Under pressure at home and mocked abroad for an irresolute foreign policy, US President Barack Obama last week pledged to defend Japan’s Senkaku islands against any attempts by China to take them by force. Addressing a press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the second day of his week-long trip to Asia, which he wrapped up on 29 April in the Philippines, Obama seemed defensive and at times recalcitrant as he sought to smooth tensions with America’s strongest ally in the Asia Pacific.
China reacted to the security pact with anger, calling it a throwback to the Cold War and summoned envoys of both countries in Beijing separately to lodge protests. It also released documents in Jilin province detailing the sexual enslavement of “comfort women” by Japanese soldiers during World War II. And soon after Obama left for South Korea on the second leg of his trip, China moved two patrol ships back into waters around the disputed islands of Senkaku, signalling the next chapter in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game on the high seas.
On 28 April, Obama announced a pact with Manila that will allow greater access to ports for US ships, provoking another strong reaction from China. Calling the Philippines a “troublemaker in the South China Sea”, an editorial in China’s official news agency Xinhua worried the pact would “embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing”. “A more assertive or even reckless Manila would stoke regional tensions,” the article warned.
Before Obama landed in Tokyo, cracks in the US-Japan alliance were growing, mainly because of US reluctance to upset China as the rising superpower seeks to impose its will on its smaller neighbours. China has unilaterally claimed more than 80 percent of the South China Sea and is challenging US naval dominance in the Asia Pacific by projecting its power over a key sea lane, the Straits of Malacca. Chinese aggression in its territorial disputes with Japan and a number of Southeast Asian countries had drawn only a tepid US response thus far, raising questions about Obama’s commitment to protecting allies in the region or enforcing international law.
While Obama’s commitment to Japan will allay fears in East and Southeast Asia over Chinese belligerence, his nod to Japan’s plans to expand the scope of its largely pacifist post-World War II military will likely cause some unease. How much unease will be in inverse proportion to how much the countries in the region fear China. Obama has supported Abe’s plan to amend Japan’s Constitution to allow the Japanese military to conduct “collective defence”, or come to the aid of allies under attack. If successful, this will be the first revision in the rules governing Japan’s military after it lost World War II and drew up a severely pacifist Constitution under US occupation.
Singapore-based security analyst Rohan Gunaratna said countries in the Asia Pacific should be willing to move beyond Japan’s “burden of history”. “There is a totally new reality (today) in the Asia Pacific,” he said, calling China’s “inevitable rise” a threat to other countries without US support. “We must not forget that Japan was a superpower before World War II. It has re-emerged as an economic superpower and, with America’s blessing and support, will emerge as a military superpower in the next 50 years.”
Standing beside a subdued Obama at the joint press conference, Abe made the case for a Japan that had put its violent past behind. “For 70 years, as a peace-loving nation, we have steadily shed the past. And that is Japan and that is the Japanese public,” said Abe, as he justified his visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine last December. The US had criticised the visit to the shrine, seen in the region as a celebration of Japan’s militaristic past. Abe sought to paint it as simply paying homage to those who had given their lives for their country, implying that it was time to treat Japan as a “normal” country. “And so,” Abe concluded, “we would like to… accumulate efforts (to build) a peaceful and a prosperous world… we would like to contribute.”
There were ample signals of Abe’s strategy, a risky one that seems to have paid off in the end. In the days leading up to the visit, he built a silent but strident case for nationalism. He sent a ritual gift during the shrine’s holy spring festival a day before Obama arrived and sent a group of about 150 lawmakers to offer worship at the shrine.
A 14-member panel set up by Abe to recommend changes to the Constitution is also likely to seek new powers, say media reports, to deploy Japan’s forces to defend its territory (such as Senkaku) even without a full-scale invasion. Abe, who has managed to bring some life back into the long-stagnant economy since he took power in 2012, has often tied economic revival to national pride. With his blessing for the amendment and his decision not to press Abe on his nationalism, Obama has signalled a more forward posture for Japan in the security alliance.
No doubt Russia and its adventures in Ukraine had some bearing on the newfound US need to cement old friendships and seal new ones in Asia: Obama also visited Malaysia, the first time for a US president in almost 50 years. The two-day visit was being seen in Kuala Lumpur as a belated attempt to draw Malaysia away from the Chinese orbit. China is already Malaysia’s largest trade partner, and a favourite destination for Chinese tourists. But Malaysia has a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea and is smarting from its humiliation over its somewhat trenchant handling of the disappearance of flight mh-370, which was carrying a large number of Chinese tourists.
Before the visit, Obama’s staff had also half-heartedly pegged the Muslim-majority country as a shining example of a democratic outlier in the Islamic world, a sentiment exhumed from Obama’s first term. However, the doubtful value of that example was brought into focus by the looming question over his refusal to meet key opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, convicted on a charge of sodomy that the US has criticised as trumped up in the past. When asked about Anwar at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Najib Razak, Obama implied he had raised the issue. He added, “I think the prime minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia has still got some work to do — just like the US, by the way, has some work to do on these issues.”
Malaysia’s policies are unabashedly slanted in favour of the ethnic Malay Muslim majority, who are marked out for special privilege as “bumiputeras”, which in the Malay language means sons of the soil. The country has a long history of hysterical anti-Americanism. Less than two weeks before Obama’s visit, the ruling party’s mouthpiece Utusan Malaysia blamed the CIA for the disappearance of flight MH-370, to “put Malaysia’s relationship with China in jeopardy”.
Obama’s stop in South Korea was more remarkable for North Korea’s rhetoric scaling new levels of profanity and unrealised fears of a nuclear test than for any real achievement. His visit overshadowed by the unfolding ferry disaster, Obama nonetheless continued to play peacemaker between Japan and South Korea, both key US allies. He called Japan’s treatment of “comfort women” during World War II, most of whom were South Korean, “a terrible and egregious violation of human rights”, at a joint press conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye following their summit.
Inside China, a number of factors are coming together to make a dangerous breakout against Japan seem appealing for use as a distraction: China has used Japan to whip up patriotic fervour in the past. The Chinese economy, which has been showing distinct signs of slowing for the long term this year, is spreading fears of unemployment. This trend was followed last month by a few bond defaults and bankruptcies of favoured companies. President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive is beginning to turn serious heat on the comfortable nexus or guanxi (connections) between party officials and businessmen.
The threat of terrorism from the restive Xinjiang province has also been growing of late. Attacks by Uighur Muslim separatists that killed more than 100 people from the Han Chinese majority since last April have prompted an offer of cash rewards for information.
According to the reward notices, cash can be won for information on people with “long beards”, women “wearing veils” or displaying other overt forms of being devout. China fears that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year will lead to global jihadists taking up the Uighur cause. So far, there are only a small number of fighters from this region in Afghanistan but an overreaction from the Chinese government can backfire by attracting attention.
While obama’s Asia “walk” has backed up talk of the administration’s pivot shifting to East Asia from West Asia, his record on Syria and Ukraine has robbed the US of some credibility. In his remarks to the press in Tokyo, Obama drew a parallel to the Russian action in Crimea: “Large countries, like the US or China or Russia… (cannot) feel as if whenever they think it’s expedient, they can take actions.” The inevitable follow-up question: Was this a new red line he was drawing, this one on the South China Sea? Obama sidestepped the question, but Abe deadpanned: “I totally trust Mr Obama.”
The other looming concern is that the Pentagon, which is facing billions in still-ongoing budget cuts, has less money to spend to defend the three allies the US is treaty-bound to defend: Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, apart from Taiwan. The pact with the Philippines, for instance, provides for a “rotational” American force that will use Filipino facilities. There will be no American bases in the Philippines, in a decision that Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, admitted to reporters is “clearly a more resource-intensive endeavour over the long term for us”.
Budget constraints are also, perhaps, the reason Japan is being primed for a broader role in the security of the Asia Pacific. Both Japan and South Korea are prosperous and technologically advanced societies with capabilities to manufacture advanced weapon systems. But the “comfort women” issue continues to be an irritant.
Richard Bush of the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution puts part of the blame for Japan’s inability to move on after World War II, unlike Germany, to two US decisions during the Occupation. “First, keeping the emperor in the hope of preserving stability; (and) later, with Asian communism surging, bringing back many officials who had been part of Japan’s war effort (eg, Abe’s grandfather),” he told this writer recently. Abe’s grandfather Kishi Nobusuke was arrested as a suspected war criminal after World War II but never charged. He later became prime minister. The solution Bush proposed is straightforward: “Japan could help itself by providing generous compensation through a public or private mechanism to the comfort women still alive.”
As security analyst Gunaratna pointed out: “I think people should move forward. (After all), Japan has forgiven the nuclear bombs (dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II).”