East Asia and Pacific // Analysis

13 february 2015

Japan-US-China Triangle and Security in East Asia: a Triangle or an Axis?

Konstantin Sarkisov PhD in History, Visiting Researcher at Hosai University, Honorable Professor of Yamanashi University (Japan)
Photo:
REUTERS / Toru Hana / Pixistream
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Deputy
Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso
attend a lower house committee session at
the parliament in Tokyo February 4, 2015

The struggle for offshore resources has intensified in East Asia, and Japan-China tensions seem of particular concern. Due to its alliance treaty with Japan, the United States is also involved in the conflict. The Japanese Ministry of Defense has, for the first time ever, qualified the situation around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands as “neither peace nor war, but some ‘grey zone’” [1]. The situation is unfolding against a backdrop of a quantitative and qualitative improvement in US-Chinese relations, as the two countries’ combined account for almost one-third of the world's GDP.

Security and stability in Northeast Asia involves a balance between mutual deterrence of Japan-US military alliance and the individual military capabilities of Russia and China. Two factors could theoretically undermine this stability, namely changes in the military potential of any of the three components (Japanese-American, Chinese and Russian), and an exacerbation of the regional conflicts in which they may unwittingly be involved. The first factor implies, above all, a marked increase in China's military power, as well as a strengthened Japan-US alliance in response, and the (largely symbolic) stepped up military exercises and military construction in Russia’s Far East. This second factor involves a dispute over offshore hydrocarbon deposits in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The U.S. could be drawn into this dispute, due to its commitment to defending Japan in the event of a military clash with China, under the 1960 Security Treaty.

Responding to China's rise

In Japan, China’s economic rise was first viewed with jealousy and fear over its own economic position. Now there are concerns over the country’s military security. China's might is growing rapidly across the board. In 2010, China became the second largest economic power in terms of GDP, surpassing Japan, which had held this position for over 40 years. Gone are the days when the combined GDP of the United States and Japan accounted for 40 percent of the global economy. Currently, the combined might of the United States and China is over 30 percent of global GDP (17.7 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively). Both countries have left the rest far behind, and while Japan has the third largest GDP, at 6.1 percent is in a different category.

In 2010, China became the second largest economic power in terms of GDP, surpassing Japan, which had held this position for over 40 years.

The growth of national power creates the temptation to solve problems requiring a delicate approach and, above all, dialogue, by force. Although China is obviously interested in peace and stability, without which its further growth is unthinkable, it is also exposed to the same temptation. In recent years Beijing’s demands that others respect its “vital interests” have become more hard-line.

Few people in Japan believe China’s assurances that its increased military spending poses no threat and that it is pure speculation on the part of the United States and Japan to justify their own military preparations.

According to a survey conducted by the newspaper Yomiuri, 82 percent of people in Japan consider China to be a military threat, more than with North Korea (79 percent) [2]. The same newspaper reports that China's military spending, which increased year-on-year by 12.2 percent was one of the most notable events of 2014 [3].

These figures are not surprising, given the news stories about Chinese patrol ships violating territorial waters, about coral poaching in Japan’s economic zone, and about the two countries’ aircraft flying in dangerous proximity [4]. All this is taking place against the background of Beijing’s actual involvement in acute territorial conflicts, namely with Vietnam and the Philippines over the construction of an oil rig near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea and with Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu) in the East China Sea.

www.economywatch.com

The purchase of the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu) by Japan’s government from private owners in September 2012 for 2 billion 50 million yen (26 million dollars at the exchange rate of the time) sent Beijing into a rage [5]. Publications by Xinhua News Agency and its correspondents revealed a poorly veiled threat against Japan. They emphasized that the “unilateral actions” of the Japanese government in relation to the Diaoyu Islands “over which China has indisputable sovereignty” not only “threaten the very foundation of the bilateral ties, but could even wreak havoc on the stability in East Asia”.

Beijing’s statement that the dispute with Japan affected its “vital interests” added fuel to the fire. Previously, only Taiwan fell into this category, and Beijing did not rule out the use of force [6].

