Déjà Vu All Over Again: China Re-Opens Flight Route M503

On January 4, the People’s Republic of China announced the opening of four new flight routes over the Taiwan Strait. Instead of giving the region some time to process the announcement, planes began using these routes the same day. Due to the location of the routes and the unilateral nature of the announcement, Taiwan has protested the opening of the routes.

The new paths consist of one northbound route (M503) and three east-west extension routes (W121, W122, W123) that link to the main one. Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) has estimated that over 20 flights have used these routes daily since their opening.

In the announcement, China noted that opening up these additional routes would help with delays in an already congested flight area. To the casual observer, such an announcement makes sense: if there are too many flights on a specific route, it would make sense to open new ones to prevent flight delays. Who likes when their flight is delayed?

Behind these new flight routes, however, is the poor state of cross-Strait relations. Since May 2016, China has cut official communication with Taiwan due to the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen and her refusal to acquiesce in Beijing’s demand that she accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the related “one China Principle.” China has also recently increased the number of “island encirclement” missions, whereby Chinese bombers and surveillance planes fly around Taiwan and occasionally breach its Air Defense Zone. Talk of a Chinese invasion—although the possibility of invasion remains remote—has been a topic of much discussion since December 2017, particularly after a Chinese diplomat threatened invasion if a U.S. ship ever makes a port call in Taiwan. When compared to these other issues, a commercial flight route could be seen as innocuous.

But the new flight route is all a part of China’s strategy—ratchet up pressure on Taiwan in both large and small ways—especially while the world is focused on the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. If China continues to increase measures to force Tsai’s hand, which of the many threats would she ask China to limit or remove first?

In response to the announcement, Tsai tweeted: “Cross-strait stability is [important] to regional stability. Recent unilateral actions by #China – including M503 flight route & increased military exercises – are destabilizing & should be avoided. #Taiwan will continue to safeguard the status quo. We call on all parties to do the same.”

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reiterated Tsai’s point in a statement saying, “We believe . . . this is purposefully using civil aviation as a cover for improper intentions regarding Taiwan politics and even military affairs.”

China opened a similar route in January 2015, and Taiwan protested due to aviation safety concerns—the flights then (and now) were 7.8km away from Taiwanese airspace and cross paths with some domestic Taiwanese flights. By March 2015, Taiwan and China reached an agreement that one southbound flight route would remain open but the route was moved further west and that before China would open new routes, it would do so after consultation with Taiwan.

There is one slight, yet extremely important, difference between the 2015 spat and now. In 2015, the president of Taiwan was Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang, the party that advocates for closer ties with China. Now, in 2018, Tsai Ing-wen is president, and she is a member of the Democratic Progress Party, the party with a less favorable view of China. That’s the only change in the situation and thus the reason that the routes were opened again and the reason that China won’t be as amenable to compromise this time.

Taiwan under Tsai has limited leverage to push back against a more recalcitrant China, but it has done several things to make its stance known to China and the world. To try to press China into some sort of dialogue, Tsai’s government has called on the United States, Canada, and other countries to support Taiwan in this endeavor and for their planes to avoid using the new route. On January 18, the Taiwan CAA confirmed that it “has provisionally delayed approval of applications by two China-based airlines to operate additional cross-strait flights during the Lunar New Year holiday in protest at China’s unilateral decision to launch a northbound M503 route.” This postponement will affect nearly 200 flights and about 50,000 passengers.

Tsai has also made Taiwan’s stance known to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN organization that deals with global aviation issues. Unfortunately, since Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it is also not a member ICAO and cannot broach the topic directly. It must work through other indirect channels, specifically its formal and informal allies in ICAO. ICAO is not likely to do anything with Taiwan’s complaint because Taiwan is not allowed to be a member of the organization. Moreover, the Secretary General of the organization is a Chinese citizen, and Taiwan was excluded from the 39th Assembly in Montreal in 2016 after attending at China’s request in 2013.

For these reasons, it is unlikely that ICAO will work in favor of Taiwan even though according to ICAO guidelines, before a country makes a change to a flight route, it must work with “all parties concerned.” And China did not do that. In fact, China only notified Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration two hours before it sent out the official notification. At of the time of writing, ICAO has not formally responded to Taiwan’s complaint.

For its part, the United States has encouraged “authorities in Beijing and Taipei to engage in constructive dialogue, on the basis of dignity and respect,” but has not done much else. The United States should be more forceful in its rebuke of China’s unilateral action because since Tsai’s inauguration, China has shown it is not willing to have any dialogue with Taiwan. For now, to quote the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again” for cross-Strait relations.

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What’s in a Name?: Strategy Behind the “Indo-Pacific”

Throughout his tour of Asia in November 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the region through which he travelled not as the “Asia-Pacific,” but rather as the “Indo-Pacific.”  While other American presidents have spoken of the “Indo Pacific” before, they did so infrequently. Trump’s continuous use of the term prompted some to speculate whether it offered a clue to the future of American strategy in the region.

