Page 1 of 2 Asia pivot comes back to bite the US
By Peter Lee
It's time for the United States to engage in a full-throated celebration of the pivot to Asia with what I think is going to be President Barack Obama's "America F*ck Yeah" tour of Asian democracies in April. The trip requires more than a little spadework, given the rather fraught situation in Asia.
It is not just that the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Japan are at each other's throats. Nor is the sole problem that the Philippines has declared that the South China Sea is the new Sudetenland and the PRC must be met with confrontation, not negotiation. The issue is that the United States is less than
completely happy with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sharp elbows and the fractures they create in the pivot's united front.
There has been a fascinating flurry of op-eds in US prestige media (Bloomberg, NY Times, Washington Post, and Business Week) highly critical of Abe and his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine - a visit that took place in December 2013. Concerned chin-stroking at the end of February 2014 is a little late, it would seem.
As for the highly insulting detail that Prime Minister Abe listened to US Vice President Joe Biden's importunities for an hour before blowing him off and visiting the shrine for the war dead - that was leaked at the end of January.
So why, all of a sudden, does the US have its knickers in a knot concerning last year's display of Abe's rather unambiguous historical-revisionist inclinations? Well, reading my exclusive China Matters divinatory entrails (paywalled! Just kidding) I believe this furor has much to do with President Obama's announced visit to Asia.
As of now, China is not on the itinerary. Japan and the Philippines are. So is South Korea, reportedly after some strenuous lobbying.
The trip looks like a celebration of the pivot, that China-containment strategy that dares not speak its name but is meant to secure America's leading position in East Asia by pushing China's relations with its neighbors in a more polarized and confrontational condition, playing into US military superiority.
More than that, it will make up for ground lost by the dismaying cancellation of President Obama's previous Asia trip (because of the US debt ceiling farce) and demonstrate to a dubious world that, despite appearances to the contrary, the United States is still brimming with resolve, the master of events, leader of the coalition of Asian democracies, indeed the universally hailed hegemon of Asia.
I look at President Obama's trip as one of those imperial tours favored by the Roman and Chinese emperors to demonstrate that the empire's writ still ran in the borderlands.
However, a certain Asian democracy is openly hedging its bets against the day that the United States changes its mind and decides that its true interests lie somewhere more along the dreaded G2 axis (cooperation between the US and the PRC to order affairs in ways not necessarily to the liking of the other nations of the Pacific.) That nation, of course, is Japan.
Prime Minister Abe, thanks to his lineage and his personal experience, is in a good position to remember the many times when the United States decided that US and Japanese interests did not necessarily coincide.
They include slights as old as the Portsmouth Treaty (when Teddy Roosevelt decided that Japan was too green a member of the imperial club to enjoy the full fruits of its victory over Tsarist Russia) to that whole World War II unpleasantness (which Abe's revisionist group consider to be entirely the fault of the United States), to the sudden recognition of the PRC, the torpedoing of the Japanese economy by the Plaza Accord imposed by the United States, and the unnerving undertone of G2 chatter that occasionally pervades US diplomacy.
On a personal level, Prime Minister Abe undoubtedly also remembers how he loyally supported George W Bush's confrontational North Korea policy in 2005, only to see Japan - and Abe's signature issue, the abductees - brushed aside in former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia Chris Hill's and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's haste to conclude a transitory agreement with the North.
On a happier note, Prime Minister Abe probably also recalls that when she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was a staunch opponent of G2 and an avid supporter of the Asia pivot, with the underlying strategy of employing the alliance with Japan as the keystone of US policy in Asia. The full story perhaps needs an entire book, but it is worth remembering that President Obama was reportedly prepared to drop the affirmation of the disputed Senkakus islands as falling under the US-Japan security treaty  - presumably in response to some Chinese blandishment.
This was the case until the tag team of secretary of state Clinton and former Japanese foreign minister Seiji Maehara exploited (or, in my view, concocted) the whole 2010 Senkaku Captain Zhan/rare earth imbroglio  that led to the exact opposite outcome - open affirmation that the Senkakus were covered . Subsequently, it became clear that Clinton had decided to ditch engagement and treat the PRC's maritime issues as a pretext for a confrontainment policy against China, and use the policy as the foundation of the militarized pivot to Asia.
But Clinton is gone, at least for the time being, and the decidedly less confrontational Secretary of State John Kerry seems to have been able to take the reins of US diplomacy.
Kerry's focus on the Middle East has occasioned nervous/resentful mumblings from supporters of the Japan relationship in Washington, for the stated reason that his focus on the Far East is insufficient and the pivot is languishing. An unstated reason may be that the PRC, because of its somewhat important role in Iran and Syria matters, may be inching toward a quasi-G2 relationship with Kerry that might result in some favors being done for the PRC at the expense of the pivot democracies.
One such favor, I previously speculated, might have been the US demand that Japan return some weapons grade plutonium  it had received from the United States a long time ago.
In any case, I felt that it was necessary for Kerry to establish his tough-on-China credentials, and I believe he did that by sending out Evan Medeiros, of the US National Security Council, to make a big noise about how the US would not tolerate a South China Sea air defense identification zone.  And the PRC, which, I believe, had already disclaimed any current intention for an South China Sea ADIZ, promptly said they were considering no such move, thereby allowing Kerry to shift, albeit incrementally, out of the despised Chamberlain-appeasement doghouse into the blessed realm of Churchillian resolve.
So President Obama can go to Asia secure in the knowledge that America's "stick a thumb in China's eye" credentials are relatively secure. With this context, what to make of the concerted campaign to rain on Prime Minister Abe's parade?
I think it's because President Obama wants to use his April trip to affirm the pivot and, more importantly, the indispensable US leadership role in it.
That means cracking the whip on Japan and demonstrating that the US will not allowed itself to get tangled up in the Abe administration's hopes and dreams for a Japan that is able to exploit the US alliance as an element in its own plans to restore Japan's sovereignty and military and diplomatic clout in Asia.
It would take a special kind of denial to ignore the fact that Prime Minister Abe is abubble with plans to expand Japan's diplomatic and security footprint in Asia all the way from the Kuriles to Myanmar and India , or to disregard the fact that these ambitions do not fit cleanly within a hierarchical structure with the US pivot on top, with the US-Japan security alliance as the next layer, and Japan's relationship with the other Asian democracies guided by the pivot, the security alliance, and the power and the glory of American strategic vision. 
This unpleasant state of affairs is demonstrated by the conundrum that seems to underlay the Abe-bashing: the growing rift between South Korea and Japan.
One of the nagging problems of the pivot has been the rancor between the administrations of Abe in Japan and Park Geun-hye in South Korea, and also Seoul's un-pivoty predilection for sidling over into the PRC economic and diplomatic camp.
Abe, contrary to the ostensible doctrine of pivot solidarity, seems happy to determinedly and systematically exacerbate the bad blood between Japan and South Korea, not just with Yasukuni but with dismissive remarks by his allies on the lessons of World War II and the comfort women. And, contrary to the idea that the United States coordinates the pivot, Abe has also been most dismissive of US efforts to insert itself in the dispute.
According to Peter Ennis of Japan Dispatch, the Yasukuni kerfuffle played out as part of the US effort to mediate a rapprochement between Japan and South Korea. 
Per Ennis, Vice President Biden thought he had an understanding that Abe would not visit Yasukuni and communicated that perception to President Park. When it transpired that Abe was indeed planning to visit Yasukuni, Biden made the infamous phone call to try to persuade him not to go, and Abe in essence told him to get stuffed.