Monday, January 27, 2014

Two Steps Forward Two Steps Back in Abe's Contain-China Initiative

The week started well with Abe in full regional statesman fig delivering a “China must be contained” speech at Davos (Yes, I know, nobody openly uses the "C" word, "containment" but if anyone can come up with a better descriptor, let me know).  Ian Bremmer and a significant contingent of think-tank poobahs seemed primed to love the speech, and they did.

First, Bremmer:

And Prime Minister Abe just came, he gave a great speech. Folks are optimistic about the economy. The one part of the speech that people were really concerned about was Japan-China. And understandably. He’s criticizing the Chinese as being aggressive and militaristic. He compared Japan-China relations explicitly to relations between Germany and the U.K in 1914, where the economic relations were good but the security tensions, let’s say, were not so good. And we saw what happened there.

I wouldn’t say that Abe was directly raising the specter of war, but he was saying that China is acting in a manner that’s unacceptable and Japan won’t tolerate it.
Bremmer also implied that the PRC was taking advantage of a certain lack of American testicular fortitude on the China question:

So clearly the Chinese want to engage with Americans in a serious way. There are a lot of reasons for that. The U.S. economy is picking up. But also they see a window here because all of the hawks on China are gone from the U.S. administration. Hillary’s gone, Kurt Campbell’s gone, Geithner much more focused on this region is gone, and Donilon’s gone. And so they see an opportunity with Biden effectively leading U.S.-China relations right now to build the U.S.-China relationship while really changing the rules on the ground with Japan.

Contemporaneously, two worthies from the Center for a New American Security, the “left of center” security think tank, declared their concern that peace might break out between the US and the PRC thanks to the same lack of testicular fortitude, and advocated for heightened tensions instead, with an assist from Japan and other Asian allies:

U.S. officials have been careful to avoid provoking a China that appears increasingly willing to flex its newfound military muscle. Perhaps that's why Biden invoked his father's advice in warning on the eve of his Beijing visit that "the only conflict that is worse than one that is intended is one that is unintended." But an overemphasis on stability can be dangerous.

The point is simply that a country with the power of the USSR or China, unsatisfied with features of the existing order, motivated to do something to change it, and skeptical of the resolve of the United States, could well pursue a policy of coercion and brinkmanship, even under the shadow of nuclear weapons.

[T]he United States needs to inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing's calculus, even as it searches for ways to cooperate with China. This does not mean abandoning engagement or trying to contain China, let alone fomenting conflict. But it does mean communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think. China must understand that attempts to roil the waters could result in precisely the kinds of costs and conflicts it seeks to avoid.

To make this work, the United States should pursue policies that actually elevate the risks -- political, economic, or otherwise -- to Beijing of acting assertively.
[T]he U.S. military needs capabilities and plans that not only prepare it for major war, but that also offer plausible, concrete options for responding to Chinese attempts to exploit America's perceived aversion to instability. Leaders throughout Asia will be watching. Too much caution, especially if China is clearly the initiator, may be read as U.S. weakness, thereby perpetuating rather than diminishing China's incentives toward adventurism.

The United States can further raise the stakes by deepening its military ties with Japan…

Wow, looks like everybody’s ready to join Japan and stand up to China except that Chamberlain in VPOTUS clothing, Joe Biden!  Well, almost everybody.

Abe, it should be pointed out, is an unreconstructed Cheneyite when it comes to admiration and emulation of Dick Cheney’s Manichean worldview, especially where it pertains to China.  (In passing, it might be noted that Cheney's loyal aide Scooter Libby introduced Abe for his September 2013 speech to the Hudson Institute).  Abe has also been insistent in his quiet outreach to Republican, hawkish, and anti-Obama elements in Washington, most recently in an effort to obtain US acquiescence for the Yasukuni visit, and, as a result, is reportedly no particular friend of the White House, let alone the amiable and often-maligned as "soft on everything" Joe Biden.

Maybe the Obama team did not appreciate the implication that they had to stand beside Japan right now! 1914! (I guess WWII analogies are a bit awkward) in an anti-PRC alliance or risk getting tarred with the brush of appeasement, and made its displeasure known.

In any case, Abe quickly backpedaled on the 1914 analogy, lamely blaming the misunderstanding on an interpreter’s interpolation and going into full-court spin mode.  He didn't mean war was possible if the world didn't stand up to China.  He meant war was impossible!  Per Japan Times:

The government has repeatedly said that what Abe wanted to convey is that a war between Japan and China is not possible because it would cause devastation not only to the two countries but to the world as a whole.

“We will convey what the prime minister meant through diplomatic channels,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.

When meeting with journalists Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abe was asked whether a war between Japan and China is conceivable, and in response he compared the current tensions between the countries to the rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years before World War I.

