The Obama administration's provocative decision to send a veiled nuclear threat to China in late November with B-52 flights over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands grew out of a complicated set of issues with deep historic roots. Not the least of them is the Obama administration's campaign to preserve the United States' Asia-Pacific hegemony in the era of US decline and China's rise.
There are few good guys in this dangerous game - which brings to mind my first international relations professor's maxim that the study of international relations is analogous to studying the rules of the game among mafia families. (Such was the world view taught at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service when Bill Clinton and I were students there.)
The crisis didn't begin last week. It was initiated a year and a half ago with a very calculated right-wing Japanese semi-coup, reminiscent of those that brought militarists to power there in the early 1930s. In the spring of 2012, Shintaro Ishihara, then Tokyo's extreme right-wing governor, set the coup in motion by moving to purchase the uninhabited Senkaku/Diayou islands, which had been administered by Japan since the US military occupation of Okinawa came to an end, from their private owner. This he understood would lead Beijing to over-react, and that, in turn, would reinforce right-wing and militarist political forces in Japan's coming national election.
As Ishihara anticipated, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda moved to contain the emerging crisis with China by purchasing the rocks on behalf of the Japanese government. China wasn't amused. It predictably challenged the changed status quo (a 30-year-old agreement to shelve the dispute until the future) with changes of its own by proclaiming what it termed its historic rights to the islands. Beijing then reinforced those claims by sending warships and later jet fighters into the disputed zone. Taiwan also reasserted its claims by sending hundreds of fishing boats into the disputed waters. The Noda government responded by increasing its military presence in the region. And following his subsequent election victory, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeated his willingness to go to war to preserve Japanese control of the islands.
To reinforce their rival claims, Japan and China have dispatched jet fighters to fly over the islands. When Beijing announced its plans to send drones over the isles, Abe warned that he would shoot them down. China responded that such an attack would constitute an act of war. And on November 25, it escalated the crisis by declaring its aerial defense identification zone over the islands.
To understand why the Obama administration has responded as it did to the recent Chinese expansion of its "aerial defense zone," recall that just before Hillary Clinton announced the US military, economic and diplomatic "Pivot" from the Middle East and Central Asia to Asia and the Pacific, Joseph Nye (long a leading figure in the formulation of the United States' Asia-Pacific policies) wrote "Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world's population and half of the world's economic output. America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks and American military power provides that framework." Challenged by US-Chinese competitive interdependence, the Obama administration's China policy, like that of its predecessors, is simultaneous containment and engagement.
So, in the context of US commitments to reinforce its Asia-Pacific hegemony (a project launched with the1898 Spanish-American War and the resulting conquests of the Philippines and Guam, along with the annexation of Hawaii), the Obama administration is not only driving an arms race with China and sparking one across the Asia-Pacific region, it is expanding its network of hundreds of foreign military bases to more fully encircle China and negotiating the strategic TPP free-trade agreement designed to marginalize and gain leverage over China.
Central to this strategy is reinforcing Japan - the "keystone" of US regional hegemony - by encouraging the Abe government's increasingly militarized and confrontational policies. Contrary to its "Peace Constitution," Japan is already the world's sixth-greatest military spender. And even with its economy stalled, Abe is pressing for increased military spending. A new National Security Council has been created, soon to be augmented by a new state secrets law feared by the press and by those monitoring Fukushima fallout and crtiticized by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. And most troubling to the neighbors of a nation that has yet to fully acknowledge its wartime aggressions, Abe has made the personnel changes needed to fulfill his commitment to revise the official interpretation of the "Peace Constitution." When implemented this spring, almost all limits on Japan's war-renouncing basic law will be removed.
The Obama administration has responded to the tit-for-tat escalation of tensions between Tokyo and Beijing in the context of China's rise and the consequent implicit threats to US regional hegemony. In October 2012 and again in November 2013, even as it claims neutrality in terms of China's and Japan's competing territorial claims, the United States warned that if it comes to war, Washington will be bound by the secretly imposed US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty to fight on Japan's side.
Why? Because, in the tradition of falling dominoes, it believes that the regionwide alliance system that has been the foundation of the United States' Asia-Pacific hegemony since 1945 would unravel quickly if it failed to fulfill its treaty commitments to Japan. The expectation is that with US backing less assured, ASEAN nations and South Korea, which are increasingly dependent economically on China, would more willingly kowtow to Beijing. Hence the November 26 veiled nuclear threat warning China to back off now that it has taken Japan down a peg or three and planted a marker for the future.
