Commentary Magazine


Topic: Japan

Historical Truth and the Future of Asia

Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

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Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

I refer to the way Japan’s current government led by Shinzo Abe has sought to revive nationalist fever by, among other things, continuing to own up to the country’s World War Two atrocities in China and throughout Asia. In recent years, this deplorable revisionism has complicated relations between Japan and Korea, which suffered under Tokyo’s brutal rule throughout the first half of the 20th century. But it has also enflamed relations between Japan and China, a regional superpower and a rising military force in the Pacific. While the barbarism practiced by the Japanese military in China curing the 1930s and 40s may seem like ancient history to Americans, it is still very much part of China’s national consciousness. And though we think of Japan as a peaceful economic partner of the United States which left its savage past behind after Hiroshima, the contrast between Germany’s honest if sometimes problematic dedication to tell the truth about the Nazis to its own people and Japan’s continuing denials still has the potential to play havoc with the politics of contemporary Asia.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Herbert P. Bix writes in today’s New York Times, the publication of an official biography of Emperor Hirohito shows that Japan is still refusing to tell the unvarnished truth about its past. The book, reportedly the work of an army of Japanese civil servants and historians who have been compiling it since Hirohito’s death in 1989, appears to stick to the old story that the emperor was a mere puppet in the hands of the country’s military. Moreover, Bix was told by a Japanese newspaper that asked him to write about an embargoed excerpt from the book that he could not comment about the emperor’s “role and responsibility” in the war.

Ironically, as Bix notes, the U.S. was complicit in this cover up for its own reasons. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, it served the cause of the American occupation to connive in the myth that the emperor was innocent of any part in his country’s aggression and the atrocities it committed in the name of its imperial ambition. The agreement to let the emperor remain in place helped smooth the transformation of Japan from a militarized authoritarian state to a pacifist democracy.

But though the myth of the helpless emperor was useful, it was always a lie. As Bix and other historians have demonstrated, far from the puppet depicted in most postwar analyses of Japan’s actions, Hirohito was a dynamic and powerful leader. Indeed, the transformation of the country’s government from one in which the emperor truly was a figurehead into a system in which he exercised direct power was the engine that drove Japan’s 19th century modernization. What historians call the Meiji Restoration—after Hirohito’s grandfather who took back power from the shoguns that had ruled Japan for centuries—was also directly linked to an expansionist spirit that led to war with first China, then Tsarist Russia, and ultimately to the Nazi-like aggression that led it to occupy most of China and to embark on a disastrous and bloody war with the United States.

The decision by General Douglas MacArthur and the Truman administration to give Hirohito a pass was also rooted in a lack of information about how Japan’s imperial system worked. Even during the war when anti-Japanese sentiment was its height, Americans focused their animus on General Hideki Tojo, the country’s prime minister from 1941 to 1944 rather than the emperor who had authorized the aggression carried out in his name. Tojo and other Japanese leaders were rightly held accountable in the Pacific version of the Nuremberg tribunals but they went to their deserved deaths knowing that doing so helped save the emperor from having to account for his own role in their crimes. But it also facilitated the creation of a mindset by which the Japanese seemed to think their part in World War Two was confined to having the first atomic bombs dropped on their cities and having to put up with an American occupation.

Why does this matter? As Bix points out, Japan’s determination to avoid telling the truth makes its neighbors suspicious of any effort to revise the postwar “peace constitution” imposed on the country by the United States. Bix wrongly denounces America’s justified concerns about China’s troubling drive to become a global military power and the need for Japan to assume some responsibility for protecting itself. But he’s right that the rest of Asia, including U.S. allies like Korea and the Philippines will never trust Japan until it owns up to its past.

If Japan wants to return to the world stage it will have to stop lying about Hirohito and the atrocities committed in his name in the last century. Just as important, Tokyo’s obsession with ignoring or covering up its history helps China’s contemporary tyrants whip up nationalism that can be used to suppress any hope of democracy.

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America: the Popular Hegemon

There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

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There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

Those numbers are all the more impressive when you compare the standing of America’s rivals. Russia’s negative ratings have spiked–now 43 percent of those surveyed view Putinland unfavorably while 34 percent have a positive view. As for China–whose diplomatic offensive at American expense has often been noted–it outscores the U.S. in popularity in only one region: the Middle East. Everywhere else–Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America–the U.S. is more popular.

When asked which country is their top ally, respondents in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam all answered the “U.S.” Only respondents in Malaysia and Pakistan described China as their top ally and the U.S. as their top threat. In Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, China was described as the top threat. (Indonesians seem confused–they named the U.S. as both the top ally and the top threat.)

Even more interesting is the fact that large majorities in all of China’s neighbors–and even in China itself–are worried that “territorial disputes between China and neighboring states could lead to a military conflict.” The survey indicates that more than 90 percent of those surveyed in the Philippines are worried as are more than 80 percent of those surveyed in South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Even in China itself more than 60 percent of those surveyed are worried about war.

The implication is clear: the U.S. still has a lot of capital in the world while China is rapidly dissipating whatever goodwill it might once have enjoyed with its aggressive and bombastic behavior. Obviously there is a lot more to foreign policy than popularity–it would be nice to be respected, not just liked–but nevertheless the survey does show an important and often under-appreciated source of American strength: namely the fact that most people around the world do not view us as a threat, no matter how powerful we may be, even when American behavior (e.g., on surveillance and drones) comes in for so much criticism. We are the benevolent superpower, the popular hegemon–not just in our own minds but in the minds of most other people around the world.

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Kerry’s Afghanistan Breakthrough

It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

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It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

This is probably a bluff, but it’s a dangerous one because it threatens to reopen the deep fissures that fractured Afghanistan in the 1990s when Abdullah’s Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, fought a vicious civil war against the Taliban, whose ranks were (and are) made up of Pashtuns from the south and east. Ghani, who according to preliminary results won 56 percent of the vote, compared to Abdullah’s 44 percent, isn’t backing down either. He sees himself as the rightful next president of Afghanistan.

Enter Kerry. He flew into Kabul and in 12 hours of nonstop talks managed to get Abdullah and Ghani, both closeted in separate rooms of the U.S. Embassy along with their advisers, to agree on an internationally supervised procedure to audit all 8 million votes cast–a suspiciously high number, given that only 7 million or so voted in the first round of balloting.

