Sunday, January 27, 2013

Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar, Redux




My post on the competing strategies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar received a considerable amount of thoughtful comment and pushback by e-mail and on the Web, more than I’m accustomed to receive for a non-China post from somebody who has only an informed layman’s interest in the Middle East.

Maybe I came up with something worth thinking about.  Well, even a blind hog finds a truffle every once in a while.  [see note below]

More to the point, I think my post contributed to a crystallizing sense in the foreign policy realm that Saudi and Qatari differences are probably central to what has become the nagging Syrian conundrum, namely, why have the Western regimes, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council been unable to club together and crater the Assad regime?

From the moral imperative side of the equation, consider Libya.  We interrupted Gaddafi in what the midst of what was much less than a counterinsurgency and more of a police action in pursuit of the armed rabble of eastern Libya.  When the NATO no-fly zone was launched, only two or three thousand people had died, about a quarter of them in Gaddafi’s forces.  At the time, correspondents in Washington were given a bullsh*t backgrounder claiming that intervention was required because of an impending massacre of up to 50,000 innocents in Benghazi.  Post-war, there has been an embarrassing dearth of evidence concerning Gaddafi’s genocidal rage; Libya’s Deputy Minister of Martyrs announced that the current count was 4700 rebel dead and 2100 missing, something of a drop from the 2011 estimate of 25,000.

Contrast this with Syria.

No matter who does the counting, there are tens of thousands dead in Syria, hundreds of thousands of IDPs and refugees shivering miserably through the winter, and if there was ever a case for getting off one’s ass and doing a humanitarian intervention, Syria is now it.

If the grim mechanics of regime subversion rather than humanitarian intervention are one’s cup of tea, on the other hand, all the elements are in place to implode the Assad regime: widespread popular dissatisfaction, a collapsed economy, a weary army, international sanctions, covert financial and material support of the rebels, an influx of hardened fighters, and safe havens in Turkey.

Despite the solidarity of the ruling elite, support from Iran, China, and Russia, and Assad’s bloody and successful obstinacy in repressing his domestic opponents, after close to two years of the baleful attention of Assad’s enemies in the West, the Gulf, and Turkey, Syria is a basket case.  

But nobody has stepped up to say (to paraphrase Nigel Tufnel) Let’s turn it up to 11, pour in the money, arms, and fighters, maybe set up a no-fly zone and erase Assad’s air assets, and end this thing.
Instead, the Syrian crisis lurches on, absent the external political will to finish the job or shortcircuit the insurrection with a negotiated transition.

Bernard at Moon of Alabama kindly excerpted my post and took issue with it.  He is of the opinion that even the Saudis are losing their appetite for further butchery in Syria, and Assad may be able to cut a deal to get the Saudis and everybody else off his back (as he’s been trying to do for two years) and weather the storm.

I dunno.  Bernard knows a lot more about the Middle East than I do and his post is detailed and quite persuasive.  But…

I look at what the various players are saying (and not saying) and doing (and not doing) as reported in the Western language press, and I conclude the problem is that the get-Assad coalition can’t get on the same page with Saudi Arabia or find a way to finesse a political settlement out of the bloodbath.

Looking at the political calculus, I find it hard to believe that the United States, after having spent over a year building up Assad as the latest monster of the century, is willing to suffer the loss of face that is involved in having him stay on as part of a deal.  That, to me, is just not how the US operates.  A key element of US foreign policy is the idea of credibility and being perceived as a reliable ally, one that does not stake out positions and then abandon them.  US credibility took a hit in the Gulf countries thanks to the Obama administration’s equivocal response to the Egyptian revolution (first trying to bolster Mubarak and then pulling the plug), and from the plainly stated US desire to pivot to Asia and its riches (and away from the Middle East and its headaches).  I don’t think the US is going to get out in front of the anti-Assad coalition and insist on a negotiated settlement.

Unless there is a united call from Turkey and the GCC, in other words, to let bygones be bygones and work with Assad or through Assad’s circle to end Syria’s misery, the US can’t moderate its Syria position until Assad is driven out of Damascus.

