Saturday, September 29, 2012

China pushes back against Japan

[This is my September 28, 2012 article for Asia Times Online, with a correction explained in the endnote.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

China's strategy on the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkakus as Japan calls them, appears to reflect careful calculation of risk and reward by the Beijing leadership, rather than the spasm of counterproductive nationalism sometimes described in the Western press. As a matter of equity, China has a pretty strong claim on the Senkakus. As a matter of geopolitics, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is not holding as weak a hand as one might think.

This is something that the administration of US President Barack Obama, to its chagrin, knows well.

Careful readers of The Japan Times (presumably including strategists in Beijing) may remember this passage from August 17, 2010:
The Obama administration has decided not to state explicitly that the Senkaku Islands, which are under Japan's control but claimed by China, are subject to the Japan-US security treaty, in a shift from the position of George W Bush, sources said Monday. The administration of Barack Obama has already notified Japan of the change in policy, but Tokyo may have to take countermeasures in light of China's increasing activities in the East China Sea, according to the sources. [1]
The Japanese "countermeasure" occurred less than three weeks later, on September 8, 2010, when Japan's ambitious minister of the interior, Seiji Maehara, instructed the coast guard to turn over the captain of a Chinese fishing boat to prosecutors for trial under Japanese law for ramming a pair of coast-guard vessels while trying to evade them near the Senkakus.

The rest is "contain China" history, as the spat escalated to a crisis in Sino-Japanese relations and lip service in favor of Japan's rights to the Senkakus became an important element of US East Asian policy and justification for the Obama administration's pivot into Asia.

Discreet silence also played a role, when the United States declined to contradict Maehara (by this time foreign minister) when he claimed, perhaps untruthfully, that he had obtained assurances that the Senkakus were covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty. [2] [3]

However, US enthusiasm for using the Senkaku dispute as a useful diplomatic lever appears to be reaching its limit.

Two major US dailies, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, recently weighed in with reviews of the history of the islands that may cause the Japanese government some heartburn. Nicholas Kristof turned his NYT column over to a Taiwanese scholar, Han Yishaw, to lay out China's historical claims to the islands. [4]

The LA Times' Barbara Demick also looked skeptically at the Japanese provenance of the Senkakus with a piece describing the research of scholar Unryu Suganuma, who found several references in Japanese government documents describing the Chinese character of the islands. [5]

A glance at a map confirms the impression that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are in Taiwan's backyard, and Japanese efforts to claim them are almost as risible as China's infamous South China Sea-swallowing nine-dash line.

Japan's claim to incontestable sovereignty over the islands goes back no further than their seizure, together with Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands, from the Qing empire in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, and not being forced to give them back in the post-World War II muddle.

The "spoils of war" argument, aka we got 'em and by golly we're gonna keep 'em approach, is an awkward one for Japan. It would dearly like to get back four islands on the southern end of an archipelago stretching between the Kamchatka Peninsula and Hokkaido, which are now occupied by Russia as heir to the Soviet Union's spoils of war.

The short form of this imbroglio is the "Kurile Islands dispute", but the two southernmost islands are more Hokkaido-esque, and Russia has signaled a willingness to give them up. The two more northerly islands are bona fide members of the Kurile chain. Russia wants to keep them. Japan wants them. Awkwardly for Japan, in 1956 it promised to surrender its claims to these two islands if a formal peace treaty were concluded.

Given this unfavorable position, Japan must contest the "spoils of war" argument and rely on emotive, historical claims to the islands - the exact opposite of its position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The "exercised sovereignty" argument also provides no comfort to Japan in its dispute with South Korea over the Dokdo Islands (Takeshima to the Japanese). After the conclusion of World War II, the United States supported the historical Japanese claims to the islands but declined to put their defense within the scope of the US-Japan Joint Security Treaty.

Since 1991, the main island has been home to a family of South Korean octopus fishermen and about three dozen Republic of Korea Coast Guard, fishery, and lighthouse personnel. President Lee Myung-bak has visited, as well as thousands of South Korean tourists who take a US$250 ferry trip to the island.

In July 2008, the administration of then-US president George W Bush acknowledged South Korean control over the islands by designating them as ROK territory.

Therefore, Japan's attempts to hold on to the Senkakus on the principle that their effective de facto control, by itself, constitutes de jure sovereignty undermines its arguments on Dokdo and the Kuriles. This inconsistency, one might assume, does not make an ironclad case to the United States to encourage a regional confrontation over Japanese dismay over Chinese pretensions to the rocks.

This year, the Japanese government is also facing a cannier and better-prepared PRC government than the flustered and panicky regime it confronted in 2010.

At that time, Beijing overreacted verbally and administratively and made the mistake of intervening as a government to disrupt trade with Japan to retaliate for the threat to put the skipper of the offending Chinese fishing vessel, Captain Zhan Qixiong, on trial in a Japanese court.

It tried to package its moves to pressure Japan as enforcement of trade regulations, particularly in the wild and wooly rare-earths business, but this was seen as a distinction without a difference, and the PRC was widely condemned by foreign governments and media. As a public relations bonus, China also stood accused of threatening the free world's full enjoyment of iPads and green energy and, indeed, attempting to bring America's high-tech defense industries to heel by exploiting its dominance over precious rare-earth oxides.

The ruckus over export and import restrictions - and the possibility of retaliation - also threatened China's access to the global free-trade regime, a critical matter given the its reliance on exports for growth and social stability. Beyond the threat of bilateral retaliation, there was the possibility that the issue would internationalize, with some sort of coordinated sanction against China.