If the process goes off as planned, and if it results in the seating of a government that is seen as legitimate (both admittedly big ifs), Kerry will have achieved a major diplomatic victory–one that could prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos. It will in fact be only his latest triumph in Afghanistan where he has had more luck than most American officials, even when he was still only a senator, in dealing with the difficult Hamid Karzai.

Why does Kerry seem more successful in Afghanistan than elsewhere–for example, in the Middle East, where he devoted so much energy to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” only to see another round of fighting break out between Israel and Hamas? Or in Ukraine where he has had little luck in getting the Russians to end their aggression by proxy?

The answers are pretty obvious but bear repeating. In Afghanistan Kerry has two advantages that he does not enjoy when negotiating with Iran or the Palestinian Authority or Russia: He has overwhelming American military force at his back and he has the luxury of dealing with actors who may have some differences but fundamentally share similar goals and outlooks.

Although their numbers are much reduced (and will fall further by the end of the year) the U.S. military still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, backed up by ample air power, making them the most formidable military force in the country. That gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.

Moreover, while Abdullah and Ghani bitterly disagree about which of them should be president, they are both widely seen as technocrats who want a democratic, Western-oriented, non-Taliban future for the country. That makes it possible, if not easy, for them to bridge their differences in the same way that union and corporate negotiators can do if led along by a skillful mediator.

Alas few if any of those preconditions exist elsewhere in the world, which makes it all the more mysterious that Kerry wants to expend so much energy on what are almost sure to be fruitless negotiations with adversaries who have no reason to reach agreement. He would be better advised to focus his efforts on mediating other disputes between relatively reasonable rivals, e.g., South Korea and Japan, rather than wasting his breathe trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program or the Palestinians to give up their dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

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Will a Nuclear Japan be Obama’s Legacy?

Almost every recent second-term president, burdened by the record of his failures, has sought a “Hail Mary” foreign-policy success to define his legacy: Bill Clinton sought successfully to normalize ties with Vietnam, but also wanted to shake hands with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and broker a final peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians, and the broader Arab world. And for all of George W. Bush’s talk about a war on terrorism, he effectively let North Korea off the hook, removing it from the state sponsor of terrorism list, because Condoleezza Rice thought a North Korea break through could change her boss’s legacy. Ditto the rushed 2007 Annapolis conference, which, as process for the sake of process, symbolized everything wrong with the approach of Bush’s predecessors. Like Clinton, Obama is turning to Middle East peace and Iran to reverse a legacy marred by the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Healthcare Act (“Obamacare”), the failure of the reset in Russia, and chaos in Syria. In neither case, however, will Obama see success. Neither he nor Secretary of State John Kerry recognize that their rhetoric does not sound as insightful or brilliant to outsiders as it does to their own ears or to those of their sycophantic aides. When it comes to strategy, determination, or pursuit of pure national objectives, Obama is simply no match for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un.

And so most U.S. allies now recognize that they cannot trust the United States. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, traditional American allies are increasingly concluding that they need a Plan B. Those Plan B’s could actually become Obama’s greatest foreign-policy legacy.

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Almost every recent second-term president, burdened by the record of his failures, has sought a “Hail Mary” foreign-policy success to define his legacy: Bill Clinton sought successfully to normalize ties with Vietnam, but also wanted to shake hands with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and broker a final peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians, and the broader Arab world. And for all of George W. Bush’s talk about a war on terrorism, he effectively let North Korea off the hook, removing it from the state sponsor of terrorism list, because Condoleezza Rice thought a North Korea break through could change her boss’s legacy. Ditto the rushed 2007 Annapolis conference, which, as process for the sake of process, symbolized everything wrong with the approach of Bush’s predecessors. Like Clinton, Obama is turning to Middle East peace and Iran to reverse a legacy marred by the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Healthcare Act (“Obamacare”), the failure of the reset in Russia, and chaos in Syria. In neither case, however, will Obama see success. Neither he nor Secretary of State John Kerry recognize that their rhetoric does not sound as insightful or brilliant to outsiders as it does to their own ears or to those of their sycophantic aides. When it comes to strategy, determination, or pursuit of pure national objectives, Obama is simply no match for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un.

And so most U.S. allies now recognize that they cannot trust the United States. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, traditional American allies are increasingly concluding that they need a Plan B. Those Plan B’s could actually become Obama’s greatest foreign-policy legacy.

The notion of Japan armed with nuclear weapons might seem far-fetched or bizarre given that Japan remains to this day the only country against whom nuclear weapons were used. After World War II, the new Japanese constitution declared that its military would be for self-defense only. Regional states know, however, that if pushed too far—by a resurgent and aggressive China, an unstable and unpredictable North Korea, or a Cold War-fixated Russia—Japan could resort to a nuclear deterrent in order to protect itself. A number of other analysts have written openly about Japan’s nuclear option. Given how the American pivot to Asia has evaporated, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s acknowledgment that the American forces would scale back to pre-World War II levels, and the fact that the Japan-based carrier, the USS George Washington, will within a couple years need to be withdrawn for a multi-year refueling, it should become clear to Japan that any U.S. security guarantees are rhetorical and ephemeral rather than real. It should be hard for Japanese leaders not to conclude that if they want to defend their territory and people, the time is nearing when they will have to cross the nuclear weapons threshold.

How ironic it is that Obama campaigned on a nuclear zero option, but the weakness of his policies now convince states that they have little choice but to embrace nuclear weapons they once so disdained.

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The Debate We Should Be Having About Rand Paul and Sanctions

Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

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Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

What Paul never contends is that Hitler’s ideology hinged on the idea of opposing Versailles. He was talking about Germany and Germans. In front of me is Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, where the author basically makes the same case and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, in which she writes that though Versailles’ impact had likely been exaggerated by German governments, it allowed political parties like the Nazis to tap into widespread “anger” and resentment. Sounds like that’s what Rand was saying.

