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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Revival of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

Countries Involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Countries Involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

 

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are both free-trade agreements in Asia that have been under negotiation for a number of years.  Often seen as competitors, however, the former is led by China and the latter by the United States.  By February 2016, the RCEP had fallen behind the TPP, whose negotiators had already signed an agreement and returned it to their twelve member countries for ratification.  Their RCEP counterparts were still mired in talks.

 

Even so, the TPP’s negotiations were by no means a cake walk.  Concerns in Japan over agricultural issues and in Southeast Asia over the TPP’s “deep” standards repeatedly delayed an agreement.  Indeed, there had been too many delays.  By the time a deal was reached, the United States, the pact’s biggest member, had begun what turned out to be a particularly bitter presidential election and one in which the TPP became a lightning-rod issue.  Even the pact’s early advocates, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was one of the presidential candidates, strongly disavowed it.  In such a political climate there was little chance the U.S. Senate would ratify it.

 

The election of Donald Trump as the next American president sealed the fate of the TPP in the United States.  Soon after, President Barack Obama abandoned his efforts to ratify the pact.  Trump himself declared that the United States would withdraw from it after he is sworn in as president.  That threw the future of the TPP into turmoil.  It also breathed new life into the RCEP.  Capitalizing on the TPP’s disarray, Chinese President Xi Jinping reassured participants at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in late November that China would renew its efforts to conclude the RCEP.

 

RCEP vs. TPP

Why does that matter?  What, apart from some of their member countries, is the difference between the two free-trade agreements?  Traditionally, countries conclude free-trade agreements to lower or eliminate tariffs, and thus encourage trade.  While that has generally spurred economic growth in developing countries, it has also tended to hollow out legacy industries in developed countries.

 

Consequently, developed countries, like the United States, have sought a new approach to free trade.  Embodied in the TPP (and its sister free-trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), that approach requires member countries to adopt domestic policies that would “raise labor and environmental standards, impose disciplines on government-owned corporations, strengthen intellectual property rights enforcement, [and] maintain a free and open internet.”[1]  In that way, developed countries argue, trade would be not only freer, but fairer too.  Indeed, some in the Obama administration even saw the TPP as part of a grander vision for a “rules-based international order.”

 

Naturally, developing countries feared what impact such policies would have on their protected companies and industries.  For example, the TPP would require them to end their preferential treatment of state-owned enterprises in government procurement, something they were reluctant to do.  Nevertheless, developing countries were ultimately persuaded to join the pact because of the added benefits they could gain from greater access to the markets of developed countries.

 

On the other hand, the RCEP is a far more traditional free-trade agreement.  It does not share the lofty ambitions of the TPP.  It does not concern itself with “behind the border issues,” like the preferential treatment in government procurement.  Rather, it simply focuses on reducing and eliminating tariffs.  Countries can limit competition wherever they see fit.  On the surface, that sort of pact would appear easier to negotiate.  But developing countries must carefully consider the terms of such a pact, because they can lock countries into being part of regional supply chains whose ultimate benefits accrue elsewhere.  Given that there are thousands of categories and subcategories of goods to consider (not mentioning the fact that many of those are shuttled between countries before they are assembled into a final product), negotiations are bound to be complex.

 

Impact of RCEP

Still, the RCEP is back on center stage.  If successfully concluded, it could change the structure of Asian trade in ways that would put China firmly at the center of commerce in the region.  That, some worry, would accrue even more political as well as economic power to China.  But given the prevailing sluggish global economy, what matters to most developing countries is reaping the immediate benefits from freer trade.  Unsurprisingly, a couple of countries at the APEC summit quickly seconded China’s interest in reviving the RCEP’s negotiations.  It is now up to China to make it happen.

 

[1] John Lyons, Mark Magnier, and William Mauldin, “China Steps In As U.S. Retreats on Trade,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 23, 2016, pp. A1, A6.

 

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Donald Trump on ISIS: Being Wrong, and Saying It Wrong, Too

Is it the nature of things that action should partake of exact truth less than speech?

-Socrates, The Republic

Language can perform several functions: it can be informative but also expressive and vocative.[1] It is true that Donald Trump more often than not uses language in a manner that is expressive and especially, vocative. He rarely speaks to inform his audiences, instead using emotional appeals to change (or reinforce) our preferences, i.e., to him. Mr. Trump’s admirers seem intuitively to get that, while his detractors do not. The latter demand his words function solely to inform.

Mr. Trump appears to put great stock in ambiguity, as Rich Lowry wrote several weeks ago:

“Trump favors strategic ambiguity—on everything. He says he doesn’t want to be too explicit about his foreign policy because it will tip off our adversaries about our intentions. He apparently doesn’t want to tip anyone off at home, either.”[2]

Ambiguous, however, is not synonymous with imprecise. Ambiguous language generates two different meanings. Put another way, ambiguous language can be understood in two different ways. One meaning is often incompatible with the other. So his admirers hear him one way and his detractors another. Neither meaning was intended to inform. And each is heard to express something different and thus dissonant.

