Commentary / Japan

Raising the Senkaku stakes?

by Brian A. Victoria

Special To The Japan Times

One question typically receives little attention in connection with the ongoing dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands. That question is, what’s in it for the parties involved?

To the extent this question is asked, China is accused of pursuing an aggressive if not expansionist military policy abroad while invoking nationalism at home to deflect criticism of its one-party Communist rule. And, of course, reference is made to China’s voracious appetite for the energy resources thought to lie beneath the ocean floor adjacent to the islands.

Yet, what about Japan, might it also harbor hidden motives?

For example, there is the question of the timing of this dispute, i.e., why now? This question is particularly relevant in light of the fact that in the years following the restoration of diplomatic relations between Japan and China in 1972, the two countries had what has been described as a “gentlemen’s agreement” to shelve the dispute over the Senkakus for future generations to resolve.

Accordingly, when seven Chinese landed in the Senkakus in 2004, the Koizumi administration simply deported them, thereby ending the incident without further repercussions. However, in 2010, following the Japanese Coast Guard’s arrest of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler on Sept. 7, the DPJ government under Prime Minister Naoto Kan had the Chinese captain’s case sent to the public prosecutors for investigation and possible trial.

Why did the DPJ government, insisting there was no dispute over the Senkakus, break this long-standing gentlemen’s agreement to pursue the possibility of prosecuting the Chinese boat captain, although he was eventually released without being indicted? And, of course, the nationalization of three of the Senkaku Islands appeared to China as a further attempt on the part of Japan to strengthen its control of these islands, infuriating China even more.

Writing about this incident, professor Emeritus Gavan McCormick of Australian National University noted: “It became possible to imagine that Senkaku/Diaoyu might even serve as the axis of Okinawan conversion to greater understanding of the national government’s defense and security agenda. … To the extent that ‘China threat’ perceptions spread, Okinawa’s anti-base movement would surely weaken.”

If this were indeed the DPJ government’s goal, it must be said that, in the face of the Okinawa people’s determined and ongoing anti-base struggle, this effort has yet to succeed. Yet, this has not prevented newly installed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from reaffirming the Japanese government’s commitment to maintain U.S. bases in Okinawa, including the hotly contested move of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from central part of Okinawa Island to Henoko in northern part of the island. This raises the possibility that if the Liberal Democratic Party wins the coming Upper House election, the Abe administration will initiate the move of the Marine base to Henoko. However, in the face of the Okinawan people’s fierce resistance to the move, the government will likely have to employ the riot police to quell opposition, possibly leading to bloody clashes. This would further infuriate Okinawans’ resentment and strengthen their perception that Okinawa is completely subjugated by Japan proper as represented by the Tokyo government. An irreparable schism between Okinawa and Japan proper might well be the final result.

At the same time, the alleged threat posed by China has provided a compelling justification for allowing Japan to exercise the right to “collective defense.” Speaking to NHK on Jan. 13, Abe said: “Reviewing the right to collective self-defense is one of Abe administration’s central policy aims, and because of that I want to discuss it with President (Barack) Obama.”

The policy of exercising the right to collective defense has long been a goal of the LDP. However, up to this point, it was thought that a formal revision of the Constitution would be necessary. Given the difficulties involved in amending the Constitution, the LDP’s goal has heretofore been impossible to achieve. Now, thanks to the alleged threat from China, the possibility of simply “reinterpreting” Article Nine is on the table.

As noted in a Feb. 3 article in the Stars and Stripes: “A reinterpretation of Article 9 would only have to be certified by the [Japanese] Cabinet’s legal affairs bureau as being consistent with the constitution. Such reinterpretations have allowed Japan to provide logistical support to U.S. missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past. Added reinterpretations could also aid cooperation with the United States on missile defense projects.”

Favorable comments like these in a semi-official U.S. military newspaper suggest that the U.S. is no disinterested bystander to the Senkaku dispute. In fact, U.S. interest in maintaining military bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa, has only increased in the wake of Obama’s “Asia Pivot” speech delivered in Australia in November 2011.

The unstated heart of the Asia Pivot revolves around the U.S. intention to “contain” China. That is, to make sure that China is unable to contest America’s long-standing dominant role in Asia. America’s current Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade area proposal, excluding China as it does, is another aspect of this containment policy.

Former dovish DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s professed 2009 intention to “re-examine the role of U.S. military bases in Japan,” as it appeared in the DPJ’s manifesto for the 2009 Lower House election, sent shockwaves through both the U.S. and Japanese bureaucracies. This was compounded by Hatoyama’s further proposal to create an East Asian version of the European Economic Community, an entity that by definition would have excluded the U.S.

In responding to Hatoyama, including his proposal to move the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa, Japanese Foreign and Defense Ministry bureaucrats acted in the manner to which they have long been accustomed. That is to say, they responded by supporting the will and interests of the U.S. This only hastened the collapse of the Hatoyama administration.

As for the U.S., then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkakus means that if China uses military force in the dispute, the U.S. is committed to take all necessary actions, including military force, to repel it.

In so doing, the U.S. projects the image of a steadfast, and necessary, ally of Japan in its time of need. At the same time, U.S. military bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa, become more important than ever.

This does not mean, however, that the U.S. currently seeks war with China, for after more than a decade of unwinnable war in Afghanistan, not to mention Iraq, the American people are war-weary, not to mention financially strapped. On the other hand, it is in the interest of at least some actors in the U.S. to keep the “pot boiling” even while ensuring, at least for the time being, it doesn’t lead to outright military conflict. That is to say, faced with cuts to the defense budget, the powerful U.S. military-industrial complex needs a new and creditable foreign threat if it hopes to maintain, let alone increase, its current share of government expenditures.

A rising China fits the bill perfectly. And, although it is a risky strategy, there is the added benefit that Japan will further increase its purchase of U.S. armaments while also engaging in the joint development of ever more sophisticated and lethal weaponry, especially in the field of missile technology. This joint development will also benefit the Japanese defense industry, especially given Japan’s expected increase in defense expenditures.

All of this suggests that the dispute over the Senkakus, whether wanted or not, serves the interests of powerful actors in both Japan and the U.S. At the same time, it raises the question of how long it will be before Japanese young men, and possibly women, face death on the battlefield, this time alongside their American, or even NATO, counterparts?

Brian A. Victoria is a professor of Japanese Studies at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.