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     Apr 22, '14

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Obama runs China's pivot gauntlet
By Peter Lee

After all, President Obama owes his Nobel Peace Prize to his anticipated and as yet largely unrealized achievements in nuclear non-proliferation, so it may have been hoped that some NPT hay could have been made over suspicions concerning Japan's actual atom-bomb related capabilities.

But no dice. Japan agreed recently to return several hundred kilograms of weapons grade plutonium it had received from the US (while waving aside the issue of Japan's nominally fuel grade but weapon-worthy in-country stash of nine tons of plutonium and its

plans to produce more), occasioning hosannahs from the US.

Per the New York Times in late March:
The announcement is the biggest single success in President Obama's five-year-long push to secure the world's most dangerous materials, and will come as world leaders gather here on Monday for a nuclear security summit meeting. [5]
Events in Ukraine have clearly colored US thinking, pushing the US out of the "honest broker" win-win zone, and will probably elicit something of a sea-change in Chinese attitudes toward the US role in Asia.

Pushed by the need to assert the strength of its deterrent against China during the Ukraine crisis and the supremacy of the pivot during President Obama's upcoming visit, the United States has lurched over to the Japanese side of the teeter-totter.

National Security Council director Evan Medeiros' recent interview with Asahi to tee up President Obama's trip strongly indicates that, post Crimea, the Obama administration now regards forestalling any PRC moves against the Senkakus as a matter of vital geopolitical necessity and will back Japan to the hilt in order to sustain the credibility of the US deterrent capability.
Q: Finally, the impact of the Ukraine situation on the Asia-Pacific region. You pointed out in the recent speech that China's action regarding the Ukraine situation produced "uncertainty about how China defines its interests and how it pursues them." Can you elaborate on that?

A: Well, very specifically, what I mean is China regularly, publicly, says that territorial integrity and sovereignty are of the utmost importance, but yet, in the face of a violation of them by Russia through its actions in Ukraine, China has remained agnostic, and has provided essentially de facto support to Russia. For example, it has abstained in UN Security Council and UN General Assembly votes.

So, the question is, "Does China feel that there are some conditions that are actually attached to its support for territorial integrity and sovereignty?" It is raising questions all over the world about China's intentions. [6]
Maintaining US deterrent credibility means obsessive attention to the Senkakus, closer integration of the US-Japanese alliance, and a wholehearted embrace of the problematic and polarizing "collective self defense" arrangement.

Concerning the unfortunate fetishization of the worthless Senkaku islands, Kyodo News Agency headlined comments by a US general on Okinawa: "If China grabs Senkakus, US military would snatch them back".

Lieutenant General John Wissler, who heads up 18,000 Marines based in Okinawa, was actually glossing a statement made by Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command, before a senate committee to the effect that the US did not have the amphibious assets in the region to retake the Senkakus.

Locklear's statement, if useful from a budget-enhancement perspective, was not the message that the US wished to send at this particular time, with the Russian flag flying over Crimea. So Wissler made the rather logical observation that US air assets could destroy anything and everything on the island, rendering moot the need to consider an amphibious assault on the Senkakus (downplaying the amphibious assault angle also allowed General Wissler the welcome opportunity to pour cold water on the Army's desire to muscle into the Marines' pivot action by cluttering up Navy ships with its attack helicopters). [7]

The US military's stated eagerness to mix it up in the Senkakus on behalf of Japan and deter the awkwardness of another Crimea grab also adds an unwelcome dimension to "collective self defense", or CSD, for the PRC.

To American military strategists, CSD, together with jamming US military bases down the throats of resistant Okinawans, is apparently the holy grail of pivot planning. It is publicly justified on the rather dubious ground that otherwise Japan could not perform the vital service of shooting down North Korean missiles headed for the United States.

Considering the still rather sorry status of North Korean ICBMs and the rather significant capabilities of the US Navy in the vicinity (which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has decided to augment with two additional missile-whacking Aegis destroyers arriving in 2017), this threat by itself does not seem to justify the revision of Japan's so-called "pacifist" constitution.

In the eyes of US military planners, it is more likely that CSD would permit Japanese vessels and aircraft to engage in joint operations in a nominal support function to US forces but blast away at anything Chinese or North Korean once things got hot. This crablike segue into an offensive military capability is, understandably, viewed with less than complete enthusiasm by the Japanese public; a recent Asahi poll put opposition at 68%, and support for revising the CSD ban through "interpretation", ie sleight of hand by the Abe cabinet, clocking in at 12%. [8]

I suppose US military diplomacy can draw encouragement from the fact that this level of opposition is about the same as measured on Okinawa to the relocation of the Futenma Air Base, a challenge that the Abe government has met with a relatively successful campaign of bullying and unilateral executive action.

From a US perspective, conditions for President Obama's pivot promotion trip to Asia might appear quite satisfactory. Through a combination of local anxiety, self-interest, and opportunism, PRC assertiveness, and the occasional provocation, the political and economic foundation for a China-containment regime led by the US and keystoned by Japan has been laid.