This year, things are different.

When the Japanese right wing (which feels it got shortchanged by government appeasers who released Captain Zhan in 2010) served up its latest provocation - the campaign by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara to purchase the Senkakus - the central government tried to defuse the situation by purchasing the islands itself.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government decided to make an issue of it, apparently to demonstrate to Japan's elite the high cost of pursuing an agenda of confrontation with the PRC over the pretext of the Senkakus.

As usual, Beijing is staying away from anything that might be construed as a direct military threat to the Japanese forces arrayed near the Senkakus.

Indeed, its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (originally Ukraine's Varyag, then repurposed as a floating casino and now destined to become an instantaneous and expensive artificial reef if it ever attempts naval operations against the United States or Japan), entered service on September 25. However, it is not going anywhere near the Senkakus and will need years and billions of yuan before it is a viable military air-operations platform.

Out of consideration for its key North Asia ally, the United States has declined to follow through on its previous intention to treat the Senkakus as it did the Dokdo and place them outside the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta affirmed that an attack on the Senkakus would evoke a US military response on behalf of Japan.

However, the fact that Beijing apparently has no intention of attacking the Senkakus has understandably given more weight to Panetta's statement that the United States has no position on the conflicting sovereignty claims and hopes that the Chinese and Japanese governments will work out the issue peaceably.

This time around, the Chinese government is not only avoiding inflammatory moves that would internationalize the dispute; in important ways, it is even de-bilateralizing it. In contrast to 2010, China is not directly interfering in foreign trade with Japan. Instead, Japanese interests inside China have been threatened directly by Chinese citizens, albeit egged on by their government.

This is a distinction that has been carefully drawn in Sino-Japanese confrontations over the past century and is probably well understood by current strategists.

Before World War II, "boycott" was an all-purpose descriptor for two different activities: what we would now call a popular boycott of people declining to buy certain goods, and also what is now called official government economic sanctions instituted by fiat.

It was a matter of some anxiety for the Chinese government to draw a line between the two, particularly during the "Great Boycott" in 1931 protesting the Japanese incursion into Manchuria (whose anniversary by coincidence occurred on September 19, at the height of this year's anti-Japanese rumpus), since the Japanese government at the time was inclined to engage in real warfare to retaliate for what it deemed economic warfare by China.

Today, with the anti-Japanese measures framed as a popular boycott, as long as the Chinese demonstrations stay away from red lines as defined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations - which obligates the PRC to uphold the inviolability of the premises, personnel and property, both official and personal, of the Japanese diplomatic mission - then offenses against Japanese persons and property fall into the black hole of Chinese domestic civil and criminal law.

Ministry of Commerce spokesman Shen Danyang carefully made the distinction in a statement to reporters on September 19 (in a rather garbled translation):
Shen Danyang released three-point statement, the Ministry of Commerce strongly supports legitimate, rational, patriotic action, firmly opposed to all illegal thwarted grab [of the Diaoyutai Islands]; the legitimate rights and interests of foreign-invested enterprises in China are protected by law. China is a country ruled by law, the legitimate rights and interests of foreign-invested enterprises are protected by Chinese laws. Third, I believe that the vast majority of people can be calm, rational, legal and orderly express their demands. Foreign-invested enterprises, such as suffered violations should seek help in a timely manner to the relevant departments of the public security departments, including the business sector. [6]
For the historically minded, this allows the Chinese government to present the demonstrations as the spiritual heir to the series of protests against Japanese aggression that occurred between 1908 and 1931.

And if the Japanese government itself wants to reawaken memories of its detested extraterritorial privileges in China under the Qing and Kuomintang regimes, it is welcome to call on the PRC government to moderate the behavior of the demonstrators, and implore the Chinese courts to improve their efforts to protect the persons and property of Japanese citizens inside the PRC.

The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbum did its best to rekindle the spirit of 2010, if not 1931, mischaracterizing the Ministry of Commerce's statement of support for private boycotts as "economic sanctions", as in "China suggests economic sanctions over Senkakus". [7]

In the same article, Asahi also tried to get some geopolitical mileage by playing the rare-earths card with an anxious description of an announcement of restructuring in the Chinese rare-earths industry, while admitting the changes had long been expected, but then tried to have it both ways:
China Central Television said September 19 that the Ministry of Land and Resources will slash the number of companies licensed to mine rare-earth elements by 40%, from 113 to 67.

That policy was published six days earlier and the companies to be affected were informed in August. In addition, cutting the number of mining companies is not expected to directly affect rare-earth exports to Japan.

However, the state-run broadcaster's report could be taken as a warning of stronger measures against the Japanese government for its purchase of three of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from a private owner on September 11.
Actually, the Chinese government has done a pretty good job of erecting a defense against the accusation of rare-earth economic warfare this time, as the lead from an article by David Stanway for Reuters in July demonstrates:
China, the world's biggest producer of rare-earth metals, is likely to turn an importer of the vital industrial ingredients by as early as 2014 as it boosts consumption in domestic high-tech industries rather than just shipping raw material overseas. [8]
The "economic warfare" dog doesn't appear to be hunting internationally, since boycotts against Japanese companies inside China will be just as harmful to the Chinese economy as they are to Japan's.

Perhaps the most remarkable canine element of the current Senkaku/Diaoyu dustup, however, is the dog that didn't bark. Or, to be more accurate, the two dogs that didn't bark and the one that did ... but on China's behalf.

