Abe gets unfortunate vote of confidence

2013-07-24Asia Times

BEIJING - The weekend elections in Japan were a success - and thus a vote of confidence - for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his new direction for his country. "Abenomics", which devalued the yen and boosted Tokyo's exports, succeeded, and so did the line of confrontation with China on the Senkaku Islands.

The Democratic Party (DP), which split from the old and now ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was thrashed, and for now so are the hopes that the Japanese are willing to support something other than Abe's strategy.

The strategy is actually very simple. After the shock of becoming the number-two economy in Asia, behind China, Abe indicated to his fellow countrymen that there was still a way to be strong in the region and have a future - by following a revised old formula of exports and standing up to China on prickly territorial issues. The tough confrontation with China also realigned Japan as a kind of revamped Cold War American unsinkable aircraft carrier in the area and thus sunk all hopes of a US "G2" with China, a possibility that made Tokyo feel lost and was tanking Japanese hopes for the future.

This idea was in line with the recently announced American strategy of a "pivot to Asia", which is, in blunt terms, a strategy to contain China in the region. Japan could then be at the forefront of this containment, acting as the bulwark of the US alliance in its position as the largest economy in the region after China and having the best military in the area, possibly better than China's. The dispute with China over the Senkakus could be the first battleground in demonizing and isolating China - and thus a boost to Abe's new Japan.

However, the military design has proved to be not as simple as first conceived. South Korea, a former integral part of the Cold War anti-communist alliance in the region, was reluctant from day one to back Tokyo's claims on the Senkaku because Seoul has its own dispute with Japan over the Takeshima Islands. Taiwan, ruled by the Nationalists (KMT), the backbone of the US presence in Asia since the 1930s, also skipped the call and sided with Beijing over the claims. The Russians, too, despite fears about a growing China, eventually chose to side with Beijing because of Japan's claim on the Kurili Islands.

That is, all Japan's neighbors chose China over Japan on the Senkakus issue, something that weakens Tokyo's hand but more importantly weakens an American idea of the pivot to Asia pivoting on the Senkakus dispute.

Certainly, in terms of military strategy, the Senkaku Islands have their appeal. It almost mirrors the disputes China has been having with Vietnam and the much-weaker Philippines over a few islets scattered over a huge stretch of the South China Sea reaching Borneo and the Malacca peninsula. Furthermore, the land dispute between India and China over some inaccessible mountain peaks in the Himalayas has also fueled general public discomfort about Chinese territorial disputes. It appears as if China is expanding in all directions, not only toward the seas but also toward its southern neighbor, India. These developments are all good for the containment strategy.

But another side of Abe's strategy, Abenomics, has played against the military designs. The devaluation of the Japanese currency and its boost in exports directly damage China, which is moving up the technological ladder and whose products may start to compete to some extent with Japanese exports. But by creating inflation in the region and bringing some production back to Japan, it undercuts manufacturers that had moved abroad.

That is, Abenomics as a policy did not help the region, but rather the contrary is true. Certainly this has not changed the views and perceptions of China in Vietnam or the Philippines, where economies were badly damaged in 2009 and 2010 when Beijing refused to revalue its yuan (renminbi), despite the fact that the undervalued yuan was hurting exports in almost all neighboring countries.

China's selfish economic policies created the mistrust that then spawned confrontations in the South China Sea and over the Senkakus. Abenomics certainly does not have the economic and political impact of the undervalued yuan in 2009, but it suffices to prove to developing Vietnam, the Philippines, and India that Japan's military and economic considerations may not always be in line. This in turn objectively weakens a strategy of containment, especially if China tries to make up for its territorial claims by offering far more new investment and business opportunities than any other country in or out of the region.

This last element brings us back to Japan. Chinese aircraft missions around the Senkakus have reportedly decreased dramatically in recent months, and at the same time sales of Japanese cars have increased in China. In real terms, discounting the official rhetoric, this means Beijing is putting a lid on the Senkakus issue. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping got the Senkakus situation where he wanted. Xi does not want to win back the Sankakus or fight a war over them; he simply wants to lay a claim over the islands and in this Abe is objectively already beaten.

Japan may say as often as it wants that the Senkaku Islands are not disputed and it is not willing to discuss them with China, but the Chinese claim and their mere presence in the area in fact denies Japan's position. Beijing does not need much to show the world and the Japanese people its position: a fishing boat in those waters once in awhile is already enough to put Japan on the defensive all the time.

However, Beijing, having de facto won the confrontation on the islands, now has to deal with a bigger issue concerning Tokyo. Japan may no longer be the American sheriff in Asia, and it cannot return to being the restive independent admirer of China - what can it be, then? Despite the recent electoral success, Abe's recipe may not work in medium and long term, but then what should Japan do? The answer is up to the Japanese, but China, as Japan's largest neighbor and one so prickled by Japanese actions, should also consider the situation and help.

This all calls into question the idea of containing China. According to the present strategy of a pivot to Asia, the containment of China can only work as long as China causes itself to be contained, that is, by making mistakes in handling its relations with its neighbors, irritating them for territorial, economic, or political reasons. If China is simply "the nice guy in the block", it will be very hard to contain.

This in turn goes back to what America wants with China. In a recent article, American General H R McMaster [1] claimed that American failures in wars were to due to a lack of clear political objectives. This was true for Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is even more true with the idea of a pivot to Asia - that is, the new China-containment strategy. What do the crafters of this strategy want in China? Do they want it to collapse? To break up? To turn democratic? Maoist? A European or Japanese colony? The periphery of Taiwan?

What should the Chinese do to stop the US containment? There are no answers. During the Cold War, the strategy was very clear: to force the USSR to become democratic or collapse. Now, what is the purpose of the pivot to Asia, and what does Washington want from Beijing?

When we add to this lack of clear goals the fact that the actual containment is not really working - conversely it is creating medium and long-term problems for its main pillar, Japan, as we saw - then one wonders about the reasoning behind this.

The lack of clarity in America also creates lack of clarity in China. On one hand, the Chinese may be convinced that America is really confused, and then China could be overtaken by hubris and easily get out of control, something dangerous for their country and the world. The Chinese who still admire America will search for hidden and devious purposes in this apparently confused strategy and thus will promote the idea of a grand conspiracy to do God knows what with China. Again, the idea is dangerous for China and the world.

In fact the idea of a pivot to Asia seems based on the premise of Chinese stupidity: Beijing will screw up ties with its neighbors and a revolution will start from the inside, and then the pivot to Asia will be useful to minimize the spread of the damage and collect the falling pieces.

But actually on the Senkakus issue, for instance, China formed a coalition that is putting Japan on the spot, and various internal protests have failed to spark a long-term widespread social protest, let alone a proper revolution of Middle Eastern proportions. Without these elements the pivot to Asia will fall flat on its face, and this fall will be more dangerous for China, the world, and the US than the sum of all of America's past failings in the Middle East and Central Asia, which have turned the whole region into a long-term political mess for everybody.

1. The Pipe Dream of Easy War (, The New York Times, July 20, 2013. (2013-07-24 Asia Times)


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