Only a week later, Australia released a new white paper that embedded the term “Indo-Pacific” into its broad foreign policy objectives. The white paper made mention of the “Indo-Pacific” 74 times and the “Asia-Pacific” only four times. In contrast, Australia’s prior foreign-policy white paper, published in 2003, mentioned the “Asia-Pacific” 26 times and the “Indo-Pacific” not at all. Clearly, policymakers have intended the term to hold some deeper meaning.[1]

You Say “Asia-Pacific,” I Say “Indo-Pacific”

What does the term “Indo-Pacific” convey that the term “Asia-Pacific” does not? It conveys a wider view of the region to include the Indian subcontinent and, specifically, India. Why include India? Most likely it is because incorporating a country of India’s size and significance into the traditional conception of the Asia-Pacific region would help to balance the growing economic and military heft of China in it.

That makes sense, given that Australia, Japan, and the United States have already brought India into their Asian security discussions. Back in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe first suggested formalizing such a multilateral collaboration through what he called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. He hoped to bring together Asia’s four liberal democracies to promote their shared security goals. At the time, the concept fizzled for fear of alienating China. But that apparently is less of a concern today. With the rise of Chinese assertiveness, the four countries have begun to participate in joint military exercises all along Asia’s periphery. Since 2014, India, Japan, and the United States have conducted annual naval exercises from the Bay of Bengal to the Western Pacific. And, since 2015, Japan has joined the biennial Australia-U.S. military exercise called Talisman Saber.

Indo-Pacific Security Relationships

Still, for the moment the Indo-Pacific region’s only formal security alliances are the bilateral ones that link the United States with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea in what some have described as a “hub-and-spokes” arrangement. The United States also has long-standing security relationships with Singapore, Taiwan, and until recently, Thailand. All other regional security ties are fairly nascent, including the one between Australia and Japan. Though both countries seem drawn to one another, their bond is not yet strong. Seen in that light, Australia’s recent decision to abandon a Japanese design for its future submarine fleet was probably a missed opportunity to reinforce that bond.

Meanwhile, India, which leaned towards the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War, has a relatively new security relationship with the United States. It was not until President George W. Bush orchestrated a civil nuclear deal with India, which implicitly recognized its nuclear weapons status in 2005, did that relationship really start. And even then, it did not grow quickly. Many Indians, including former National Security Council military advisor Prakash Menon and the former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, had reservations. In 2012, they, along with some notable Indian security experts, penned a strategy paper entitled Nonalignment 2.0 that downplayed the importance of stronger ties with the United States.[2]

Since then, however, China’s growing pressure on India’s borders and influence among India’s neighbors have made Indian leaders less concerned about India’s distance from the United States and more interested in finding common cause. As a reflection of that, India—once an exclusive Russian arms importer—has begun to acquire American military equipment and to consider Japanese ones, too. Australia specifically cited its interest in “much closer” ties with India in its recent foreign policy white paper.[3]

Indo-Pacific Encirclement of China?

For years, Chinese strategists have chafed at what they regarded as the geopolitical encirclement of China. But the number of such commentaries seems to have fallen over the last year or so. Perhaps that is because China has strengthened its relationship with Russia and made diplomatic headway in Southeast Asia. Or perhaps that is simply because China feels more powerful than it was. Ironically, China would have more reason to feel encircled today, if the other major Indo-Pacific powers choose to revive something akin to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

What’s in the name “Indo-Pacific?” The answer, in this case, might be a strategy for balancing Chinese power in the region.


[1] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017; and Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, 2003.

[2] Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran, and Siddharth Varadarajan, Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century (New Delhi: Centre for Policy Research, 2012).

[3] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017, p. 42.

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Spared a War: Abe’s Victory and Japan’s Rearmament

I made my genuine Thanksgiving on October 27. The occasion was Mr. Abe’s crushing victory in the Japanese election; the reason was a genuine, though perhaps erroneous, sense that we had been spared a potentially ghastly war in Asia, by the rebalancing of regional power that victory brought.

Japan will now start deliberately rearming and aiding her neighbors, with the pace determined by China’s aggressiveness. If China does not abandon her current expansionist territorial policy, but rather attempts nuclear blackmail against her neighbors, at the end of the day, Japan will match that too, with her own nuclear force, checkmating China. This will bring an armed peace.

Since at least 1995 when she occupied the Philippine Mischief Reef, China has been attempting to expand her territory to include Arunachal Pradesh (“South Tibet” in Beijing’s terminology) in India and islands held by South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and others, as well as to take control of the entire South China Sea, half again bigger than the Mediterranean.