Also, I’m afraid that the key foreign players are reaching the conclusion that the Syrian toothpaste is pretty much out of the tube and a negotiated settlement is just going to be Act I of years of chaos, violence, and misery.  Putting Humpty Dumpty together again, in other words, is not a job for all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.  It’s a long-term project for Victor Frankenstein, and nobody’s going to be very happy with the outcome.  The overall feeling seems to be to let ‘er drift (while occasionally berating the Russians and Chinese for not stepping in to fix the mess) and turn to other concerns.

To my mind, Saudi Arabia has looked at this state of affairs and decided that the best policy is one of obstinately supporting the insurrection until Assad is driven out, no matter how protracted and nasty the process is.

I think Saudi Arabia is reacting to the US abdication of leadership to assert its own bloody-minded realist strategy for the Middle East (and, in the process, discredit Qatar as amateur soft power enthusiasts without the belly to do the dirty work needed to neutralize the Iranian challenge).

Perhaps Saudi Arabia is living the neo-con Clean Break dream in reverse.  Instead of carrying the fight from Iraq to Syria, and then Iran, as Dick Cheney dreamed, militant Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia (or powerful elements within Saudi Arabia) are closing in on the overthrow of the Assad regime and creating the social, political, and military conditions for an anti-Maliki insurrection in Iraq’s Sunni heartland.

People whose memories of the Iraq debacle go back a few years will not be too surprised to learn that Fallujah—the bloody and unbeaten heart of the Sunni insurgency against the US occupation—is back in the news.

Take it away, BBC:


Thousands of mourners gathered in the Iraqi city of Fallujah on Saturday at the funerals of Sunni protesters killed by army troops a day earlier.

The funeral processions were followed by renewed protests against Iraq's Shia-led government.

On Friday, five people were shot dead and dozens more were wounded when the army opened fire on a protest.
The army had withdrawn from the city for the funerals, fearing further violence.

But in an apparent revenge attack, gunmen killed two soldiers and abducted three more on the outskirts of the city. 

Sunni leaders in Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, had earlier told the BBC that they would attack army positions in the province if the government failed to bring the soldiers responsible for the protester shootings "to justice".


One must, of course, insert the caveat that local Sunni elites displayed a visceral hostility to Saudi-backed AQ types by teaming with the United States during the famed "Anbar Awakening".  However, it should also be remembered that before partnering with the Americans, local Sunnis had had originally teamed with foreign jihadis in order to stick it to a hostile central administration, a pattern that they might revert to in this situation.

SCMP ran a Reuters picture of the funeral procession that gives an idea of the magnitude of the unrest in Fallujah.

In case one needs a reminder of how the whole cycle of demonstration/repression/martyr/funeral rinse-and-repeat that drove the news cycle in Syria two years ago, Al Jazeera reports:


At the protest, the latest in a series of demonstrations against the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, shouts of "Listen Maliki, we are free people" were followed by "Take your lesson from Bashar," a reference to Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria.


Did I mention, by the way, that a suicide bomber killed 42 people in a Shi’ite mosque inside Iraq yesterday?

With the prospect of the chaos in Syria slopping over into Iraq and endangering Maliki’s pro-Iranian administration, I don’t think Saudi Arabia is going to be too interested in putting the brakes on Syria’s headlong rush into collapse.


N.B. In the past I shrank from using the earthy metaphor “even a blind hog finds a truffle once in awhile” since it didn’t seem to make any sense.  Pigs, after all, are employed because of their ability to detect truffles underground by smell.  Sight has nothing to do with it.  However, TIL that truffles rely on mammals detecting them, eating them, and defecating them in order to spread and reproduce.  Therefore, evolution (or the Creator, exercising His/Her/Its prerogative of making everything as bizarre and complicated as possible) selected truffles that emitted smells attractive to animals.  Specifically, the truffles valued by gourmets emit an odor analogous to that of the male pig a.k.a. hog sex pheromone, making them an object of interest and pursuit for female pigs a.k.a. sows.  That is why truffle pigs are sows.  A blind hog (at least one of heterosexual bent) would be doubly disadvantaged in the search for truffles and it would be proper to describe him as uniquely fortunate if he were able to stumble upon one.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Movie Zero Dark Thirty Wishes It Was But Isn’t Is…




…The Battle of Algiers

As the moving finger of chaos hovered over Mali and Algeria last week, I took another look at Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers.

I am somewhat puzzled that this movie is not at the heart of the Zero Dark Thirty debate.

Because in many ways, perhaps intentionally, ZDT is the mirror-image doppelganger of Algiers.

Both of them effectively employ an objective documentary style to depict a brutal, successful exercise in counter-terrorism.

And both of them deal with torture.

In The Battle of Algiers, torture works!  Right away! In the very first scene!  Short-circuiting any need for liberal handwringing or right-wing defensiveness for the next two hours of the film!

The film opens with Colonel Mathieu, the supremely able, intelligent, and ruthless commander of the French counter-terror effort in Algiers against the Algerian National Liberation Front or FLN, striding in to confront a scrawny, scraggly, beaten little man surrounded by a crowd of sturdy, confident French soldiers in crisp camo (in an interesting irony, Pontecorvo revealed that the “soldiers” were cast from students from Kabilye—an Algerian district known for its light-skinned Berbers-- at the local university).

“He’s come clean,” a soldier tells the general and, sure enough, in the very next scene the troops are outside the refuge of FLN leader Ali la Pointe, setting in motion the final confrontation that will 1) serve as the framing for a movie-length flashback depicting the FLN’s struggle in Algiers against the French and 2) signal the virtual annihilation of the FLN as a significant force inside the city.

The big difference, between the two films, of course, is perspective.

In Algiers, we are immersed in the perspective of the Algerian revolutionaries.  Even in the first scene, before anyone is introduced or anything explained, we witness the misery and anguish of the distraught informant, his chest disfigured by the flame of a blowtorch, who, as he is clad in French camo to serve as Judas goat by the cheery soldiers, runs to the window and cries out in despair before knuckling under to a soldier’s matter-of-fact persuasion: “Do you really want another round?”

In Zero Dark Thirty, the emphasis is on the determination, forbearance, and the frustration of the torturers, especially Jason Clarke, as they struggle to crack the Bin Laden case.

Here I must thank ZDT director Karen Bigelow for seconding my previous assertion that she has a fascination with torture as a transgressive test of heroism (for the torturer), not as a police tactic.  In a statement she gave to the LA Times as part of her effort to repair and advance the prospects of ZDT as best-picture Oscar bait, Ms. Bigelow stated:

I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. …
Bin Laden wasn't defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

Unfortunately for Ms. Bigelow and ZDT, I think that most people—including most Oscar voters—reflexively sympathize with the torturee, rather than the torturer.  

And that is what gives Pontecorvo’s film a great deal of its power.  It immerses us in a world—and shows us the faces and motivations--of people who do things that can and do get them tortured.  (One can only thank the movie gods that the filmmakers did not—or could not—follow through with their original plan of parachuting Paul Newman into the script as a western journalist in order to give Western audience somebody to identify with.)

Given America’s foreign policy obsession with the Muslim world and Arab politics over the last decade, it is surprising that The Battle of Algiers doesn’t come up more often.

There was a mini-boomlet of interest in 2003, when the Pentagon announced a screening to educate officers on the dynamics of urban counterinsurgency during the difficulties in Iraq.  And there was a flurry of showings on the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence last year.  But the film is pretty much MIA.

I guess it has something to do with the Marxist politics of Pontecorvo.

Anti-communist conservatives presumably hate TBOA for its sympathetic portrayal of anti-Western lumpen militancy.

But it certainly made modern neo-liberals uncomfortable that the Black Panthers and the Weather  Underground reportedly screened TBOA as a training film (presumably skipping over the parts where the militant organization is totally destroyed by The Man) and, perhaps, inspired efforts to consign the film to the end-of-history rubbish heap as a piece of na├»ve agitprop.

Therefore, I detect certain anxious efforts to disparage the film’s impact and its relevance with derisive sneering along the lines of “Well, your precious people’s revolution didn’t turn out so great in the end, now did it?”

Certainly, the Algerian revolution turned to sh*t with the usual alacrity—even during the period depicted in the film there were apparently some factional rubouts and after independence there was a great deal of unpleasant fighting between rival armed groups and a quick resort to authoritarian rule, punctuated with the suspension of the second round of democratic elections in 1991 to prevent a victory by the Islamist Party, the FIS.

However, the hope and enthusiasm depicted at the close of the movie—when, in 1962, two years after the French win the “Battle of Algiers”, the French occupation crumbled before a wave of national unrest and insurrection originating beyond the capital—was real.

And Pontecorvo does not shy away from showing the bloody dynamics of the struggle from the FLN side as well as the French side.  French torture practices are shown in a brief montage including hanging, electric shock, burning, and our old friend, waterboarding (for a devastating, in-depth look at how the torture regime in Algeria worked, and didn't work, read Dr. Darius Rejali's 2004 piece in Salon).  But the centerpiece of the film is the horrific simultaneous terror bombing of a bar, a milk bar filled with teenagers and a baby, and the downtown Air France office in Algiers by the FLN, using Arab women in European disguises to place the explosives.

The Battle of Algiers paints a convincing picture of the collapse of Western colonial rule, a process that even a no-holds-barred commitment to torture and the triumphant dynamiting of Ali la Pointe in his lair cannot forestall.

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, puts us inside the national security bureaucracy instead of out on the Arab street, and depicts the devotion of all this torture, anger, and effort toward the destruction of a single man—Osama bin Laden—perhaps in the vain hope that the forces that obsess and threaten the United States will die with him. 

Pontecorvo demonstrated a perspective that was more Marxist-objective than Leninist-doctrinaire or Maoist-groupie in a film he made for Italian television, Return to Algiers, in 1992.

Fortunately, the film with English subtitles has been posted on Youtube  and you can join the five hundred or so people who have already seen it there.  It is well worth digging out the six clips (takes a bit of doing) and watching.

Pontecorvo records the rancor and frustration following the suspension of the 1991 elections.  When he tries to return to his old haunts with his film crew, he is harassed and harangued by bearded Islamists.  In the Casbah, housewives point out the general decrepitude and neglect of their homes, making Pontecorvo draw the conclusion that the revolutionaries have taken the place of the French—both as privileged insiders, and as targets for the revolutionary resentment of the insulted and injured poor of Algeria.

He reports on the fear and anger of educated women at the threat of the threat of Islamic anti-feminism; he also interviews some giggling girls who would prefer that their school institute sex segregation.  

After a lot of miserable contention, the government media informs the public that the visiting European is the filmmaker responsible for The Battle of Algiers, and Pontecorvo and his crew finally get some love from the crowds on the street in Algiers.  And he films a probing interview with Mohamed Boudiaf, the exiled FLN warhorse installed in the presidency by the military after the election fiasco, just before the old man was assassinated.

As far as Pontecorvo is concerned, you get the image of a filmmaker prepared to look reality in the face, both in 1966 and in 1992.

Kathryn Bigelow also wants to look reality in the face.  Too bad it’s the face of a torturer.


P.S. Criterion did their usual magnificent job on The Battle of Algiers, with a three-disc package of film and documentaries.  For me, not steeped in the lore of TBOA, it was a genuine shock and surprise to learn about the background of the actor who played FLN leader El-hadi Jafar.  He is interviewed on one of the disc 3 documentaries.

 P.P.S.  Screengrab from Todd Alcott's blog, which has a very interesting discussion of the cinematic merits of TBOA.


Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar on Syria



With all the reams of reporting on Syria, I am surprised that relatively little is written, in English anyway, about the divergence of aims between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood and, it appears, would not object to a brokered deal to end the insurrection that allows the MB to get its nose in the political tent, then make its play for winning control of the new government through some combination of foreign pressure, domestic mobilization, and elections.

Saudi Arabia, it appears, has no love for the Muslim Brotherhood and is perfectly happy to crater the Assad regime through a bloody insurrection abetted by foreign jihadis,  in order to deny Iran a regional ally, score another victory for fundamentalist Sunni rollback, and increase the pressure on the Shi’a-led government of Iraq by adding the factor of a hostile, pro-Saudi and overtly Sunni Syrian regime to the increasingly disgruntled and emboldened Sunnis of western Iraq (some of whom are reportedly participating in the Syrian war).

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton abruptly ordered the reorganization of the overseas Syrian opposition in November 2012, ostensibly to make it more representative (and possibly to make it appear less like a stalking horse for the Muslim Brotherhood), Qatar played along.

Qatar hosted the reboot of the Syrian coalition—which still included a dominating MB component--as the “Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces“.

At the time, I wrote that the ghost at the banquet was Saudi Arabia (i.e. Saudi Arabia did not attend but was nevertheless a significant and disturbing presence, for people who don’t get the Macbeth reference), and pointed out that the aggressive Saudi agenda of regime collapse through jihadi-assisted insurrection would ineluctably result in the other interested parties thinking about how to cope, sooner or later, with these dangerous, destabilizing, and viscerally anti-democratic and anti-Western armed assets.

The relevant precedent is the so-called “Anbar Awakening” in Iraq in 2006, when socially conservative but not particularly fundamentalist Sunni elites in western Iraq got nervous about the growing role of al Qaeda in their anti-US resistance (and AQ’s challenge to their local authority and personal safety), switched over to cooperation with the United States, and participated in a counterinsurgency raree cum death squad purge of the jihadis.

Saudi Arabia has no interest in a moderate Sunni counter-revolution targeting its fundamentalist Sunni counter-revolution in Syria, so it has, in my mind, little interested in a negotiated political settlement that would presumably involve the long-suffering local Sunni elites clubbing together with a new, ostensibly moderate Syrian regime to annihilate the Saudi-funded and/or encouraged jihadis and restore a measure of stability and political control to the stricken country.

Therefore, at the SNCORF launch, a radical rump was able to veto a call for a negotiated settlement.

This week, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud, explicitly rejected any negotiated settlement—a position which, though advantageous to Saudi interests, was probably greeted with dismay by the war-weary Syrians of every political stripe, and the foreign powers who are tired of the Syrian sideshow and would like the whole problem swept under the rug with a Yemen-style transfer of power:

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said on Tuesday the scale of violence used by Syria's government when fighting rebels meant a negotiated settlement of the country's crisis was unthinkable.
"Damascus... which has been a city for the longest period of time, is carpet bombed. How can you conceive of the possibility of a negotiated settlement with somebody who does that to his own country, to his own history, to his own people? It is inconceivable to us," Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference.

The United States and its European allies, it appears, would welcome some kind of negotiated settlement as long as Western face is saved by Assad stepping down.  Turkey, which is facing a growing Kurdish calamity and has probably had a bellyful of its Syrian adventurism, would probably agree.  And, as noted above, Qatar has a post-Assad electoral agenda based on its MB assets.

However, Prince Saud has drawn the line in the sand, indicating that Saudi Arabia is optimistic about a scenario of total regime collapse—and a subsequent political endgame in which Saudi allies occupy a privileged and protected position in the new power structure instead of getting massacred by a tag team of threatened Sunni citizens and the newly “democratic” Syrian army.

If Turkey and the western powers feel compelled to clean up the mess after Syrian regime collapse, the Saudi position seems to be, they are welcome to send in an occupying army--Saudi Arabia certainly won't.   This is something that the United States, EU, and Turkey are probably equally loath to commit to, for reasons beyond the quite understandable "the last thing we need is another Middle East military quagmire" concerns..

The unwillingness of the anti-Assad coalition to encourage, enable, and validate the Saudi strategy by implying any intent to commit forces to restore order and nationbuild after a regime collapse—as much as fear of an eventual Syrian quagmire—probably accounts for the western squeamishness about threatening armed intervention in anything more than the most toothless and abstract terms.

However, Prince Saud's statement indicates that potential trauma of a post-Assad failed Syrian state--in which disciplined fundamentalist local and jihadi fighters have the potential to play an important role despite their smaller numbers-- is unlikely to deter Saudi Arabia from its regime collapse strategy.

And, after years of ostentatious vilification of Assad—and, I suspect, a callous willingness among Obama administration realpolitik practitioners to advance anti-Iran rollback notwithstanding the consequences for the Syrian people—the United States lacks the political will to demand a negotiated settlement of Assad—or of its allies in the anti-Assad coalition.

Saudi Arabia, by its intransigence—and, possibly through sustained, sub rosa support for religiously fundamentalist fighters, foreign and domestic, inside Syria—holds a de facto veto on the policy position of the anti-Assad powers and the future of Syria itself. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

War In the East China Sea: Not Quite Yet




[Correction: Mr. Hatoyama was the DPJ PM until 2010, well before the current Senkaku/Diaoyutai crisis.  Sorry 'bout that.--CH 1/18/13]

 The PRC regime has been preparing for escalating confrontation with Japan if Tokyo decided it really wanted to test the commitment of the United States to back it in the crisis over the Senkaku/Daioyutai Islands.

Showing Japan the undesirability of openly aligning with the United States as the U.S. pivots into Asia—instead of giving some lip service at least to PRC interests and priorities—is pretty close to an existential issue for the PRC.

And the PRC knows that the U.S. appetite for giving Japan military support over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai is extremely limited, despite the brave talk of the U.S. defense appropriations bill.  If an incident had occurred between the PRC and Japanese ships and planes jostling around the islands, the U.S. would have been faced with the very difficult choice between exacerbating a crisis in Asia and admitting the limitations of the “pivot”, not only to Japan but to Vietnam, the Philippines, and, for that matter, everybody else.

So, if the Japanese forces had decided to engage in some pushback on the provocative PRC actions around the Senkaku/Diaoyutai, the PRC would have made sure that things got pretty ugly pretty quick.

And if the PRC wanted to try to strangle the pivot in its cradle, they might have rolled the dice, provoked an incident, and let the crisis escalate.

However, it seems that the PRC is thankfully willing to let the crisis de-escalate for now.

Ex-Prime Minister Hatoyama—on whose watch the disastrous decision to nationalize some of the Senkaku/Daioyutai Islands occurred—is paying a visit to China.

His visit to the memorial to victims of the Nanjing Massacre was front page news in Chinese state media, especially since he marked his visit with the sort of respectful bow that is usually associated with the obeisance paid to Japanese war dead by Japanese prime ministers. For good measure, Xinhua also photographed Mr. Hatoyama observing a photograph of a Japanese soldier preparing to decapitate a Chinese prisoner.

 


Not by accident, this relatively abject episode (which, if carried out by a current or former United States leaderwould have been excoriated as a capitulationist apology tour) occurred while current Prime Minister Abe was preoccupying the Japanese media with his largely symbolic defiance tour of Southeast Asia, ostensibly including an unwelcome security component but more concretely advertising the benefit to all concerned of economic ties that are not dependent on the pleasure of the PRC.

But, to the PRC at least, the willingness of Japan to make some kind of concession to cool things down is noted and, thankfully, welcome.

Xinhua also ran a report on a meeting between Hatoyama and Jia Qinglin, at which nice and conciliatory words were spoken:

Top political advisor Jia Qinglin said Wednesday that China and Japan should resolve the Diaoyu Islands dispute through dialogue and consultation.

"The two sides should handle the Diaoyu Islands dispute properly in order to ensure that bilateral relations remain on a track of healthy and stable development," said Jia, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), while meeting with former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Jia said cooperation between China and Japan will serve the fundamental interests of both sides, as well as the region and the international community.

China attaches importance to its ties with Japan and will continue to work to develop bilateral relations in accordance with previous agreements, Jia said.

In meetings with the U.S. team of superpundits and retired diplomats (i.e. the Nye/Steinberg/Armitage/Hadley mission to Japan and PRC in October 2011 that attempted to apply U.S. good offices to resolve the dispute—something that the PRC, whose entire purpose in milking the Senkaku/Diaoyutai crisis was to convince Japan of the conditional, equivocal, and partial character of US support embodied in the pivot, had no interest in encouraging), the PRC reportedly shifted the frame away from China’s eternal claim to the islands to the seemingly tangential question of Japan trying to shed the moral and diplomatic burden of World War II.

Peter Ennis interviewed Professor Nye and posted the transcript on his blog, Dispatch Japan.  In one exchange:

DISPATCH JAPAN: Is there a broader strategy underlying China’s approach to the Senkakus, or is a Japan-China dynamic primarily at work?

NYE: Chinese regard Japan as having changed the status quo by having the central government purchase the islands from the private owner. China has not accepted Prime Minister Noda’s public explanation that he took that step to prevent Governor Ishihara from having the Tokyo municipality purchase the islands, which could have caused mischief. 

The Chinese think there is a large plan by Japan to erode what they call “the outcome” of World War II. I don’t know how much of that is pure rhetoric, or represents the real thinking in China. But that is what senior Chinese say. 

DISPATCH JAPAN: What is your assessment? Is it rhetoric, or real thinking? 

NYE: I think a lot of Chinese really believe that Japan is trying to erode the status quo. I think others are using that line in an effort to create a wedge between the US and Japan. 


Shifting the focus to the big question of World War II is a better way of improving relations than arguing over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands.  The island dispute is zero sum: either they are China’s or Japan’s.

On the other hand, fortunately, a significant portion of Japan elite opinion can still agree with the PRC that World War II was a bad thing.  A climbdown for Japan is easier and allows the PRC to claim a moral victory.

Mr. Hatoyama’s participation in the Nanjing shaming ceremony will hopefully be enough to smooth things over for now:

Hatoyama nodded as Zhu Chengshan, the memorial's president, told him that it is an undeniable fact, as stated in the verdicts of the Tokyo and Nanjing martial courts, that Japanese invaders killed more than 300,000 people in Nanjing.

"The Japanese government had made it clear when signing the Treaty of San Francisco 1951 that it accepted the verdicts of the Far Eastern International Military Court of Justice and others verdicts regarding its war crimes," Zhu said.


It will be interesting to see how the Japanese media covers Hatoyama’s visit.

Whether or not the de-escalation of the crisis in Japan-China relations through Mr. Hatoyama’s visit represents Japan’s abandonment of its ideas of shedding the incubus of World War II and entering the brave new world of the 21st century, where Japan jettisons its peacetime constitution, rebrands its “self defence forces” as a conventional military and, maybe assembles a few atomic bombs from its large stash of plutonium and mounts them on its space rockets is an open question.

Actually, it’s really not an open question.

Japan will probably draw the conclusion that China that Chinese desire to confront and humiliate Japan will remain, and will muscle up in response.

Ironically, this may be the endgame that the PRC was looking for.  

If Japan continues with its accelerated military investment and practices an even more independent security policy, the credibility of the United States--safe to say, the only military power the PRC really cares about—as the guarantor of security in East Asia, specifically as the force restraining Japanese rearmament, is eroded.

The key takeaway from the Senkaku/Daioyutai crisis is that the Japanese government, in large response to domestic imperatives, undertook a regional security adventure without the enthusiastic support of the United States.  China escalated the crisis, rejected US mediation, and forced Japan to address the situation bilaterally, at first through the deployment of its military forces and now diplomatically.

The crisis revealed a small but significant chink of daylight between Japan and the United States.

That makes it likely that the PRC will be happy to return to the fraught issue of the islands again, whenever it wants to reveal and encourage the centripetal forces implicit in the US pivot to Asia.