John Kerry recently concluded a friendly visit to Beijing, with both sides chatting about matters of mutual concern in a way that implied these two great powers have areas of shared concern and interest.
Some observers might fear that peace might break out.
My personal opinion is that a dwindling group of PRC doves in the Obama administration are being rolled by military and think tank hawks who sense the weakness of the individuals with suspected panda hugger inclinations, such as Joe Biden and John Kerry, and also smell blood in the water with President Obama’s emerging lame duck status and the likely return of a down-the-line China hawk civilian slate with the expected election of Hillary Clinton as President in 2016.
The result has been a spate of articles calling the White House, especially Joe Biden, soft on China and pointing the finger at John Kerry for being excessively preoccupied with the Middle East and thereby allowing the precious Pivot to Asia to languish.
I, for one, detect a pretty effective tag team between the Abe administration and US anti-China/pro-Japan hawks. It should be recalled that Abe’s closest US relationships are with the Cheney wing of the Republican Party and his relations with Obama are, at best, cool. So, if US policy as it pertains to Japan and China is being criticized, both directly in terms of flagging Obama commitment to Asia and over-commitment to the Middle East, I think the fine Japanese hand can be suspected, reinforcing (but not necessarily directing) the anti-Obama grumblings of various think-tank hawks.
When I saw a poobah on Twitter opining that the Yasukuni furor showed the rather pathetic limitations of the Japanese PR machine, I had to lift both eyebrows in skepticism. Actually, I ran around with my arms in the air like Spongebob Squarepants in his utter-dismay mode, while yelling Nooooooooo like Luke Skywalker did after Darth Vader cut off his hand and told him he was his father.
Japan has learned the lessons of World War II, when the Japan Lobby was bested by the China Lobby, and also from the fraught decades of the 1970s and 80s, when Japan filled the designated role of Asian menace to the Western way of life in US politics. Recently, the Abe administration has energetically ingratiated itself to the US military, defense hawks, and the American Right, and done a pretty good job of leveraging its ally status into a favorable position in the US policy debate…especially when compared to the PR black hole occupied by PR China.
In my humble opinion, Kerry’s focus on the Middle East—where the United States is deeply involved in three armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, a political crisis in Egypt, and a high-risk diplomatic gambit with Iran—at the expense of the Far East—which is facing the threat of Chinese aggression against five unoccupied islands and an uninhabited atoll—is pretty well justified.
In fact, conspiracy theorists might note that Kerry is getting some assistance from the PRC in trying to wrangle the Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran questions, as he acknowledged during his press availability--while Japan has very little to offer.
I, for one, would not be surprised if the Japanese foreign ministry, concerned that the PRC might be piling up deposits in John Kerry’s favorbank for eventual redemption in the Far East and programming against Kerry's visit to Beijing, might have thought it better to encourage concerns about excessive US attention to the Middle East and US “softness” on the PRC in order to make sure the PRC is recognized as the real bad guy and pre-empt any possibility that the dreaded “G2”—an effective alliance of interest of the US and PRC on key questions that excludes Japan—ever materializes.
I think the concerted and orchestrated nature of the pro-Japan campaign is revealed by the fearmongering that the United States “might” fail to back up the Japan on the Senkakus.
As Bill Gertz, the journalistic dean of China hawks, reported in an article which accused the Obama administration of fecklessness in China affairs (excuse me, in which unnamed "China watchers" and "analysts" opined that the adminstration's response to China had been "confused", "vacillating", "mild" and "too little too late"):
A U.S. official summed up the tensions in a comment to The Nelson Report’s Chris Nelson: “What we need to think our way through is how China’s salami-slicing tactics (and they will continue whether with an ADIZ in the [South China Sea] or elsewhere) will play against U.S. credibility.
“If all we have are diplomatic response[s] when China is creating new facts on the ground/in the sea/air, this will continue to erode U.S. credibility with allies and partners; and, if, God forbid, we fail to honor alliance commitments, especially on the Senkakus, we soon will have no allies/partners/standing in the region.”