China calculated that no one would react seriously. She was emerging as the hegemon of Asia; others would recognize this fact (which may not be one) and doff their caps, no more. Certainly, the United States would continue to do nothing. The Obama administration had done effectively nothing while this attempt to transform the Indo-Pacific region was being carried out.

China is also actively seeking bases in Africa and elsewhere, with a view to controlling the key choke points in the international maritime transport network. This is Griff nach der Weltmacht, with Chinese characteristics. A continuation of such aggressive behavior will almost certainly lead to conflict, escalation, and perhaps general war.

In 2010, sparks flew at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, as Hillary Clinton delivered a strong verbal condemnation. Then, in 2014, the Philippines filed suit in The Hague, under The Law of the Sea, the authority of which China has ratified and accepted. In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration found that all of China’s actions were illegal. China, however, ignored the decision completely, continuing her expansive policy, assuming that she could divide her opponents, intimidating them above all with her immense military and nuclear capabilities.

This seemed to work. Rodrigo Duterte, an erratic man, became president of the Philippines, and he began to come to terms with China. It became bad form to mention The Hague’s decision. Having torn up the international court’s decision, China looked set to create a fait accompli by flouting the law to use military intimidation instead.

The United States began to take serious action with the new administration in office. When President Trump made his highly successful visit to Asia, he did not need to mention security, as an almost unprecedented three Carrier Strike Groups were exercising in the seas nearby, message enough.

The United States is far away, though, and not trusted by anyone to use nuclear weapons to defend them. That is why the United Kingdom and France, both allies, maintain at great expense their own independent nuclear deterrents. But Japan? She foreswore war in her Constitution. Not only that, the United States presented herself as the “cork in the bottle” that would prevent Japanese armament. The drastic changes that China started unilaterally, assuming Japan would dither, in fact focused that country’s attention.

With Abe’s victory, we may expect Japan to become normal, which is to say possess a self-sufficient military capability including, if so pressed, nuclear weapons that will deter China and freeze her current policy. A democracy, Japan can move only with the support of her people. China’s threats to her territory, as well as the firing of two North Korean ballistic missiles over the islands, contributed to Abe’s victory. Now, we can expect a carefully calibrated Japanese response that will match China at every stage.

What does Japan have now? Her self-defense force numbers at about 250,000. At present, she lacks any but defensive armaments. Even so, her advanced technological capabilities mean that she can develop herself any weapon she needs, as good or better as the American systems on which she now largely relies. Japan does not steal technologies. She already has her technologies.

The jewel in her crown is her small (19) submarine force. The Sōryū is a conventional submarine so stealthy that the highly skilled Japanese anti-submarine forces can find only 5% of them when under way. They regularly sink American carrier escorts (using lasers) in war games. More importantly, as retired Chinese General Liu Yazhou 劉亞洲, an adamant Japanophobe, has warned, in case of naval conflict today, the Japanese submarines could sink the entire Chinese East Sea fleet in four or so hours.[1] (Liu is also an outspoken advocate of democracy). As the Japanese ambassador remarked to this author, “We are a shadow nuclear power.” In other words, it might take them a week to create an arsenal.

Otherwise, Japan has a slightly obsolescent air force to which U.S. F-35s are being added. More importantly, she has a prototype sixth generation stealth fighter the X-2 “Shinshin.” Cynics say she is building this to force American prices down. That may have been correct in the past, but today she is building it so as to be self-sufficient in aircraft. I believe this will be a superb jet: remember, not until 1943 did the United States field a fighter that could down the Japanese Zero.

Japan has also been launching “Information Gathering Satellites” since 2003. The most recent, launched earlier this year, is thought to have resolving power far superior to any other nation’s. Japan has enlarged her intelligence service. Particularly in cooperation with Taiwan (below), Japan will achieve intelligence dominance in the region.

What is missing?

Japan has only very short-range missiles. Now, however, she has undertaken a program to build a maneuverable missile having sufficient range and payload to pose a severe problem to any adversary, and a 1,000 mile-range missile nicknamed the “Japanese Tomahawk” about which in fact we know very little.

The Japanese speak of these as counter-strike missiles: in other words, to be used only after being attacked. Nothing, however, prevents their pre-emptive use. Likewise, they are intended to be conventional. Nothing, however, prevents the Japanese from unscrewing a conventional warhead and replacing it with a nuclear weapon.

In other words, Japan is now on the threshold of becoming a regional great power, not capable of attacking or invading her adversaries, but of paralyzing them by means of her advanced military capabilities. This fact transforms the Asian strategic situation. No longer will China be able to intimidate without fearing retaliation. The Hague decision will be proclaimed as justification, and who can gainsay the legitimacy of that?

Japan will become an Asian alliance focus in the emerging alliance—“The Quad”—of Australia, the United States, India, and Japan—hammered out, significantly, on the sidelines of this year’s ASEAN conference in Manila, so far China’s chief target. Also, she will become a non-U.S. source of advanced weaponry.