One would have thought that the PRC's tussle with Japan would have been the perfect opportunity for Beijing's two major South China Sea adversaries, the Philippines and Vietnam, to put the boot in, to draw attention to China's habitual high-handedness in island matters and strengthen the argument for the US-led pivot. That hasn't happened, perhaps because the United States has taken itself out of the game by limiting its involvement to exclusively military scenarios against the Senkakus.

The Philippine and Vietnamese governments have been relatively silent on the issue, perhaps because of some special Chinese attention.

To smooth over the disagreements with the Philippines, some high-profile emollient was personally applied by Vice-President Xi Jinping to the Philippine interior secretary in Beijing on September 21. In a practical and obliging vein - and in contrast to the huffing and puffing over the Scarborough Shoal - the Chinese government agreed to reschedule repayment of a US$500 million loan for a canceled rail project and discuss selling its stake in the Philippine national power grid, and promised to go easy on inspection of banana imports. [9]

Xi was also present at the China-ASEAN trade expo in Guangxi. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung attended and for whatever economic or geopolitical reason, China-bashing apparently was not on the menu there either, as Voice of Vietnam reported:
Mr Dung's participation in CAEXPO and CABIS [China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit] showed Vietnam's keen interest in promoting friendly neighborliness and comprehensive cooperation with China and encouraging its businesses to seek investment opportunities in China and expand economic, trade and investment cooperation with Chinese border provinces. [10]
As for Taiwan, it sowed confusion in the ranks of China-bashers and, one expects, a certain dismay in the hearts of Japan's diplomats by sending 40 fishing vessels and 12 patrol boats into Senkaku waters to engage in a water-cannon fight with the Japan Coast Guard, thus muddying the heretofore pristine narrative of Japanese maritime professionals vs mainland Chinese aggressors. The Telegraph posted video of the thrilling display. [11]

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, for whom the Senkakus has been a signature issue throughout his career, was clearly behind the provocation. In fact, it was alleged that the confrontation had been carefully scripted among Taiwan, the PRC and Japan to make sure things didn't get out of hand. [12]

One can speculate as to whether President Ma's main motivation was to provide aid and comfort to his political supporters in Beijing or he felt compelled to make a protest against Japan for nationalizing the Senkakus and, in the process, ignoring his political interests and sensibilities.

In any case, at the end of the day Japan found itself with a less-than-slam-dunk case for the Senkakus in the court of (non-Japanese) opinion, backed with limited and conditional US support, receiving little if any enthusiastic backing from its neighbors, and taking it on the chin financially from the anti-Japanese demonstrations inside China.

With this context, it looks as if the PRC regime decided after the 2010 debacle that, next time the Senkaku issue surfaced, it was going to be ready with an integrated strategy of mass mobilization, economic harassment, avoidance of direct government-to-government economic and military confrontation, a regional charm offensive, and an expectation of US forbearance.

This appears to be a more plausible scenario for the current Senkaku dynamic than the dissident and China-bashing-fueled claim that the PRC ginned up the dispute to distract attention from domestic political unrest in the run-up to the 18th Communist Party Congress and leadership succession.

Allowing large crowds of disgruntled Chinese citizens to flood on to the streets - quite a few of them waving pictures of Mao Zedong in an implied expression of solidarity with purged "Red Mayor" Bo Xilai and a rebuke to his current persecutors in the power structure, and others willing to engage in criminal behavior and mix it up with security forces in order to make a spectacle of their atavistic nationalist fervor - is not a recipe for political calm.

It is more likely that the regime decided to roll the dice and enable widespread demonstrations in pursuit of its geostrategic strategy against Japan, and breathed a sigh of relief when things didn't get completely out of hand.

In other words, the viability of the Chinese-mass-opinion weapon - which such outlets as Global Times have been touting for the past few years - albeit applied in carefully controlled anti-Japanese doses, has been demonstrated to the Japanese government and business community.

Therefore, it isn't too surprising that Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Chikai Kawai has gone to Beijing to try to ease the dispute. The Chinese Foreign Ministry position is that Japan has to "make strong efforts to improve Sino-Japanese relations", though one has to wonder what those efforts are supposed to involve.

Those "efforts" probably include a Japanese undertaking to coordinate and consult with China on regional affairs instead of maintaining a united front with Washington on matters related to the US pivot and trade blocs. Whether a geopolitical and economic reset can be negotiated, let alone survive the expected change of national administration in Japan - and the Senkakus can fade into deserved insignificance - remains to be seen.

Endnote: After carefully discriminating between "popular" boycotts and official economic sanctions in my discussion of the Chinese approach, I gormlessly and incorrectly used the term "economic sanctions" in my summary of China's current strategy in the 7th paragraph from the end.  I've corrected it to "economic harassment" here, and asked ATOl to make a correction in the article posted on their website.
1. U.S. fudges Senkaku security pact status, Japan Times, Aug 17, 2010.
2. Clinton says disputed islands part of Japan-US pact: Maehara, Energy Daily, Sep 24, 2010.
3. Japan poured oil on troubled waters, Asia Times Online, Oct 2, 2010.
4. The Inconvenient Truth Behind the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, The New York Times, Sep 19, 2012.
5. The specks of land at the center of Japan-China islands dispute, Los Angeles Times, Sep 24, 2012.
6. Ministry of Commerce: "Share island" farce damage to Sino-Japanese economic and trade, Stock Market Today, Sep 24, 2012.
7. China suggests economic sanctions over Senkakus, Asahi Shimbun, Sep 20, 2012.
8. China reshapes role in rare earths, could be importer by 2014, Reuters, Jul 10, 2012.
9. Phl, China drop North Rail, PhilStar, Sep 26, 2012.
10. PM Dung attends China-ASEAN Expo, Voice of Vietnam, Sep 21, 2012.
11. Japanese and Taiwanese ships in water cannon battle over Senkaku Islands dispute, The Telegraph, Sep 25, 2012.
12. Ma lauds fishermen in islands protest, Taipei Times, Sep 27, 2012.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

