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Is the Obama administration prioritizing ties with China?

“The Sino-Japanese relationship is wholly dependent on the relationship between Japan and the United States.”

This simplistic conclusion was drawn by Shigeharu Matsumoto, founding president of the International House of Japan, based on his long journalistic career covering both China and the U.S.

The Shanghai bureau chief of Japan’s Domei News Agency in 1936, he sent an exclusive report on the Xi’an incident, in which Chiang Kai-shek was arrested by Zhang Xueliang, a warlord of Manchuria, leading to a truce in the Chinese civil war between Chiang’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Communist Party, and uniting the two adversaries to fight Japan jointly.

Unless an ideal world comes into being in which every country coexists and co-prospers with each other, there would be only three alternatives for the relations among Japan, the U.S. and China in their pursuit of peace: the three in a triangular position, a Japanese-American alliance versus China and a Sino-Japanese entente versus the U.S.

On Nov. 23, Japan was taken aback by China’s announcement of establishing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea encompassing the Senkaku Islands and areas rich in gas resources. Beijing said that the zone would be controlled by the National Defense Ministry and that any aircraft flying in the zone and not obeying orders would be subject to “defensive emergency measures.”

Both Japan and the U.S. reacted bitterly against the zone designation but not necessarily in the same tone. While Tokyo asked Japanese airlines not to comply with China’s call for submitting flight plans in advance, Washington took a little more lenient stand.

Although U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden told Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in December that Washington would not recognize the ADIZ designation, he stopped short of demanding its retraction. Does this have something to do with the “introvert” posture of President Barack Obama, who does not like America’s allies and friends getting involved in military conflicts? The latest Chinese action and the U.S. reaction to it, anyhow, could have a serious impact on Japan’s security.

What is most puzzling is the fact that the U.S., which should have heavy responsibilities for maintaining international order and stability as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has failed to make a distinction between an ADIZ and a country’s airspace.

The Wall Street Journal, in its Nov. 26 editorial, harshly criticized China for coming one step closer to taking over the Senkaku Islands by force, adding that Beijing’s brinkmanship had further reduced the possibility of peacefully settling the dispute between Japan and China over the islets. On the same day, a Financial Times editorial described China as acting “foolishly” and said the Senkakus had been under Japan’s effective control for over a century except between 1945 and 1972 when the U.S. occupied Okinawa. Thus both papers supported Japan’s territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands.

The Economist, meanwhile, said in its Nov. 30 issue that China was acting like a teenager who had no knowledge of how much power he had or how the other party would react. It went on to say that Beijing was not aware that it was planting seeds for potential war with its neighbors and with the U.S. in the decades to come. The magazine was right when it said the situations would be even more serious if China’s provocation was intentional.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese government has drawn a “nine-dashed line,” connecting nine points to cover vast areas as a basis for its territorial claims over certain islands. This map was originally made in 1947 by the Kuomintang but has no basis in international law. It may be no exaggeration to say that this act, combined with the ADIZ designation in the East China Sea, appears to be a sign of insanity on the part of China.

All these have given rise to a suspicion that something abnormal is happening in the Communist Party’s control over the People’s Liberation Army. For example, China did not follow normal diplomatic procedures in notifying Japan of the ADIZ designation. Instead, the National Defense Ministry gave the notice by calling the defense attaché of the Japanese embassy in Beijing to the ministry. The interpretation of this unusual procedure suggests that a proposal from the military had gone up to the highest level but was announced before it received full scrutiny.

If that’s the case, “civilian control” of the Chinese military has been lost for all intents and purposes.

Washington had long been aware of such abnormal relationship between civilian leaders of the government and the military in China. Shortly after then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Beijing on Jan. 11, 2011, there came news that a prototype of China’s next generation stealth fighter Jian-20 had just successfully made a test flight. When Gates brought up this subject in his talks with President Hu Jintao, neither Hu nor any of his high-ranking civilian officials appeared to be aware of the news, according to comments made by a high Defense Department official to reporters accompanying the secretary.

On his way home from Beijing, Gates stopped over in Tokyo and gave a lecture at Keio University. In response to a question from a student in the audience, he said he and his government had long suspected there was discordance between the Chinese military and civilian leaders, adding that the latter had no knowledge of obstructive actions taken by a Chinese ship against the U.S. Navy sonar ocean surveillance vessel Impeccable two or three years earlier.

Gates added that there were also indications that the civilian leaders did not know of a satellite destruction experiment three years earlier.

It is essential that both Japan and the U.S. respond sternly to these reckless moves by the Chinese military, without ruling out the use of armed forces. Indeed, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other high-ranking Japanese government officials lost no time in condemning the designation of the ADIZ. Also statements by the White House and the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense came. Perhaps the most effective of all the actions taken against China was a silent pressure Washington applied on Beijing — flying of two B-52 strategic bombers in a training mission over the ADIZ without carrying bombs and without being escorted by fighters. This must have been a quiet but heavy counterblow to China.

But there were some differences in the Japanese and American responses toward China. For one thing, Washington has refrained from asking Beijing to revoke the ADIZ and for another, American airlines were not asked to not submit flight plans to the Chinese authorities. Is it not illogical for the U.S. government to allow its airlines to comply with Chinese requests while at the same time refusing to recognize the ADIZ?