This last point—weapons supply—is particularly significant with respect to Taiwan. United States policy has always been to keep Taiwan weak enough that China can imagine conquest, yet fulfill the letter of the Taiwan Relations Act which requires us to supply defensive armament, by selling mostly obsolete or unwanted systems at great profit to our defense contractors. In fact, the loss of Taiwan, while it would be a crime against humanity, would not affect American security.

It would, however, mortally threaten Japan, whose main islands are 800 miles away, while her closest small island, Yonaguni, is less than 70 miles from the east coast of Taiwan. Japan and Taiwan are part of the same mostly submerged ocean mountain range. So we may expect Japan and Taiwan to cooperate in whatever ways are necessary to keep China at bay. If we continue to seek to please China even as we supply Taiwan with inadequate equipment, we may expect Japanese systems to fill the gap—submarines, naval vessels, state of the art aircraft. Not to mention close intelligence cooperation. Taiwan is often thought of as an American issue. Look at the map, though. It is a Japanese issue.

Finally, we must speak of diplomacy. Japan is widely distrusted, though this is perhaps a myth. Even South Korea, which was tortured brutally by Japan during the period she was a colony (1910-1945), maintains a high level of day to day security interaction with Tokyo. Japan’s diplomatic prowess is often underestimated, in part because she conceals it. But, particularly if aided by the United States and other “Quad” powers, she will show great effectiveness. “The Quad,” which China never imagined but was instrumental in creating as a counterbalance to her aggression, is more than a sufficient counterweight.

Note that China has created this situation for herself. She has no real allies: does anyone expect Russia or Pakistan to go to war on her behalf? Rather, by making such vast territorial claims from India to Japan (with the Russian Primorskii Krai, which controls the Pacific coast of Eurasia from Korea north on deck as the next), she has alienated, effectively, all her neighbors—here I include unstable Pakistan and opportunistic Russia—creating what political scientists would call a “countervailing coalition.”

Our greatest 19th century general, Winfield Scott, might have called it “an anaconda” that China has created, but in the toils of which she now finds herself. This entanglement will render impossible China’s miscalculated policies.

Note too that without China’s aid or at least acquiescence, North Korea would not be able to command the attention or elicit the fear that she does now. She is a dependent variable in this larger change, which will undermine and weaken her. South Korea is furthermore high on the list of nuclear capable states.

Actions elicit equal and opposite reactions, so Newton states. Clausewitz notes that unlike physical reactions, those in conflict, being the product of the human mind, are entirely unpredictable. When she set out on her ill-conceived expansion program, China wrote off both Japan and the United States. Now, they are at the heart of the game.

Of course, all of this could go wrong. The possibility of a war worse than any in history erupting in Asia remains with us. The developments outlined here, however, render that less and less likely, while a cold and peaceful standoff looks more realistic.

If such should turn out to be the case, we may date its onset from the Japanese election that has brought Abe to complete power. Now, our task is to create an alliance with Japan such as the late Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki always advocated—as close as ours with the United Kingdom.

So let us celebrate a war that I believe has been averted!


[1] 流亞洲 ”日本4 小時內 ‘清空’中國東海艦隊” in當代世界 October 2015, http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MzA3NzY1ODg0Mg==&mid=2649667933&idx=5&sn=e8e3d08c32f890c2401ef7baf99dac58&chksm=8754b6e8b0233ffeb7a6e6f4bd865546855b51407bfc05a2fe6f95c7a7936e560888742dbf58&mpshare=1&scene=5&srcid=1016RLOGG4OLHCUBEgPeO034#rd, p. 1.

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Conflict Escalation: China and India’s Territorial Dispute in the Himalayas

During the summer of 2017, an unusually volatile territorial spat between China and India erupted in the Himalayan Mountains. For over two months, hundreds of Chinese and Indian troops were locked in an escalating standoff on the Doklam Plateau, a region disputed by China and Bhutan near the Indian border. (See map.)

The fact that there was a standoff came as little surprise to most observers of China and India’s long-running territorial dispute. Other standoffs have periodically occurred along the two countries’ 4,057-km mostly disputed border—called the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—from the rocky peaks of Aksai Chin in the west to forested mountains of Arunachal Pradesh in the east. But this latest case was different in three respects: the parties involved, the strategic location, and the length and level of escalation.

Parties Involved

In the past, whenever such incidents took place, they occurred on parts of the LAC that China and India shared. This one did not; it transpired on land claimed by a third country, Bhutan. The incident began in June 2017 when Chinese troops and bulldozers moved onto the Doklam Plateau to build an all-weather road. With no ability to stop them, Bhutan appealed to India for assistance. Obligingly, New Delhi dispatched a military detachment to confront the Chinese, prompting the standoff.

Of course, China saw things differently. It accused India of sending troops into its territory and obstructing its road construction. China also intimated that India had exercised its historic influence over Bhutan’s foreign affairs to manufacture the Bhutanese request for help. But while one can debate the propriety of India’s intervention, what prompted China to attempt to build a road on land that it disputes with Bhutan in the first place remains unclear. Some speculated that Beijing may have been trying to gain a bargaining chip with which it could pry Bhutan away from India’s influence. If true, that would have been a long shot, given Bhutan’s economic dependence on India.

Strategic Location

While standoffs have developed in sensitive areas before, the most recent one occurred near a particularly strategic location for India. The Doklam Plateau sits near a part of India where its territory is squeezed between Bhutan, China, and Nepal to the north and Bangladesh to the south. That location, known as the Siliguri Corridor, is strategic because it connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. The Indian military has long worried about a possible Chinese thrust through Sikkim that could sever the corridor and cut India in two.

China’s rapid infrastructure development and military modernization over the last two decades have only heightened those concerns. Indian strategists fear that China could use its new all-weather roads, high-speed railways, and airfields to quickly mass its military might on the border. Chinese military doctrine and exercises suggest that China is preparing to do just that. During its Stride 2009 exercise, the Chinese military mobilized and transported four divisions across China in record time. Meanwhile, the Chinese military has been steadily acquiring new combat platforms suited for mountain warfare, from helicopters to light tanks able to operate at high altitudes. It also recently completed a major reorganization of its command structure to boost its joint war-fighting capability.

On the other side of the Himalayas, India has struggled to keep up with China. Already five years behind schedule, India has competed only 27 out of 73 roads that it had wanted built to improve its access to the LAC.[1] To compensate for that weakness, the Indian military has stationed sizable forces near the LAC so that it can quickly respond to any crisis there. But as the gap between Chinese and Indian military capabilities continues to widen, India has felt more pressure to strengthen its border defenses. In 2013, it began to raise a new two-division formation, the 17th Mountain Strike Corps, to be better prepared to repel a serious Chinese incursion. The Indian army is now outfitting the corps with some of its newest arms, including U.S.-designed M777 howitzers.

Length and Level of Escalation

Historically, when a standoff on the LAC has arisen, it is settled in a few weeks through a diplomatic resolution whereby both sides agree to a mutual and simultaneous withdrawal. Most observers expected that to happen in this latest case. Instead, whether by coincidence or design, China conducted a series of live-fire drills in nearby Tibet after the standoff began. Then, when India’s national security advisor travelled to Beijing in July, China rebuffed him. Rather than negotiating a resolution, China issued a lengthy position paper accusing India of wrongdoing and insisted on a unilateral Indian withdrawal.

In August, India upped the ante. It increased the combat readiness of its 50,000 troops along the eastern portion of the LAC, advancing the timetable for its annual exercise in the region and deploying its forces to their wartime positions. China’s state-owned Global Times warned that “China is more than capable of defeating India in potential military conflict” and had already mused that “perhaps it is time that [India] be taught a second lesson,” a reference to the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

The Next Standoff

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed by late August, and the two countries reached a settlement. India withdrew its troops, and China removed its road-construction equipment from the disputed region. Eventually, what drove the easing of tensions may have been Beijing’s desire for stability ahead of a Chinese-hosted BRICs summit (to which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited) in September and China’s Communist Party Congress in October.

In any case, how Beijing handled the standoff on the Doklam Plateau seems to have marked an incremental shift in Chinese behavior. It demonstrated that China has become more willing to directly challenge the strategic interests of a large neighboring power and is less concerned over conflict escalation than it once was. If there is a lesson for India to learn from all that, it is to be better prepared for the next border standoff.


[1] Rahul Bedi, “Deadline for construction of India–China border roads extended to 2022,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 3, 2017.

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Why We Must Recognize North Korea

The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.

This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.

On June 21. 2017  United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.” [1] Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.”[2] South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.

But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.

No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.

Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal  a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.

Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.[3]

At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.

No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.

This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies.  My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.

Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with  rogue nations.  She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.

These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.

Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.


[1] http://www.teletrader.com/news/details/39290551?ts=1499882856534

[2] https://koreas.liveuamap.com/en/2017/7-july-tillerson-says-trump–and–putin-had-a-pretty-good

[3] https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat  This is the source for all figures save those labeled “author’s estimate”.

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Taiwan Loses Another Ally

In another blow to Taiwan’s ever-shrinking list of diplomatic allies comes the news that Panama has severed ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing a relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Panama’s announcement comes only months after Sao Tome and Principe cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China. With these two nations switching recognition, Taiwan has only 20 official diplomatic allies. As China continues to exert pressure on President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that holds a majority in the country’s legislature, China will attempt to poach more of Taiwan’s allies in an attempt to further isolate Taiwan from the international space.

The Office of the President released a statement addressing the switch in recognition: “We express our deep regret and disappointment at the Republic of Panama’s decision to renounce our long-standing friendship and establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.”