China Test Drives Senkaku Strategy

...While Events in Benghazi and Beijing Show Limits of Soft Power

[This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form at Asia Times Online.  It can be reposted if ATOl is acknowledged and a link provided.]

It has been a rough couple of weeks for the international neo-liberal adventure.

The most obvious bump in the road occurred in the Middle East. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) facilitated deposition of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was supposed to be the "shake the Etch-a-Sketch" moment (Mitt Romney campaign-speak for wiping away accumulated negative memories and replacing them with new, favorable impressions) that established the United States as the principled champion of democracy and popular aspirations in the Arab world.

It turned out that plenty of people (and, apparently, at least one government) still remembered the whole invasion of Iraq/support of Israel against the Palestinians/backstopping Gulf autocrats/we were for Hosni Mubarak before we were against him/magillah.

On the anniversary of 9/11 and on the pretext of outrage at the crudely provocative video Innocence of Mohammed, angry mobs appeared before US embassies and consulates throughout the region and trashed numerous US-related businesses.

To make matters worse, in Benghazi, the epicenter for love of all things American in the Arab Middle East, the demonstrations coincided with a ferocious assault on the US consulate that overwhelmed both the consulate's security and whatever resources the local authorities could bring to bear. The US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans perished in the attack.

The Libyan national government put aside, at least publicly, whatever differences it has with the fractious lords of Benghazi, apologized profusely in the name of the Libyan people, and obligingly arrested 50 suspects.

The Egyptian government, less eager to present itself as the protector of American interests, physical and otherwise, was more laggard in its condemnation of the outrages committed against the US embassy in Cairo, thereby earning it a pointed rebuke from President Barack Obama.

The less obvious but far more significant setback occurred in China.

On the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, and on the pretext of outrage at a crudely provocative purchase of the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands by the Japanese government, angry mobs appeared before Japanese embassies and consulates throughout the country and trashed numerous Japan-affiliated businesses.

Fortunately, Chinese security kept the demonstrators on a tight leash for the most part, and no outrage comparable to the Benghazi murders occurred.

Both the Middle East and Chinese events send important signals to Western policymakers. Hopefully, these signals are getting through. But if they are, that is no thanks to the media and the public affairs commentariat, whose first priority appears to be to denigrate, delegitimize, and - dangerously - downplay the significance of these demonstrations.

As to the Benghazi incident, the University of Michigan's Juan Cole has established himself as something of a pro bono goodwill ambassador for the new Libyan government. He appears eager to promote the success of the new Libyan order to vindicate his support for the NATO-led intervention and promote it as a precedent for intervention in other places, like Syria.

To that end, he journeyed to Libya this summer to counter arguments that the deposition of Gaddafi had created a power vacuum that had been filled with all sorts of unsavory, heavily armed militia.

When the Benghazi outrage occurred, Professor Cole once again urged Western opinion to put it in the proper perspective:
What happened in Benghazi was the action of a tiny fringe, sort of like Ku Klux Klan violence in the US. It isn't typical of the new Libya, and Benghazi is not a lawless or militia-ridden city. [1]
France's Le Figaro and France24 looked into matters a little more deeply and painted a picture that looked something like chaos in a...well, in a lawless, militia-ridden city. It appears that the first responders to the attack were Benghazi's apparently ubiquitous militias, and even they were taken aback by the violence of the situation:
[A] fighter with the Shuhada Libya al-Hurra brigade, who declined to be named, said he witnessed the assault on the US consulate and he was sure it was a planned attack.

"They knew the embassy [consulate] very well. They came with heavy weapons and they overtook the place very fast, it was very quick. You can't do something like that without planning," he said.

... he was unable to get near the consulate premises due to the heavy fighting Tuesday night. Instead his group of fighters were stuck a few blocks away from the by-now burning building, vainly awaiting orders from their commanders. [2]
Ambassador Stevens suffered a fatal case of smoke inhalation at the embassy. He was transported to the hospital in extremis by some civilians who discovered him while rummaging through the debris.

Other embassy and security personnel withdrew to another location about a mile away - the "safe house". To evacuate them, the United States and the new Libya turned to US Marines and more Libyan militiamen, this time from the Dernaa Brigade, flying them into Benghazi from Tripoli. Nevertheless, three more Americans died.

Contrary to Cole's assertion, the correct analogy for the Salafists does not appear to be the Ku Klux Klan. For one thing, to my recollection the Ku Klux Klan has never mounted a successful four-and-a-half-hour heavy weapons assault against a well-defended target in the heart of a major city.

Another issue is the demographics.

Cole points out that only 28% of Bengahazis have a favorable opinion of the Salafis, versus 60% for the United States. He is apparently citing an IRI poll from last autumn (which also pointed out that Benghazis' affection for the United States pales before their love of democracy powerhouse Qatar, which booked a 94% approval rating).

