By Don Keyser.

PM Abe’s Visit – The Backdrop and Focus

The Chinese army’s massive program of systematic cyber intrusions against U.S. targets[1] — reported first in a page-one New York Times story and subsequently by all major media — arguably overshadowed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s arrival in Washington for a February 22 meeting with President Obama. Tokyo and Washington had downplayed expectations for any concrete results, previewing the trip as a getting-acquainted affair to promote alliance understanding and solidarity. However, no great imagination was required to surmise that China would loom large in the private exchange, and that the Chinese hacking story might well serve to focus minds and discussion.

On the eve of his departure for Washington, in a traditional stage-setting interview with the Washington Post, Prime Minister Abe suggested that Chinese bellicosity toward Japan betrayed Beijing’s need to foment nationalism in order to divert public attention from domestic challenges and popular grievances. Abe told Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt “It is important for us to have them recognize that it is impossible to try to get their way by coercion or intimidation… In that regard, the Japan-U.S. alliance, as well as the U.S. presence, would be critical.”[2]

PM Abe’s pointed remarks were probably well received by Japanese – two months after taking office his approval rating hovers around an unusually high 70% — but perhaps less so in a Washington still uncertain about Abe and eager to dampen rather than inflame Sino-Japanese passions currently raging.

Prime Minister Abe took office in late December following his Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) sweeping victory over the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in Diet Lower House elections. He had previously served for eleven months in 2005-06 as Chief Cabinet Secretary under Prime Minister Koizumi and then as prime minister in his own right from September 2006 to September 2007. Abe is favorably remembered by senior officials of the previous Bush administration, but represents a still unknown and uncertain quantity to President Obama and his senior team.

Abe campaigned last December as a staunch nationalist and economic pragmatist.  He denied the existence of any credible evidence that wartime Japanese officials were complicit in forcing mostly ethnic Korean women into service as “comfort women” (i.e., sex slaves for Imperial Army troops); suggested a readiness to amend or withdraw the so-called Kono (1993) and Murayama (1995) statements expressing apology for past Japanese military aggression and wartime atrocities; spoke of revising Japan’s Constitution and defense guidelines to permit participation in collective “self-defense” arrangements; espoused hawkish positions on China generally and the Senkakus issue specifically; and filled his initial cabinet with many officials of strongly nationalistic persuasion. All of this jangled nerves in Washington.

PM Abe had evidently anticipated an early, warm embrace by President Obama in symbolic appreciation for the putative return of a stable, predictable and solidly pro-U.S. government in Tokyo following the DPJ’s three years of ill-prepared, amateurish, opaque and vacillating rule. But the Obama administration deflected PM Abe’s effort to schedule an early January visit to Washington, pointing (honestly enough) to a tight schedule occasioned by second-term inaugural ceremonies, delivery of the annual State of the Union address, nomination of second-term Cabinet secretaries, and trench warfare with the Congress over budgetary matters.

More than likely President Obama and his senior team had also wanted first to lay down its own strong policy markers and to take the measure of the Abe administration’s attitude once in power toward implementing the right-wing nationalistic agenda that threatened to bring Japan into more intense conflict with China and South Korea. The Obama administration, growing anxious over fiery rhetoric and escalation of Sino-Japanese close military encounters in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands area, appealed repeatedly during the closing months of 2012 for “cooler heads” in Tokyo and Beijing to focus on the broader issues. One unidentified U.S. official told the New York Times “It is not clear to us that in the current environment there are solutions … In fact, we think [it makes the most sense] for both sides to back down and export this into the future and recognize that the hardest issues cannot be solved but can only be managed.”[3]

In short, President Obama probably hoped in advance of Abe’s visit to witness signs that he would repeat his 2006 pattern: posturing himself as a hawkish right-winger, governing as a pragmatic centrist, and seeking to defuse tensions with China (and South Korea). There is little doubt that President Obama would have encouraged such an evolution, commending Abe’s early decision to send emissaries to Beijing and a personal letter to Xi Jinping emphasizing his desire to put Sino-Japanese ties on a positive footing.

