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US hoist by its own pivot petard
By Peter Lee
It is perhaps premature to announce the death of the US pivot to Asia, but the patient looks less than healthy. The US effort to orchestrate a win-win economic and security regime in Asia through selective and constructive pressure on China is being undercut by an ally that sees its importance, security, and prosperity eroding as China rises.
That nation is Japan, which is threatening to frustrate the US plan for a new paradigm in Asia, and replace it with the dismal Middle Eastern model of confrontation and containment, one that the Obama administration is desperate to escape.
In this context, we can take an instructive look at the latest kerfuffle in Sino-Japanese relations, the article by in People's
Daily by two Chinese scholars calling into question Japan's title to all the Ryukyu Islands in addition to the Senkakus, including the big one - Okinawa.
Seduced by the prospect of another China-bashing peep show, seemingly oblivious of the Japanese government's concerted campaign to skew coverage of its disputes with China, and too lazy to read the original article (which apparently appeared only in Chinese, got jerked after the intended uproar was generated, and now seems to exist only on Chinese message boards), most of the media missed the true import of the story.
The drift of the article is that after World War II the United States returned sovereignty of the entire Ryukyu chain, not just the Senkakus, to Japan on legally dodgy basis As the estimable Martin Fravel of MIT pointed out (and the Japan Times quite commendably reported), this was not an attempt to claim Chinese sovereignty over Okinawa:
The scholars aren't necessarily saying that the Ryukyus belong to China, said Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China's territorial claims. They are raising the possibility that Japan's ownership could be disputed because the islands' rulers in past centuries had tributary relations with imperial China, he said.
"These are perhaps the most serious scholars to date to make this insinuation," Fravel said. 
The article emerged in the context of Okinawan alienation with rule from Tokyo, disenchantment that has to do with central government highhandedness as well as the continual irritation of the basing issue. Okinawan dissatisfaction is growing as Japanese nationalism (and impatience with Okinawan presumption) becomes the lingua franca of Japanese politics, feeding a sense of disenfranchisement which carries the faintest whiff of separatism. Chinese media follows the unhappy-Okinawa story assiduously.
Xinhua's report on Japan's "national sovereignty day" celebrations - a new exercise in right-wing nationalist hagiography - two weeks ago killed two birds with one stone by a) pointing up Okinawan dissatisfaction and b) linking it to the muddled sovereignty issue:
The Japanese government on Sunday for first time commemorated the day that the country ended the US occupation and recovered its sovereignty in 1952 after its defeat in the World War II.
The government held a ceremony, in which the Japanese Imperial Couple, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as well as about 390 lawmakers, prefectural governors and government officials participated. ...
Okinawa, Japan's southernmost island prefecture that was returned by the United States in 1972, consider April 28 as "day of insult" and oppose the central government's sovereignty recovery ceremony.
The prefecture's governor Hirokazu Nakaima skipped the ceremony and local assembly members also staged protests in the city of Ginowan in the prefecture, according to reports. 
So, the real purpose of the People's Daily think piece was to encourage Okinawan particularism - or, at the very least, publicly expressed dissatisfaction with Tokyo - and thereby further undermine Japan's rather tenuous claims to the Senkakus.
For bonus points, the article's authors proposed making representations to the United States - which is demonstrably queasy over the whole Senkaku sovereignty issue - to do the right thing, at least behind the scenes, and address the contested issue of overall Rykyu sovereignty:
Although under the current circumstances the United States can't be expected to be upright in speech and action about the matter - it would be a matter of "asking the tiger for its own skin" [exhorting somebody to do something against their own interest] - nevertheless, China should make efforts based on the principles of its position and try achieve a better situation through its diplomacy with the United States.
The Japanese government went predictably batshit over this attempt to support a narrative of Okinawan separatism and US re-insertion into the whole Ryukyu issue on China's behalf and reframed it as a Chinese exercise in territorial aggrandizement that threatened the precious US bases on Okinawa.
The world media - which perhaps will one day be more careful about reporting on Chinese-language stories filtered through the Japanese press - obligingly followed on. The judge's trophy for gormlessness (sorry, no link) goes to a certain Western journalist, who reported the story as:
A mouthpiece of China's Communist party has claimed that the Japanese Island of Okinawa, home to several major US military bases, should be ceded to Beijing.
The consequences of a Japan working to reassert its national dignity and control its economic and security destiny are still underestimated by the punditocracy in United States, if not by the US government itself. Writing in Forbes, Stephen Harner did acknowledge creeping anxieties about Japan's assertive posture:
[Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe, a romantic nationalist, is proving a problematic, and potentially disastrous leader for Japan in its relations with its neighbors (and increasingly, I suspect, with the United States).Â Both in character and mentality he and his coterie are yesterday's men, not the forward looking leaders Japan needs. 
However, Mr Harner chose to look beyond Prime Minister Abe's rather off-putting retro-nationalist persona to conclude with an optimistic vision of Japan's future:
I support Abe's intended change in Japan's constitution because I see it as a necessary step toward a Japanese foreign and defense policy and capability independent of the United States, eventual abrogation of the US-Japan mutual defense alliance, and pursuit by Japan of a Swiss-like (non-nuclear) armed neutrality between the US and China, the only position for Japan that is likely to be stable, sustainable and in Japan's interest over time.
Regardless of who is in the prime minister's seat, I suspect that 21st century Japan is not going to look like the Switzerland of the Pacific.
For instance, I did not notice Switzerland sending the chief of staff of its putatively defensive army 3,000 miles, or nearly 5,000 kilometers, to Kolkata to meet with India's commander for the Eastern Theatre (which handles the frontline duties confronting China in Arunachal Pradesh), apparently to counter-program against the state visit to India of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, as Japan did this week. 
And I wouldn't put my bet on "stable" and "sustainable" either - or "neutral" or "non-nuclear" for that matter.
Japan's politics is now driven by more than a sense of political, economic, and strategic malaise inspired by two decades of slow growth, political gridlock, and the well-founded anxiety that rising China is eating Japan's bento box lunch as a disinterested US looks on.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is working to transform Japan's sense of demoralization into a narrative of national crisis that translates into political dominance.
A member of Prime Minister Abe's cabinet told the Wall Street Journal:
Mr Yamamoto said the Abe cabinet viewed Japan as having its back against the wall. "Everyone shares the same sense of crisis," he said. "If we don't do something now, Japan won't ever come back." 
Hiahiko Okazaki, head of the avowedly hawkish Okazaki Institute think tank, foresees a sea-change in Japanese attitudes that involves an assisted transition to a Ride of the Valkyries style of nationalism.