Obama’s Asia pivot sends mixed signals

Time for a reboot Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Preisdent Barack Obama, Photo: AFP
Time for a reboot Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Preisdent Barack Obama, Photo: AFP

I am waiting for you at the shrine… Although you are young and might not yet know about the world, your father happily dies for His Majesty the Emperor as a sailor… I also ask that you come to Yasukuni shrine with mother to see me.” The farewell note (dated 14 April 1945) of Japanese Navy Ensign Isamu Kawagoe Mikoto, 36, to his son Toshiko is being displayed as the “last message” for the holy month of April at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, a war memorial where Japan’s lost soldiers are interred. The spring festival, or Shunki Reitaisai, which began at the shrine on 21 April, will attract thousands of Japanese to pay homage through elaborate rituals. The Japanese believe the soldiers — who reside here as spirits after attaining divinity by virtue of their deaths on the battlefield — protect their country and guide its temporal affairs.

It is no accident that US President Barack Obama arrived in Tokyo on 24 April, one day after Shunki Reitaisai ends. The shrine, built in the late 19th century, is at the centre of a raging dispute between Japan and China as well as South Korea, which see it as a celebration of Japan’s militaristic past. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni last year — where 14 leaders convicted of World War II war crimes are also interred — set off the firestorm. China and South Korea were quick to protest, as at previous such visits. But this time, they were joined by the US, with the State Department expressing “disappointment”.

But if Obama sought to pin Japan down on the inadvisability of nationalistic displays during his visit, the Abe regime forestalled it spectacularly even before the visit began. On 21 April, the media reported that Abe sent a ritual offering to the shrine. The very next day, a group of 150 Japanese lawmakers made the trip, a spokesman for the group told reporters. Two Cabinet ministers, one of them the grandson of the commander at the legendary battle of Iwo Jima, have also visited the shrine in the past week. Japanese media saw Abe’s ritual gift of a tree as a sign that he himself would not make the pilgrimage this year.

That is small comfort to Obama, who will have the opportunity to ask Abe about the controversy at a private dinner. Also on the menu: the Korean “comfort women” controversy that has infuriated South Korea. Relations with South Korea hit a low after an official’s comments undermined Japan’s apologies for utilising Korean women as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Obama has played peacemaker between the two US allies, enabling the first-ever meeting between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Abe on the sidelines of a recent summit, making the Japanese display that much more dramatic.

Even without these historical rows, expectations in Japan from the Obama visit — upgraded to a State visit and lengthened from two to three days at Japan’s request — are low. If Japan ever needed a strong US commitment to its security, it is now. Tensions with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea have been high since 2012.

They rose another notch last year after China began regular patrols around them and declared an “air defence identification zone” directly above, requiring all aircraft to identify themselves. China has also published claims to more than 80 percent of all the South China Sea, challenging US naval dominance in the Asia Pacific. This military display seems aimed at projecting power over a crucial shipping lane, the Malacca Straits. US military intelligence says China seems to be preparing for a short, sharp war over the disputed islands with Japan.

This has unsettled several Southeast Asian nations that also have territorial disputes with China and has contributed to an arms race in the Asia Pacific. US-based naval analysis firm AMI International says the Asia Pacific has now overtaken Europe as the world’s second-largest naval market. The region is projected to spend $200 billion on new naval assets by 2032 — roughly 25 percent of the new ship market.

Though Japan has a defence pact with the US, Obama’s steady backslide on foreign policy (read: Syria, Ukraine) has not inspired much confidence inside Japan. Then there is the new Obama catchphrase, “new model of big power relations”, which he coined after a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Japanese fear it is a code for change in the special relationship they have had with the US since World War II. A recent poll revealed that over 80 percent of Japanese expressed a feeling of uncertainty about the alliance with the US and traced it to the emergence of China.

Expert opinion in the US seems to betray some impatience with Japan. In an interview, Richard Bush, the director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, dismissed doubts about the US’ resolve (to defend Japan) as prevalent more among Japan’s “chattering classes” than “the government itself”. However, he says somewhat cavalierly in the same breath: “Any country that depends on another for its protection is going to have doubts about the resolve of its protector.”

These doubts may be behind Japan’s move last week to begin building a radar station at Yonaguni, an island just 150 km from the disputed Senkaku islet, which Japan controls but China claims. It will help Japan track China’s now-routine ship patrols and military overflights near the island. Significantly, the radar station will also extend surveillance capability into the Chinese mainland. Japan’s defence minister indicated that troops may also be stationed on other nearby islands in the future. Japan is also importing F-35s and raising a Marines-type force with amphibious vessels. Also on the drawing board are helicopter carriers.

At a media briefing on the eight-day Asia trip, which will see Obama swing through South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines after Japan, National Security Adviser Susan Rice did not make special mention of security concerns raised by Chinese aggressiveness on the South and East China Seas. She instead laid out trade and economic goals. Security figured next to last, ahead of culture.

The US is trying to forge a 12-nation trade pact called the Trans Pacific Partnership and is reportedly pushing terms weighted heavily in favour of US big business, another reason for disquiet in Japan. Asian nations are also painfully aware that Obama’s own pro-labour Democratic lawmakers are opposed to it.

The clearest recent indication of the US’ resolve to protect Asia Pacific allies against China came not from the White House but Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on his first tour of China earlier this year. The somewhat quixotic war hero and longtime senator, who spent long years as a Republican, showed a flash of temper in Beijing. In a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart, Hagel wagged an admonitory finger from the stage. “The Philippines and Japan are longtime allies of the US. We have mutual self-defence treaties with them,” he said, adding that the US was “fully committed to those obligations”. But the reason this has not eased fears is perhaps because, more than in any other modern administration, foreign policy is made in the Obama White House. And, as Syria showed, it can dramatically alter old calculations in a flash.

The primary reason Asia is watching this trip closely is because, by happy chance or not, all four countries that Obama is visiting have territorial disputes with China. And the US has promised to defend three countries — the Philippines, Japan and South Korea — as well as Taiwan. Japan and Taiwan face Chinese threats and South Korea fears North Korea, whose only ally is China.

There is widespread scepticism that the US will be drawn into any conflict here. There are reports that the visiting American president will announce a pact with the Philippines to widen access to US ships. If he does, it could signal to China a move away from Japan’s primacy as an ally.

The gorilla on Air Force One — or the big bear — is Ukraine and the fast-changing situation there. Though the White House is keeping quiet on the details, there is a palpable sense that Obama will have to juggle with the volatile situation while on the move in Asia. Russia has given no sign that it will help to defuse the situation despite an agreement to utilise its “influence” with pro-Russian militias. Russian forces are massed on the border and there has been violence.

China is seeing an opportunity in the Ukraine crisis and has tentatively backed Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Beijing last week to “thank China” and to lay the groundwork for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit in May. Putin is expected to sign a pact to supply natural gas to China — at lower prices than he commands in Europe.