U.S. Policy Perspective: on China, and on the Sino-Japanese Islands Dispute

The Obama administration upon taking office in January 2009 adhered to a classic engagement strategy vis-à-vis China, muting differences and accentuating “constructive cooperation” on a broad array of economic, regional and international security issues. With Japan, and also the Republic of Korea, President Obama’s stated goal was to “re-emphasize” and consolidate alliance partnerships, move ahead on long-standing bilateral security agendas, and establish – with China also, to the extent possible – a common vision and strategy to address North Korea’s nuclear challenge and pattern of military provocations.

Japan – America’s most significant treaty ally in Asia, host to 49,000 forward-deployed troops, crucial air and naval bases, and other military facilities — posed a special “management” challenge. President Obama’s first Japanese counterpart, conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Prime Minister Taro Aso, experienced plummeting approval ratings that unmistakably foreshadowed his party’s defeat in the fall general election. The “progressive” Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) indeed won a crushing electoral victory in September 2009. New Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama evinced an early disposition to achieve greater “balance” between the U.S. security ally and “Asia” (meaning China). Hence Washington relegated broad U.S.-Japan alliance issues to the back burner while the new, inexperienced DPJ government sorted out its national security posture and priorities.

But China’s leadership, in the wake of the 2008-09 U.S. and global financial crisis, evidently concluded that China’s power was inexorably accelerating at the expense of a U.S. economically challenged, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perceptibly waning in international strength and influence. A rising crescendo of seemingly authoritative Chinese rhetoric expanding Beijing’s self-identified “core interests”[4] — coupled with Beijing’s more assertive diplomacy and concomitantly more aggressive military posture in the East China Sea and South China Sea – prompted President Obama to adopt a mid-course policy correction toward China in summer 2010.  The perceived need to address China’s emerging posture, and the concerns it had evoked among America’s allies and friends in Asia, also accounted in part for the Obama administration’s enunciation a year later of a U.S. “pivot” (later termed a “rebalancing”) to Asia.

The watershed moment was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public affirmation in Hanoi on July 23, 2010 that the U.S. has “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”  She went on to call for a “collaborative diplomatic process” to resolve territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.[5]  To this, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reacted in a somewhat uncharacteristic display of public anger, charging that Secretary Clinton’s comments had been an “ambush” that would only serve to exacerbate tensions in the region.

Sino-Japanese relations – despite the policy intentions professed by PM Hatoyama and his successor nine months later, Naoto Kan — sharply deteriorated during the same time period centering around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. That contretemps potentially threatens to embroil the United States in a military conflict by triggering its Mutual Security Treaty obligation to defend Japan, and the Senkakus, against any armed attack.

U.S. policy toward each of the East Asian and Southeast Asian territorial disputes rests upon three consistent principles: (1) strict neutrality regarding legal claims to sovereignty of the contested areas; (2) strong support for peaceful resolution of disputes without resort to any form of coercion; and (3) a disinclination to become publicly or actively involved in the disputes or their resolution. Indeed, Washington prefers to avoid any public comment whatsoever.

The U.S. position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is legally precise but arguably burdened with logical inconsistencies and practical dilemmas. In an agreed minute to the 1960 U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, Japan emphasized its “residual sovereignty” (despite U.S. occupation) over the Okinawa island chain and stated its expectation that U.S.-Japan consultations would occur immediately should the islands be threatened or attacked. The U.S. simply declared its intent to defend the islands in such an eventuality. When the Okinawa Reversion Treaty came before the U.S. Senate in 1971, the Nixon administration asserted its neutrality on the issue of the Okinawan island chain’s sovereignty but declared that the 1960 Treaty would embrace it because it was “[now] under effective Japanese administration.”

The long-simmering Sino-Japanese contest over Senkaku/Diaoyutai sovereignty and administrative control erupted anew when a Chinese trawler fishing in surrounding waters on September 7, 2010 allegedly rammed deliberately a pursuing Japanese coast guard vessel.  Japan’s arrest of the skipper and temporary detention of him in Okinawa set off a volley of Chinese diplomatic protests, retaliatory arrests of Fujita corporation personnel in China, and adoption of discriminatory trade measures aimed at Japan.  The immediate situation was settled within a month, but the incident impelled both China and Japan to make a more forceful defense of their asserted “sovereign” interests. Both introduced voluminous historical documents and exegesis in support of their claims; both stepped up their military and quasi-military patrols and surveillance activities in the region; and both sought to enlist pressure by the U.S. government on the other.

