near the Senkakus, he flew to Washington to solicit US support for the Japanese position.

There is more than a whiff of suspicion that Maehara did not receive the affirmation he craved, and instead fibbed about the US position, hoping with good reason that the US State Department would not hang him out to dry with a denial. [7]

In any case, after the Chinese disruption of rare-earth exports to Japan, the China-bashing line was unequivocally endorsed by the United States and in October 2010 Secretary Clinton stated publicly and unambiguously in response to a question from Kyodo News Agency, which seemed to have “plant” written all over it, that the Senkakus were covered under Article 5 of the treaty. [8]

Kyodo also served up a 2012 reaffirmation of the treaty coverage of Senkaku by an anonymous “senior” US official, which unfortunately raises the interesting question of why Clinton did not see fit to reiterate her 2010 statement publicly, and Kyodo was called upon to troll the State Department for an anonymous quote instead. [9]

Perhaps, as the 2010 precedent implies, the dispute over the islands has to escalate to a truly interesting and/or scary level to extort a US statement.

The unfortunate difference between 2010 and 2012 is that in 2010 then-prime minister Naoto Kan was clearly uncomfortable with Maehara’s hard line. In 2012, Prime Minister Noda sees a distinct political necessity in pushing the crisis instead of defusing it, as The Australian reported:

“Prime Minister Noda just passed the consumption-tax bill in the lower house, so he needs to demonstrate his political assertiveness,” Kyoto’s Doshisha University professor Koji Murata told The Weekend Australian.

“If the Tokyo Metropolitan Government purchases these islands first, then many people will think the national government has not taken the appropriate responsibility for security measures. I am afraid the situation is now very unstable.”

Mr Noda hails from the conservative wing of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and is something of a China hawk. The rise of China’s military and the belligerence of North Korea have made the Japanese public more receptive to the pro-US defense and security policies favored by Mr Noda and his allies in the DPJ. [10]

The key backstory, of course, was that Tokyo Governor Ishihara threatened to steal Noda’s thunder by his public campaign to buy the Senkakus.

One can make the argument that Ishihara started it, and Noda jumped in simply to keep the situation – and the deterioration in Sino-Japanese ties – from getting out of hand.

However, it appears that, now that the process has started, Noda is unwilling to duplicate Kan’s unedifying cave to China in 2010, and is lining up his forces – including his recalcitrant ambassador to China – to hold the political line.

“The Senkakus” is now a dog whistle in Japanese domestic politics, and in relations with the People’s Republic of China and the United States that Japanese leaders can’t help hearing.

Every time Noda tries to contain the political and diplomatic crisis, Ishihara tries to push him a step further, perhaps offering a foretaste of what Japanese politics will look like as the competition between China and Japan continues to drive Japanese public opinion to the right.

That’s a matter of anxiety for the United States as well as Japan.

On the matter of keeping this an “internal Japanese affair”, Ishihara has made it clear his desire is to drag the United States into the Senkaku/Diaoyu conflict:

“I may advise that if the US does not take an interest in this issue, all of the Pacific Ocean will be lost,” he said … “This is an issue that could determine the fate of all of the Pacific, and not just Japan.” [11]

China, for its part, will probably not be interested in escalating the conflict precipitously.

Right now, it’s the Japanese government that looks idiotic, Japanese elite opinion is divided, and the United States looks extremely uncomfortable with the competition between Prime Minister Noda and Governor Ishihara for the role of most irresponsible imperialistic dingbat.

Now, one expects, is not the time for China to duplicate its 2010 error and attract unfavorable attention to itself by doing something stupid.

So far, the Chinese government has confined itself to spraying diplomatic and journalistic vitriol, and has sent fishery patrol vessels, perhaps commanded by well-briefed and level-headed officers, instead of trawlers skippered by agitated fishermen, to assert PRC sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

In a little-noticed development, Taiwan – which is also vociferous in its claims to the islands – has also dispatched its naval patrol and coast-guard vessels to the contested waters, offering the now-rare sight of a local democracy openly lining up on Beijing’s side against Japan on a foreign-policy issue, thereby adding to Tokyo’s discomfiture.

The People’s Republic of China may very well be interested in stepping up confrontation with Vietnam over the Spratlys. But in the matter of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, it may be content to watch Japan and the United States dig a deeper hole for themselves in the blue-green oceans of the East China Sea.

1.Ukeru Magosaki: Continuing to table Senkaku issue is to Japan’s advantage, Asahi, Jul 11, 2012.
2.Ishihara slams ‘crude’ govt Senkaku purchase plan, Yomiuri, Jul 10, 2012.
3.Under Diplomatic Strain, Japan Recalls Envoy in Dispute With China Over Islands, New York Times, Jul 15, 2012.
4.Envoy ordered to ‘accurately’ convey Japan’s position on Senkakus, Asahi, Jul 16, 2012.
5.Gemba denies talks with US. on Senkakus, Yomiuri, Jul 11, 2012.
6.Japan spins anti-China merry-go-round, Asia Times Online, Oct 29, 2010.
7.Small Islands – Big Problem: Senkaku/Diaoyu and the Weight of History and Geography in China-Japan Relations, Japan Focus, Jan 3, 2011.
8.Lower Temperature of Chinese Relations with Japan and the US. from “Nippy” to “Chilly”, China Matters, Oct 29, 2010.
9.US ‘obliged to defend’ contested Senkaku Islands, The Australian, Jul 11, 2012.
10.Tax hikes small fry to Noda’s game with China over Senkakus, The Australian, Jul 14, 2012.
11.Senkaku purchase plan trumps creation of national political party: Ishihara, Japan Times, Jul 2, 2012.

Peter Lee 

Posted in: Economy, Politics