U.S. Playing With Balkans-Style Powder Keg In East Asia
August 30, 2012
Tread with caution in the East
By Yang Danzhi
The US is likely to lose its credibility with its faithful ally Japan if it sides with China. But by siding with Japan, it may risk a China-US conflict. Once the situation gets out of control and leads to an armed conflict, will Washington honor the US-Japan security treaty and confront Beijing?
Because of a decline in its hegemony in recent years, the US wants Japan to shoulder more regional responsibilities and play a more proactive role in East Asia, especially to counterbalance the rise of China.
Amid the intensified diplomatic row over the Diaoyu Islands dispute, Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, Japan’s senior vice-minister of foreign affairs, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday carrying a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to President Hu Jintao.
Noda was reported to emphasize the importance of “maintaining the strategic and beneficial relationship” in the letter, which indicates Japan’s efforts to play down the dispute.
However, to properly handle the dispute, not only Japan and China should deal with each other with calm and reason, but also the US should no longer add fuel to the fire.
For a long time, the United States has considered itself a provider of common security in East Asia and some East Asian countries have appreciated its role. People who advocate the “hegemonic stability theory” believe the US’ presence in East Asia is a prerequisite for peace and security in the region after the end of the Cold War.
The maritime disputes in East Asia, especially the escalation of the disputes over the Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan and the Dokdo Island (called Takeshima Island in Japan) between the Republic of Korea and Japan, are testing the US’ capability of managing a complicated regional situation.
Although the US has repeatedly emphasized the importance of developing and consolidating its ties with China, it recently reiterated that the Diaoyu Islands fall within the scope of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan, sending a wrong signal to Japan.
In fact, Noda’s government had to act tough on China, because a weak stance could lead to a further decline in his domestic support rate to the delight of Japanese right-wingers, and the Japanese government assumed it could count on the strong support of the US. To some extent, the Diaoyu Islands dispute provides an opportunity for Washington to play its role as Tokyo’s patron and mediator.
Washington should know that it would create suspicion and discontent in one country if it takes the side of the other in the Sino-Japanese dispute. The US is likely to lose its credibility with its faithful ally Japan if it sides with China. But by siding with Japan, it may risk a China-US conflict. Once the situation gets out of control and leads to an armed conflict, will Washington honor the US-Japan security treaty and confront Beijing? No, it will not, even though it is more powerful than China. There are several reasons for that.
Over the past 20 years, the US has been cementing its ties with Japan as the basic shaft of its East Asia strategy. Because of a decline in its hegemony in recent years, the US wants Japan to shoulder more regional responsibilities and play a more proactive role in East Asia, especially to counterbalance the rise of China.
But the US has ignored a basic fact: Though Japan is used to allying with the stronger of two countries, it lacks systematic strategic thinking. Japan wants to become a political power, but it does not have the ability to cope with the complex regional situation independently and cannot even handle its relations with neighbors that have historical grievances. For one, it refuses to genuinely introspect on its atrocities that brought grave disaster on people in East and Southeast Asian countries in the past.
In recent years, China’s rise has added to Japan’s strategic anxiety and has had an impact on Sino-Japanese relations. In this sense, the Diaoyu Islands dispute is a reflection of the structural contradictions between Japan and China.
The possibility of the dispute spinning out of control can’t be ruled out as the nationalist sentiment is still strong in both countries. To respond to the Japanese right-wingers’ provocations and Japan’s continuous plan to “nationalize” the Diaoyu Islands, there were protests against Japan across China and calls for the boycotting of Japanese goods. The Japanese flag was even pulled down from the car of the Japanese ambassador to China, making it even harder for both countries to resolve the dispute.
Hence, it is high time the US stopped adding to the tension, for it doesn’t serve its own interests. Though the US has declared that it will not support either party in the Diaoyu Islands dispute, developments are making it increasingly difficult to remain its neutrality and continue its strategic ambiguity. So structural contradictions between China and the US and between China and Japan could erupt simultaneously, which is the biggest risk to peace in East Asia.
In the long term, the intensifying of the Diaoyu Islands dispute will narrow the room for maneuvering between China and the US, which does not conform to the interests of the two countries.
For the US, the ROK-Japan island dispute is easier to control than the one over the Diaoyu Islands.
First, despite having historical grievances against Japan, the ROK is not deeply worried about Japan’s existing strategic policies. And Japan has no reason to be wary of the ROK’s strategies. In fact, domestic political factors to a large extent determine the two countries’ foreign policies.
Recently, ROK President Lee Myung-bak and Noda saw their domestic support rate slip below 30 percent. But the two governments know that they can divert people’s attention from immediate domestic issues, garner more public support and enhance the reputation of their leaders and parties by resorting to hard-line foreign policies in times of rising nationalist sentiments. Hence, the ROK-Japan island dispute is likely to cool down gradually.
Second, the ROK and Japan are not only eager to guard against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but also are reluctant to see a too powerful China even in the long run.
Also, Japan and the ROK have common interests in the security field and their dispute has not damaged the original framework of security cooperation between them.
Third, the ROK and Japan are part of the US-led security alliance. Since 2010, the US has been trying to build a trilateral – US-ROK-Japan – security cooperation mechanism in Northeast Asia, to which neither the ROK nor Japan has objected.
Such a mechanism can help prevent the ROK-Japan bilateral dispute from escalating. So long as the US continues to pressure, as well as appease the ROK and Japan, they will get back onto the diplomatic track.
Regional cooperation in East Asia has reached a critical stage, while frequent and escalating maritime disputes are impeding the process of regional integration. This may ease Washington’s concerns over East Asian regionalism forming spontaneously.
But an East Asia without cooperation but with a surfeit of disputes could become another Balkans, where nobody can predict accurately when the powder keg is going to explode. And the day it does, it will be disastrous for the countries in the region as well as the US.
The author is a researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.