February 11, 2014

Tokyo’s provocations pose dilemma for US

By Kurt Campbell

Source: The Global Times

Journalist(s) Zhao Minghao

The US and Japan held the first talks on their Cyber Defense Policy Working Group early this month. The Japan Self-Defense Forces are scheduled to set up a cyber-defense unit in March, and Washington will provide support in training Japan's senior military officials and improving Japan's cyber warfare capabilities. All these maneuvers have revealed that the two countries are deepening their alliance.

US-Japan alliance is still viewed by most US strategists as the anchor of Asia-Pacific peace and prosperity. In January, Shotaro Yachi, head of Japan's newly launched secretariat of National Security Council, was warmly received in Washington. He was not only hosted by the US National Security Advisor Susan Rice at the White House, but also met with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. 

This can be interpreted as a signal sent from Washington to Tokyo that although the Obama administration publicly expressed its disappointment at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's December pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, Washington remains resolute in letting Tokyo play a more full-fledged role in regional and global affairs.

Japan's delicate caution in tackling its relations with China and South Korea conforms to US national interests. When Yoshihiko Noda's government decided to "nationalize" the Diaoyu Islands in September 2012, Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, and Kurt Campbell, then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, reminded Tokyo on many occasions not to underestimate Beijing's furious reactions. However, the Noda administration implied that China would understand its move. 

The Yasukuni Shrine is a symbol of national humiliation for Beijing and Seoul, and induces embarrassment and indignation for Washington. The museum attached to the shrine presents the story that Japan was coerced into warfare under the pressure of economic blockade by the US, and that Japan, with its advanced ideas and technologies, rescued the whole of Asia from being enslaved by the West. 

The display insists that the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was only "victor's justice" and therefore the convictions were unsound. But Abe has even likened Japan's Yasukuni Shrine to the Arlington National Cemetery in the US. 

The Obama administration feels angry at Abe's cabinet for disrupting Washington's "pivot to Asia" strategy. The US has been attempting to forge a closer trilateral alliance among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul, but South Koreans now view Japan as much a threat as North Korea, according to recent polls by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Abe once brazenly called the South a "foolish country."

Arrogance and paranoia are leading Abe astray to miscalculate international politics. 

Abe has broken away from the new, though somewhat subtle, Sino-US dynamics, and sowed discord between the two powers to meet his own political agenda, with the purpose of turning Japan into a "normal state." 

However, the US leadership has agreed to work for a new type of major power relations with China, starting from more substantial policy coordination on a series of issues ranging from the North Korea nuclear crisis, Afghanistan reconstruction, and global financial stability to climate change. 

Washington is attaching more importance to Beijing than to Tokyo, a hard reality Japan is in every single case reluctant to accept.

Regional tensions call for political realism as well as strategic restraint from leaders of major powers. It is unfair to attribute all the problems that have emerged to China's rise. 

For decades, the US has based its Asia-Pacific policy on the assumption that Japan is a status quo power and a pacifist nation, but it is high time for Washington to reconsider such an assumption, as Abe's government is going all out to advocate a "proactive pacifism" that appears more like "proactive provocationism." 

  • Kurt Campbell

    CNAS Board Chairman and Co-Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, The Asia Group

    Kurt M. Campbell is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Asia Group, LLC, a strategic advisory and capital management group specializing in the dynamic Asia Pacific reg...