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.

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