Japan’s Obama problem


When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine last month, Chinese leaders predictably condemned his decision to honor those behind “the war of aggression against China.” But Abe was also sending a message to Japan’s main ally and defender, the United States.

Faced with U.S. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to challenge China’s muscle-flexing and territorial ambitions in Asia — reflected in Japan’s recent split with the U.S. over China’s new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) — an increasingly desperate Abe was compelled to let both countries know that restraint cannot be one-sided.

For China and South Korea, the Yasukuni Shrine’s inclusion of 14 Class A war criminals — half of whom were executed for World War II-related war crimes (the other half died of illness before or after conviction) — has made it a potent symbol of Japan’s prewar militarism. Abe had long refrained from visiting it as prime minister.

He may well have maintained that stance had China not established the ADIZ, which set an ominous new precedent by usurping international airspace over the East China Sea, including areas that China does not control. (Abe does not appear to have considered the possibility that his pilgrimage to Yasukuni might end up helping China by deepening South Korea’s antagonism toward Japan.)

The Obama administration had been pressing Abe not to aggravate regional tensions by visiting Yasukuni — an entreaty reiterated by Vice President Joe Biden during a recent stopover in Tokyo on his way to Beijing. Biden’s tour deepened Japan’s security concerns, because it highlighted America’s focus on balancing its relationships in East Asia, even if that means tolerating an expansionist China as the strategic equivalent of an allied Japan.

Instead of postponing Biden’s trip to Beijing to demonstrate disapproval of China’s new ADIZ, the U.S. advised its commercial airlines to respect it, whereas Japan asked its carriers to ignore China’s demand that they file their flight plans through the zone in advance.

By calling for Japanese restraint, the U.S. stoked Japan’s anxiety, without winning any concessions from China.

Now, the widening rift between the U.S. and Japan has become starkly apparent. Abe feels let down by Obama’s decision not to take a firm stand on the ADIZ — the latest in a series of aggressive moves by China to upend the status quo in the East China Sea.

For its part, the U.S. government openly — and uncharacteristically — criticized Abe’s Yasukuni visit, with its embassy in Japan releasing a statement saying that the U.S. was “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”

Such recriminations do not mean that the U.S.-Japan alliance — the bedrock of America’s forward military deployment in Asia — is in immediate jeopardy. Japan remains a model ally that hosts a large U.S. troop presence, even paying for the upkeep of American forces on its soil.

Indeed, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni came only a day after he completed a long-elusive, U.S.-backed bilateral deal to relocate America’s airbase in Okinawa to a less populous area of the island. And he supports Japan’s entry into the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trading bloc that will exclude China.

Nonetheless, a psychological schism between the Abe and Obama administrations has gradually developed. While the U.S. frets about Abe’s nationalistic stance vis-a-vis China and South Korea, Japanese officials have stopped trying to conceal their uneasiness over Obama’s effort to strike a balance between its alliance commitments and its desire for Sino-American ties.

Biden spent more than twice as much time in discussions with with Chinese President Xi Jinping as he did with Abe.

The paradox is that while anxiety over China’s growing assertiveness has returned the U.S. to the center of Asian geopolitics and enabled it to strengthen its security arrangements in the region, this has not led to action aimed at quelling China’s expansionary policies. As a result, Japan is becoming skeptical about America’s willingness to support it militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands.

The Obama administration’s contradictory rhetoric — affirming the U.S.-Japan security treaty covers the Senkakus while refusing to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty — has not helped.

A wake-up call for Japan was Obama’s inaction in 2012, when China captured the Scarborough Shoal, part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In an effort to end a tense standoff, the U.S. brokered a deal in which both countries agreed to withdraw their vessels from the area. But after the Philippines withdrew, China occupied the shoal — and, despite a mutual-defense treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines, the U.S. did little in response. This emboldened China effectively to seize a second Philippine-claimed shoal, part of the disputed Spratly Islands.

Factors like geographical distance and economic interdependence have made the U.S. wary of entanglement in Asia’s territorial feuds. And, unlike Asian countries, America would not really suffer from a Chinese “Monroe Doctrine” declaring that China would not accept any outside intervention in Asia. But America’s neutrality on sovereignty disputes threatens to undermine its bilateral security alliances (which, by preventing countries like Japan from turning toward militarism, actually serve Chinese interests).