Although the PRC officially disclaimed any plans for an SCS ADIZ in response to a US declaration, thereby supporting the unwelcome surmise that the US could effectively engage with the PRC, Gertz manages to brush aside this ruse and keep the eternal reality of China's inexorable salami-slicing menace alive in the minds of his readers with the parenthetical remark ("they will continue whether an ADIZ...or elsewhere").
Despite the concerns of Gertz and the various watchers and analysts, I don't think the U.S. is even remotely considering selling out the Senkakus. Like it or not, US support for Japan on the Senkakus is the linchpin of US credibility in the region (ever since Secretary Clinton, in response to the somewhat fishy-smelling Captain Zhan incident and the subsequent rare earth “crisis” in 2010, reversed the Obama administration’s previous internal decision not to reaffirm their inclusion in the scope of Article V) and it’s not, in my opinion, going anywhere.
Lower down the foreign policy and op-ed food chain, the term “appeasement” has floated to the surface like an unwelcome addition to the punchbowl of China discourse, often referencing the PRC’s declaration of the Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea and the measured US response.
A few things to bear in mind.
First, the United States showed plenty of confrontational sack by immediately flying two B-52s into the ADIZ unannounced.
Second, the only thing that the United States—and the rest of the world, for that matter—didn’t do was follow Japan’s lead and take the rather irresponsible step of directing its civilian carriers to drop their compliance and start disregarding the ADIZ.
So, in this context, “appeasement” means not doing something that Japan wants, something that is worth bearing in mind when considering whose interests are really being promoted by a more aggressive policy.
Third and for extra credit, according to a credible-sounding report in the Mainichi Shinbun as reported by the Shingetsu News Service, the PRC had notified Japan and the US about the ADIZ extension in 2010, supporting the inference that the US & Japan, instead of coming up with a faltering and incomplete response to “assertive China”, were actually being plenty aggressive and confrontational in using the public announcement of the ADIZ to sandbag the PRC with accusations of destabilizing the region.
So, in my opinion, US PRC policy has not been excessively weak-kneed.
However, looking at the recent chest-thumping and scrotum-hefting declarations of the White House concerning the China threat, it looks to me like the Obama administration is ostentatiously inoculating itself against the “weak on China” accusation while, when the remarks are closely parsed, still trying to reserve some space for the US between the PRC and Japan as “the honest broker”.
In fact, John Kerry was quite reassuring during his recent visit to Beijing and his words probably triggered a brief, blissful reverie in the PRC leadership about the unconsummated new great power relationship. Cooperation on North Korea was the lead item, followed by nice words about the SCS Code of Conduct and some collective handwringing about climate change. Kerry averred that the United States was not trying to contain China.
From his press availability:
Our cooperation, frankly, on issues of enormous importance in the world should not go unnoticed. China and the United States are cooperating on big-ticket items. We’ve worked together in the P5+1 on Iran. We’ve worked together on Afghanistan. We have worked together on Syria. We are working together on other issues like South Sudan and the prevention of violence there. And we appreciate enormously the Chinese efforts with respect to those kinds of initiatives. Not many people know that that kind of cooperative effort is underway.
Kerry’s statement on the SCS disputes—particularly his apparent endorsement of Chinese gripes about provocations by “others”-- will probably have the China hawks mailing him Neville Chamberlain umbrellas:
And the Chinese have made clear that they believe they need to be resolved in a peaceful and legal manner, and that they need to be resolved according to international law and that process.
And I think they believe they have a strong claim, a claim based on history and based on fact. They’re prepared to submit it, and – but I think they complained about some of the provocations that they feel others are engaged in. And that is why I’ve said all parties need to refrain from that. Particularly with respect to some of the islands and shoals, they feel there have been very specific actions taken in order to sort of push the issue of sovereignty on the sea itself or by creating some construction or other kinds of things.
So the bottom line is there was a very specific statement with respect to the importance of rule of law in resolving this and the importance of legal standards and precedent and history being taken into account to appropriately make judgments about it.
The PRC leadership obviously likes Kerry and his policies, especially when compared with the alternative (Hillary Clinton); and it seems to me that Kerry is not just playing good cop in the good cop/bad cop chainyanking exercise.
So China hawks have a right to be anxious that Big John is not sufficiently enthusiastic about twisting the PRC’s testicles until universal peace, freedom, democracy, and prosperity explode into East Asia.