True enough, though it’s worth noting that in Modern Times, Johnson has much more to say about the grievances unleashed by Versailles, and they center on the ethnic strife sparked by transferring Europe to the individual nation-state model from the age of empires–“self-determination,” in Johnson’s writing, which created more restive minority populations because there were more states. Where economic factors played a role, Johnson seems to put emphasis on the fact that more states also meant more poor states, especially in the immediate postwar period, and he notes that Germany was considered to have defaulted on its postwar obligations as well. If any aspect of Versailles encouraged German expansionism, Johnson appears to blame the fact that “under the Treaty it was forbidden to seek union with Germany, which made the Anschluss seem more attractive than it actually was.”

But I think Paul’s defenders here are on less steady ground in dismissing Paul’s comments as they relate to Pearl Harbor. He prefaced his sanctions comments–at least on Pearl Harbor–by saying sometimes sanctions “have made it worse.” Taken individually, sanctions on a nation can be treated this way. But it doesn’t always apply, and it applies perhaps less to Japan than almost any other scenario (Germany, Iraq, Iran, etc.).

As some have said since Paul’s comments, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a sort of preemptive strike to at least temporarily avert an American response to simultaneous Japanese aggression throughout the region, including on Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. But another important facet of this is that the sanctions weren’t a surprise to Japan, because they were in response to Japanese action. As the historian Ian Toll writes, Japan took action its leaders–reminded by Admiral Yamamoto, who initially wanted to avoid an unwinnable war–knew would precipitate sanctions, and the whole process would bring them toward war:

From his flagship, Nagato, usually anchored in Hiroshima Bay, Yamamoto continued to warn against joining with the Nazis. He reminded his government that Japan imported around four-fifths of its oil and steel from areas controlled by the Allies. To risk conflict, he wrote, was foolhardy, because “there is no chance of winning a war with the United States for some time to come.”

But Japan’s confused and divided government drifted toward war while refusing to face the strategic problems it posed. It signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in Berlin in September 1940. As Yamamoto had predicted, the American government quickly restricted and finally cut off exports of oil and other vital materials. The sanctions brought events to a head, because Japan had no domestic oil production to speak of, and would exhaust its stockpiles in about a year.

Yamamoto realized he had lost the fight to keep Japan out of war, and he fell in line with the planning process.

Yamamoto warned against the process because he wrongly thought his leaders wanted to avoid war, when in fact they provoked it. This doesn’t mean Paul is “blaming” the U.S. for the attack on Pearl Harbor (and by extension, American entry into World War II). But it raises questions about Paul’s selective use of history–and bad history does not usually inform good policy.

I have raised this issue with Paul before. When he made his major foreign-policy address a year ago, he advocated a greater emphasis on containment. But he conflated the Kennanite version of containment with the strategy that ultimately won the Cold War, which was far from the truth. In reality, Kennan’s ideas were central to the Truman administration’s decision to embrace containment, but his version of containment was so different that Kennan adamantly refused to take credit for it.

It is far from clear that a nuclear Iran would be containable the way the Soviet Union was–in fact, it’s unlikely. But Paul’s version of containment would not have even contained the Soviet Union. Paul’s habit of cherry-picking history to create precedents for his own preferred strategy seems to be present with his comments on Japanese sanctions and Pearl Harbor as well. It certainly doesn’t make him a blame-America-firster. But it does suggest unsound strategic judgment.

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The President Sees a Different Reality in Northeast Asia

Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

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Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

More directly, however, the president seems to be ignoring that young dictator Kim Jong-un appears to be even more unpredictable and uncontrollable than his late father. Kim has purged his father’s officials, executing the former No. 2 official, who also happened to be his uncle. While the president was speaking, Kim was firing off medium-range ballistic missiles. He has already conducted a nuclear test and tested a long-range ballistic missile, in addition to breaking his one agreement with the Obama administration. Pyongyang’s rhetoric is as bellicose as ever, if not more so. I defy the president to find one knowledgeable observer outside his administration who believes America has “changed the game” with North Korea since 2009.

The same can be said for the president’s continued belief that China is somehow a partner of the United States. After meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in Brussels, the president again stated that the two sides are creating a “new model” of relations between Washington and Beijing. The new model increasingly seems to be one where China tries to revise international norms, supports destabilizing actors, and coerces its neighbors, while the United States does its best to ignore such actions. That would include such things as declaring an intrusive air defense identification zone over part of the East China Sea, violating Japan’s territorial waters, preventing the Philippines from resupplying troops on claimed territory in the South China Sea, supporting North Korea, and preventing stronger action on Iran, among others.

Diplomacy often requires saying untrue things in service of a greater cause, but no cause is helped by pretending that things are what they are not. After five years, it would be more reassuring to see the president humbled and frustrated by his lack of progress in dealing with North Korea or in making China a more constructive actor on the world stage. Assertions of a parallel reality either are boilerplate to be ignored or reveal a worrisome lack of understanding of actual trends. In either case, they also abet the continued uncertainty and sense of insecurity that is increasing risk throughout East Asia.

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The Silence of the Imams

In discussing the horrendous massacre of children in Nigeria, stabbed and burned alive by Muslim extremists as they slept, Bob Beckel, on Fox News’s The Five wondered why incidents such as this—and such incidents are frequent—are never condemned by Muslim leaders, secular or religious. It’s a good point. The silence on the part of the leaders of the Muslim world, even avowed moderates, is deafening. Even 9/11 and the attack at Fort Hood were not condemned.

But the reason for that silence is, I suspect, simple: moderates in the Muslim world are afraid to speak out and condemn these atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.

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In discussing the horrendous massacre of children in Nigeria, stabbed and burned alive by Muslim extremists as they slept, Bob Beckel, on Fox News’s The Five wondered why incidents such as this—and such incidents are frequent—are never condemned by Muslim leaders, secular or religious. It’s a good point. The silence on the part of the leaders of the Muslim world, even avowed moderates, is deafening. Even 9/11 and the attack at Fort Hood were not condemned.

But the reason for that silence is, I suspect, simple: moderates in the Muslim world are afraid to speak out and condemn these atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.

The situation is highly reminiscent of Japan of the 1930s, when secret societies carried out politics by means of assassinations and coups. Anyone who advocated anything but militant aggression and ultra-patriotism or who criticized atrocities carried out in the name of that ideology was very likely to find himself dead.  Organizations that didn’t advocate militarism and an all-powerful army were destroyed. The fanatics effectively silenced all opposition and Japan, held in the grip of their militant ideology, hurtled down the road to utter disaster.