The Obama administration’s Asian balancing act obfuscates the broader test of power that China’s recent actions represent. What is at stake are not merely islands in the East and South China Seas, but a rules-based regional order, freedom of navigation of the seas and skies, access to maritime resources, and balanced power dynamics in Asia. By fueling Japanese insecurity, U.S. policy risks bringing about the very outcome — a return to militarism — that it aims to prevent.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. © 2014 Project Syndicate

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    It was confirmed that Japan knew of the ADIZ since 2010. I fully approve of the USA’s criticism of Abe’s actions as I’m growing tired of him and stupidity.

  • MikeTysonsPajamas

    the author doesn’t mention that Japan’s unilaterally imposed ADIZ stretches up close to China’s borders and over areas which Japan does not control. also, the author does not mention that Yasakuni did not enshrine the war criminals until the 1970’s, which should have been viewed as a deliberate signal of Japan’s unrepentence for WWII crimes.

    • rgidg

      what is a war crime? can you define it?

      • MikeTysonsPajamas

        why don’t you look it up on merriam webster. am i your dictionary? here are some examples to broaden your horizons. Japan’s war crimes included: chemical weapons experiments on POWs and civilians. use of slave labor in mines and factories for the war effort. sexual slavery of girls as young as 12 or 13. using bayonettes and swords to behead and murder civilians (see nanking, massacre of). bataan death march.

      • left nut

        war crime
        noun: war crime; plural noun: war crimes
        an action carried out during the conduct of a war that violates accepted international rules of war.

  • Roan Suda

    This is utter rubbish, yet another example of “delusional” foreigners who cannot get through the day without their Japan-bashing fix.

  • Darryl McGarry

    The article is provocative. Any suggestion that Japan could find any reason to return to its past militarism in response to the rise of China should send alarm bells throughout the Pacific. While it is all just talk now, the convergence of war criminals inturned at Yasukuni Shrine and frequent visits by senior Japanese politicians and Japan’s tilted and biased interpretation of history should highlight that the seeds for a justified return to a militarist past with the pride associated with an Imperial Army etc expanding Japan’s prosperity sphere lurks for many Japanese just below the surface of their humble and peaceful demeanour. Their loss of face last time must be reversed for the sake of samurai honour. If Japanese leadership heads in this direction, the peace-lovers in Japan would be outgunned by those ready to acquiesce. But, we are a long way from that scenario. If Japan feels it has been failed by the U.S. contra-China, Japan cannot then wipe its hands of taking responsibility for its own history. I would suggest that Japan comes to terms with its own history first in the world context before it starts to point fingers.

    • zer0_0zor0

      The concerns are valid about Japanese militarism, but that is only because of neocons like Abe, Aso and the rest of their ilk, whose rise to prominence is connected with the rise of militarism and State Shinto after the Meiji Restoration that culminated in WWII.

      In a recent poll 70% of Japanese responded that they thought Abe should heed the political implications of making visits to Yasukuni (i.e., he should not visit while in office).

      If those same respondents were asked about solving the Yasukuni dilemma by making a Chidorigafuji the official site to pay respects to the war dead and “demilitarizing” Yasukuni in order to make it a non-controversial Shinto shrine no longer capable of being appropriated as a symbol to be associated with an attempt to resurrect some form of State Shinto, they probably would have been in favor of such a policy, too.

      But you are right about history insofar as many Japanese don’t understand what it is that the Chinese and Koreans become upset about, and the neocons want to whitewash the unpleasant aspects from textbooks while inculcating patriotism in the student. Hmm.

      Dealing with the period of Japanese history from the 1870s through the end of WWII is not any easy task. And one has to consider that the massive upheaval in Japan wrought by the Meiji Restoration was in part a Frankensteinish creation of self-interested people in the West. Now Japan has a very good Constitution, but the neocons view that as a monstrous and alien imposition, and want turn the clock back.

  • Eric Schoen

    China clearly wants Japan to look like the aggressor in Asia while China has more territorial disputes around Asia thatn any other country. Here is a list of the ones I found. Who is really the aggressor? China wants a piece of everything from every where!

    North Korea
    South Korea