Unfortunately, a 28% favorability rating for a relatively extreme religious and social philosophy translates into about 100,000 adults in a city of 700,000 and is not the recipe for political irrelevance.

For purposes of comparison, there are fewer than 10,000 acknowledged members of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Roll in the membership of all the myriad splintered hardcore white supremacist groups, add their on-line sympathizers and fellow travelers: maybe 150,000 to 200,000 in a nation of 314 million people. It would be safe to say that white supremacists today enjoy a favorability rate of perhaps 0.1%.

The Salafis' 28% favorability in Benghazi, interestingly, is in the same ballpark for the current favorability of America's politically powerful Tea Party movement. (Favorability for the Muslim Brotherhood clocked in at a similar level, 31%, in the IRI poll.)

A more recent Oxford Research poll of the whole country found only 29% of respondents in that suspicious and fractured land wanted to live in a democracy (presumably because national elections could deliver national dominance to partisans of the wrong city/region/clan) and 35% expressed preference for rule by a strongman.

Add to the political mix the finding that 16% of Libyans stated they were willing to take up arms to advance their political beliefs. The pollsters helpfully calculated:
This would mean that around 630,000 people were potential fighters, in addition to the 280,000 who previously took up arms. [3]
Regionalism, alienation, distrust, militancy, access to weapons ... The correct framing for Libya is not burgeoning democracy with a KKK problem. It is "powderkeg with a hundred fuses waiting to be lit".

Boxing in the Salafists is a messy, dangerous, and polarizing exercise. That it has gone as well as it has is a tribute to rare US persistence and skillful execution of a nation building objective.

To argue that the Salafists represent merely a marginalized fringe is perhaps a useful exercise in spin to sell Libya to the US public as a suitable destination for American blood, treasure, and attention, but is not as useful to policymakers - or politicians or the public trying to make sense of things if and when the Libyan situation blows up again.

A similar dynamic is unfolding in East Asia, this time involving two nuclear weapons powers (one declared, the People's Republic of China, another on the threshold of weaponization, Japan) 1.5 billion people and the economic future of the planet.

In the Western media a considerable, perhaps excessive, amount of time and energy has been spent denigrating the anti-Japanese demonstrations for their allegedly unspontaneous character. Chinageeks' Charles Custer perhaps went the furthest, titling his post on the subject, "China's Anti-Japan Riots Are State-Sponsored. Period." [4]

He justified his assertion with the declaration that no Chinese security forces were present at the demonstrations, indicating that the demonstrators were docile stooges marching against Japanese facilities on regime orders.

This was demonstrably incorrect, as photos showing protesters mixing it up with security forces in Shenzhen and Chengdu indicate, and the comments section contains some unedifying wrangling between Custer and some of his commentators. [5]

That the anti-Japanese demonstrations are condoned and facilitated by the Chinese regime is incontrovertible. Applications to demonstrate were expeditiously approved, making it safe, easy and convenient for people who were encouraged to leave their places of employment to join the crowds.

Caixin reported this amusing exchange between one of their reporters and police at a demo:
A nearby street was filled with police, most of them relaxed. When I photographed the protest, he smiled and said: "You can join the protest."
"Can I? Won't I be pulled out?" I asked.
"Since it is me who let you in, who dares pull you out!" he said.
"But I haven't applied for permission," I said.
"It is OK. The organizer has applied," he said.
A middle-aged policeman also encouraged me to join the parade.
"Can I shout 'Punish corruptions'?" I inquired.
"No, you can't!" the middle-aged officer said, suddenly seriously.
"Only slogans concerned with Diaoyu Islands are allowed," a young policeman chimed in. [6]
However, trying to parse the issue of the degree of sincerity of the demonstrations would appear to be futile. It is quite plausible that the offer of a day off, a ride downtown, and a free lunch-box could induce quite a few Chinese to join an anti-Japanese demonstration.

But that's only because anti-Japan sentiment is already rife within China and confrontation with Japan arouses genuine passion for many Chinese. In several cities, the police and paramilitaries had their hands full trying to keep the demonstrations against Japanese businesses in bounds.

China Daily and a Japanese think-tank, Genron NPO, have conducted an annual survey of Chinese and Japanese attitudes for the past eight years. This year, 31% of Chinese respondents held a favorable opinion of Japan, with the unfavorable north of 60% (the Japanese breakout toward China is even worse, with favorable of only 15.6% and the unfavorable probably over 80%). [7]

A quick scamper through some dissident blogs on Weibo did not turn up any posts along the lines of "Stop picking on Japan and go back home, you stupid demonstrators". One may speculate that few dissidents, in addition to his or her other worries, are interested in enduring an orchestrated web-wide accusation of treason to the Han race.

Instead, there seems to be a veiled hope that, since the Chinese government has allowed people to get on the street en masse to abuse Japan, perhaps the demonstrators will start shouting anti-government slogans as well, and the mass anti-regime movement that the dissidents have never been able to kickstart themselves will grow out of the anti-Japanese protests.

That doesn't seem to have happened.

The demonstrators appear to have the mindset of a violence-prone crowd of soccer fans presented with irresistible and vulnerable targets. They displayed little interest in going beyond the easy exercise of anti-Japanese prejudice for the life-changing perils of turning their ire on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The preoccupation with attempts to prove the insincerity of the anti-Japanese demonstrations by demonstrating their government links is, I believe, a dangerous distraction.