The Muslim world, of course, is not a unified state, still less, thank heavens, a great power as Japan was. That makes the defeat of the poisonous ideology espoused by such groups as Boko Haram, which carried out the massacre in Nigeria, that much more difficult to accomplish. But defeated it will have to be if the Muslim world is ever to enjoy the fruits of modernity.

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Pivot on the Rocks

Max’s questions about why John Kerry is paying far less attention to helping tamp down the tension in Asia are echoed throughout the region. On Thursday, Kerry is leaving for his fifth visit to Asia since taking office last year. The State Department claims this is proof of his commitment to the administration’s pivot. Yet the White House continues to believe that merely showing up is 90 percent of success. This Woody Allen approach has worn thin with countries looking at Washington’s continuing refusal to confront China head-on over its increasingly coercive behavior. Nor were our partners in Asia appeased by once-regular statements that D.C. budget battles would not reduce the American presence in the Pacific.

Now they read comments by the commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, that “resources have not followed the … rebalance.” They see that U.S. Pacific Command has cut back on travel throughout the region and joint exercises, and that the U.S. Navy is planning on dropping down to just two carriers deployed globally. Far better than most in Washington, our friends and allies in Asia understand the immense distances separating the U.S. homeland from the areas in which it has rather daunting commitments.

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Max’s questions about why John Kerry is paying far less attention to helping tamp down the tension in Asia are echoed throughout the region. On Thursday, Kerry is leaving for his fifth visit to Asia since taking office last year. The State Department claims this is proof of his commitment to the administration’s pivot. Yet the White House continues to believe that merely showing up is 90 percent of success. This Woody Allen approach has worn thin with countries looking at Washington’s continuing refusal to confront China head-on over its increasingly coercive behavior. Nor were our partners in Asia appeased by once-regular statements that D.C. budget battles would not reduce the American presence in the Pacific.

Now they read comments by the commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, that “resources have not followed the … rebalance.” They see that U.S. Pacific Command has cut back on travel throughout the region and joint exercises, and that the U.S. Navy is planning on dropping down to just two carriers deployed globally. Far better than most in Washington, our friends and allies in Asia understand the immense distances separating the U.S. homeland from the areas in which it has rather daunting commitments.

The problem the administration faces is that Kerry, and President Obama for that matter, come to Asia bearing no gifts. There was a brief flurry a few years ago, after the announcement that we would rotate U.S. Marines through Darwin, Australia as well as a few other minor adjustments. All these were good moves, but they certainly did not add up to a major shift in American resources. Worse, the administration never explained just what the pivot was for: containing China, promoting democracy, forging a regional coalition of the willing?

Now, Washington is getting worried enough about the heated rhetoric in the region that it is telling our allies Japan and the Philippines to cool it and not provoke China over the territorial disputes each has with Beijing. The problem, of course, is that both Tokyo and Manila have been urging Washington for years to get more involved. They see little evidence that the Obama team is willing to stand up to China, except for more rhetoric, like that of NSC Asia head Evan Medieros last week, in which he said that another Chinese air defense identification zone would result in a change in U.S. posture in Asia. Such bravado is increasingly discounted, if not dismissed, in Asia.

The ultimate answer may well be the one the Asians already believe: the administration is afraid of provoking China and does not feel that the risks of countering Beijing’s moves are worth it. To me, the most interesting question is whether they are acting in this way because they feel militarily superior (and thus can give the Chinese space to “act out”), or because fear that they are not strong enough in depth in Asia to risk a clash that they could not control with our stretched forces. Either one is sending a signal to our allies and other nations that they increasingly are on their own.

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A Good Time for that “Pacific Pivot”

I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

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I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

And yet where does Secretary of State John Kerry choose to devote his time? He has made clear that his primary objective is to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, which seems to be as unlikely as ever. His secondary objectives seem to be focused on Iran and Syria, both important areas to be sure. But the Syria conflict, for one, does not appear to be amenable to diplomatic solution, as the failure of Geneva II should have made clear. The prospects are, admittedly, more promising in the case of Iran but only if the U.S. is willing to accept a lopsided deal that lifts a significant amount of the sanctions in return for a commitment to slow but not stop, much less dismantle, its nuclear program.

This leads one to wonder why Kerry isn’t devoting more time to Asian diplomacy? The explosive situation between China and Japan is hardly the only area of tension that cries out for amelioration. As the comments from Benigno Aquino of the Philippines quoted above make clear, China has dangerous relations with many of its neighbors who are offended by its expansive territorial claims.

Two U.S. allies–South Korea and Japan–also have poisonous relations that hinder efforts to contain both China and North Korea and could also be the subject of productive bridge-building work by an American secretary of state.

Finally, India remains a wild card in all of this–a major country on the other side of China that could be of crucial importance in containing the rise of Chinese power, playing the same role that Russia played in containing Germany in the two world wars. President George W. Bush made real progress in improving U.S.-India ties but more needs to be done, not only to bring the U.S. and India closer together but also to improve ties between India and other U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific region, from Australia to Japan.

There is, in short, ample work to be done here by a leading American diplomat and more potential for progress than in the Middle East. Yet Kerry is largely MIA in this crucial region. Whatever happened to the “Pacific pivot”?

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Year of the (War) Horse?

Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

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Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

Following close on these Davos disturbances were Chinese newspapers noting that this year, the Year of the Horse, is the same zodiacal year in which China and Japan fought their first war. The 1894 Sino-Japanese War broke out over Imperial Japan’s desire to control the Korean peninsula and end Chinese influence there. Of course, Japan defeated China by the following year and upended centuries of East Asian geopolitics.

There are major historical problems with both these analogies. With respect to 1914, Japan is no Britain, which was the de facto defender of the balance of power and open trading system. Instead, Japan has but slowly developed its military potential, while keeping both its capacity limited and being hamstrung by constitutional restrictions on the use of force. The 1914-style clash between reigning hegemon and rising challenger could only be between the United States and China, and there is as yet little reason to believe either is contemplating such a fight.

