Japan’s Precarious Position in the Asia

Japanese destroyers in column formation

 

Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades.  No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers.  Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation.  By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.

 

A Firmer Footing

While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.”  In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security.  For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue.  After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls.  Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.

 

Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation.  He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia.  He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders.  He also stepped in when Washington stumbled.  After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.

 

Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture.  It modestly increased its defense budget.  It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims.  But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law.  Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack.  While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan.  Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts.  But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.

 

The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July.  Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid.  With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.

 

Shifting Sands

However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted.  Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms).  Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States.  Instead, he leaned toward China.  Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt.  Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way.  He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy.  On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.

 

To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.  Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia.  Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president.  Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States.  But Abe received no public assurances.  The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy.  If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.

 

Troublesome Neighbors

China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses.  Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November.  Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.

 

Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan).  Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands.  Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.

 

The Going Remains Tough

To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.  Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security.  Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia.  Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long.  By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it.  Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.

 

None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way.  Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation.  But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.

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Standing Firm, Mostly: Militarization of the South China Sea

China's Presence in the South China Sea
China’s Presence in the South China Sea

 

Last week, a Chinese naval vessel which had been shadowing the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy oceanographic ship, scooped up one of the ship’s unmanned underwater survey drones about 80 km off the Philippine coast.  Washington demanded the drone’s return.  Over the weekend, China’s Ministry of Defense said that it would transfer the drone back to the United States; and by Tuesday afternoon it was back in American hands.  Though the incident was quickly settled, it could have easily escalated.  Some initially feared a replay of the 2001 crisis in which China impounded a damaged U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft for three months after a Chinese J-8 fighter collided with it over the South China Sea.

 

Lest anyone think that the recent rapprochement between China and the Philippines would restore calm to the South China Sea, the drone incident demonstrated that tensions there remain high.  Even more worrisome in the longer run is the steady militarization of the region’s disputed islands.

 

Vietnam’s Response to China

Considering what Vietnam sees as China’s repeated provocations—from its use of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore oil drilling rig in disputed waters to its construction of military-grade airfields on Chinese-occupied islands—Hanoi has felt justified to respond in kind.  Last year, it extended the runway on Vietnamese-held Spratly Island from under 760 meters to over 1,000 meters, long enough to accommodate maritime surveillance and transport aircraft.  Then in August, Reuters reported that Vietnam had discretely deployed mobile rocket launchers on some of the other islands that it holds.[1]  Once assembled and armed, Vietnam could easily target China’s nearby island airfields and military facilities.

 

China’s Response to Vietnam

Conscious of such dangers, China has taken precautions.  Satellite imagery recently revealed that China has installed large anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems capable of shooting down cruise missiles on each of its islands.[2]  Earlier this year, China deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.  Perhaps they will also appear on Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratly archipelago, if more foreign aircraft are seen overhead.  No doubt China is preparing itself for an armed challenge, whether from competing South China Sea claimants or the United States.  As China’s Ministry of Defense posted on its microblog last Friday, “Were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready with even a slingshot?”[3]

 

The Philippines’ Resignation

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ response to all this went in the opposite direction after the election of Rodrigo Duterte as its president in June.  Duterte’s foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, signaled the Philippines’ resignation to China’s military construction.  “We cannot stop China at this point in time and say do not put that up,” he said.[4]  Instead, the Philippines would focus on furthering its economic ties with China.  That strategy has paid off so far.  In October, China promised Duterte that it would provide the Philippines with investment and financing worth $24 billion.  The following month, the Chinese coast guard allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the waters near Scarborough Shoal for the first time since the 2012 standoff there between Chinese and Philippine authorities.

 

That the Philippines has gone wobbly on standing up to China probably came as little surprise to Vietnamese leaders, who always doubted Philippine commitment.  For the moment, Vietnam is doing its best to match China’s actions.  And so the militarization of the South China Sea continues.  Hopefully future incidents in its waters will end as peacefully as the most recent one did.

 

[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Dec. 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org.

[3] Li Xiaokun, “Island defenses ‘legitimate, legal’,” China Daily, Dec. 16, 2016.

[4] Jeannette I. Andrade, “PH helpless vs China–Yasay,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dec. 17, 2016.

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GI Go Home, Again: The Philippines-U.S. Alliance Weakens

On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly demanded that American military advisors on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao “have to go.”  His stated concern was that the presence of American troops on Mindanao antagonized local Muslims and that the troops could become targets of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group, for kidnapping and ransom.

The American military advisors were once part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines operating under the authorities of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, headquartered at an airbase near Zamboanga.  The task force had been deployed there for a decade as part of a program to train and support elements of the Philippine military in its efforts to combat Islamic militants throughout the region.  Last year, that program was wound down and most of the American troops left.  But a small detachment of military advisors remained behind.