Anti-Japanese sentiments are widespread in Chinese society and are rooted in the sad facts of the past, which unwittingly forces the Japanese to believe that China’s intentions to get even are not just a bluff. A survey of leading political scientists in 11 countries of East Asia, conducted by the American Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), revealed there are many more people in China who consider “revenge for the past” an adequate cause for war, than in Japan [7].

The establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, announced by Beijing in November 2013, triggered a nervous response. China’s new ADIZ covers the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu) and South Korea-claimed Iodo (also called Socotra Rock). Chinese Air Force flights to the borders of Japan became more frequent, and were countered by Japanese aircraft. In 2008-2013 the number of such flights increased from 31 to 415. Russian aircraft statistics followed a similar same pattern: the number of flights increased from 193 to 359 (1.9 times). Since 2012 China has far exceeded Russia in terms of this indicator.

Data from the Japanese Ministry of Defense white paper fit well enough into the Japanese perception of the “potential Chinese threat.” Over the years 2000-2009 the “China threat” thesis was refuted in Japan at the highest level. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) loved to repeat that for Japan, China was an opportunity not a threat. Now this “opportunity” is perceived in Japan as a possibility of direct military confrontation.

The Japanese constitution

But the emphasis on the strategic U.S.-Japanese alliance, which is still oriented on opposing China, is increasingly at variance with the mounting interdependence between the U.S. and China.

The Chinese threat, real or putative, generates a major security problem in East Asia for the next decade, i.e. Japan’s transformation into a powerful self-sufficient center of military force. Until now, its rejection of an independent military role, enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution, has been one of the major factors underscoring peace, security and stability in East Asia.

Much has changed over the years. Japan’s Defense Agency, which once occupied a modest place in the state hierarchy, has become a full-fledged Ministry of Defense. The National Security Council, modeled on the American original in structure and functions, started its work in January 2014. The military budget requested by the Ministry of Defense for 2015 comes to 4.9 trillion yen (41 billion dollars at the current exchange rate). It had not risen since 1997 (4.94 trillion yen), and in fact had even been cut. Since 2013 this cost curve has been rising due to the “Chinese factor”.

Nevertheless, the state legislative foundation of Japan's defense policy has so far remained intact: Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution [8]. Its political paradigm of “pacifism” as the core of the country’s foreign policy with its strong anti-war sentiments was maintained despite the changing generations. The Japanese elite’s pragmatism and understanding that competing with China in an arms race would be suicidal, especially given the latter’s military budget (according to official figures, 132 billion dollars in 2014) with an annual growth of over 10 percent, also has an impact. The Japanese budget faces an enormous internal debt (8.3 trillion dollars), more than double GDP could not withstand this competition.

There are other barriers that China does not face. The democratic power structure forces the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to deal with the electorate, to worry about future election results and to forge a coalition with another party (Komeito) in order to retain power. This latter is inclined neither to a sharp increase in military spending, nor to revising the Constitution.

whatdoesitmean.com

In the context of the ‘Cold War’ with China, the effect of the above factors is weakening. Taking advantage of this, the ruling party is trying to “force a breach” in those well-established concepts by adding the epithet “proactive” to the word “pacifism,” which is not entirely congruent with the concept of pacifism. Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan Fumio Kishida gave some clarifications in his speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 1, 2014. However, the true meaning of the word that Shinzo Abe’s government has in mind goes far beyond the general ideas of promoting global economic and social development, of active participation in UN peacekeeping operations and the disarmament movement and of fighting the proliferation of nuclear weapons to which Fumio Kishida referred.

The concept of proactive pacifism addresses a fundamental issue of whether the Japanese Constitution grants the right to engage in “collective self-defense.” On July 1, 2014 Japan’s Cabinet approved a resolution on a new interpretation of the Constitution, which does not outlaw the right to engage in “collective self-defense.” This reinterpretation goes further than the previously established concept of Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented policy. Collective self-defense implies that Japanese soldiers would also have to “fight and die” outside of Japan, if it is deemed necessary for the safety of the country and its citizens. The resolution strictly regulates such cases in detail.

