Japan’s Obama Problem

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TOKYO – When Japanese 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 US
President Barack Obama’s reluctance to challenge China’s muscle-flexing and
territorial ambitions in Asia – reflected in Japan’s recent split with the US 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 who were executed after World War II has made it a potent symbol of
Japan’s prewar militarism, and Abe had long refrained from visiting it – including
during his previous stint 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

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. In fact, 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 US 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 US stoked Japan’s anxiety,
without winning any concessions from China.

Now, the widening rift between the US 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 US government openly – and uncharacteristically – criticized
Abe’s Yasukuni visit, with its embassy in Japan releasing a statement saying that
the US 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 US-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 US 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, US-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 US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, an emerging regional
trading bloc that will exclude China.

Nonetheless, a psychological schism between the Abe and Obama administrations has
gradually developed. While the US frets about Abe’s nationalistic stance vis-à-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 Chinese President Xi Jinping as he did with Abe.

The paradox is that while anxiety over China’s growing assertiveness has returned
the US 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 (called the Diaoyu Islands in China). The Obama
administration’s contradictory rhetoric – affirming that the US-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 US brokered a deal in which both countries agreed to
withdraw their maritime vessels from the area. But, after the Philippines withdrew,
China occupied the shoal – and, despite a mutual-defense treaty between the US and
the Philippines, the US 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 US
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, US policy risks bringing about the very outcome – a
return to militarism – that it aims to prevent.

    Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center
for Policy Research.

 Project Syndicate, 2014.
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