China, of course, is no innocent. In what may have been a serious miscalculation, when it declared its expanded aerial defense identification zone, the claim was not limited to the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks. It included 1,160 square miles of ocean and reefs claimed by South Korea, including a rock known to Koreans as Leodo. This is not winning China friends in Korea, which again is finding itself caught between its traditional enemies Japan and China.
There is also the related matter of Beijing's much contested claim to 80 percent of the mineral-rich and strategically vital South China Sea, which has led to militarized tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines. China's unanticipated and aggressive claims provided the opening for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to up the ante by declaring the region's sea lanes to be of "vital interest" to the United States. Beijing has, indeed, massively increased spending to build a blue water navy, is beginning to compete with the United States in high-tech weaponry and cyber warfare capabilities, and is "modernizing" its nuclear arsenal (about the size of France's and Israel's) with its commitments to its no-first-strike doctrine increasingly questioned. China also is pursuing its alternative to Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement in negotiations designed to accelerate the integrations of ASEAN nations into China's sphere – not entirely unrelated to its tradition of tributary empire.
As I write, Vice President Joe Biden is completing his unexpectedly challenging embassy to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul. The original plan was to focus on TPP negotiations with Japan, to press Japan to deepen its military cooperation with Japan despite their profound "historical differences." Instead, fearing that miscalculations in Tokyo or Beijing could trigger a calamatous war, much as they did a century ago, resulting in the first world war, Biden focused on managing, if not resolving, the crisis. Of course, with Washington's nuclear fist in its velvet glove, he made no public reference to the signal sent with the B-52s as he pressed Japanese and Chinese leaders to create "crisis managment mechanisms." And, in his effort to manufacture consent in Japan and the United States, he falsely claimed that it was China that "unilaterally chang[ed] the status quo in the East China Sea" with the aerial defense identification zone. There was no mention of the ways that Ishihara and Noda precipitated the crisis with their unilateral changes of the status quo.
Some have suggested that one way out of this dangerous morass would be for Japan and China to turn to the International Court of Justice, but neither nation is inclined to do so. Japan fears losing control of the strategically important contested Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks, and China isn't inclined to seek arbitration with Japan when, at the same time, it is refusing the Philippines' initiative to arrange arbitration over contested Spratly Island rocks, which Beijing has occupied militarily and which are considerably closer to the Philippines than to China.
In these contexts, we need to stress alternatives to increasingly dangerous Asia-Pacific military tensions. This will be the subject of local and national forums being initiated by the Working Group for Peace & Demilitarization in Asia & the Pacific. Among the alternatives that immediately occur are:
- The US must pivot diplomatically, not militarily. Campaigning to reinforce US hegemony in Asia and the Pacific will be no more successful than it has been in the Middle East, with potentially much more disastrous consequences than Bush's invasion of Iraq and Obama's drone war from Libya and Yemen to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
- It is past time to pursue common/human security diplomacy - what the American Friends Service Committee terms "Shared Security" - to resolve the increasingly dangerous Asia-Pacific tensions, possibly via the Six Party Talks initially established to resolve the Korean crisis. That's how the Cold War came to a close before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
- Plans for massive increases in US military spending to reinforce the pivot with an expanded Navy must be challenged. Congressional hearings scheduled for early next year, designed to inflate the threat posed by China, provide a focal point for such a challenge. With schools being closed and needy families losing Section 8 housing across the country, the last thing we should be doing is building new aircraft carriers and $1.5 trillion F-35s.
- Instead of making veiled nuclear threats, the United States should be stanching pressures for nuclear weapons proliferation by fulfilling its Article VI commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: the obligation to engage in good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
- Finally, we urgently need to act in solidarity with Japanese peace and democracy activists as they challenge Abe's campaign to restore many of Japan's pre-war systems, prioritizing militarism over diplomacy in its relations with China, subverting the Peace Constitution and increasing military spending, while simultaneously refusing to fully acknowledge that Japan's Fifteen-Year War (1931-45) and wartime sexual slavery were criminal acts of aggression.