Further, no matter how much economic interplay there was between Britain and Germany back then, it is nothing like the interdependence of China and Japan, which are each other’s second-largest trading partners, where 10 million Chinese are employed by Japanese firms on the mainland, and where Chinese firms assemble billions of dollars worth of products using Japanese components or designed in Japan. There is no reason to expect that economic ties always trump political/military ones, but the bar has undoubtedly been raised particularly high in the Asian case.

As for 1894, again to use the Lloyd Bentsen analogy, the Senkaku Islands are no Korea. While the Senkakus are strategically useful to China, they are uninhabitable and largely derive their importance from nationalistic feelings that any territory once claimed by a state must be recovered. Korea, by comparison, was the crossroads of Northeast Asia, a fertile land to be controlled and used for further expansion. From that perspective, Korea may indeed have been worth fighting a war over, but no such claim could be made for the Senkakus.

The real danger is not a “guns of August” scenario whereby highly regulated mobilization timetables drag unprepared participants into conflict that spreads to halfhearted alliances. The danger rather falls into two distinct scenarios. The first is that years of war talk by both sides hardens diplomatic positions and inhibits any type of peaceful solution to the problem of a handful of uninhabited islands. Yes, Japan is deeply concerned about China’s seemingly inexorable rise once again to great-power status in Asia. It fears the future and feels its national honor is at stake in the Senkakus issue. As for Beijing, it appears to have adopted a position of pushing as far as it can and waiting to see what the response is; little opposition encourages more probing, while a firm response usually causes it to back down.

The second danger scenario is much more likely: accident or miscalculation leading to conflict. One would think that an accident, say two naval ships colliding, could be contained and prevented from escalating into full war. But here is where years of nationalism, distrust, and ambition could combine into a deadly brew. Neither side may want a real conflict, but each may feel they have drawn their lines too strongly to back down. The Year of the (War) Horse may come to haunt Asia.

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How China Undercuts International Order in East Asia

Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

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Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

First, China’s ADIZ is ostensibly applied to both civilian and military flights for purposes of identification, filing of flight plans, and the like. All other ADIZ’s, such as those of the United States, apply only to civilian flights, and only in the case that there is a valid concern that they are acting in a threatening manner towards U.S. territorial airspace. As pointed out by James Kraska, formerly of the U.S. Naval War College, among others, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory, allows “freedom of overflight” on the high seas, including through exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Beijing is thus trying to change the status quo by warping the commonly accepted definition of an ADIZ. The U.S. has never fully explained that only China is attempting to control the activities of both civilian and foreign military aircraft by expanding the scope of an air defense zone. This is a prime example of what analysts mean when they talk about international “norms” and the danger to them of revisionist states like China.

Second, China’s ADIZ conflicts with the 1947 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which states that interception of civilian aircraft over sovereign territory is permissible only if “reasonable grounds” exist to assume that such flight was not innocent, and that states “must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.”

Yet in announcing its ADIZ, Beijing said that “emergency defensive measures” would be taken against any aircraft that did not comply with its demands for identification in the international airspace that happened to fall within the ADIZ, regardless of the innocence of the flight. Beijing is thus both conflating sovereign and international airspace and violating the spirit of international law by pre-justifying the use of force. A State Department full of lawyers might have enjoyed pounding this point home, but little if anything has been said about it.

In addition, Beijing is ignoring the fact that all airspace is already divided into “Flight Identification Regions” for the management of civilian flights and is agreed to through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Beijing’s demand that innocent civilian airliners provide information when traveling through its ADIZ violates air traffic practice established more than 50 years ago. Again, Washington has been silent on this point.

Third, Washington should have repeatedly pointed out that only China has established an ADIZ that overlaps with those of other countries. Indeed, a primary reason for China’s zone is to extend its ownership claims over the contested Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan. Thus, Beijing set up its ADIZ over Japan’s own zone, which was established decades ago. In addition, China overlapped territory claimed by South Korea. In response, Seoul also extended its ADIZ, so that the East China Sea now has three overlapping air defense zones.

The Obama administration has refused to provide the specifics about how destabilizing this is. Instead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel merely lamented that what the U.S. was most concerned about was that China established its ADIZ in a precipitous manner without preconsultation. While U.S. military leaders have talked about the potential for accidental confrontation, the real dangers are much broader. In refusing to defend customary practice, international law, and common sense, the administration is playing its part in undermining all of them. It is a steep price to pay for not wanting to antagonize an already antagonistic competitor.

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Obama’s Disappearing Pacific Pivot

Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

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Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

The relative unimportance of the “Pacific pivot” in his speech is matched by a lack of action to bulk up U.S. forces in the region, even as the U.S. downsizes in the Middle East–something that military officers and observers have been noticing. But then it’s hard to see how the U.S. can do more in the Pacific, or anywhere else, at a time when the defense budget is falling as fast as it is.

An increased U.S. commitment in the region is appropriate, especially coming at a time when delegates at Davos are buzzing about the possibility of conflict between China and Japan—a situation that Japan’s premier has compared to the relationship between Germany and Britain before 1914. But a U.S. commitment to the Pacific shouldn’t come at the expense of the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, which is in greater turmoil than ever.

In reality, the U.S. commitment to both regions is decreasing; it is just that the decline of U.S. power in the Middle East is happening faster than in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. will not be able to exert more power in either area until the president and Congress rethink their plans to shrink the defense budget and with it our military capability.

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Shinzo Abe’s Provocation

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

Some Japan watchers posit a more conspiratorial explanation for his provocation: By visiting Yasukuni, Abe will enrage China, North Korea, and South Korea, among others, possibly prompting symbolic Chinese retaliation, thereby making the Japanese people feel threatened and making them more receptive to his agenda of rearming Japan and adopting a more aggressive posture in foreign and defense policy.

This sounds plausible to me, but it is also short-sighted on Abe’s part, because he is simply feeding Chinese nationalism and xenophobia–the greatest threats to East Asian security today. He is also making it harder, indeed nearly impossible, for Japan to work together more closely with South Korea on issues of mutual concern, such as the threat from North Korea. Japan and South Korea–both democracies closely aligned with the U.S.–ought to be natural allies, but for that to occur South Korea would have to overcome decades of bitterness over Japan’s imperialistic exploitation of their country. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni makes that nearly impossible.