Nevertheless, a Global Times op-ed realistically noted that nice words from Big John do not, however, translate directly into a favorable attitude by the United States:
Kerry did say something to pressure China as US politicians always do. But he also reasonably exchanged ideas with Chinese leaders and showed some good faith. His positive remarks about the US not to contain China will at least have some impact on Washington's behavior for a while. We are not demanding too much.
I don’t think the hawks have to worry overmuch. The countdown to a new, almost certainly more hardline US presidency has begun, and the PRC is unlikely to deliver any foreign policy win to Kerry that’s big enough to cause a significant and lasting U-turn in US policy.
Also, by yielding to the insistence of the Pentagon to endorse Japanese “collective self defense”, I think the Obama administration has let the pendulum swing far enough away from China that it has sacrificed much of its tattered “honest broker” cred and, from the PRC point of view, is perhaps considered “weak on Japan” i.e. so far in Japan’s pocket that it cannot constrain Japanese behavior in a way useful to the PRC.
On the surface, “collective self defense” doesn’t seem to be a huge change to the US-Japanese relationship. It would simply enable closer integration of US and Japanese forces during joint military operations. Of course, this might involve joint flotillas in international waters countering the mythical threat to freedom of navigation from the PRC but, I suppose, the thinking is that the US would have overall command and therefore control over when and where a serious confrontation with the PRC might occur.
Japanese strategists, to their credit, have repeatedly asserted the “collective self defense” will be applied to Japanese security arrangements with other friendly countries (read Philippines, India), new bilateral relationships that have nothing to do directly with the United States.
(Astute observers, of course the only kind of readers China Matters has, will recall that the Abe administration frequently if discretely voices its anxiety about true US staying power in Asia in order to justify its independent security outreach in the region and thereby stampede the Obama administration into a more assertively pro-Japanese policy.)
Anyway, assuming that Prime Minister Abe as expected announces the legitimacy of “collective self defense” through a cabinet statement, the Rubicon’s been crossed, cat’s out of the bag, Pandora’s box has been opened, America sh*t the bed, choose your metaphor, the Japanese government’s freedom to create a new parallel security regime in Asia without the input of the United States is being enabled by…the United States.
I’m assuming that the Obama team is well aware of this implication but has decided not to worry/care about, maybe because President Obama, contemplating both his lame duck status and his marked distaste for the PRC regime combined with strong institutional pressure from the Pentagon and its allies, has decided not to expend too much political and bureaucratic capital fighting this thing.
And the Chinese leadership, expecting John Kerry’s panda-hugging tendencies to be circumscribed by the anti-appeasement whispering campaign, President Obama’s upcoming Asian tour programmed as a celebration of democratic Asia and the US pivot against the menace of Chinese aggression, the Japanese government taking advantage of the US tilt to push more aggressive policies (like the needlessly provocative declaration it wishes to sue the hapless Captain Zhan), and the prospect of President Clinton waiting in the wings, will just have to keep its head down for the next few years.
Beyond threatening to disintermediate the US in the creation of a new Asian security regime, I think the real threat from collective self defense to regional and US interests comes for its possible integration into “deterrence” as the standard security template for Asia.
As I discuss in my most recent article at Asia Times Online, US and Japanese strategists have characterized the situation with the PRC in the East China Sea as a “gray zone crisis” i.e. neither war nor peace, to be addressed by a combination of “dynamic” and “static” deterrence.
In the Chinese context, it means that the PRC position is defined as “probing for and attempting to fill a power vacuum and thereby expel competing powers from its near beyond”, and the correct riposte is Japanese vigilance and US preparedness—heightened surveillance activity in the area that integrates directly into the SDF and US military capability so that decisive military power can be brought to bear in case of a confrontation.
The possibility that the PRC might have legitimate interests that could be negotiated is infra dig—it’s appeasement. Hey, there’s that word again!
Same thing, of course on the PRC side. With the deterrence framing, concession = capitulation.
So, conflicts that were and could possibly continue to be handled through bilateral civilian negotiations become militarized.