The End of the Diplomatic Truce

Though people unfamiliar with Taiwan are not likely to see the importance of the end of this relationship, it is important to understand how China acted during the tenure of former President Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s other major political party that has a more a pro-China view than the DPP. At the beginning of his presidency in 2008, Ma announced that he was pursuing a policy that he called a “diplomatic truce,” in which Taiwan and China tacitly agreed to stop poaching each other’s allies. In 2008, Ma said during the planning stages, “If the diplomatic truce turns out to be a successful strategy, it might be possible that we won’t gain any more allies, but we won’t lose any either.”

Ma’s prediction almost proved true. During his two terms in office, Taiwan only lost one ally, Gambia, in 2013. However, China did not establish official relations with Gambia until 2016, only a few months before Ma left office and Tsai took his place. The delay in establishing relations could be seen as a sign of deference for the diplomatic truce under Ma’s presidency.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, the diplomatic truce has ended with China poaching two countries— Sao Tome and Principe and Panama—from Taiwan since Tsai took office in May 2016. Panama’s move has particularly angered Taiwan. In the summer of 2016, Tsai visited the country for the opening ceremony of the newly expanded Panama Canal. Panama and Taiwan had good relations and exchanges before this announcement.

The canal is most likely the primary reason for Panama’s sudden decision since China is its “second most important customer.” China now has no incentive to stop using the canal, and it cannot dangle its high level of usage over Panama as a veiled threat. The move now also calls into question the China-backed Nicaragua Canal as Nicaragua still recognizes Taiwan, not China. The project’s viability had already been hotly debated, and perhaps Panama hopes that China will focus less on the Nicaragua Canal as a result of its decision.

Tsai released a statement criticizing China’s role in the Panama switch as well as its recent actions in trying to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world:

Although we have lost a diplomatic ally, our refusal to engage in a diplomatic bidding war will not change. The fact that the Republic of China exists will not change. And Taiwan’s value and standing in the international community will not change.

We are a sovereign country. This sovereignty cannot be challenged nor traded. China has continued to manipulate the “one China” principle and pressure Taiwan’s international space, threatening the rights of the Taiwanese people. But it remains undeniable that the Republic of China is a sovereign country. This is a fact China will never be able to deny.

What Next?

The question, now, for Taiwan is what will happen next. Sao Tome and Principe’s decision to switch to China did not cause much angst in Taiwan since the small island nation apparently asked for $200 million before its switch in recognition. The country was essentially demanding a handout for the continuation of relations, but the Panama case appears different and unexpected. China’s poaching of these nations is exactly what the diplomatic truce under the Ma years stopped, but with Tsai in office, China has decided to alter its course.

Now, if China is truly opening its wallet to Taiwan’s other 20 allies, can Taiwan—or any nation—blame them for accepting a switch in recognition for the prospect or promise of millions of dollars in aid and/or investment? There is not much that Taiwan can do since the Tsai administration has stated that it will not engage in this practice for the sake of stability across the Taiwan Strait. As pressure continues to mount on Taiwan and as its list of allies grows thin, Taiwan may need to rethink its strategy for keeping or finding allies in light of China’s recent actions.

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China’s Nuclear Interest in the South China Sea

Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent could be added to that list of reasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats—and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent.

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

Early on, China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea.  And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be.  Thus, in the late 1950s, China began to acquire the technology needed for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which can operate underwater for long periods, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).[1]

By the 1980s, China built its first SSBN, the Type 092 (or Xia-class), along with its first SLBM, the JL-1. Though only one Xia-class submarine ever became fully operational, China went to great lengths to protect it. Chinese engineers tunneled under a rocky promontory at Jianggezhuang, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, to provide the submarine with a hardened shelter. As it turned out, the Xia rarely went to sea during its service life.[2] But if it sailed into the Yellow Sea today, China might have some cause for concern, given the proximity of capable naval forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the sea’s eastern edge.

China’s Southern Strategy

After the Cold War, China continued to improve its sea-based nuclear deterrent. About a decade ago, China began serial production of its second SSBN, the Type 094 (or Jin-class). So far, the Chinese navy has commissioned four Jin-class submarines; the completion of the JL-2 SLBM followed.[3] But years before the submarines entered service, China had already started construction on a new naval base for them that runs along Yalong Bay, near the South China Sea. With satellite imagery, one can see the grand scale of the new base.  (See image below.) It even features a submarine tunnel, like the one at Jianggezhuang, but with enough room for loading facilities and multiple submarines.[4]

Yalong Bay Naval Base

 

China’s Jin-class SSBNs are now regularly seen at the base.  (See image below.)  South of it is the South China Sea—a region increasingly dotted with Chinese military outposts and airfields. It is also a region with no navies capable of directly challenging China’s. Indeed, Chinese strategists may have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s SSBNs could safely operate under the protection of friendly air and naval forces. The Soviet navy operated in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in much the same way during the Cold War.

Jin-class Submarines
Source: Jamestown Foundation

To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. If China has come to see the South China Sea as important to the security of its sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they have been to date.


[1] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 23–125, 129–205.

[2] Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 2014-2015 (London: Jane’s Information Group, 2014), p. 128.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, Apr. 2016), p. 26.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Secret Sanya: China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pp. 50–53.

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Trump, Tsai, and the Three Communiques: Prospects for Stability in US-China-Taiwan Relations

The Shanghai Communique of 1972 and the U.S.-China Joint Communiques of 1979 and 1982 have been essential foundations of a bilateral relationship that has remained impressively stable while it has become much broader, deeper, multifaceted, and globally important than either side could have expected forty-five years ago, and as it has faced challenges created by China’s rapid rise.

The U.S. and China have had different understandings of these fundamental texts.  To China, the Communiques embody binding international commitments. For the U.S., they are two sides’ parallel statements of deeply entrenched policies.  Where China sees U.S. acceptance of China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, the U.S. insists that it merely acknowledges the existence of a view ostensibly shared on both sides of the Strait.  From the U.S. perspective, the U.S.’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and—less securely—President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances stand alongside the Three Communiques as authoritative statements of U.S. policy.  For China, the additional documents lack such stature and have been sources of U.S. failures to implement commitments in the Communiques, particularly on arms sales to Taiwan.

Despite such divergences, the Communiques have underpinned a mutually acceptable framework for handling what was once the most serious problem for U.S.-China relations and remains a major area of potential discord today: Taiwan.  For the U.S., the arrangement has meant adopting a “one China policy” that eschews support for “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” Taiwan independence, diplomatic relations or security pacts with the government in Taipei, support for Taiwan’s joining states-member-only organizations, and so on.  For China, it has meant acquiescing (although with objections) in U.S. policies and practices that support a functionally autonomous Taiwan, including robust informal relations, some level of arms sales, advocating Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the international system, and insistence that any resolution of the cross-Strait issue be peaceful and (since the Clinton administration) have the assent of the people of Taiwan.

Perhaps the most important practical contribution of the Communiques (and the TRA) has been to provide a fixed anchor for U.S. policy—one on which Beijing has been able to rely.  Occasionally, U.S. presidents or officials have appeared to deviate from policies rooted in the documents.  Sometimes, these moves seemed “pro-Taiwan,” as when President George W. Bush said he would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, or when President Bill Clinton offered what Beijing saw as excessive support for the unacceptably “pro-independence” Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui.  Other times, the seeming shifts were “pro-Beijing,” as when Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated Taiwan lacked sovereignty and seemed to imply support for reunification, or when President Barack Obama omitted a robust reference to Taiwan, while reaffirming respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in a joint statement during his 2009 visit to China.  When these disturbances have occurred, U.S. leaders have retreated to the “big four” texts and reassured nervous audiences in Beijing, Taipei, and elsewhere that there was no change in policy.  This has been good for stability in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations.  The bounds the Communiques have set for both sides have helped contain even serious crises, including those surrounding China’s missile tests in the Strait in the mid-1990s and Taiwan’s referendum on entry into the United Nations in 2008.

Will this pattern persist in a new difficult period, with Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump in power?  Trump’s early moves have been, at best, extreme versions of the apparent departures from established policy undertaken by other administrations.  Trump appeared to move in a “pro-Taiwan” direction when he accepted Tsai’s congratulatory phone call.  Much more alarming for Beijing, Trump declared the one China policy to be negotiable, and linked its continuation to possible Chinese concessions on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea.  Trump statements also shook Taiwan, where his suggestion that the one China policy was a “bargaining chip” in negotiations with China implied that Taiwan might be a bargaining chip too, and where candidate Trump’s less-than-reassuring statements about commitments to treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea undermined confidence in the U.S.’s thinner and less formal support for Taiwan’s security.

It is encouraging that the Trump administration has imitated its predecessors in returning to the shelter of long-established policy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed that there were no plans to change the one China policy, and Trump promised, in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that the U.S. would “honor” the one China policy.  While these are welcome moves, concerns continue.  Trump framed his pledge as granting a request from Xi, not as reconfirming unshakeable U.S. policy.  Like many of Trump’s statements, it may be fleeting, soon to be undercut by a tweet.  Disturbingly absent from Trump administration statements have been strong references to the Three Communiques and the TRA—the traditional underpinnings of stability in U.S. policy.  Recommitment to those foundational documents is especially important today, with a U.S. leader prone to extraordinary volatility, a leader in Taiwan distrusted by Beijing, and a leader in China who has said that a political solution for Taiwan cannot be passed on “from generation to generation.”

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Clouded Reassurances in Asia

Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made his first official foreign visit as a member of the Trump administration. It was also the first overseas visit by any member of the new cabinet. The new Defense Secretary spent time in both South Korea and Japan, two of America’s most important allies in Asia. The choice of these two countries was deliberate: both countries are needed to help contain the nuclear threat of North Korea, and Japan is facing an encroaching Chinese presence in the East China Sea. Mattis’ goal was to reassure Seoul—which is currently facing a full-blown political crisis—and Tokyo of American commitments to their security.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign about certain allies not pulling their weight, as president, he must now work with these two countries to keep the region stable. The trip could be described as quite successful. Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), a missile defense system that could protect South Korea from a potential attack by North Korea. His comments about U.S. commitments were clear: “Any attack on the United States or on our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that will be effective and overwhelming.” That’s about as stalwart of a commitment or reassurance as any country can get. The secretary’s visit to Japan struck similar tones. In a joint press conference with Tomomi Inada, the Defense Minister of Japan, Mattis specifically mentioned U.S. policy toward  islands that both Japan and China claim sovereignty over: “I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands — the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies.” Article 5 “recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” If the U.S. recognizes Japanese sovereignty over these islands, then the U.S. would have to use force to defend the Japanese territory if the Chinese attacked in some way.

While Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to both countries, China expressed concern and outrage over his comments in both South Korea and Japan over THAAD and the Senkaku Islands. In regards to THAAD, China believes its implementation would “undermine the strategic security interests of regional countries including China, disrupt regional strategic balance, and help in no way peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” The Chinese see THAAD as not limited to containing the North Korean threat. THAAD potentially could be used to take out or track Chinese missiles in the region. The United States and South Korea are not likely to heed Chinese complaints. China released a statement challenging Mattis’ remarks about U.S. commitment to Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands: “Diaoyu [the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands] and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed. The so-called US-Japan security treaty was a product of the Cold War, and it should not harm China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.” This statement is nothing new, and the issue will not go away any time soon, so it is important to Japan to receive such unwavering reassurance from the United States.

As China continues to contest sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and build artificial islands in the South China Sea, it is necessary not just for Asian nations to receive American reassurances of support, but also for the United States to continually and explicitly express its commitment to maintaining a major role in the region, especially with the transition between administrations. China will likely attempt to take advantage of the Trump administration while it is still getting its feet on the ground and begins to formulate Asia policy. Having Secretary Mattis make a trip to South Korea two weeks into the new administration demonstrates continued understanding of America’s role in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable. While the Defense Secretary offered firm reassurances to both nations, Mattis also expressed hesitation to escalate beyond the status quo. In Japan, he also noted that the administration does not “see any need for dramatic military moves” and that both the U.S. and China should “exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and resolve this properly and maintain open lines of communication.”

Unfortunately, other cabinet members and advisors have made troubling remarks about the region and U.S.-China relations. Though Mattis made the most recent of statements in regards to U.S. policy towards Asia, in the very recent past, other people in the administration have made remarks that undercut and conflict with what Mattis said. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to. . . .We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed.” Such a policy would be a dramatic change from previous administrations. In December 2016, it was revealed that China had installed anti-aircraft and other weapons systems on its artificial islands in the South China Sea. If the United States were to adopt Tillerson’s policy of denial of entry, then confrontation of some sort will likely erupt since China has a significant military presence on its islands. Is the Trump administration willing to risk war to prevent China from doing what it has already done for years? What positive outcome can the new administration expect by adopting such a policy? It is especially unnerving because a Chinese official at the Central Military Commission noted that “A war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.”

Moreover, in March 2016, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and now a member of the National Security Council, remarked that war between the United States and China in the South China Sea is inevitable: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? . . . There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.” Although Bannon’s remark predated his joining the Trump campaign in August 2016, it is dangerous for a key member of the Trump administration to have such hawkish views on China. With Bannon in the White House and influencing national security policy, such an opinion could become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Bannon thinks war is inevitable, so he purposefully or accidentally makes it so.

Different members of the administration have made conflicting statements about China and the Asia-Pacific region in general. Is diplomacy possible or not? Is war inevitable? Will the United States needlessly antagonize China? What are Japan and South Korea supposed to believe is the prevailing opinion or policy stance of the Trump administration? It appears that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.  As Mattis was visiting Asia, the news broke about Bannon’s previous statements. Can U.S. allies in Asia count on Mattis’ reassurances and commitments? Now that Tillerson has been confirmed as Secretary of State, we must hope that he listens to his diplomats—and Secretary Mattis—and does not advocate for such an aggressive stance in the South China Sea. Branding China as the enemy this early in the administration limits how the United States can cooperate with China on important issues, including the nuclear threat from North Korea. What the United States and its allies can hope for is that Secretary Mattis’ reserved and cautious approach prevails.

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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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