Precisely why Duterte chose to make his remarks is unclear.  They might have been intended to strengthen his hand in peace talks that he reopened with the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in August.  Those talks had been stalled for over a year after a botched anti-terror raid against Islamic militants, including the MILF, resulted in the deaths of 44 Philippine police commandos.  The raid derailed his predecessor’s attempt to fulfill an accord reached in 2014 under which the rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for the passage of a law turning a large part of Mindanao into an autonomous region.  How successful Duterte’s peace talks will be remains to be seen.  In early September, Islamic militants bombed a night market in Davao City, where Duterte was once mayor.  The blast killed 14 people and wounded 70 more.

Back in Manila, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Jr. downplayed the impact of Duterte’s remarks.  According to Yasay, the larger defense relationship between the Philippines and the United States remained “rock solid.”  The removal of a “token” number of American military advisors from Mindanao would not affect that relationship or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that the two countries signed in 2014.

But Duterte’s remarks come at an awkward time in relations between the Philippines and the United States.  Only a week ago, at the ASEAN summit in Laos, a meeting between Duterte and President Barack Obama was cancelled after Duterte chided Obama for his criticism of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines.  While the two men eventually met, the incident amplified doubts over how Duterte’s administration would work with Washington.

More broadly, Duterte’s remarks reflected the deep ambivalence many Filipinos on the political left feel about the United States.  They would prefer it if the Philippines distanced itself from its one-time colonial ruler.  Indeed, Duterte already put a halt to the joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the South China Sea.  And, recently, he stated that he would favor buying weapons from China and Russia, rather than the United States.

Unfortunately, the Philippines needs the United States, at least until the Philippine armed forces can build up a credible external deterrent.  The last time Manila ordered American forces to leave the Philippines was in the early 1990s.  Soon thereafter, China took advantage of the weakened alliance to seize Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef.  Today China has not only fortified the reef, but also reclaimed enough land there to build an airfield on it.  Duterte’s remarks give China another opportunity.  Duterte may believe he can reach an accommodation with China without the United States.  But that accommodation will likely be on Chinese terms.

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Shame Power: The Philippine Case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration

The Philippines may not have much conventional power it can bring to bear in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. But today it demonstrated that it does have the power to shame China on the international stage. After hearing the Philippines’ legal case against China’s South China Sea claims, an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within [its] ‘nine-dash line’” claim. The ruling went even further. It detailed how China had aggravated the dispute and “violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone” by constructing artificial islands and interfering with Philippine fishing and energy exploration.[1]

Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Sea
Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Sea

The ruling was a long time in coming. In 2013 Manila brought its dispute with China to the PCA, an option provided for under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Normally, the PCA’s tribunal would have heard the arguments of both parties in a dispute before making its ruling. But in this case, it heard only those of the Philippines. China refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing that the tribunal had no authority over its maritime borders. So to ensure that the tribunal had adequate authority to make a ruling, Manila asked it to narrowly assess “the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines over its maritime entitlements” in the South China Sea. That allowed the tribunal to make a ruling without Chinese participation. It also obliged the tribunal to consider the validity of China’s overlapping “nine-dash line” claim under UNCLOS.

Of course, the tribunal’s ruling does little to compel China to change its behavior in the region. China has already changed the status quo in the South China Sea. Over the last two years China has reclaimed enough land to turn the features it occupies in the Spratly archipelago into man-made islands large enough to support military-grade airfields and facilities. China is unlikely to abandon them now.

Over the long term, the tribunal’s ruling puts the Philippines in a better position to pursue future legal action. For the time being, however, what the tribunal’s ruling does do is to publicly shame China. Once, that mattered to China. In 1997, when a United Nations commission was considering a resolution critical of China’s human rights record, Beijing mounted a major diplomatic campaign, including tours by Chinese leaders and offers of trade deals, to dissuade other countries from voting for it. The fact that China did so to avoid international criticism suggested that it mattered to China. Today it does not seem to matter as much. China has grown too economically and militarily powerful. That has made it more confident in its ability to shape its geopolitical environment on its own terms.

One of the first countries to feel the brunt of China’s new confidence was the Philippines. Perhaps that was because the Philippines had become an easy target. After the Cold War, it allowed its navy and air force (the two services that matter in the South China Sea) to fall into disrepair. At the same time, it distanced itself from the United States. So, when China began asserting itself in the South China Sea, there was little Manila could do. That much was clear when China blocked access to Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and prevented Manila from resupplying by sea its outpost on Second Thomas Shoal in 2014.

Yet Manila refused to back down. It took its case against China to the PCA. It also began to rebuild its armed forces and strengthen its security ties to Japan and the United States. In March, the Philippines and the United States held their first joint naval patrol in the South China Sea and finalized their Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement, allowing American forces to rotate through Philippine military bases. Meanwhile, the Philippines has hosted a growing number of Japanese naval vessels, including a submarine, at its naval base in Subic Bay.

Nonetheless, the Philippines may change its approach to China. Former President Benigno Aquino, whose perseverance had been so critical in keeping international pressure on China, left office in June. His successor, Rodrigo Duterte, seems ready to take a softer line towards China. During his presidential campaign, he said that he would work to shelve the Philippines’ dispute with China; and that he was open to joint development of the South China Sea, especially if Chinese economic assistance was forthcoming. Such comments should encourage Beijing. But it remains to be seen how China responds.

In the meantime, China is likely to brush off the tribunal’s ruling. But the Philippines’ success at the PCA has not gone unnoticed. Other countries have followed the tribunal’s proceedings with keen interest. Encouraged by the Philippines, Vietnam added its position to the proceedings in late 2014. Indonesia has said that it would consider its own case too, if negotiations with China failed. Even Japanese lawmakers have discussed the possibility of international arbitration over China’s offshore drilling activities in the East China Sea. If the Philippine case sets a precedent that others follow, Manila will have demonstrated that it has not only the power to shame, but also the power to inspire.

[1] Matikas Santos, “Key points of the arbitral tribunal’s verdict on Philippines vs China case,” Inquirer.net, July 12, 2016.

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South China Sea Escalation: Relations between China and the United States

Every week that passes seems to bring a new development in the South China Sea. Over the last few months, China finished the construction of military-grade airfields on several of the islets that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago and began building radar installations on them. It also deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems and combat aircraft to the Paracel Islands. Meanwhile, the United States twice sailed a guided-missile destroyer close to Chinese-held islands and flew a pair of B-52 bombers nearby to assert freedom of navigation through the area. It also began to monitor the region with P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. Possibly even more worrisome to China, the United States has begun to discuss conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea with not only the Philippines, a country that disputes China’s claims, but also India, one of China’s Asian rivals. Yesterday, the U.S. Pacific Command announced that it would hold a joint naval exercise with India and Japan, China’s other Asian rival, in the waters just north of the South China Sea later this year.[1]

Naval and Air Bases in the South China Sea

While tensions have rapidly risen in recent months, the escalation in words and actions between China and the United States started years ago. Many Chinese cite 2010 as a turning point. During that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, Southeast Asian leaders publicly rebuked China over its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Not believing that they would do so on their own accord and witnessing then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s behavior at the forum, China came to believe that the United States orchestrated the criticism. From that, China concluded that the United States had abandoned its long-held position not to take sides in the South China Sea dispute and had chosen to interject itself into it.

Certainly by late 2014, the United States had decided to challenge China’s actions. Diplomacy had failed to deter China from incrementally elbowing its Southeast Asian neighbors out of the South China Sea. Indeed, China had become even more assertive, violating the spirit of the ASEAN code of conduct that it signed in 2002. Rather than refraining from actions that may change the status quo, China stepped up its military presence, increased the number of its coast guard patrols, and even encouraged its fishermen to fish in the South China Sea with subsidized fuel. That eventually led to a months-long standoff between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels near Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Despite the risk of such incidents, both China and the United States have good reasons to stand firm. First and foremost, Beijing believes that the islands in (and possibly the waters of) the South China Sea are its own. Plus, Beijing knows that no Southeast Asian country without American support can prevent it from dominating those waters. Chinese observers also have cause to question how strong that American support really is. Over the last half decade or so, the United States has proven itself to be diffident whenever it has been confronted with an international crisis, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. However vigorous American rhetoric might sound, Beijing may believe that if push came to shove, the United States would back down.

On the other hand, Washington believes that it must ensure freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not only for the sake of international norms, but also to shore up the credibility of its security commitments in Asia, which have been dented by its past prevarications. Ultimately, those commitments help to underpin the prevailing international order, which China occasionally chafes against. But many American observers wonder whether China would really challenge that order, not least of which because China has so greatly benefited from it. Why risk upsetting it now, especially when China’s economy is teetering. Surely, Chinese leaders, whose primary interest has always been to stay in power, are more concerned about the rising unrest inside China than the South China Sea. However confrontational China may seem, Washington may believe that if push came to shove, China would back down.

All of this would be even more alarming were it not for Sino-American cooperation in other areas, such as this week’s United Nations sanctions on North Korea. But how far apart the two countries are on the South China Sea was made clear in February when the United States openly warned China of “consequences” if it did not heed the decision of an arbitration court in The Hague where the Philippines brought a legal case against China over its South China Sea claims. That divide was again evident at a press conference last week during which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while standing next to one another, cautioned each other’s country not to take further provocative actions in the South China Sea. Neither diplomat appeared to acknowledge the other’s caution. As most observed, it seemed as if they agreed to disagree.

Days later, the heated rhetoric between China and the United States resumed. At a Congressional hearing, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei accused the United States of “maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.”[2] Neither comment raised many eyebrows. Perhaps that is because we have become inured to the rhetorical exchanges. But the longer the escalation of words and actions continues, the higher the stakes will be if an incident does occur. It will be harder for China and the United States to back down without real costs. But thus far neither side seems in the mood for compromise.

[1] Sanjeev Miglani, “U.S. plans naval exercises with India and Japan in Philippine Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016.

[2] “China slams U.S. admiral’s South China Sea remarks,” Xinhua, Feb. 26, 2016.

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