Abe has the potential to be one of Japan’s greatest prime ministers. He has already achieved a great deal by turning around the Japanese economy, which is emerging from years of stagnation. He will also do much good if he succeeds in expanding Japan’s capacity and scope for military action. Japan is America’s closest ally in Northeast Asia and one that can do a good deal of good by checking the rise of Chinese power. The just-concluded agreement to keep a U.S. marine base on Okinawa by relocating it to a remote part of the island is an example of Abe at his best. The visit to Yasukuni, unfortunately, undermines this achievement and creates needless antagonism toward Japanese rearmament.

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China, the Philippines, and U.S. Influence

It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”

The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”

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It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”

The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”

For example, when Vice President Biden met in Beijing recently with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he didn’t mention the issue at all. Moreover, the Obama administration has infuriated our close allies in Tokyo by telling U.S. airliners to abide by the Chinese ADIZ, even as Japan is telling its own airlines to ignore it.

The lack of a strong, consistent message from the administration is deeply injurious to our relationships with allies and to overall efforts to limit Chinese expansion. The leadership in Beijing is smart and they are willing to play a long game. They are not going to achieve overnight their ultimate ambition of reasserting historic Chinese domination of its neighboring states and pushing the U.S. military beyond the “first island chain” off the Chinese shore–a designation which takes in everything from Taiwan to the Philippines. Instead, the Chinese are taking one small nibble after another, testing the American reaction, and then, if there is no reaction, proceeding onto the next bite.

So far, unfortunately, the U.S. has given China no reason to doubt that its assertion of an ADIZ was a success–which means that further aggressive moves are in store before long.

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China’s Strategic Patience

Because China was not under any serious foreign military threat, its decision to declare an “air defense identification zone” over an area that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China was unnecessary. Because it was unnecessary, there are two obvious ways of looking at it. Either the gratuitous display of power was meant as a prelude to real aggression, or it was a bluff.

If the former, then the second act may have been averted when the U.S. flew B-52 bombers through the airspace, causing China to back down. If the latter, the bluff was called for all the world to see. In either of these scenarios, China looks like a paper tiger–a phrase used often in reference to China, but again repeated when it looked like China would do nothing too troublesome to defend the flag it planted. But both these analyses stem from judging events news cycle by news cycle–a typically Western habit exacerbated in the age of Twitter.

There is a third way of looking at it, though, and there is reason enough to think it aligns with how the Chinese government viewed the episode, which is still unfurling with Joe Biden’s visit to China today. This perspective is hinted at on the map of the air defense zone, of which the New York Times has an excellent version here. The Chinese air defense zone is predominantly in conflict with Japan’s airspace claims, but about a third of the zone looks to be encroaching on Taiwanese airspace, which, of course, is much closer to the Chinese mainland. It also overlaps with some airspace claimed by South Korea.

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Because China was not under any serious foreign military threat, its decision to declare an “air defense identification zone” over an area that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China was unnecessary. Because it was unnecessary, there are two obvious ways of looking at it. Either the gratuitous display of power was meant as a prelude to real aggression, or it was a bluff.

If the former, then the second act may have been averted when the U.S. flew B-52 bombers through the airspace, causing China to back down. If the latter, the bluff was called for all the world to see. In either of these scenarios, China looks like a paper tiger–a phrase used often in reference to China, but again repeated when it looked like China would do nothing too troublesome to defend the flag it planted. But both these analyses stem from judging events news cycle by news cycle–a typically Western habit exacerbated in the age of Twitter.

There is a third way of looking at it, though, and there is reason enough to think it aligns with how the Chinese government viewed the episode, which is still unfurling with Joe Biden’s visit to China today. This perspective is hinted at on the map of the air defense zone, of which the New York Times has an excellent version here. The Chinese air defense zone is predominantly in conflict with Japan’s airspace claims, but about a third of the zone looks to be encroaching on Taiwanese airspace, which, of course, is much closer to the Chinese mainland. It also overlaps with some airspace claimed by South Korea.

China did not win anything in the near term from the United States, it would appear. But that doesn’t mean China didn’t win anything at all in the near term, or that China didn’t win anything in the long run from the U.S. The opposite seems to be the case. First, from the Times, what the Chinese have won in the near term:

The vice president’s goal appears to be to neutralize the destabilizing impact of the air defense zone in the region by persuading the Chinese authorities to stop scrambling fighter jets or otherwise disrupt the busy air corridors between Japan and China.

China will likely interpret this as to some extent legitimizing China’s right to contest control of the airspace, just not to have that claim recognized as a fact in itself. It’s unclear what, if anything, the U.S. can do beyond this. It’s therefore likely that, far from miscalculating, the Chinese leadership assessed the situation accurately. It may not be a monumental victory, but it’s more than they started with.

And the Washington Post’s writeup of Biden’s visit hints at what China may have won in the long run:

Aides said the vice president’s goals would include getting the Chinese to agree not to establish other such zones without first discussing their intentions with potentially affected countries.

China has reason to view this as a win on two levels: first, that the U.S. will essentially stay out of such regional line-drawing; and second, that “discussing their intentions with potentially affected countries” before rearranging borders is a loophole big enough to fly a B-52 bomber through.

It also suggests the Obama administration knows China is playing the long game. As Harry Kazianis notes at the Diplomat, an air defense zone over the disputed islands with Japan is presumably the opening act:

Beijing could use such wording to openly declare such a new ADIZ in the South China Sea — an area with sovereignty disputes involving multiple claimants. In fact, Beijing has already gone so far to claim 80 percent of the area, effectively taking control of Scarborough Shoal last summer, which is well within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines and is pressing its claims now on Second Thomas Shoal. China has also deployed its new aircraft carrier to the region in what could be seen as a show of force (although, let’s be frank, the carrier won’t be operational for sometime, however, the point is still made).

Second, when America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave guidance that U.S. domestic carriers should inform Beijing of their flight plans, Washington not only gave de facto approval of the East China Sea ADIZ, but also suggested that future moves would not be met with strong resistance. Truth be told, the Obama Administration was in a tight bind on the decision — not giving the information to Beijing could have put such flights and American lives in danger, and no one wants to see an accident turn into a crisis that won’t be easy to untangle considering the stakes. Yet, any move that gives this ADIZ declaration on China’s part any legitimacy will certainly be used by Beijing as a sign of acceptance. If we got away with it once, why not try the same move again and again?