Abe called it a “similar situation,” according to the Financial Times and some other media.

By Friday morning, the government had briefed the BBC about Abe’s intention, a Foreign Ministry source said. The British public broadcaster was among the media outlets that were reporting intensely on the prime minister’s comments. Tokyo will also brief Reuters soon, the source said.

Many media reports “left the impression that Abe had not denied (the possibility of) a military clash (between Japan and China) and this caused misapprehension,” a different government source said.

Then Abe jetted off to the welcoming environs of India, where he served as guest of honor at the Day of the Republic celebrations and concluded a passel of agreements—and there were no dissenting voices when it came to advancing an anti-PRC Japanese-Indian security alliance. 

Abe described the Japan-India relationship as “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world”.  Insert crying bald eagle graphic here, since it's another indication that the Abe administration's rejection of the “victor’s justice” of World War II is not just a matter of cheesing off China; it’s a rejection of US diplomatic and security tutelage and an announcement that Japan will give priority to pursuing its own interests, instead of sacrificing them as America’s loyal ally.

The visit was marked by an Indian pundit writing in the Nikkei Asia Review, who explicitly made the case for an Indian-Japanese alliance to contain China and, in fact, touted security ties as the most stable foundation for economic ties.

Japan and India, natural allies strategically located on opposite flanks of the continent, have a pivotal role to play in ensuring a regional power equilibrium and safeguarding vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region -- an essential hub for global trade and energy supply.
   The logic for strategic collaboration is no less compelling. If China, India and Japan constitute Asia's scalene triangle -- with China representing the longest Side A, India Side B, and Japan Side C -- the sum of B and C will always be greater than A. It is thus little surprise that Japan and India are seeking to add strategic bulk to their quickly deepening relationship.

     Indeed, the world's most stable economic partnerships, such as the Atlantic community and the Japan-U.S. partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties lacking that strategic underpinning tend to be less stable and even volatile, as is apparent from China's economic relations with Japan, India, and the U.S.

     The transformative India-Japan entente promises to positively shape Asia's power dynamics.
I might point out that the original Cheney recipe for Asia--endorsed by Abe in his first term in 2007--was a "diamond" of Japan, the United States, India, and Australia containing the PRC, so it looks like the geometry of Asian security is not exactly evolving in an Anglo direction, pivot notwithstanding.

This got me thinking about a variety of issues, some of which played out over Twitter (you can follow China Matters on Twitter @chinahand):

First, I understand why advocates of the Japan-India alliance want to make the “security” argument despite the fact that the two countries are rather far away from each other and have vastly different security priorities, even with determined efforts to define India as a Pacific power.  A tight security relationship purporting to contain the “Chinese menace” is a good basis for economic pushback against the PRC, especially for Japan, which would not only like to develop the Indian market as an alternative to the Chinese market, which is falling victim to the war of words between Beijing and Tokyo—it would like to go after markets in Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand at the PRC’s expense and with Indian help.

Second, containment is a shaky foundation for economic ties.  It’s zero sum, based on grabbing China’s pie instead of growing and sharing the whole regional pie among all the diners.  

Third, a doctrine of PRC containment will inevitably lead to initiatives, or the threat of initiatives, to mess with the PRC’s energy supplies from the Middle East in order to tame the Chinese dragon.  That is not a recipe for regional stability, reduced tensions, and economic growth, unless one is a fan of the militarized energy security policy the U.S. has been practicing in the Middle East for the last two decades.

Fourth, containment will probably bring out the worst in China, Japan, India, and the United States, empowering the defense/security industry and encouraging the pursuit of confrontational/deterrent/coercive military options instead of regional economic cooperation.

Fifth, it should be understood that Abe has placed his eggs in the polarization/contain China/zero-sum basket.  He has a vested interest in goosing the Chinese at Davos and elsewhere in order to justify and advance his strategy.  China is also happy to contribute to tensions in order to bring the United States into the fray as a restraining influence, but the key destabilizing factor is that Japan has decided that a strategy of confrontation with China is the happy high road to national renaissance.

Sixth, my sense (as an outsider to the august councils of the US government) is that the White House and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon are not enthusiasts for the Abe strategy and its implications for US leadership in Asia; but the uniformed services are all in, since the only plausible way to sustain a dominant US military position vis a vis China in East Asia is with the help of a Japan that is willing to pursue a confrontational policy with the PRC, twist the Okinawans' arms on basing, and take the lead in wrangling an anti-China alliance of the smaller Asian democracies.

Seventh, I have a certain admiration for the discipline and energy of Abe’s press management operation (though he might get a free ride from journalists irritated by the PRC’s authoritarian regime and its serial abuse of Western journalists).  When he opines that China must  “foster trusting international relations, not tensions”, nobody points out that Japan’s more assertive Asian profile relies on fostering tensions with China.  When a Kyodo poll shows across the board disapproval of collective self-defense, nuclear power, the new secrets law, and Abenomics, nobody picks it up, and Ian Bremmer instead says “Folks are optimistic about the [Japanese] economy” at Davos (I’ve reproduced the poll’s findings as an appendix to this post).

Eighth, on a side note, my current personal hobby horse is that Japan and India are working together to advance the Japanese agenda in North Korea, in order to take advantage of the tilt away from the PRC after the execution of Jang Song-thaek (and the rather hostile public PRC response, typified by the Chinese media’s willingness to pick up and thereby amplify stories like the notorious “Jang fed to dogs” hoax and the also somewhat dubiously sourced “Jang’s entire family executed” story now playing in the Western media thanks to Yonhap and 

 Abe is limited in what he can do directly with the DPRK thanks to his emphasis on the abductee issue and the generally negative mood toward his administration on the peninsula. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he asked India to pitch in.

Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of data points for this (who does, when dealing with the DPRK), but I could not help but be struck by the appearance of not one but two instances of passionate adoration between the North Korean and Indian governments as recorded in the virtual pages of Rodong Sinmun, employing the encomia usually reserved for love-feasts between North Korea and Cuba and Venezuela.

First, on January 25:

Indian Ambassador to the DPRK Ajay Kumar Sharma hosted a reception at the Taedonggang Diplomatic Club on Jan. 23 on the occasion of the Day of the Republic.

Present there on invitation were Pak Ui Chun, minister of Foreign Affairs, Pak Kun Gwang, vice department director of the C.C., the Workers' Party of Korea, Kim Hyong Jun, Ri Myong San and Kim Hyong Hun, officials concerned and diplomatic envoys and representatives of international organizations here.

Indian embassy officials were present there.

Ajay Kumar Sharma made a speech there.

He said that India would value and boost the traditional friendly ties with the DPRK, hoping that the country would prosper and make dynamic progress.

He referred to the fact that the two countries, member nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, have common views on many international issues.

He hoped that tensions would be defused and Korea be reunified peacefully through dialogue, adding that India would send every possible support for this.

He said that the Indian people revere President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il, eternal leaders of the Korean people.

Noting that Marshal Kim Jong Un, supreme leader of the Korean people, is paying deep attention to the development of the bilateral friendly relations, he expressed the belief that thanks to his wise leadership, the cause of building a thriving nation would be successfully accomplished.

Then, on January 27:
Greetings to President of India

Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of the DPRK, sent a message of greeting to Pranab Mukherjee, president of the Republic of India, on the occasion of the Day of the Republic on Jan. 25.

Kim wished India steady development and prosperity, expressing the belief that the good friendly and cooperative relations with long-standing history and tradition between the two countries would grow stronger in various fields as required by the new times and desired by the people.

Maybe it’s just India working that Non-Allied Movement magic with Kim Jung-un.  Maybe not.  We’ll see.

Here's an excerpt from the Japan Times report on the Kyodo poll, ripe for incorporation into a Twitter listicle (or Twisticle!).  

Respondents who opposed using the right to collective defense came to 53.8 percent and those who favored it came to 37.1 percent, the survey said. No margin of error was given.

Reflecting public wariness over nuclear power since the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, 60.2 percent said they oppose reactivating the dozens of reactors idled after the disaster and 31.6 percent said they favor it.

The public approval rating for Abe’s Cabinet, meanwhile, edged up 0.7 point to 55.9 percent from the previous survey in December, while its disapproval rate fell to 31.0 percent from 32.6 percent.

On the economy, the survey found that 73.0 percent of the respondents do not think the prime minister’s yen-weakening “Abenomics” program is producing an upturn, compared with 24.5 percent who think it is.

As for his ongoing call for Japanese companies to raise wages, 66.5 percent said it was infeasible and 27.8 percent said it was feasible.

Asked about the controversial secrecy law enacted last month that imposes stricter penalties on leakers and seekers of information that has been indiscriminately classified as state secrets, 74.8 percent said the law should be scrapped or revised by the Diet.

Regarding the first-stage hike in the sales tax in April to 8 percent from the 5 percent, 69.1 percent said they were considering curbing consumption, compared with 29.4 percent who said they will not refrain from spending.

As for the scheduled plan to finally double the tax rate to 10 percent in October 2015, 30.1 percent were in favor and 64.5 percent were opposed.

On the recent re-election of Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who opposes the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Base Futenma to his city, 42.9 percent called for suspending the plan until the mayor gives approval, while 31.7 percent said the plan should go ahead as scheduled.

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