This is not an apologia for Mr. Trump. Something must condition and control political deliberation—that is, after all, language’s informative function, something too often missing in Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric.

When he fails to inform, Mr. Trump leaves no guideposts to determine which, between two possible meanings, he intended. Invariably, admirers choose the favorable one and detractors the other. Precision in political rhetoric—here the speaker is Protagoras, in Plato’s eponymous dialogue—encourages citizens to listen to persons whose relevant knowledge of a matter can inform them. So informed, we ground our political judgments in shared experiences. Informative language by necessity precedes expressive and vocative language—restated, knowledge grounds the appeal to our sensibility. If politics indeed is an art, then the art of politics is the ability to inform first, and then persuade.

It is here Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric falters—it is all emotion and evocative appeals ungrounded by information. This does not mean Mr. Trump himself is uninformed or ignorant. But it does leave him looking intemperate and lacking an informed grasp of the matter at hand. His admirers claim to “get” his meaning while his detractors find that fanciful. Those still undecided are simply left puzzled. Neither his admirers nor his detractors understand what the other does (or does not) understand about whatever it is Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump’s usual defense is that he is a businessperson who lives in a practical world of action. But that does not, to paraphrase Socrates, excuse imprecise language in his case anymore than it does in anyone else’s.

Take what Mr. Trump said recently about President Obama. “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS,” he said, adding for effect, “I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.”[3] He later explained his remarks this this way: “All I do is tell the truth, I am a truth teller.”[4]

Perhaps. But if so, he is one who elides large parts of the backstory. However, if his point was that the Obama Administration watched ISIS emerge—and that is very different than his preposterous claim—then he has ample evidence on which to make an informed case to the American electorate. Of course his own views on whether the U.S. should have remained in Iraq in the late 2000s also then should be fair game.

For lost in Mr. Trump’s rhetorical sloppiness is this: the Obama Administration was indeed warned about the emergence of what became ISIS. We know this from information pried out of the Obama Administration by Judicial Watch. Consider this from a heavily redacted August 2012 Defense Department Information Report marked “Secret” (since declassified):

“D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:

                1. This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters, ISI could also declare an Islamic state though its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”[5]

In August 2012, Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State, and her office is listed on the distribution roster.

The referenced ISI is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq. In January 2014—eighteen months after the report was written—ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra (aka al-Nusra Front) would henceforth be known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or “ISIL”. The document’s final un-redacted line of text warns of “the renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi arena” [sic].

There is another now-declassified secret Defense Department Information Report obtained by Judicial Watch, this one dated October 2012 and covering the period 1 May-1 September 2012. Its anonymous author states “weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port there to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria.”[6] The heavily redacted document goes on to identify the type and number of weapons “shipped from Libya to Syria in late August 2012.” That of course is the same month in which the Obama Administration was warned the Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq might “declare an Islamic state.”

To repeat, this is no defense or Mr. Trump. He chose his words and bears responsibility for allowing himself to appear ill informed. How much different, though, might the week have been had Mr. Trump taken care to point out what we know from these formerly secret reports: that in August 2012, the Obama Administration including Secretary Clinton was warned about the emergence of what became ISIS—fully a year and a half before it ultimately happened—during the same month in which weapons were shipped to the region from Libya? Someone should have cautioned the Obama Administration at the time that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

“Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction,” wrote Lord Byron. But truth in the everyday sense of facts is not so strange, though facts may indeed tell a strange tale. Here, that strange tale is why warnings went unheeded while arms were brought in from Libya. That tale, however, is not the one Mr. Trump chose to tell. The documents cited here do not require interpretation: their plain meaning is quickly apparent.

If language is indeed code as Ferdinand de Saussure insisted, then we must wonder about a tendency to evade the informative in favor of raw emotional appeals. We heard one uncoded answer to that question from 50 senior Republican national security officials. It was not favorable to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump would do himself—and all of us—a great service by sticking to the truth, no matter how strange, and rejecting fiction, no matter how enticing.

Notes

[1] Karl Bühler identified these functions in his 1934 book Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache.

[2] Rich Lowry (2016). “Trump Wants to Make a Deal.” National Review [published online 13 May 2016]. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/435338/donald-trump-foreign-policy-everything-else-ambiguous-design. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[3] ” Donald Trump Calls Obama ‘Founder of ISIS’ and Says It Honors Him.” The New York Times [published online 10 August 2016]. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/us/politics/trump-rally.html. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[4] CNBC transcript 11 August 2016. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2016/08/11/trump_obamas_failed_policies_make_him_founder_of_isis.html. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[5] See: https://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[6] http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pgs.-1-3-2-3-from-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version1.pdf. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

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Wanting It Both Ways, Principled and Practical: U.S. Policy toward Thailand

The increased strain between the United States and Thailand, longtime allies in Southeast Asia, was evident during their 34th annual Cobra Gold military exercise last week.  The size of the U.S. contingent was noticeably smaller than a year earlier and the scope of the exercise was limited to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (normally it includes an amphibious landing component).  At the exercise’s opening ceremony, the U.S. representative directly commented on the “challenging” times that “has necessitated a modified Cobra Gold.”[1]

The reason for that strain was the American reaction to the Thai military’s coup d’état, which overthrew Thailand’s democratically-elected civilian government in May 2014.  From its perspective, the Thai military believed that it had little choice but to do so.  The civilian government was, at best, emptying the national coffers with an ill-conceived rice-payment scheme and, at worst, allowing (or even encouraging) the political paralysis that had already gripped the country for six months to continue.  Washington responded to the coup by suspending a symbolic $4.7 million in military aid and cancelling a number of joint military and law enforcement activities.

