The Obama Administration’s provocative decision to send a veiled nuclear threat to China with last week’s B-52 flights over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands grew out of a complicated set of issues with deep historic roots. Not the least of them being the Obama Administration’s campaign to preserve U.S. Asia-Pacific hegemony in the era of U.S. decline and China’s rise.
There are few good guys in this dangerous game which brings to mind my first international relations professor’s maxim that the study of international relations is analogous to studying the rules of the game among Mafia families. (Such was the world view taught at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service when Bill Clinton and I were students there.)
The crisis didn’t begin last week. It was initiated a year and a half ago with a very calculated right-wing Japanese semi-coup, reminiscent of those that brought militarists to power there in the early 1930s. In the spring of 2012, Tokyo’s then extreme right-wing Governor Ishihara set the coup in motion by moving to purchase the uninhabited Senkaku/Diayou islands from their private owner. This he understood would lead Beijing to over react, and that in turn would reinforce right-wing and militarist political forces in Japan’s next national election.
As Ishihara anticipated, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda moved to contain the emerging crisis with China by purchasing the rocks on behalf of the Japanese government. China wasn’t amused, and challenged the changed status quo (a thirty year old agreement to shelve the dispute until the future) with changes of its own. More than reiterating what it termed its historic rights to the islands. It then reinforced those claims by sending warships and later jet fighters into the disputed zone. Taiwan also reasserted its claims by sending hundreds of fishing boats into the disputed waters. The Noda government responded by increasing its military presence in the region, and following his subsequent election victory Prime Minister Abe repeated his willingness to go to war to preserve Japanese control of the islands.
To understand why the Obama Administration has responded as it did to the recent Chinese expansion of its “aerial defense zone,” recall that just before Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. military, economic and diplomatic “Pivot” from the Middle East and Central Asia to Asia and the Pacific, Joseph Nye (long a leading figure in the formulation of U.S. Asia-Pacific policies) wrote “Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world’s population and half of the world’s economic output. America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks and American military power provides that framework.” Challenged by U.S.-Chinese competitive interdependence, the Obama Administration’s China policy, like that of its predecessors, is simultaneous containment and engagement.
So, in the context of U.S. commitments to reinforce its Asia-Pacific hegemony (a project launched with the1898 Spanish-American War and the resulting conquests of the Philippines and Guam, along with the annexation of Hawaii,) the Obama Administration is not only driving an arms race with China and sparking one across the Asia-Pacific region, it is expanding its network of foreign military bases to more fully encircle China and negotiating the strategic TPP free trade agreement designed to marginalize and gain leverage over China.
Central to this strategy is reinforcing Japan the “keystone” of U.S. regional hegemony by encouraging the Abe government’s increasingly militarized and confrontational policies. Contrary to its “Peace Constitution,” Japan is already the world’s sixth greatest military spender, and even with its economy stalled, Abe is pressing increased military spending. A new National Security Council has been created soon to be augmented by a new state secrets law feared by the press and those monitoring Fukushima fall out. And most troubling to the neighbors of a nation that has yet to fully acknowledge its wartime aggressions, Abe has made the personnel changes needed to fulfill his commitment to revise the official interpretation of the” Peace Constitution.” When implemented this spring, almost all limits on Japan’s war renouncing basic law will be removed.
The Obama Administration has responded to this escalation of tensions between Tokyo and Beijing In the context of China’s rise and the consequent implicit threats to U.S. regional hegemony. In October 2012 and again last month, even if its neutrality in terms of their competing territorial claims, the U.S. warned that if it comes to war, Washington will be bound by the secretly imposed U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty to fight on Japan’s side. Why? Because, in the tradition of falling dominoes, it believes that the region-wide alliance system that has been the foundation of U.S. Asia-Pacific hegemony since 1945 would quickly unravel if it failed to fulfill its treaty commitments to Japan. The expectation is that with U.S. backing less assured, ASEAN nations and South Korea which are increasingly dependent economically on China would more willingly kowtow to Beijing. Hence the November 26 veiled nuclear threat..
China, of course, is no innocent. In what may have been a serious miscalculation. when it declared its expanded aerial defense zone, the claim was not limited to the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks. It included 1,160 square miles of ocean and reefs claimed by South Korea, including a rock known to Koreans as Leodo. This is not winning China friends in Korea, which again is finding itself caught between its traditional enemies Japan and China.
There is also the matter of Beijing’s much contested claim to 80% of the mineral rich and strategically vital South China Sea, which has led to militarized tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines. This, in turn, provided the opening for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton up the ante by declaring the region’s sea lanes to be of “vital interest” to the United States. Beijing has, indeed, massively increased spending to build a blue water navy, is beginning to compete with U.S. in high-tech weaponry and cyber warfare capabilities, and is “modernizing” its nuclear arsenal (about the size of France’s and Israel’s) with its commitments to its no first strike doctrine increasingly questioned. China is also pursuing its alternative to Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement in negotiations designed to accelerate the integrations of ASEAN nations into China’s sphere – not entirely unrelated to its tradition of tributary empire.
Some have suggested that one way out of this dangerous morass would be for Japan and China to turn to the International Court of Justice, but neither nation is inclined to do so. Japan fears losing control of the strategically important contested Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks, and China isn’t inclined to seek arbitration with Japan when, at the same time, it is refusing the Philippines’ initiative to arrange arbitration over contested Spratly Island rocks which Beijing has occupied militarily and which are considerably closer to the Philippines than to China.
In these contexts we need to stress alternatives to increasingly dangerous Asia-Pacific military tensions. This will be the subject of local and national forums being initiated by the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific. Among the alternatives that immediately occur are:
• The U.S. must pivot diplomatically, not militarily.
• It is past time to pursue common/human security diplomacy – what the American Friends Service Committee terms “Shared Security”— to resolve the increasingly dangerous Asia-Pacific tensions, possibly via Six Party Talks initially established to resolve the Korean crisis. That’s how the Cold War came to a close before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
• Plans for massive increases in U.S. military spending to reinforce the Pivot with an expanded Navy must be challenged. Congressional hearings scheduled for early next year, designed to inflate the threat posed by China, provide a focal point for such a challenge. With schools being closed and needy families losing Section 8 housing across the country, the last thing we should be doing is building new aircraft carriers and $1.5 trillion F-35s.
• Instead of making veiled nuclear threats, the U.S. should be stanching pressures for nuclear weapons proliferation by fulfilling its Article VI commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: the obligation to engage in good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons
• Finally, we urgently need to act in solidarity with Japanese peace and democracy activists as they challenge Abe’s campaign to restore many of Japan’s pre-war systems, prioritizing militarism over diplomacy in its relations with China, subverting the Peace Constitution, and to increasing military spending, while simultaneously refusing to fully acknowledge that Japan’s Fifteen-Year War (1931-45) and wartime sexual slavery were criminal acts of aggression.
Submitted Nov. 27, 2013
*Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Peace and Economic Security Program and convener of the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific.