Tag Archives: China–Japan

Key documents on Biden's trip to Asia (in progress)

This is a collection of U.S. government releases and other key documents on Vice President Biden’s trip to Japan, China, and South Korea this week. I will try to update it as more documents emerge. These are in close to chronological order, though I don’t guarantee I got all the timezone conversions right. Please e-mail or comment if I’m missing anything big.

Former Obama Asia advisor: Media's US-China rivalry articles 'represent lazy journalism'

Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director for East Asia at the U.S. National Security Council during the Obama administration and a key Obama advisor, spoke at Beijing’s Tsinghua University Tuesday, almost a year after he appeared the last time. While a lot of what he said was not especially new if you follow Bader, he closed his speech with a fairly sharp line on the U.S. news media’s handling of Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a trip to to Southeast Asia because of the domestic political crisis in the United States.

Specifically, Bader took issue with the tired frame that assumes a U.S. absence is a victory for China:

We all read a steady drumbeat of articles and media of both sides focusing on U.S.–China rivalry. They are not wrong, but they are seriously unbalanced and, I believe, frankly represent lazy journalism. Nevertheless, perceptions affect reality. If, for example, western analysts interpret Obama’s failure to attend APEC and the East Asia Summit as a victory for China—and I read many articles describing these events as “Xi wins, Obama loses,” as if it were a football game—then I can understand why Chinese analysts respond by imposing a similar zero-sum framework of analysis on U.S. and Chinese behavior.

I hope sophisticated Chinese and Americans will transcend this kind of interpretation. In fact, not everything, indeed not most things that the U.S. and China do are aimed at the other. We each have substantial interests and relations including with other countries in Asia without regard to any rivalry for influence.

This analyst agrees with the former White House advisor.

A few other notes:

  • Bader noted there has been a significant increase in U.S.–China military-to-military exchange, cooperation, and  participation in international exchanges. My far less informed observations confirm this impression.
  • He divided U.S.–China issues into four realms: global issues, Asia-Pacific issues, global hotspots, and purely bilateral issues. Of these, he said, Asia-Pacific issues such as the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are likely to pose the greatest challenge in the coming years.
  • Increased nationalism throughout the region, he said, is worrisome and creates conditions where concessions are impossible in territorial disputes. Accordingly, Bader said he likes China’s proposal of joint development of undersea resources in the South China Sea, since it sets the sovereignty issue aside and sidesteps arguments over exclusive economic zones that may radiate from some land features under UNCLOS.
  • “Diaoyu islands doesn’t matter,” Bader said in a refreshingly frank and lighthearted discussion of the sticky Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. He continued: “If there were global warming—and there’d have to be a lot of global warming, because they’re pretty high—but if there were somehow miraculously global warming and these islands disappeared, no one would care. But China and Japan would still have issues.” The root of Bader’s argument on Japan and China is that the island dispute was nearly absent for decades before coming up, and that Sino-Japanese relations have hit an unusual rough spot that allows the island dispute to flare up.

Shameless plug:

  • I wrote here about Bader’s dislike for the term “pivot,” which he brought up again today.

Updated: Did the Chinese government really call Diaoyu/Senkaku a 'core interest'?

The Japanese news wire Kyodo News last week reported that the Chinese government called the Senkaku/Diaoyu island issue a ‘core interest.’

“The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press conference, using China’s name for the Japanese-administered isles in the East China Sea. …

Hua made the comment after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NHK in Tokyo that Chinese officials repeatedly told him during his visit to Beijing earlier in the week that the Senkakus are “one of China’s core interests.”

This report has gained a fair amount of attention. My attempt to follow up on Dempsey’s remarks to NHK is currently coming up dry. Though Google returns a search result on the story, the link is broken, Google’s cache provides nothing, and a search for the full sentence reveals no copies.

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 3.29.29 PM

[UPDATE May 2 11:08 in Beijing—This Japanese-language NHK story includes video of Dempsey saying, “They did use the word “core interests” several times, and I know that’s really their phraseology for issues of sovereign importance.” It is left to the announcer and the written report to make the connection between “core interests” and the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue. My translation of the relevant passage of the print version: “During the interview, Chairman Dempsey said of his meetings with Chinese government officials on his recent trip to China, ‘In the meetings, the Chinese side, on the topic of the Senkaku Islands, used the word “core interests” many times.’ On the topic of Okinawa Prefecture’s Senkaku Islands, China repeatedly clarified that the islands are an non-negotiable ‘core interest.'” What did Dempsey really say in full? I can’t tell.]

Another Japanese source, Asahi Shimbun, has a different phrasing from the Foreign Ministry:

“It is an issue about China’s territory and sovereignty, and therefore a matter of ‘core interest,’ ” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a regular news conference.

Meanwhile, the situation from the official Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website brings Hua’s quote into question. The MoFA reports [en] [zh]:

Q: In a recent interview with the Japanese media, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey said that during his visit to China, the Chinese side repeatedly stressed that territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands is part of China’s core interests. Is this China’s official position?

A: China’s Peaceful Development, the white paper released by China’s State Council Information Office in September 2011, made it clear that China firmly safeguards its core national interests, including national sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity.

The Diaoyu Islands issue concerns China’s territorial sovereignty.

问:美军参谋长联席会议主席邓普西日前接受日本媒体采访时称,中方在其访华期间多次强调维护钓鱼岛领土主权是中国核心利益之一。这是中国官方立场吗?

答:中国国务院新闻办公室2011年9月发表的《中国的和平发展》白皮书明确表示,中国坚决维护国家核心利益,包括国家主权,国家安全,领土完整等。

钓鱼岛问题涉及中国领土主权。

A comment signed Iain Johnston (I’ve e-mailed to confirm it’s really him [UPDATE: confirmed.]) on the Japan Times version of the Kyodo story says in part:

… It is possible that the PRC spokesperson strayed a bit from the official position. The official record reflects official policy. This particular formulation — “touches on territorial sovereignty” – probably reflects a dilemma the PRC government faces. It cannot say the Diaoyudao/Senkaku are not a core interest. This would create domestic problems for the regime. But it cannot say explicitly that the islands are a core interest, because this could constrain any future space for negotiation. A critical piece of evidence will be whether or not the PRC drops the demand for negotiations with Japan over the islands. If it does, then this would be consistent with an official declaration that the islands are a core interest. If it continues to demand negotiations, this would be consistent with the official position of not (yet) directly stating the islands are a core interest.

[UPDATE: In comments below, Johnston provides a link to the relevant video of Hua Chunying’s statement, in which she says what the Japanese reports say she said.]

Chinese press seem relatively quiet on this statement, with the links I’m seeing in Weibo conversations leading to articles sourced from Japanese publications. For instance see this Sina News story (in Chinese).

Meanwhile at ChinaFile, Susan Shirk takes the statement as a strong, overt move by the Chinese government.

Last week the Chinese government and military officially declared that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands constitute a “core interest” of the country. …

To make sure the message came through loud and clear, top military officials first informed General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff who was visiting China. On the next day, it was announced from the podium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” said Hua Chunying, the ministry spokesperson.

You can be sure that the decision to call the Diaoyu Islands a “core interest” was thoroughly vetted by the key civilian decision-makers—Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and the other five leaders in the CCP Politburo, as well as the People’s Liberation Army leaders. It’s a considered act by a highly insecure CCP leadership willing to engage in international brinksmanship to maintain domestic support.

Shirk argues that this is in contrast to the 2010 incident in which some Chinese representatives reportedly started referring to South China Sea claims as representing a “core interest.” Though top U.S. officials later said the most provocative supposed mention of the South China Sea as a “core interest” had never happened, Shirk views that event as a clear roll-back.

The South China Sea [in 2010] had not been the focus of much attention from the Chinese public; it wasn’t a hot button issue of nationalism like Taiwan or Japan. The impetus for China’s increasingly assertive actions in the region came from the bureaucratic interest groups operating with little effective restraint from the top and using the media to arouse popular excitement. Because the Chinese government had never made a public and authoritative declaration that the South China Sea was a “core interest,” it was able to climb back from the brink without paying any domestic price for formally saying that this claim wasn’t a “core interest.”

Shirk’s comment points above to probably the most useful piece on the “core interests” issue in recent years, from Michael Swaine at the China Leadership Monitor in 2011.

So, what’s going on here?

The official version of the Foreign Ministry statement, following Dempsey’s public statement that he had heard this language, would seem to either represent a careful escalation of rhetoric or, just as likely, an awkward negotiated middle ground after conflicting messages had already been sent. If indeed the messages were coordinated in talks with Dempsey and in the Foreign Ministry press conference, then it would seem reasonable to suspect this represents a well-coordinated, high-level decision. On the other hand, it’s always an open question just how well signals are coordinated between the Foreign Ministry and the military.

Even if it was clear how fully approved the statement is, it is unclear what this means. For now, there we are.

Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi's inside political play, or part of a broader move?

Is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, flexing military muscle with Japan to solidify rule within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, or is the heightened dispute with Japan best viewed in a broader context?

At Foreign PolicyJohn Garnaut examines the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The article is worth a read, but the thrust of it can be captured in this passage, speculating that the Chinese agitation on islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan is the result of an effort by Xi to shore up internal power.

The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party’s grip on power.

That’s where China’s rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world’s third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to “sort the horses from the mules” and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China’s endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, an anonymous source coming out of the highly opaque world of Chinese elite politics. On the other hand, Garnaut’s sources in recent months have seemed quite good. Either way, the idea is worth discussion.

What if the current surge of Sino-Japanese confrontation over the islands really are in large part the result of internal political plays?

Though all-out war is unlikely, the risk of accident or miscalculation is significant whenever military or civilian law enforcement vessels or planes are put in proximity with those they believe to be adversaries. If Xi Jinping has calculated that this risk is worth taking, we might assume he is deeply insecure in his new position. Perhaps he sees the danger of a PLA outside his close command as greater than that of accidental violence or escalation with Japan—an outcome that could cause untold damage to commerce and the largest decline in China’s international status since at least 1989. Of course, a military out of control could cause its own violence, but this is no small gambit.

As Garnaut notes, there is also a real possibility that in a full-scale conflict Japan’s highly modern, well-trained forces would defeat China’s modernizing, untested military. If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.

An alternative: What if the Japan initiative is no mere internal play, but also aligns with a broader strategy of pushing China’s maritime claims now that it has stronger forces?

China’s increased military and Maritime Surveillance (armed civilian law enforcement) activity in the East China Sea, where the dispute with Japan is centered, should not be viewed in isolation. Though it’s possible the logic of the Japan dispute is independent, Chinese forces and diplomatic staff have recently taken a harder line with maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s official statements and deployments reflect a renewed assertion of ill-defined territorial claims. The Philippines has brought a seemingly well-crafted case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both states are party, and the Chinese government has not sent anyone to participate in the arbitration process so far. Meanwhile, regular Chinese patrols are reported by state media, and active development is under way on one island under the banner of a new city called Sansha, which supposedly administers a wide swath of South China Sea territory under Chinese law.

There are significant parallels between the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. The Philippines and Japan are both treaty allies of the United States. (Vietnam is not, though Vietnamese-U.S. dialogue and coordination appear to have increased along with this dispute.) In each case, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been the most visible, though some PLA presence is involved. Why not view these initiatives as parallel?

One reason to differentiate the South China Sea mobilization from the China-Japan dispute is that the former predates Xi’s rise to power, while the latter seems to be developing largely under his watch. But it’s equally possible to view the rise in island disputes as part of a broader flexing of Chinese military muscle, perhaps also including a recent increase in action on the China-India border dispute.

As always, it could likely be a combination of both. But while it’s worth taking seriously the internal political intrigue that may drive international events, broader trends must be kept in view. Missing from this account is potential competition for resources and action between different military commands in China. Though it’s often disputed which came first—the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific or China’s increased assertiveness on maritime disputes—the two moves have emerged at similar times. And perhaps in each case the strategic logic has been the same all along, but people making decisions in China have decided that now is the time to start pushing, either because military strength has risen sufficiently or because they believe long-term claims need periodic renewal. While it would be a neat narrative, and a pleasingly dramatic one, to root these events in one man’s struggle to establish control, the reality is far less pleasingly simple. Garnaut’s coverage of elite politics is invaluable, but it should be taken as one part of a broader picture.

What kind of 'hawk' is Japan's Shinzo Abe? Probably not the kind you think

Shinzo Abe

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, photographed in 2012, from Wikimedia.

Shinzo Abe became prime minister of Japan in December, more than six years after he first took the job, succeeding long-serving Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September 2006. In the U.S. press especially, Abe is often termed a “nationalist” or “hawk” for supporting expanded military activities and a potential revision of the Japanese constitution.

Crystal Pryor, a Japan Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center and a Ph.D. student in political science at University of Washington (and my former office-mate), released a very useful brief pushing back on U.S. coverage of the new prime minister in Japan.

To keep things in perspective, it’s worth reviewing the actual text of Article 9 of the constitution, which I will render verbatim but in outline form. And it’s worth remembering that advocates of change are pushing for revision, not repeal.

Article 9.
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.
In order 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.

Pryor writes:

As the Japanese constitution is currently interpreted, Japan cannot take military action if an ally, the United States, is attacked because Japan does not have the constitutional authority to engage in collective self-defense. Even activities such as sending the Japanese Self-Defense Forces on UN PKOs in the 1990s or on refueling missions in the Indian Ocean after 9/11 in support of the US-led operation in Afghanistan faced major domestic hurdles. Japanese politicians calling for Japan to shoulder its half of the security alliance or to send troops on PKO missions can hardly be considered “hawkish” by American standards.

On the constitutional question, one can immediately see that revision of Article 9 need not completely erase restrictions on warmaking in order to carve out the right for Japan to “pull its weight” in the U.S.–Japan alliance or in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Pryor also argues that Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) did not beat the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) because of its “nationalist” character. On this point, few would disagree: Analysts almost universally characterized the LDP electoral victory as a rebuke of the flagging DPJ leadership and economic policies. Pryor also notes that low youth voter turnout undermined the DPJ.

Shinzo Abe and George W. Bush in 2007. We were all younger then.

Shinzo Abe and George W. Bush in 2007. We were all younger then.

So what of the emphasis on nationalism and hawkishness? Five years ago, the connection between Abe’s name and the word “nationalist” was already a point of discussion. In the midst of a conversation between the blogger Ampontan (who recently passed away, and whose voice is missed despite differences of opinion) and Tobias Harris at Observing Japan, I compared Abe’s reputed nationalism to that of Junichiro Koizumi, whose repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine drew loud opposition from leaders in China and South Korea:

As we know, Koizumi spent much more time and international political capital than Abe has in paying tribute to Japan’s late 19th—early 20th century nationalism. But Abe has spent more energy on a more contemporary and more instrumental form of nationalism, the revision of Article 9. The rhetoric behind constitutional revision—especially among the people usually called “nationalists”—often invokes the desire for Japan to become a “normal state.”

Indeed, for all the fear about a potential Japanese remilitarization, Abe has not been a particularly extreme voice in Japan. Though it may not repair perceptions of his orientation among others in the region, Abe is not the biggest “hawk” in the Japanese political sphere.

As Pryor notes, some real hawkishness comes with the emergence of a “third force” in Japanese party politics.  “[Shintaro] Ishihara, who gave up his position as governor of Tokyo for this election, is a hawk even by American standards. Most recently, he played a central role in reigniting the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute by declaring that Tokyo would purchase and develop the islands. Ishihara has also called for Japan to revise its current constitution and develop nuclear weapons.” It was Ishihara’s provocation that led the Japanese national government to take legal control of the islands. Though that move was blasted by many in China, the islands likely would be even more of a sticking point if Ishihara controlled them.

So Japan’s political stage is, unsurprisingly, more complicated than portrayals in U.S. news stories. But the perception of an agressive, nationalist, or unrepentant Japan is real among some in China. Every day in Beijing, I still see bumper stickers declaring “钓鱼岛 中国的” (“The Diaoyu Islands are China’s”)—or, more aggressively, “打倒小日本!” (roughly, “Take Down Little Japan!”). The Wall Street Journal writes from Tokyo that “while [Abe] seeks a more assertive Japanese presence in the region, he isn’t about to provoke China or risk worsening already strained relations between Tokyo and Beijing.” I’m just not sure Chinese media and official voices, let alone those mobilized in the 2012 anti-Japan protests, are on the same page.