Because it seems to imply that, if the demonstrations are government-organized/facilitated/supported/condoned, they can be dismissed and, if the demonstrations are removed from the equation, the PRC's strategy on the Senkakus/Diaoyu can be dismissed as a futile exercise in Astroturfing (simulation of a grass-roots movement).

This, I think, draws from the preconception that impassioned popular demonstrations against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, in Russia, and in China are the only ones that matter, and if they advance the agenda of authoritarian actors, they can be ignored.

However, the regime's intention is not to try to manufacture a false Chinese simulacrum of Tahrir Square.

I believe the CCP is sending a series of messages to Japan and the United States via these demonstrations, and to send the message it is important that everybody is aware that they actually were state-managed.

First, the CCP is determined not to back down in the Senkaku/Diaoyu conflict. Although Japanese Prime Minister Noda stepped in to purchase the islands as a conciliatory measure in order to short circuit a carnival of provocation planned by Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, the CCP whipped up anti-Japanese sentiment and demonstrations on the announcement of the purchase regardless, in order to demonstrate its deterrent capabilities in economic and diplomatic warfare or, in old-fashioned terms, fire a shot across Japan's bow.

Second, China does not intend to provoke a military confrontation at the islands that would viscerally alarm Japan's populace and elite, and allow Japan to deploy its unanswerable geostrategic advantage: the military alliance with the United States. China's provocative movements in the waters around the islands are carried out by maritime surveillance vessels and fishing boats, not the navy.

Instead, Japan will be confronted at its most vulnerable point: the economic interests of its corporations and the well-being of its citizens inside China.

Third, the CCP is conveying that it can manage the unrest that goes hand-in-hand with a mass campaign, and will be prepared to escalate the damage it inflicts on Japanese businesses in China as needed despite the losses suffered by the Chinese economy and Chinese employment.

Finally, the ultimate purpose of the furor over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is to demonstrate that Japan must rely on accommodation with China, as well as its alliance with the United States, to achieve peace and prosperity.

With this background, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's recent remarks in Japan can be taken as an acknowledgement - at least for now - of the limits of American power and the challenges facing the pivot into Asia:
The United States, in all cases of disputed territory involving Pacific waters, urges "calm and restraint on all sides," the secretary said.

"United States policy with regards to these islands is well known, and obviously, we stand by our treaty obligations," Panetta said. "But the United States, as a matter of policy, does not take a position with regards to competing sovereignty claims." [8]
In other words, the threshold for active and open US involvement in the controversy is a military clash over the islands between Japan and China. Short of that ...

Panetta's remarks are not a matter of throwing Japan under the bus, but they do reflect the reality that there are limits to what the United States can, will, and wishes to do about the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. And they reinforce the signals sent by the Chinese demonstrations.

It looks like the Japanese government - at least the current, relatively cautious and non-confrontational government, which may not be in power very much longer - got the message:
"We do not want anything that would affect the general bilateral relations between Japan and China," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said at a press conference Tuesday. He emphasized that the government has paid special consideration to China, in putting three of the five islets under state control.

The government will not construct any port facilities as shelters for fishing boats or improve the lighthouse, but keep the three islets as they are, at least for the time being. [9]
It would appear that, at least for the time being, China has come up with a diplomatically and economically costly but effective pushback to the cycle of provocation that was driving the Senkaku/Diaoyu confrontation. If and when the Noda government falls and is replaced by a new hardline Japanese government with a mandate for confrontation with China, the US will be trying to hold it back, not egg it on.

The anti-Japanese formula may also be applied to dealings with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea disputes.

In other words, China's anti-Japanese demonstrations are not a pathetic charade. They are dead serious - and successful.

1. Romney Poses, as Militants Burn Benghazi Consulate, killing Ambassador, 3 staffers, & Demonstrate in Cairo, over Islamophobic Film, Informed Comment, Sep 12, 2012.
2. Mystery surrounds attack on Benghazi's US consulate, France24, Sep 18, 2012.
3. University of Oxford: National Public Opinion Poll of Libya, Business Journals, Feb 14, 2012.
4. China's Anti-Japan Riots Are State-Sponsored. Period., ChinaGreeks, Sep 17, 2012.
5. Anti-Japanese protests in China turn violent, Journal Star, Sep 19, 2012.
6. Closer Look: How a Protest in Beijing Stuck to the Script, Caxin, Sep 17, 2012.
7. Sino-Japan ties important, but not satisfactory, China Daily, Jun 20, 2012.
8. Panetta Addresses Osprey, Territory Disputes in Japan Visit, US Department of Defense, Sep 17, 2012.
9. Govt drew up multiple plans for Senkaku, Yomiuri, Sep 13, 2012.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Clinton's strained swan song in China

[My current piece for Asia Times.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently paid what is expected to be her final official visit to Beijing. She received a stern reception from Chinese officialdom, including the official media, and also suffered what appears to have been a personal rebuke.

Clinton's press entourage was abuzz concerning the cancellation of a meeting with Chinese president-in-waiting Xi Jinping.

Of course, it is possible that the excuses that circulated through the press corps - that Xi had a scheduling conflict and/or a bad  back - were the truth. Xi also canceled a meeting with the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong. [1] However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have decided that Clinton's last visit was the final and most appropriate opportunity to administer a snub - and a message.