Southeast Asia Kunming Bangkok Singapore Railways

What made the American reaction all the more awkward was that the United States had been trying to bolster its relationship with Thailand.  Just a few years ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton envisioned that Thailand would be at the core of her Lower Mekong Initiative—a bid to boost American engagement with continental Southeast Asia.  Add to that the fact that those in Thailand who backed the coup (including most of its urban middle class and business elites) represent some of the country’s most pro-Western elements.  During the Cold War, the Thai military supported U.S. efforts to counter communism in Southeast Asia (when it was decidedly unpopular to do so) and even hosted 27,000 U.S. military personnel at seven of its bases—from which the U.S. air force flew strategic bombing missions over Vietnam.  Afterwards, the Thai military cooperated with the United States in its campaigns against drug smuggling and human trafficking in the region.

Hence, these elements of Thai society have seen the American sanctions, regardless of their size, as an affront.  They also bristled at the pointed criticism made by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel as an attempt to interfere with the internal affairs of Thailand.[2]  Despite earlier Thai military coups, the United States had not treated Thailand this way before.

China has been happy to capitalize on that Thai sentiment.  A month after the coup, China assured Bangkok that it would continue to support Thailand’s development and hosted a delegation of senior Thai military officials in Beijing.  China Mobile followed with a $900 million investment in a Bangkok telecommunications company.  But more importantly, China won approval for a new railway that will connect Kunming and Bangkok, through northeastern Thailand.  Once completed, that railway will tie Thailand’s economy (and interests) more closely to China, just as Thailand’s seaports had moved the country closer to the West in an earlier time.  Late last year, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former army chief who led the coup, urged Thais to “stop bickering” and look to China for inspiration.  In February 2015, he agreed to strengthen Thailand’s military ties with China over the next five years.[3]

Of course, Prayuth may simply be making the point to the United States that it should not take Thailand for granted.  Still, he has opened the door for China to make real inroads into Thailand’s economy and politics.  Concerned about growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, Japan appears to have rushed into the breach opened by the United States.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe flew to Bangkok early last week to emphasize Japan’s continued interest in Thailand and pledge Japanese support in developing the country’s rail networks and promoting its joint venture with Myanmar, the Dawei Special Economic Zone.[4]

The clarity of Japan’s approach to Thailand stands in contrast to the awkwardness of U.S. policy toward the country.  To some extent, that was unavoidable.  Washington wants it both ways.  It wants to preserve its practical interests in the region.  But it also wants to make a principled stand for democracy.  The problem for the United States is that its principled stand may come at the expense of its practical interests, particularly its strategic ones (as happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring).

Ultimately, Washington hopes that Thailand’s military will restore the country’s democracy; and American relations with Bangkok can return to what they were before the coup.  But doing so essentially leaves the future direction of U.S. policy in the hands of Thai military leaders.  Plus, the longer it takes them to restore Thailand’s democracy, the more opportunity China will have to change the facts on the ground.  With new trade routes already being built through Laos and Cambodia, the direction of Thai trade (and interests) have already begun to be drawn away from its southern ports to the West towards its northern roads (and future railways) to China.

By levying some minor sanctions against Thailand but carrying on with a scaled-down Cobra Gold exercise, Washington might have believed that it struck the right balance between promoting democratic principles and preserving practical American interests.  Perhaps there were few better ways to reconcile the two in this case.  But it does demonstrate to Southeast Asia how unreliable the United States can be as a long-term partner.  Making principled stands regardless of their practical consequences are a luxury.  The United States could afford to make such stands in the unipolar world of the 1990s.  But it is less wise to do so today, especially if they leave the United States beholden to events beyond its control or leave it in a weakened state.

[1] “Cobra Gold 2015 Opening Remarks by W. Patrick Murphy, Chargé d’affaires,” U.S. Embassy, Bangkok, Feb. 9, 2015, http://bangkok.usembassy.gov/020915_cda_cg15remarks.html.

[2] Prangthong Jitcharoenkul, “Foreign Ministry summons US over visiting diplomat’s comments,” Bangkok Post, Jan. 28, 2015, http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/461168/foreign-ministry-summons-us-over-visiting-diplomat-comments; Amy Sawitta Lefevre, “Thailand warns U.S. to mind its own business over politics,” Reuters, Jan. 28, 2015.

[3] Amy Sawitta Lefevre, “Thailand boosts military ties with China amid U.S. spat,” Reuters, Feb. 6, 2015.

[4] Masaaki Kameda, “Abe, Thai junta leader agree to cooperate on railway development, special economic zone,” Japan Times, Feb. 9, 2015.

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