Concessions, indeed negotiations, on these issues are not particularly desirable since they are a sign of lack of resolve and detract from the credibility of deterrence.
Deterrence, in other words, easily turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, with each side continually thinking about escalating their response so as not to show the dreaded “weakness”.
And, of course, maintaining deterrence offers the delectable prospect of an arms race, as the various parties parse their worst-case scenarios and decide to muscle up.
With the concept of collective self defense, Japan has the opportunity to apply the two-tiered deterrent architecture to formal security arrangements it concludes directly with other Asian democracies. Thereby, the US is faced with diminished regional clout in an environment of increased danger.
Beyond the theoretical problems with collective security and deterrence theory, there are some major holes in practice.
In Japanese affairs, the double-tiered deterrent structure deploys Japanese forces at the front end, with the US at the back end. Looking at it another way, the providers of “static deterrent” are theoretically hostage to the implementers of “dynamic deterrence” because the “static” is expected to back up the “dynamic”, otherwise the credibility of deterrence collapses and with it the whole security architecture.
But the one thing the United States does not want to do is get forced in a war with the PRC because the SDF shot down some plane over Senkakus; and the security treaty, by specifying in case of an attack the US “would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” does not directly mandate War! This unavoidable loophole irks and concerns the Abe administration, I think, for good reason: there is always the chance that the US Cavalry, instead of riding to Japan’s rescue, will first stop off for an anxious powwow with the enemy.
This sort of ambiguity is great for US flexibility, but it undercuts the credibility of deterrence and, in fact, makes the whole deterrent concept look rather fanciful and destabilizing. And, truth be told, a similar modified-hangout-backup would probably also apply to any security arrangement that Japan might conclude with the now useful but potentially dangerous fire-breathing administration of Philippine President Aquino.
So, to the militarizing and escalating dynamic of deterrence add a widespread suspicion about its actually effectiveness.
With the implementation of collective self defense and deterrence, we are faced with a situation in which the US pivot to Asia, which is supposed to a) secure American leadership and b) assure the peace and prosperity of the region for the 21st century by c) reducing tensions and avoiding the dreaded miscalculations and misunderstandings is instead a) promoting the disintermediation of the United States in the Asian defense equation by empowering Japan b) stoking an expensive arms race and c) polarizing Asia into two opposing blocs d) making it more likely that some Asian power will do something irrevocably stupid.
Deterrence is a dead end, figuratively. Hopefully figuratively, not literally.
I don’t blame Prime Minister Abe or Japan for this state of affairs. He has a strategy for advancing Japanese interests at the PRC’s expense. It’s zero sum, but he expects Japan to come out on the positive-number side of the equation.
I have less generous feelings about the US foreign policy solons who look to the Asian pivot and a deterrence structure to make life easier for US budgeters and defense planners, and pick up some easy diplomatic gains by encouraging antagonisms between the Asian democracies and the PRC, but don’t seem to have thought through the ultimate implications for the US position in Asia.
Mostly, I think it’s because America is hooked on hegemonism—being the unmatchable top dog in Asia—but really can’t do it alone as Asia becomes more prosperous and pours more money into national defense budgets.
So I think the US is taking a leaf from the history of the Roman Empire, by enlisting the inhabitants of the borderlands—in this case Asian democracies instead of fur-clad Goths—in order to make sure the imperial writ is still obeyed. The US might not find itself fighting off Goths, but it will find itself herding cats—or Japanese panthers—and the US leadership position in Asia will degrade accordingly.
The popularity of the China pivot strategy is a testament to the remarkable power of a bad idea.
As currently implemented, the pivot may not be a workable solution for Asia’s putative ills, but it’s a big fat gift to the military, military contractors, and think tanks. And it has a virtue shared with other bad ideas.
Dealing with the neverending stream of negative consequences created by a really bad idea is called “process”. And “process” can be very profitable.
Trying to turn chickenshit into chickensalad isn’t just a job; it’s a career, maybe even a lifelong crusade. I don’t doubt that the architects of the pivot, when they shuffle off their mortal coil and enter the neo-liberal Valhalla, will still find profitable PRC containment conundrums with which to wrestle.
Thanks, Pivot to Asia!
Somewhere up there the God of War is laughing.