Per her position as secretary of state, Clinton is entitled to meet with her opposite number in Beijing, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. However, because of a variety of circumstances both historical (the importance of the relationship between the United States and China, Clinton's special status as spouse of a former US president) and immediate (the fraught current state of Sino-US relations, the fact that this is probably Clinton's last official visit to China), she also met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

From an official perspective, there are no grounds for Clinton to feel snubbed on this trip, and also from an official perspective, there are no grounds for Clinton to meet with Xi Jinping. After all, Clinton and her team are on the way out, regardless of whether President Barack Obama wins re-election or is replaced in the White House by Mitt Romney.

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is not yet in the office of president of China. That is still Hu Jintao's job. Perhaps Hu did not take pleasure in the idea that the United States was going around him to cultivate relations with Xi before Hu had vacated his presidential chair.

Possibly, the Chinese leadership also felt that Clinton wanted to meet with Xi to pad her Rolodex so she can claim that she has guanxi to burn with the new generation of China's leaders as she embarks on her post-secretary of state career as politician, pundit, think-tank leader, and/or corporate adviser.

If so, the CCP could have used cancellation of the meeting with Xi to send a message (to paraphrase the immortal smackdown of Dan Quayle by the late US senator Lloyd Bentsen during a vice-presidential debate many years ago): "I knew Henry Kissinger ... And, Secretary Clinton, you are no Henry Kissinger."

Actually, Xi Jinping does know Henry Kissinger (who is, by the way, still alive) and has met him more than once. Xi met with Kissinger and a host of other retired US State Department worthies during his trip to the United States in February. But he also met with him one-on-one in Beijing several weeks before his trip to send the message that China was ready to "seize the day, seize the hour", to promote bilateral ties. [2]

The CCP leadership value Kissinger as the symbol, custodian and advocate of a US-China relationship that is special.

When relations between the Chinese leadership and President Obama teetered into the deep freeze after the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit (which featured China's furious negotiator screaming and waving his finger at Obama for what Beijing perceived to be the cynical US decision to use it as a scapegoat for the collapse of the talks), China publicized a meeting between then-vice-president Li Keqiang (the title that Xi holds now, by the way) and Kissinger in Beijing to demonstrate that China wanted to continue relations in a spirit of positive engagement. [3]

However, Obama decided for political, economic, moral and geo-strategic reasons (and perhaps also because of his unsatisfying personal interactions with the Chinese leadership cadre) that he had to deal with Beijing from a position of greater regional strength and eschew immediate accommodation.

The rest is history, specifically the strategic pivot to Asia, executed by Clinton.

China's relationship with the United States is now special only in the sense that it is especially awkward and difficult. The closest Beijing probably has to a US champion of a special relationship with China today is Robert Zoellick, the ex-head of the World Bank who now serves as an adviser to Mitt Romney.

From Beijing's perspective, the pivot has done little other than make trouble for China, specifically by emboldening US allies in the region to make trouble over maritime issues.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines passed maritime laws to formalize their challenges to Chinese claims to rocks and shoals in the South China Sea. The Japanese government, goaded by Tokyo governor and sinophobic hothead Shintaro Ishihara, is taking steps to buy the Senkakus from their private owner.

The United States danced around the issue of whether or not it would back up security guarantees with the Philippines and Japan on island issues in a rather equivocal manner.

And Washington further upped the ante by promoting the line that the South China Sea disputes should be addressed in negotiations between Beijing and the various claimants collectively through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, instead of through bilateral talks between China and its smaller adversaries.

This situation pleases fans of interminable multilateral jaw-jaw, although a case can be made that the best way actually to settle claims is for Beijing to cut joint development deals with its neighbors one-by-one to unlock in a reasonably timely manner the immense riches we are told lurk below these miserable islands.

In the run-up to Clinton's visit - and a spate of ugly demonstrations (not suppressed with notable vigor by the Chinese government) and incidents such as the snatching of the flag from the Japanese ambassador's official vehicle on one of the Beijing ring roads (presumably a thuggish one-off by a Chinese citizen) - the government clearly took the tack that it was time to tell the United States that enough was enough and it was time for Washington back up its rhetoric as guarantor of security in China's neighboring seas by reining in its overenthusiastic allies in Hanoi, Manila and Tokyo.

Xinhua laid out the case in a story datelined from Washington:
Many of the US actions so far have been counterproductive to promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, as indicated by the fact that the security situation in the region has been worsening, rather than improving, mainly due to the recent escalation of the territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Washington, which claims not to take sides in the disputes, is partly blamed for fueling the tensions because it has apparently emboldened certain relevant parties to make provocations against China in order to achieve undeserved territorial gains ...

Washington owes Beijing a thorough, convincing explanation of the true intentions of its pivot policy, especially on issues related to China's vital or core interests. And the United States also needs to take concrete steps to prove that it is returning to Asia as a peacemaker, instead of a troublemaker. [4]
Clinton's visit was marked by a blizzard of articles in the official media on this theme:
"China urges US to work for peace in South China Sea" [5]
"Washington needs to take concrete steps to promote China-US ties" [6]
"US owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy" [7]
"Commentary: US should refrain from sending wrong signals over South China Sea" [8]
That is all Xinhua, starting to sound a lot like nationalist head-knocker Global Times. Global Times, well, sounded just like Global Times:
"No winners in containment strategies" [9]
"Hillary reinforces US-China mistrust" [10]
Beijing has a right to wonder whether US infatuation with the pivot - and poking China in the eye - is matched with a responsible stewardship of its real security responsibilities in East Asia.