For example, Chinese Vice President (soon to be Party General Secretary and President) Xi Jinping seized the opportunity of a September 2012 meeting with Secretary of Defense Panetta in September 2012.  Xi reportedly argued that Japan had fallen hostage to its domestic right-wing forces, sought to overturn the post-World War II international order, had “provocatively” indulged in the “farce” of [nationalizing through] purchasing three of the Diaoyu islands, and “must” cease all actions infringing upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  The following month Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, apparently evincing concern about a perceived softening of Washington’s support, reportedly told a visiting quasi-official U.S. delegation of four former national security heavyweights that Japan and the U.S. “should communicate more about the efficient functioning of the Japan-U.S. alliance” so as to ensure the Asia-Pacific region remains peaceful and stable.[6]

The U.S. government, pressed by Japan and by members of the U.S. Congress, has repeatedly reaffirmed its long-standing position but muted it by appealing for both parties to resolve their dispute peacefully.

Beijing, sensing in the publicly articulated U.S. position a disinclination to become embroiled, tacit support for Beijing’s contention that a “dispute” exists (which Tokyo denies) and a gaping loophole to be exploited, has embarked on persistent salami tactics to challenge the status quo – namely, Japan’s credible assertion of “administrative control.” It sent “civilian maritime enforcement vessels” and even military patrol vessels and aircraft into waters and air space around the Senkakus. Tokyo responded in kind, raising for Washington the specter that miscalculation or “local initiative” by a hotheaded commander could ignite a shooting war implicating U.S. security commitments to Japan, U.S. equities in maintenance of a “constructive and cooperative” relationship with China, and potentially the viability of the U.S. strategic posture throughout the Asia and Pacific region.

Reacting to all this, outgoing Secretary of State Clinton declared at a January 18, 2013 joint press conference in Washington with Japan’s new Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida that “We [i.e., the U.S. government] oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration [of the Senkakus].” She added the now standard appeal for “all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreement through peaceful means.”[7] Kishida predictably praised her “contribution to stability in the region,” while the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman equally predictably castigated her remarks.  And thus the stage was set for the Obama-Abe meeting in Washington.

Don Keyser is a former U.S. State Department senior Foreign Service officer, and a non-resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute.

[1] See “Chinese Army Unit Is Seen as Tied to Hacking against U.S.,” bylined David E. Sanger, David Barboza and Nicole Perlroth, The New York Times, February 19, 2013 on page A1 New York edition.

[2] “Shinzo Abe’s New Agenda: Better Ties with U.S.,” by Fred Hiatt, Washington Post print edition, February 20, 2013.

[3] Michael R. Gordon byline, “In Asia Trip, U.S. Group Will Tackle Islands Feud,” The New York Times, published online October 19, 2012 and in print October 20, 2012 on page A10 on the New York edition.

[4] Chinese officials maintain that Beijing never identified new “core interests”; some U.S. scholars and journalists have tentatively backed the Chinese view; and U.S. officials for their part have sought during the past year to downplay the controversy.  However, in early March 2010, Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo reportedly told two visiting senior U.S. officials that “China [will] not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea … part of China’s ‘core interest’ of sovereignty.”  See Edward Wong, “Chinese Military Seeks to Extend Its Naval Power,” New York Times, April 23, 2010.  Secretary of State Clinton subsequently told media that Dai Bingguo had reasserted such a claim during the May 2010 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Beijing.  See, for example, “Interview with Greg Sheridan of The Australian,” Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, Melbourne, Australia, November 8, 2010, posted to U.S. Department of State website.

[5] “Remarks at Press Availability,” Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, National Convention Center, Hanoi, Vietnam, July 23, 2010.  Accessed at Department of State website <>.

[6] Gemba met in Tokyo with former National Security Adviser Berger, former Deputy Secretaries of State Armitage and Steinberg, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Nye. See Zhang Yunbi bylined article, drawing from [foreign] news agencies, “U.S. Officials Back Japan Alliance,” China Daily, October 23, 2012.

[7] Quoted in “U.S. Warns China to Steer Clear of Senkakus,” Kyodo News Agency, published in Japan Times, January 20, 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *