On October 6, 2015, the Wall Street Journal carried this headline:
Japan Ready to Lead in Asia-Pacific, Abe Says
I expect that a few Japan-loving pivot-poobahs inside the Washington beltway had to spit out their breakfast sushi at that one.
“But…that wasn’t supposed to happen for decades! Ash Carter promised!”
After all, Secretary of Defense Carter had stated, “We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come, ” presumably relying on the assumption that by the time his prediction was proved false he would be safely in his mausoleum and indifferent to rebuke.
Relax, poobahs. The Wall Street Journal was just funning with you.
What Abe actually said was:
“Japan and the United States will together lead Asia Pacific toward the goal of turning it into an ocean of freedom and prosperity, working in partnership with countries that share values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law.”
That’s better. It’s a together-leady thing.
You know, just like when two lovers are dancing, they both lead.
I wonder what the other TPP members made of this interesting passage from the same interview:
The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact–agreed to by Japan, the US and 10 other Pacific nations–will “allow like-minded countries to work together to create a free, fair and open economic system,” Mr. Abe said.
It will also create a level-playing field for private companies competing against state-owned enterprises for major infrastructure projects, he said, such as high-speed rail systems, power plants and airports.
If I am misinterpreting this please correct me, but this appears to say that if a TPP member tries to source a competing infrastructure from the PRC under terms that Japan deems improperly state-subsidized, Japan can sue in the local courts to block procurement under the wonderful new TPP zone-wide legal protections for private corporations.
Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia, and other potential targets of PRC infrastructure largesse are probably thinking to themselves, Wow, what are we getting into?
A nice piece of leverage for Japan.
Another nice piece of leverage for Japan is that it can blackball the PRC from the TPP if and when the PRC tries to apply.
So, consider the TPP a convenient way for Japan to extend its regional reach while wrongfooting the PRC…and denying the US the ability to manage its PRC trade relationship unilaterally.
That’s probably worth more to Abe than the relatively minimal GDP gains expected from the agreement.
Ash Carter famously described the TPP as “important as another aircraft carrier.”
Whose, he didn’t say.
Speaking of aircraft carriers, in March of this year Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force accepted delivery of its largest ship since World War II, the JS Izumo, a helicopter carrier characterized as “an aircraft carrier in disguise” since it can accept the F-35 in its vertical take-off and landing configuration, and lacks only the catapults necessary for conventional fighter operations.
It’s designed to carry 20 aircraft. It’s an aircraft carrier.
Japan will launch a second one of these $1.5 billion vessels in 2018, to be christened the JS TPP.
About the name. Not the launch.
The United States also extended a helping hand to Japan in enabling its military to operate in the South China Sea.
Amid the avalanche of piffle surrounding Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, there was one news report of genuine significance: that the Los Angeles Times had been invited aboard a US nuclear attack submarine.
For the purposes of the exercise, war loomed in the Pacific. A nuclear-armed Jin [a Chinese class] submarine…was lurking off an imaginary US-allied nation resembling Japan. The Jin was from “Churia,” not China.
Among them was Lt. Ray Wiggin, the sub’s weapons officer…was told to prepare to launch a salvo of cruise missiles at Churian targets on shore.
Nerves were on edge. War had not broken out. And the mock orders permitted an attack only if the Jin was clearly hostile.
“If they are [attacking] a freighter, we have authority to engage,” said Milsom, a ginger-haired graduate of Penn State.
Otherwise, they should track the Jin and await a “strike tasking,” an order from the Navy’s 7th Fleet commander confirming that war with Churia has begun.
The purpose of this junket was not merely, I believe, to provide a much appreciated thrill to the Los Angeles Times reporters; nor was it to alert Xi Jinping to the fact that the 43 out of the 71 subs in the US fleet are now in the Pacific, with 20 attack subs in Hawaii and another 4 in Guam; or that they routinely patrol near China to stalk PLAN subs and surface ships. He already knows that, I expect.
Nope, I expect the purpose of the article rests in this line:
A nuclear-armed Jin [a Chinese class] submarine…was lurking off an imaginary U.S.-allied nation resembling Japan.<
“Jin class” is the new PRC nuclear missile sub that only uses the submarine base on Hainan Island. Some time in the very near future, it is expected to receive some nuclear missiles that are supposed to work, and will commence deterrent patrols…against the United States.
Japan has no nuclear weapons in-country, either its own or US (supposedly), and is therefore not a target under the PRC no-first-strike doctrine.
But that’s not the narrative that’s supposed to be picked up, especially in Japan.
To connect the dots, what we appear to have here is the US declaring that the PRC subs pose a nuclear threat to Japan. These subs have to be detected and preferably bottled up near their base at Hainan in the South China Sea (which is the obsession of the US Navy, particularly as it awaits the debut of the PRC’s JL-2 sub-based ICBM). Ergo, Japan has a vital interest in joining US anti-submarine warfare activities in the South China Sea.
This assertion relieves Japan of a certain amount of embarrassment concerning its eagerness to inject itself in the South China Sea and strengthen its ties to Vietnam and the Philippines.
In a development apparently ignored by enthusiastic journalistic guzzlers of the China-bashing Kool-Aid (but pointed out ad nauseam by me), in a statement before the Diet Prime Minister Abe admitted that Japanese mine-sweeping operations in the Malacca Straits could not be justified as a vital Japanese interest since the South China Sea is only one of a multitude of sea routes available to Asian shippers.
Therefore, from a civilian/economic perspective, there was no legal basis for joining US activities in the South China Sea.
But if we’ve got Chinese nukes in the South China Sea targeting Japan … Game On!
In fact, once Japanese survival is in play, there’s no reason for Japan to limit itself to operating solely under the US aegis in Asian military operations…
…what’s that, you say? It’s already happening?
Japan and Malaysia agreed to bolster security ties and start talks on transfers of defense equipment and technology, their leaders said on Monday, as both separately wrangle with China over territorial spats.
“I’ve agreed with Prime Minister Najib (Razak) to raise our bilateral ties to strategic partnership,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a joint news conference
In June 2015:
Visiting Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Friday [June 5, 2015] that Manila and Tokyo will start discussions on signing a “visiting forces agreement” that could allow Japan to use bases there to refuel aircraft and vessels.
“We will be initiating all the diplomatic requirements to come up with a visiting forces agreement,” Aquino told reporters at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, adding that he discussed initiating talks on the subject during his summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday.
The pact would enable Japan to extend its military reach to the South China Sea, where Tokyo is reportedly considering conducting joint air patrols with the United States.
The general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong …and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced a series of deals aimed at boosting bilateral trade and defense ties…
Among the agreements announced by Abe and Trong were a $1.6 million package for maritime security assistance for 2015 to help Vietnam acquire two used Japanese patrol ships, a memorandum of understanding on coast guard cooperation… The two leaders also agreed to step up collaboration on United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Maybe Japan really is “ready to lead” in Asia, after all.
The US rather sordid campaign to legitimize Japanese collective self-defense over the objections of its people and against the dictates of its constitution looks to be the gift that keeps on giving … to Japan.
The US might have entertained hopes that Japan could be controlled as a US military asset by virtue of the fact that the current interpretation of collective self defense puts offshore Japanese military operations under the US aegis.
But once the constitutional dam has been breached, there’s nothing stopping Japan from concluding “collective self defense” agreements with other “strategic partners.”
I have previously waxed incredulous at the spectacle of the United States empowering Japan to advance the anti-PRC alliance, while apparently oblivious to the fact that it is empowering Japan to operate as an independent power in Asia at the same time.
The US strategy cannot even call on the comforting myth that, even if Japan feels an overpowering temptation to act unilaterally, it will resist thanks to its loyalty to the US and its values.
The Abe government detests the victor’s dispensation the United States imposed on Japan, and the constitution that came with it. Absolutely without ambiguity, it seeks to restore Japan as a “normal nation” i.e. a nation with full military and constitutional freedom of motion and not beholden to the United States.
Basically, U.S. policy in Asia is becoming hostage to a Japanese government of anti-American right-wing nationalist adventurers.
Japan is not alone in its ambitions, its assertiveness, its desire to deter, its vulnerability to deterrence, and its capacity to work its way out of its military and security dilemmas.
There’s the PRC. And there’s everybody else in East and Southeast Asia. That’s a good thing, in my opinion. These burgeoning economies are robust enough to defend themselves and keep greedy and reckless neighbors from getting ideas.
So I might question the wisdom and morality of Japan’s military push into Asia. But I don’t view it as an existential threat.
But I think America is going to learn the hard way that “Asian security,” both in conception and execution, is no longer synonymous with “American leadership.”
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
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