For the Chinese leadership, the true indicator of the sincerity and utility of the US security role in East Asia is probably the amount of influence Washington can bring to bear on Tokyo on its military and security agenda in general and on the symbolic issue of the Senkakus.

There is one compelling reason for Beijing to acquiesce to the continued US military presence in East Asia: That is if the United States can forestall the emergence of Japan as an independent, nuclear-capable regional military and security actor.

Thanks to US support of its demands for a closed nuclear-fuel cycle and an otherwise unnecessary space program, Japan has the reserves of weapon-grade plutonium and the ballistic-missile delivery systems to become a major nuclear weapons power virtually overnight. In an interesting analysis, The Associated Press reviewed the evidence that Iran has perhaps studied and copied the Japanese strategy of positioning itself as a nuclear-weapons threshold state - one without nuclear weapons but with the resources to weaponize its nuclear capabilities rapidly if needed.

By forestalling a nuclear-tinged regional arms race and keeping the Japan Self-Defense Forces preoccupied with self-defense instead of power projection, the United States delivers a real and significant security and economic benefit to China, and to East Asia in general. [11]

But the elevation of the Senkakus to a political, cultural and security fetish is helping change that.

So far, Japan's national governments, thanks to US suasion, incentives, and the security provided by the presence of US forces, have kept the military genie in the bottle.

Currently, the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has conducted its demeaning competition with Ishihara to purchase the Senkakus with a combination of restraint, frustration and disgust that the Chinese leadership probably finds very gratifying - despite its public fulminations.

However, past results are no guarantee of future performance.

If Tokyo slips the leash or, even worse, decides that it can yank America's chain in the style of the Israeli government by forcing the US to support Japan and its objectives in the region through deliberate escalation of tensions, the perceived utility and value of the US military role in East Asia will be significantly compromised in China's eyes.

In May, The Wall Street Journal reported on the relatively extreme security views of Shintaro Ishihara, the Tokyo governor who began the whole Senkaku-purchase brouhaha:
Japan must guard itself from China's expansionary ambitions, which, Mr Ishihara said, are now turned outward after conquering Mongolia and the Uighur people and decimating Tibet ... "China has declared it would break into someone else's home. It's time we make sure doors are properly locked on our islands," he said. "Before we know it, Japan could become the sixth star on China's national flag. I really don't want that to happen" ...

Throughout the speech, Mr Ishihara referred to China as "Shina", the name normally associated with the era of Japanese occupation of China. [12]
Ishihara also advocated beefed-up Japanese military spending justified in part because the US is "unreliable" at least on the issue of the Senkakus.

It would be comforting to dismiss Ishihara as an aging, racist crackpot. However, as Japan's wartime generation and mindset fade away, political pressure for the country to assume the role of an armed world power with its own security policy - and stand up to China - is growing.

And Ishihara has gone the extra mile in passing on his xenophobic legacy to the next generation, via his son Nobuteru.

One theory is that Ishihara ginned up the Senkaku purchase to advance the political fortunes of Nobuteru, who is secretary general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and has an extremely good chance of becoming Japan's next prime minister if the requisite amount of intra-party and inter-party skulduggery can be brought to bear. [13]

The prospect that the Japanese government and foreign and military policy may soon be in the hands of a group of China-bashing reactionaries - and the US government in the hands of China-bashing neo-liberals or neo-conservatives indifferent to Chinese anxieties - is not a recipe for Chinese restraint.

The harsh official Chinese rhetoric concerning the pivot is perhaps more than a farewell rebuke to Secretary Clinton. It should be regarded as an effort to cut through the China-bashing clutter of the US presidential campaign with a strident and unambiguous declaration of Beijing's concern that infatuation with the pivot has caused the United States to lose its focus on the critical regional priority of encouraging restraint among all its allies, but most of all Japan.

Fans of the pivot - and advisers to whatever president takes the oath of office in Washington early next year - may wish to start thinking about the worst case if China's new leadership thinks it has to escalate to confrontation sooner rather than later so it can either force US Asian policy on to a track more favorable to China or start crowding US military power out of the region before it's too late.

One piece of advice: If a crisis erupts - and the United States genuinely wants to resolve it - maybe it is better not to send Hillary Clinton to Beijing.

1. China's Xi Jinping cancels Hillary Clinton meeting amid 'tensions', The Telegraph, Sep 5, 2012.
2. China's Xi says to push forward Sino-US cooperation,, Jan 17, 2012.
3. China: Emboldened? Anxious? Or Invincible Zombie Masters?, China Matter, Mar 16, 2010.
4. US owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy, Xinhua, Sep 3, 2012.
5. China urges US to work for peace in South China Sea, Xinhua, Sep 4, 2012.
6. Washington needs to take concrete steps to promote China-US ties, Xinhua, Sep 4, 2012.
7. US owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy, Xinhua, Sep 3, 2012.
8. Commentary: US should refrain from sending wrong signals over South China Sea, Xinhua, Aug 5, 2012.
9. No winners in containment strategies, Global Times, Sep 6, 2012.
10. Hillary reinforces US-China mistrust, Global Times, Sep 4, 2012.
11. Iran nuclear denial has Japanese ring, Columbia Broadcasting System, Sep 1, 2012.
12. Ishihara Unplugged: China A 'Thief,' America 'Unreliable', Japan Realtime, May 29, 2012.
13. Ishihara seen as strong contender in LDP race, Yomiuri, Sep 5, 2012.