President Obama’s openness to granting countries such as Russia and Iran their own spheres of influence will surely invite such challenges, but the Chinese air defense zone declaration is not really about Obama. It’s more about what he represents to some leaders: a weary, inward looking, declining power that at some point will be unwilling to challenge a major act of Chinese aggression either in the South China Sea or Taiwan. That day is not today, but the Chinese leadership is almost certainly curious as to when that will change.

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A Welcome Show of Strength from Obama

Perhaps this is what the Pacific pivot means. The Obama administration is telegraphing weakness, indecision, and retreat in the Middle East but is showing some welcome spine in the Far East.

This past weekend China had the temerity to proclaim an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan and South Korea. If recognized, this would serve to extend China’s effective sovereignty and could lead to a dangerous confrontation with its neighbors, since China’s new air-defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the Obama administration rightly said it would not recognize the Chinese power grab, and to underline the point a pair of B-52s flew into the disputed air space without notifying Beijing.

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Perhaps this is what the Pacific pivot means. The Obama administration is telegraphing weakness, indecision, and retreat in the Middle East but is showing some welcome spine in the Far East.

This past weekend China had the temerity to proclaim an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan and South Korea. If recognized, this would serve to extend China’s effective sovereignty and could lead to a dangerous confrontation with its neighbors, since China’s new air-defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the Obama administration rightly said it would not recognize the Chinese power grab, and to underline the point a pair of B-52s flew into the disputed air space without notifying Beijing.

This is precisely the sort of action that a liberal superpower needs to take to maintain freedom of the skies and the seas. It, indeed, recalls the Reagan administration using force in the 1980s to challenge Libya’s power grab off its coast and Iran’s power grab in the Persian Gulf. Of course challenging China–a superpower in the making–is a lot more perilous an undertaking than challenging regional powers such as Libya or Iran. So it is all the more to Obama’s credit that he did not flinch from what could be a potential confrontation.

In reality China has made plain that, while it is happy to bully lesser states such as the Philippines, it has little appetite yet for an open confrontation with the United States which can still–but for how much longer?–bring overwhelming naval and air assets to bear in the western Pacific. By stepping forward, the U.S. is actually reducing the chances of a much more dangerous confrontation between Japan and China which might have ensued–and still may–were Japan’s nationalist new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to send his own aircraft to challenge China’s air defense claims.

This is yet another sign of why the world needs a strong and vigorous American military that can keep the peace, as it has done for the most part since 1945. That capability, sadly, is now imperiled by imprudent defense cuts. Ten years from now, China may be able to not only assert wide-ranging territorial claims but make them stick, because by that point the U.S. may be too weak to resist.

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The Proliferating Spheres of Influence

American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

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American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

“I have turned out for revolution because I have understood that the promises of Yanukovich to go into Europe were just pure comedy,” said Anatoly Gurkalyuk, 33, a builder.

That the Putin regime thinks the West has more or less left the playing field on these geopolitical tussles is no secret. In fact, the Russian government likes to emphasize the competition they’ve just “won” to maximize the propaganda value. And so after the major powers signed the accord with Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that as the U.S. recedes from the Middle East, it should take its European missile defense system with it: “If the Iran deal is put into practice, the stated reason for the construction of the defense shield will no longer apply,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov was clearly enjoying the moment, but he actually raises a point of which the Obama administration, as it contemplates America’s new role in the world, would do well to be reminded: the illogic and foolhardy nature of the Obama administration’s compartmentalization of world affairs. It’s this mindset that has convinced the administration they can leave the Middle East behind and “pivot” to Asia. But on the day the deal with Iran was struck, China sent its own message on that score:

China established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone on Saturday, and its Defense Ministry said it would take “defensive emergency measures” against unidentified aircraft that enter the zone.

A map and coordinates published Saturday showed the zone covers most of the East China Sea and includes a group of uninhabited islets whose ownership is disputed by China and Japan.

Secretary of State Kerry raised immediate objections to China following Russia’s lead in marking off its own sphere of influence. The Chinese response to Kerry involved a long walk and a short pier:

But Chinese officials dismissed the U.S. comments as unjustified interference.

American criticism of the air zone announcement is “completely unreasonable,” Col. Yang Yujun, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said Sunday.

The United States should stop taking sides on the issue, cease making “inappropriate remarks” and not send any more “wrong signals” that could lead to a “risky move by Japan,” he said.

The “pivot” to Asia always rested on a shaky foundation. As the Economist explained in 2011 when the pivot was gearing up, Obama saw the Pacific as a refuge from “inherited” troubles (mainly in the Middle East) and a way to chart his own path. He could never fully own the twin fates of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he couldn’t bank on striking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

So the turn to Asia was perfect. He wouldn’t have to accomplish anything outstanding, just be able to take credit for a new strategic posture. His successors would undoubtedly visit the region often enough, but few would have been pompous enough to pretend that this was some sort of innovation. Obama and his foreign-policy team learned early on that all they had to do was come up with a bumper-sticker phrase or slogan and the media would credulously repeat it as if he had just discovered electricity. (This didn’t always work to the administration’s advantage, as it found out with the “leading from behind” debacle.)

The problem is that Obama looked at the pivot as an escape from conflicts that, in the age of the Internet and transnational political and terrorist networks, don’t stay in their box. More importantly, retreat from the major issues of the day sends the wrong message for any power looking to be respected in the far corners of the globe. So as the U.S. starts backing away from the Middle East, Lavrov reminds them to take their presence in Europe with them, and China practically laughs at the idea that they aren’t entitled to their own sphere of influence, as Russia and Iran seem to be. And then where will the president pivot?

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Pacific Allies Look to U.S. on China Disputes

Anti-Japanese demonstrations have broken out in China, again, because of the dispute over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both China and Japan. This is only one of many territorial disputes that China has with its neighbors over various tiny islands. China is deliberately fanning the flames of nationalism in order, one suspects, to distract attention from a slowing economy and an illegitimate leadership whose foibles are on display in the sordid Bo Xilai affair (the senior Communist Party official whose wife has just received a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British associate).

China’s neighbors are outraged and scared and looking to the U.S. for protection. The U.S. response, alas, has been spineless. This is a point that I and other commentators have made repeatedly but now it is seconded from an unexpected quarter–see this op-ed by Democratic Senator Jim Webb in today’s Wall Street Journal. He quite carefully never mentions President Obama and his administration, preferring to speak of the U.S. government and the State Department, but his article is a devastating indictment of the president’s supineness in the face of growing Chinese aggression.

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Anti-Japanese demonstrations have broken out in China, again, because of the dispute over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both China and Japan. This is only one of many territorial disputes that China has with its neighbors over various tiny islands. China is deliberately fanning the flames of nationalism in order, one suspects, to distract attention from a slowing economy and an illegitimate leadership whose foibles are on display in the sordid Bo Xilai affair (the senior Communist Party official whose wife has just received a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British associate).

China’s neighbors are outraged and scared and looking to the U.S. for protection. The U.S. response, alas, has been spineless. This is a point that I and other commentators have made repeatedly but now it is seconded from an unexpected quarter–see this op-ed by Democratic Senator Jim Webb in today’s Wall Street Journal. He quite carefully never mentions President Obama and his administration, preferring to speak of the U.S. government and the State Department, but his article is a devastating indictment of the president’s supineness in the face of growing Chinese aggression.

Webb, a Vietnam veteran and distinguished writer before entering politics, writes:

American vacillations have for years emboldened China. U.S. policy with respect to sovereignty issues in Asian-Pacific waters has been that we take no sides, that such matters must be settled peacefully among the parties involved. Smaller, weaker countries have repeatedly called for greater international involvement.

Webb even goes on to compare this crisis to the Western non-reaction to Japanese aggression against China in the 1930s. The analogy at first blush would appear overwrought–but maybe not. It is quite possible that one of the island disputes could tip over into actual shooting. Indeed this is now the most likely scenario involving a war with China–more likely at this point than a Chinese attack on Taiwan. The U.S. had better discover its spine and stand up for its friends in the region, otherwise the risk of war will grow because China will think it has a green light for its continuing expansionism.

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U.S. Troops Needed in East Asia

For most Americans, World War II is distant history–a setting for adventure films such as “Captain America,” History Channel documentaries, and not much more. It is startling, then, to be reminded of the virulence of historical memory in Asia.

Only two years ago, there were substantial anti-Japanese protests in China. The ostensible cause was a  clash between Chinese fishing vessels and a Japanese patrol boat in the East China Sea, but it was really a revelation of the deep emotions that remain from the Japanese occupation of a large part of China during the 1930s-40s which included the infamous Rape of Nanking. Now in South Korea, a top national security official has had to resign because of his temerity in negotiating an accord with Japan to share intelligence over a mutual threat–North Korea.

You would think this pact between two pro-Western democracies would be a no-brainer, but as the New York Times account notes, “After the Lee government announced the deal last Thursday, accusations flew that the government was ‘pro-Japanese,’ a far worse charge in South Korea than being ‘pro-North Korean.’” Hatred of Japan is of course explained by the brutality of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century, which included the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women.” Emotions remain raw in no small part because Japan, unlike Germany, still has trouble fully acknowledging the wrong it has done. I recall a few years ago visiting the Yasukani Shrine in Tokyo, whose museum continues to glorify the actions of Japan’s war criminals.

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For most Americans, World War II is distant history–a setting for adventure films such as “Captain America,” History Channel documentaries, and not much more. It is startling, then, to be reminded of the virulence of historical memory in Asia.

Only two years ago, there were substantial anti-Japanese protests in China. The ostensible cause was a  clash between Chinese fishing vessels and a Japanese patrol boat in the East China Sea, but it was really a revelation of the deep emotions that remain from the Japanese occupation of a large part of China during the 1930s-40s which included the infamous Rape of Nanking. Now in South Korea, a top national security official has had to resign because of his temerity in negotiating an accord with Japan to share intelligence over a mutual threat–North Korea.

You would think this pact between two pro-Western democracies would be a no-brainer, but as the New York Times account notes, “After the Lee government announced the deal last Thursday, accusations flew that the government was ‘pro-Japanese,’ a far worse charge in South Korea than being ‘pro-North Korean.’” Hatred of Japan is of course explained by the brutality of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century, which included the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women.” Emotions remain raw in no small part because Japan, unlike Germany, still has trouble fully acknowledging the wrong it has done. I recall a few years ago visiting the Yasukani Shrine in Tokyo, whose museum continues to glorify the actions of Japan’s war criminals.

For the United States, this is a vexing challenge because it makes it more difficult to marshal the kind of united front among our allies we would like to see. As a practical matter, it may be easier to try to create a more multilateral security alliance in East Asia rather than trying to force countries such as Japan and South Korea into bilateral pacts that will be contentious among their populace.

The larger message, though, is about just how necessary America remains to preserving security in this region which will be the biggest source of wealth in the world in the 21st century. Too many Americans do not see the importance of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea, Japan, or other countries. They are, after all, wealthy and powerful. Why do they need American help? In large part because the U.S. remains the most trusted power in the region, and one that other countries depend on to keep the peace and to repress not-so-buried national rivalries. If we are unable to perform that role in the future because of Draconian cuts in our defense budget, the consequences for regional security and prosperity–and hence our own security and prosperity–will be dire.

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Should U.S. Shoot Down N. Korean Missile?

Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.

Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.

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Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.

Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.

Imagine if the U.S. had taken tougher action in the 1990s to prevent North Korea from going nuclear–or since then to punish it for its violations of international law. Instead,we have engaged in one round of fruitless diplomatic wrangling after another, constantly offering the North Koreans generous incentives to abandon their nuclear efforts only to have the North Koreans violate all of their commitments. This experience of American passivity no doubt encourages the mullahs into pursuing their own nuclear ambitions more recklessly than ever. With Iran poised on the brink of going nuclear, now would be a good time to prove that we will not sit supinely back and accept the world’s most dangerous weapons spreading into the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes. Shooting down a North Korean missile launch would be a dramatic yet not reckless way to make the point.

 

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