At their meeting in Beijing on Dec. 4, Biden did tell Chinese President Xi Jinping that the U.S. was gravely concerned with the ADIZ and warned China against attempting to alter the existing order in East Asia. But the emphasis was on easing tensions. The two had already consented to creating a new relationship of superpowers as long advocated by China. But it is unclear whether Biden was placing more importance on his country’s alliance with Japan or on its detente with China.

Immediately after the Biden-Xi meeting, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Dec. 5 that Biden told Xi three things in a straightforward manner:

• The ADIZ must not be enforced.

• China must refrain from taking similar actions in the region.

• China should work closely with Japan, South Korea and other neighbors to eradicate the dangerous situation created by the ADIZ designation, and promptly establish channels of communication with those countries for easing tensions.

In its editorial comments on Dec. 5, the Wall Street Journal pointed to the deceptive nature of the Biden visit to China. It bitterly criticized him for being interested only in maintaining the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region and for failing to deliver a strong enough message against China’s new military offensive.

The editorial said the U.S. should tell the Chinese leadership that should Beijing fail to revoke the ADIZ, the U.S. Navy and Air Force would start a joint patrol with Japan around the Senkaku Islands. It said that to take a tough stand against Beijing than to tacitly approve China’s continued military threats would be in the interest of maintaining peace in the long run.

But Japan must be careful not to be narrow-minded about its relations with China and the U.S. — such as viewing its problems with Beijing only in the context of the dispute over the Senkakus and being concerned only with the differences of views between Tokyo and Washington on the ADIZ issue.

Biden’s China visit late last year was only another step in a broad-scale development of Sino-American relations. A two-day, six-hour meeting was held between Obama and Xi in Palm Springs, California, last June, and another summit by the same two leaders was held in St. Petersburg three months later, at which time their discussions covered a broad range of issues such as mutual investments, energy and global warming.

Following up on those meetings, Biden and Xi reached agreement on a number of subjects including energy, investment in China’s shale gas development, and safety of foods and pharmaceuticals.

Japan must realize that the Obama administration is moving forward with building a new relationship of superpowers with China while attaching importance to its alliance with Japan.

The U.S.’ stance based on geopolitical considerations was summarized in a speech delivered by Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, at Georgetown University on Nov. 20, which was three days before Beijing announced the ADIZ designation.

She said that the U.S., while pursuing a policy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, would ask China to work closely with Washington on global issues like the denuclearization of North Korea, Iran’s nuclear program, security in Afghanistan, ending the civil war in South Sudan and provision of aid to poverty-stricken sub-Saharan African countries, and would pursue a functioning new model of bilateral relationship of superpowers with China.

A crucial issue facing Japan is how the U.S. views China, which has steadfastly pursued policies of national enrichment and military strength, and Japan, which has willingly walked the path of becoming a weak country.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Japanese Foreign Ministry in the U.S., the results of which were announced on Dec. 19, Japan was chosen as America’s most important partner in the Asian region by 35 percent of respondents at large and 39 percent of intellectuals who were polled. Both figures fell short of 39 percent and 43 percent, respectively, who thought China was the most important partner.

A question that Japan must give deep thought to is how the U.S. — a superpower that, despite its waning political leadership, still far surpasses any other nation in military power, economy, technology, information and education, and is rich in energy resources with the oil shale revolution and is free from the problem of a declining population — is viewing the entire Asian region.

In 1935, John Van Antwerp MacMurray, who was the U.S. minister to China, warned his government of the danger arising from shifting the weight of American diplomacy from Japan to China, but his warning was not heeded in Washington. Japan must not make light of the possibility of the U.S. changing its partner.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

  • iwishitweretrue

    It makes sense that the US looks after its largest trading partner – especially when the new ADIZ does not threaten anything. It seems more likely that the ADIZ issue for Japan is just one of “crying wolf” and Abe trying to act “tough”rather than act “smart”!! Also, Japan needs to be seen to be acting responsibly with China and South Korea – and not just trying to create trouble for troubles sake!

    • Robert cook

      The issue with China’s ADIZ is the fact that it overlaps international space and japans air space. this act is a gross breach of standard protocol and implies further attempts at take overs of desirable land.

  • zer0_0zor0

    It really doesn’t matter what the three ‘investor class’ controlled conservative newspapers stance is on the Diaoyu/Senkakus dispute.
    What does matter is that such disputes gets resolved in a rational manner in accordance with international law. If that doesn’t happen, then respect for international law declines, bringing about a further deterioration in regional stability and cooperation.
    The USA has important interests in the region, but it cannot be seen to be acting as some sort of hegemon. It should use its diplomatic clout to help promote resolution of these nagging territorial disputes, which are seriously hampering relations in the region, and having a negative affect on the daily lives of the citizens of all counties concerned.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The Diaoyu/Senkakus islets are located on China’s continental shelf, not Japan’s.
    According to UNCLOS,III https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNCLOS#UNCLOS_III
    China has the rights to the resources under their continental shelf (natural prolongation).
    Japan only has administrative control over the disputed islets, not sovereignty. In fact the right-wing Japanese government refuses to admit that there is a dispute. Nonetheless, they made the ludicrous suggestion of taking the dispute regarding China’s exploitation of the mineral resources to the UN.
    Such irrational and contradictory stances are an embarrassment to the common sense of all reasonable people in Japan and anywhere else in the region, for that matter.