Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Japanese power tilts against China and US

With both China and Japan organising serious military exercises this month, the old days of swallowing any reservations about contested borders are gone as both stretch their nationalistic legs in the East and South China Seas. Compounding the issues with this regional rivalry, other Asian nations are relying less on a depleting American military umbrella, preferring to take their safety into their own hands.

Japan is also one of these evolving nations. Considering its past economic struggles, and their destructive military adventures of last century, Japan’s re-emergence into the strategic “big Pacific players” is intriguingly - and a bit surprisingly - pleasing smaller Asian nations, rather than churning the waters.

Yesterday, Japan could not focus on building a healthy fleet of modern ships. It chose to funnel government effort into high-tech industry rather than into military purchases. This was made possible because of an American security guarantee and the internationally recognised restrictions on creating a strong Japanese military following their defeat in World War II.

Today, with the Chinese navy and coast guard grabbing implicit control over critical waterways around Japan, their priorities are changing. Tokyo is furiously working to upgrade their legal provisions against possessing armed forces, while turning the giant cogs of the efficient Japanese economy once again.

The Tohoku earthquake and subsequent nuclear meltdown forced Japan to scale back its production of nuclear energy and divert funds to rebuild the destruction along its coast. However this will take time, and as Japan notices opportunity in its near and far abroad, repercussions of the earthquake still threaten to knock their economy off balance. But Japan pushes forward, just like they always have.

Japan suffered two “lost” decades of abysmal economic growth, but never lost its ambition to be a great power once again. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the first Japanese leader in a long line to consolidate the country’s bickering political spectrum and push for a stouter international profile. Mr Abe’s plan to revive the sleeping Japanese giant and return it to global power now runs on all cylinders.

Mr Abe has travelled the world talking to leaders, forging relationships, and trying to free up trade with initiations like the Tran Pacific Partnership (TPP). His so-called “Abenomics” is breathing new life into the struggling Japanese stock exchange. At the same time, Japan is championing human rights on the world stage, even going so far recently as to offer to take control of the United Nations effort to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

One important factor motivating their re-invigoration is Japan’s fluctuating reliance on America. If current strategic trends suggest the pattern for the future, they may not be able to guarantee American assistance if relations took a sour turn with regional rival China. Something needs to change if Japan wants to future-proof itself.

Japan already has one of the strongest naval forces in the Pacific with a deep pedigree of experience and leadership in modern naval surface warfare, much more than China.

Another factor lies in the eyes of the smaller, less geographically or technologically blessed Asian nations who see Japan’s growing prestige as very timely. They feel distinctly overshadowed by a gathering China. Beijing so far has not made many overtly aggressive military threats towards those nations, but China’s superior military capabilities would put them all at a disadvantage were hostilities to break out.

So while America dawdles with its plans for Asia, Japan is moving quickly into the resultant vacuum to offer a security alternative for countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and others to help counterweight China. Those states recognise the historic rivalry between the two behemoths.

There is plenty of geopolitical fodder for the surrounding Asian nations to leverage good deals from both Tokyo and Beijing. Both China and Japan have narrowly avoided coming to blows over a particular string of windswept islands. And there’s a simmering public relations war going on revealing some chilling rhetoric spoken not just quietly by leaders in the background, but by their respective publics as well.

Curiously, although not exactly unanticipated, even fewer Asian nations now look to the United States first for security. US President Barack Obama’s no-show at the recent APEC meeting offended many Asian leaders who consider face-to-face meetings with their international equivalents culturally indispensable, especially for resilient agreements like the TPP. US Secretary of State John Kerry attended APEC in Mr Obama’s place.

The American president understandably felt his own domestic political trials trumped the meeting, but his absence feels like just another nail in the coffin for his purposed re-engagement with Asia. Mr Obama’s hailed Pacific “Pivot” strategy, meant to build stronger ties between Asia and America, now appears distinctly flimsy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at APEC in Bali 2013
Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, did attend the conference and took centre stage, both for the watching media and in the minds of the rest of the attendees.

In some ways this was encouraging: planned Chinese investment in Asia with some newly proposed multilateral trade agreements could help many emerging Asian countries to collect much-needed foreign direct investment. But for others it is a further sign of China’s encroaching hegemony in the region.

This is where Japan’s re-emergence as a global power will meet its test. If Tokyo can play their cards right they could develop lasting security and economic relationships throughout the Asia Pacific. Japan needs their cooperation for cheap manufactured goods, strategic access and raw materials just as much as they need Japan’s advanced technology, and their military umbrella.

But there remains a possibility that Japan’s military restructuring could frighten and encourage some Asian nations to reject Japanese defence projection and choose Chinese partnership instead. Tokyo will have to play this one out carefully.

Ultimately, no matter what the sensationalist headlines suggest, Japanese bolstering of its naval capabilities does not simply reflect their significant differences with China over a few windswept islands. Rather, what drives Japan’s concentrated militarisation is a wider geopolitical rivalry. Japan is poised both to contain China’s expansion and give other Asian nations more options for strategic partnerships.

The United States will have to decide whether it wants to be a part of these partnerships, or whether it will be happy to take a back seat. If history has anything to say about this, the answer is obvious. It just might be too late for the Americans to clean up their diplomatic act and convince the Asia Pacific region that they’re here to stay.

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