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Sayonara, Asian Allies

Obama’s damaging diffidence.

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By ROSS TERRILL
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The real problem in the East China Sea is Japan’s apprehension about China’s growing muscle-power, and China’s maritime push to match economic success with military dominance in its “historical backyard.” An eye on resources, yes, but President Hu Jintao’s remark on the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic of China is seminal: “Today a socialist China is standing toweringly in the Eastern world.”

This “towering” China and a Japan with backbone under Abe make the flare-up serious. The four-term governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, cried, “I don’t want Japan to end up as a second Tibet.” Last week Abe became the first major world leader to say Chinese nationalism is being dragged to the rescue of a government no longer gaining legitimacy from socialism.

“As a country that is under the one-party rule of the Communist party,” he told the Washington Post, “formally what they should be seeking is equality. .  .  . And I believe it is fair to say that is probably what constitutes the legitimacy of one-party rule by the Communist party. But as a result of introducing the market economy, China has dropped one of its pillars of legitimacy, which was equal results for all. This has led them to require some different pillars—one of which is high economic growth, and another of which is patriotism [italics added].” 

Yet Obama just asks everyone to be careful with their guns. His national security aide Daniel Russel briefed the press: “Sino-Japan relations have a significant impact on all of us, and on all the countries in the region, so it’s something we pay close attention to.” But U.S.-Japan relations should also have an impact around the world. Why be passive about the alliance? Why not secure Beijing’s “close attention” too? Must others always lead? It did not help that Hu got a state dinner from Obama whereas Abe got lunch and that Abe’s wife did not make the U.S. trip because Michelle Obama was “too busy” to host her.

It’s true, as Obama aides say, that Japan has catching up to do after three years of drift under a Democratic Party of Japan government. Abe acknowledged that it’s “high time, in this age of Asian resurgence,” for Japan to bear more responsibility to promote “our shared rules and values, preserve the commons, and grow side by side with all the high achievers in the region.” He refreshingly aligned Japan under his Liberal Democratic party with “the United States, Korea, Australia, and other like-minded democracies throughout the region.”

At one level Obama’s caution is understandable, as the rocky isles are worth little. Alexander Downer, longtime Australian foreign minister under John Howard (1996-2007), told me the day Abe visited Washington: “There’s nothing to fight for in those islands. The two won’t go to war.” Abe himself declared, “I have absolutely no intention to climb up the escalation ladder.” But the danger lies in any perception that Tokyo and Washington acquiesce in Beijing’s maritime push. The dragon would open his mouth for more. Should Abe acknowledge China’s equal claim to the islands, Beijing would nibble further at Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. On we would go, and no new Kellogg-Briand pact would “outlaw” combat. 

“Since we have decided that the United States is bluffing in the East China Sea,” wrote a Chinese air force colonel in Bejing’s Global Times in August, “we should take this opportunity to respond to these empty provocations [by Japan] with something real. This includes Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, .  .  . the three running dogs of the United States in Asia. .  .  . We only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel.” That is why Abe trumpeted the U.S. alliance last week and why Obama should have pulled out the stops to do the same.

Japan wants steady U.S.-China relations, not a love affair and not hostility. It is often overlooked that China also faces limits. Plummeting relations with Japan would surely bring China major problems with the United States; even Obama’s whispered backing of Abe has given Beijing pause. Continuance of Japanese-American closeness is arguably in China’s interests, because an unleashed Japan with nuclear weapons would be worse for China and North Korea than Japan as junior partner to the United States.

China’s rise is fine, but the tacit China-Japan-U.S. entente is essential. It would be a disaster for Asia if Japan’s record-breaking performance as a major power that for 68 years has not killed or lost a soldier in war came to an end. 

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