US return to Asia

Japan hoped that Barack Obama’s new course – marking the United States’ “return” to Asia would be a real alternative to the rapid growth of a China-oriented world, which it did not want be part of at all.

The Japanese tradition does not favor swinging from one extreme to another. Japan's modern security policy rests on four pillars: strengthening the comprehensive alliance with the United States; building up one’s own defense capabilities through a broad interpretation of the Constitution; developing military and political ties with potential partners to “contain” China; establishing mutual understanding with China. All four areas face their own problems.

The first direction is obvious. There are about 37,000 American troops in Japan and there are over 130 U.S. military facilities. The issue of reducing or withdrawing American troops has long been forgotten. The case in question involves the redeployment away from Okinawa, where three-quarters of U.S. bases and facilities are currently concentrated. But the emphasis on the strategic U.S.-Japanese alliance, which is still oriented on opposing China, is increasingly at variance with the mounting interdependence between the U.S. and China [9].

This interweaving of interests is particularly noticeable in the economy. In 2013 the trade in goods between the United States and China amounted to 562.2 billion dollars, and for the first nine months of 2014 – 425.7 billion dollars. The same indicator for Japan-US trade is almost three times less: 203.8 and 153.3 billion dollars, respectively. 723,000 Chinese students studied in American universities in 2012. In contrast to the 1920s, when young Chinese people went to Moscow to study the class struggle, the children of present-day Communists prefer U.S. universities. In 2011-2012, the share of Chinese students accounted for more than 25 percent of all foreign students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education [10].

Japan hoped that Barack Obama’s new course – marking the United States’ “return” to Asia or an increased U.S. presence in Asia would be a real alternative to the rapid growth of a China-oriented world, which it did not want be part of at all. At its core was the concept of a free trade area called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Since 2008, the United States has been negotiating participation in it and has actively encouraged Japan to join it. It seemed that they would manage to constrain China’s the growing influence by applying economic levers, customs regulations, and standards for the protection of intellectual property [11].

But since mid-2013, China’s “containment” has begun to evaporate as the c TPP project is implemented. November 2012 negotiations on establishing another free trade area – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – revealed a clear ambiguity in the process of regional integration. This area, with China’s enormous Chinese market at its epicenter, brings together many countries involved in the TPP, including Japan. In addition, since mid-2013, China has begun to display a significant interest in the TPP. The mood in the United States has shifted too. An influential American magazine began to argue that China’s inclusion in the TPP project is in the United States’ national interest.

The lively discussion at the last APEC session in Indonesia of the idea to create a Free Trade Area for the Asia-Pacific Region (FTAAPR) in November 2014 contrasted with the failed attempt to sign a final agreement on the TPP in Singapore in February the same year. This mega-market accounts for 80 percent of Japan's exports, 60 percent of imports and 70 percent of direct investment. An influential Asahi newspaper sees no problem in the existence of parallel integration courses. Moreover, in its view, the TTP could form the core of FTAAPR.

Russia's pivot to the East

The multidirectional trends in world politics and in the region are obvious. The region’s economic development is taking place in the context of integration, the formation of common markets and common interests, but harmonizing interests that seem set on a collision course due to territorial and other disputes and resources development, is clearly encountering delays and may even have stalled.

Russia’s pivot to the East or its foreign policy of “West substitution” raises the issue of basic principles of its foreign policy strategy. Relations with China are rapidly gaining momentum, turning China from “one of the most important” partners of Russia into its principal partner. This inevitably creates the impression of establishing a union or something very close to it. Tactically, it could be a good thing, but strategically it is fraught with serious consequences and revives the “phantom” of the 1950s. This is not something China needs. Its interests are becoming more global, and it is keen to avoid producing the impression of a new alliance with Moscow.

Parallel regional integration processes (TPP and FTAAPR) are moving in one direction, namely toward a huge market involving a large number of various and differently oriented actors, including Japan, India and South Korea, and will deter the formation of a G2 (Washington-Beijing) regional economic and political dominance. This configuration does not suit anyone, including Japan and Russia.

Implicitly, this logic has already shaped Russian-Japanese relations for several years, but the Ukrainian events hindered the process. Japan's joining the sanctions was largely forced. The country could not ignore its membership in the G7, the alliance with the United States, and its close relationship with Europe. Nevertheless, Tokyo tried to reduce its actions to imposing sanctions that had little practical effect. In particular, they covered increased control over arms exports; the provision of military technology, general goods, military-oriented services and long-term loans to Russian banks; refusing visas to certain individuals, etc.

Most sanctions relate to activities that are virtually not carried out in practice. But if the economic impact of the sanctions was insignificant, the political one was painful enough. To mitigate this effect, the Japanese side initiated two meetings between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – a short one in Milan and a lengthy meeting in Beijing as part of APEC. During “the sanctions period,” Japanese warships paid a courtesy visit to Vladivostok. Now President Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan in 2015 is on the agenda. “I hope that this visit will take place next year at the most opportune time,” said Shinzo Abe on November 11, 2014 after an hour and a half long conversation with Putin, noting that it was their 10th meeting. When and how their 11th meeting will take place and what time will be considered “the most opportune” is something we will learn in the near future.

Due to Russia’s current confrontation with the West, Japan by definition cannot take its side. Given Japan’s reluctance to confront Russia, its desire to promote a compromise solution to the dispute between the West and Russia as soon as possible and, vitally, to prevent others from “lining their pockets” from this conflict, relations could be built in a special format. This could provide a platform for minimized sanctions and maximizing dialogue and interaction in those areas not touched by sanctions. In this respect, Japan is better placed than France or Germany, which apart from relations with the United States and G7 have commitments within the European Union, whose consensus principle necessitates bringing their interests in harmony with the interests of others.

Despite a very close relationship with the United States, Israel has not joined the sanctions regime because it managed to convince its main ally and others that the country could not afford such a luxury, facing a hostile and explosive environment. Tokyo can follow suit and convince its partners that, for all its economic independence from Russia, good or at least regular relations with Moscow are a geopolitical imperative under current conditions.

* * *

The multidirectional trends in world politics and in the region are obvious. The region’s economic development is taking place in the context of integration, the formation of common markets and common interests, but harmonizing interests that seem set on a collision course due to territorial and other disputes and resources development, is clearly encountering delays and may even have stalled. The emerging disparity in economic potentials have transformed into other aspects of power, making it even more difficult to find mutually acceptable compromises. These efforts are hampered by the fact that harmonizing national interests in the region with a low level of political integration is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: the key to resolving geopolitical differences, if there is one, is economic integration.

1. Yusuke K. Neither Peace, Nor War // Mainichi Shimbun, August 6, 2014

2. The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 9, 2014

3. The Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2014

4. The Asahi Shimbun, July 18, 2014

5. The Asahi Shimbun, September 6, 2012

6. Atsushi Okudera, Asahi correspondent from Beijing: the Asahi Shimbun, April 27, 2013

7. The Asahi Shimbun, June 20, 2014

8. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that came into effect in 1947 reads:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

(2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized. (http://www.houko.com/00/01/S21/000.HTM)

9. Likes and dislikes, suspicion and trust, competition and partnership are closely intertwined in it. Annual consultations on strategic issues attract to Beijing almost the entire Washington administration and many others.

10. The Japanese press reported the many Chinese names at the Master’s Commencement Ceremony at the end of May 2014 in the courtyard of Adams House, one of the student dormitories at Harvard University, where Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger once lived. One of the names belonged to the daughter of the current Chinese leader Mintsze. See: a series of articles under the heading “US-China new world order.” The Asahi Shimbun, September 27, 2014

11. Kahler M., Macintyre A. (eds.) Integrating Regions: Asia in Comparative Context. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013. p. 262.

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Konstantin Sarkisov, “Japan-US-China Triangle and Security in East Asia: a Triangle or an Axis?,” Russian International Affairs Council, 13 February 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=5270

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