And with the prospect of a viscerally hostile DPP administration in Taipei in 2016 ready to outdo the Philippines in anti-PRC effrontery and pro-Japanese outreach, the pre-conditions for further rounds of pivot-enhancing crises seem to be at hand.

The question is, what is the PRC going to do about this?

Perhaps the PRC is drawing the conclusion that the tipping point may have been reached, there is no useful daylight to wedge between Japan and the United States, and it is useless and perhaps even dangerous to play along, especially since the PRC can see eight years of Hillary Clinton and her even more aggressive anti-PRC strategy in the offing.

Given the unfavorable west Pacific environment, sitting idly by, or trying to ingratiate itself with the Asian democracies and the United States through soft power gambits do not appear to be high on the PRC's list of options.

During Defense Secretary Hagel's recent visit to China, his PRC counterpart, Chang Wanquan, drew the line: "The China-US relationship is neither comparable to US-Russia ties in the Cold War, nor a relationship between container and contained. China's development can't be contained by anyone." [9]

With its overtly confrontational moves in Qingdao and Shanghai, it appears the PRC is signaling it is prepared to abandon "soft power", give up on the promise of US forbearance, and manage its business in an increasingly hostile regional environment.

And it doesn't seem likely that the PRC is blustering in order to obtain some face-saving concessions or lip service from the US. It is targeting Japan instead of dealing with the US, and challenging the United States to do something effective in support of its ally.

The PRC has always been alert to the need or opportunity to challenge the credibility of the US deterrent and, with the heightened anxiety fostered by Russia's annexation of Crimea, that day has arrived perhaps sooner than anybody wished.

If the PRC intentionally fomented the Ayungin Shoal resupply crisis with the resolve to let the US-PRC relation go south if needed rather than passively let the pivot dynamic play out to its disadvantage, we are definitely in for some tense and unpleasant times - and the costs of maintaining the credibility of the US deterrent might be considerably higher than we prefer.

The PRC appears to be signaling its determination to hunker down and weather the geopolitical storm - which might include a sooner-rather-than-later Taiwan crisis and the need to blame a handy US scapegoat - for years if need be, and pursue the struggle in domestic venues where it holds an advantage.

The PRC will draw some succor from Russia which, thanks to the heavy-handed US policy in Ukraine, is driving President Vladimir Putin into China's arms. (Russia's ostentatious increase in air patrols over the Kurile Islands were, perhaps, concrete displays of Russia's eagerness to play ball with the PRC and side against Japan).

A revealing indicator will be if the PRC abandons the World War II "victor's justice" line that it attempted to establish as the basis for the US presence in Asia and some kind of US-PRC condominium. This movement achieved a mini-boomlet with Prime Minister Abe's provocative December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, sub voce US uneasiness over the essentially anti-US character of right-wing Japanese nationalism, and the PRC's rather clumsy invocations of the Potsdam Declaration (in which the US and Chiang Kai-shek's China jointly called for the unconditional surrender of Japan) as the basis for the peaceful Asian order.

But that dog doesn't hunt anymore, thanks to Prime Minister Abe's support for US initiatives such as Futenma relocation, collective self-defense, and the TPP trade pact. To further mix metaphors, with the tightening US-Japan alliance, it looks like the US "honest broker" ship has sailed for good as far as the PRC is concerned.

If the PRC abandons its celebration of the US "greatest generation" World War II narrative, it will, somewhat ironically, contribute to the erosion some of America's vaunted soft power. As memories of World War II fade (or, to be more accurate, less flattering narratives of the current significance of that increasingly remote conflict gain traction), the US, instead of exercising its historical and moral prerogative to Asian leadership by sashaying into the region and telling the local powers how they should behave, will simply be another outside power trying to shoulder into the "Pacific Century" and belly up to the economic trough as its rivals and partners grow in military and economic strength and the relative US advantage dwindles.

The PRC, on the other hand, will be determined to demonstrate that it is the central power in East Asia, with existential interests and the credible capability to pursue them over decades in the face of US-orchestrated resistance.

Maybe it should be understood that the beginning of the "Pacific Century" is perhaps the end of the "American Century". That would certainly be an ironic coda to President Obama's visit.

1. The Philippines Takes China to Court, but It's Public Opinion That Will Decide, April 3, 2014.
2. See here.
3. Philippines: Invite all SE Asia to Pacific pact, Yahoo News, April 10, 2014.
4. China warns US ahead of Obama's visit, fearing high-profile tilt over disputed isles, Reuters, April 10, 2014.
5. Japan to Let US Assume Control of Nuclear Cache, The New York Times, March 23, 2014.
6. Evan Medeiros: China's attempt to isolate Japan worsens bilateral relations, The Asahi Shimbun, April 6, 2014.
7. Top Marine in Japan: If tasked, we could retake the Senkakus from China, Stars and Stripes, April 11, 2014.
8. Asahi poll: 63% oppose Abe's attempt to lift ban on collective self-defense, The Asahi Shimbun, April 7, 2014.
9. Nobody can contain China's development: defense chief, Xinhua, April 8, 2014.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2014 Peter Lee)

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