The Big Chill: Domestic Insecurities and Sino-Japanese Relations

China and Japan sparred once again, this time at the United Nations.  Last week, China’s ambassador for disarmament affairs charged Japan with amassing excessive amounts of sensitive nuclear materials, notably 1,200 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium and 48 tons of separated plutonium (of which about a quarter is stored on Japanese territory).  That is sufficient, he claimed, for Japan to make 1,350 nuclear warheads.  Japan’s disarmament envoy shot back that his country’s nuclear program has safely operated under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards for more than 50 years.  He added that over that time Japan has consistently demonstrated its peaceful intentions and would not pose a threat to other countries.[1]  Given that he directed his response at China’s ambassador, one may have also taken it as a reminder of China’s recent aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas.

Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping at APEC 2014

The pointed exchange marked another episode in the downward path of relations between China and Japan.  It was not so long ago both countries got along.  Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, they enjoyed ever closer economic ties.  Many blame the current deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations on the tensions that arose over Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in 2010 or Tokyo’s purchase of them from private Japanese owners in 2012.  Certainly trade between the two countries has fallen ever since then.  (See table.)  But the dispute over the islands was just the spark.  China and Japan have substantially changed over the last two decades, both in absolute and relative terms.  Both countries have developed domestic insecurities that led them to view each other with greater concern.

On the surface, China does not seem to have any cause for insecurity.  Its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is ostensibly at the pinnacle of its power.  The government at which it is the head has presided over a 35-year economic expansion that has made China the envy of the developing world.  It is even doling out largesse under the auspices of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that will likely expand its influence across Asia and Africa.

Yet the CCP has reason to be anxious.  In its headlong push for economic growth, it often ignored public ire over government land grabs, pollution, and workers’ rights.  The party’s widespread corruption further dented its credibility.  Hence, despite the CCP’s best efforts to eliminate organized dissent, the number of public protests has recently risen.[2]  Meanwhile, China’s fast-rising economy, once the CCP’s shining achievement, is losing its luster amid sagging exports, bursting property bubbles, and rapidly mounting debts.  Seen in that light, China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and AIIB begin to look more like a worried search for growth abroad (and work for its infrastructure-building companies) than a coherent strategy to connect Eurasia’s economies.

Adding to the CCP’s unease is the ever-smaller number of true believers in its Marxist-Leninist ideology.  Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to promote Marxism have fallen flat.  So, the CCP has returned to nationalism to bolster its popular appeal.  A big part of that has always been showcasing the CCP as China’s savior from Japanese occupation (while largely omitting the role of Taiwan’s Kuomintang).  The CCP seems to believe that its ceaseless criticism of Japan proves that it still faithfully stands watch against any revival of Japanese militarism that could threaten China.

Linked to that narrative, the CCP has tried to show how much stronger China has become under its rule.  That was made clear in September when China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (and China’s victory over Japan) with a massive military parade in Beijing.  The martial display conveyed the message to the Chinese people that they should be confident in the ability of the CCP to not only defend China, but also govern it.  On the other hand, that Beijing felt the need to use such demonstrations of strength to dispel doubts about its political legitimacy probably worried its neighbors.

Meanwhile, across the Yellow Sea, Japan has grown insecure too.  It can no longer rest easy as Asia’s dominant economic power, a title that it lost to China a decade ago.  It is increasingly aware of its national vulnerabilities.  Japan’s population is ageing fast and shrinking.  That demographic shift not only has implications for every aspect of Japanese society, but also will make economic growth harder to achieve.  That is doubly concerning for Japan, which is still struggling to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.

Japanese leaders are all too well aware that China’s rise is remaking the regional hierarchy in Asia.  They realize that Japan cannot afford to remain forever quiescent, if it is to avoid being consigned to a subordinate role in the new order.  That has compounded Japan’s sense of unease, because Japan knows that it must keep the power gap between China and Japan from growing wider, even though it now has fewer resources with which to do so.  Fortunately for Japan, other Asian countries have begun to feel the same way.  India, the Philippines, and Vietnam have all embraced Japan.

Tokyo has taken advantage of that sentiment and become far more diplomatically active across the region, if only to prevent China from consolidating its power there.  As Xi has pushed China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has never been far away.  Abe has travelled to Southeast Asia numerous times to ink economic, political, and even a few military cooperation agreements.  Last week, Abe began a five-country tour through Central Asia, which lies at the heart of China’s “One Road.”  A week earlier, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force dispatched a destroyer to participate in naval drills with India and the United States in the Indian Ocean for the first time.

Meanwhile, there has been a generational change in Japan.  Older Japanese who had been willing to accept Japan’s diminished international stature as penance for its militarist past are passing from the scene.  Younger Japanese who have no connection with that past believe that their country has proven itself to be a responsible actor in world affairs.  Today, a majority of Japanese believe that Japan has sufficiently apologized for its military actions during the 1930s and 1940s, which China relishes reminding Japan of at every turn.  Unsurprisingly, recent polls showed that only 7 percent of Japanese viewed China favorably (down from 55 percent in 2002).  Even more telling, China’s very unfavorable rating in Japan climbed to 48 percent.[3]

The domestic insecurities of China and Japan are unlikely to abate soon.  China’s insecurities, bound up with those of the CCP, will grow if the Chinese economy continues to slow.  Japan’s insecurities are tied to its long-term demographic trends.  Both sets of insecurities continue to drive a wedge between the two countries.  Even the non-governmental Beijing-Tokyo Forum, whose primary purpose is to improve Sino-Japanese relations, has found it harder to reach a consensus.  The forum, which invites high-level former government officials from both countries, has always managed to eke out a joint statement, even during particularly testy times in Sino-Japanese relations like 2012.  This week it concluded without managing even that.  For the moment, relations between China and Japan are on ice.  The region should be grateful that the latest row between the two countries occurred inside the United Nations and not out in the East China Sea.

[1] “China Slams Japan’s Plutonium Stockpile, Frets About Nuke Armament,” Japan Bullet, October 21, 2015.

[2] See China Labor Bulletin.

[3] Pew Research Center, “Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image,” July 2014; Pew Research Center, “America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s,” July 2013.

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U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?

At times, it seemed as though the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would go on interminably.  Begun in 2010, the TPP evolved from the four-country Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement to encompass twelve Asia-Pacific countries, including the United States.  It would eventually take five years for the trade representatives from those countries to hammer out an agreement, the final terms of which were settled on Monday morning.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Member Countries

Over the coming months, much will be said, both for and against, the possible economic and social implications of the TPP as it is debated in the legislatures of its twelve member countries before it can be enacted.  But the TPP also carries with it strategic implications—not only for its smaller members, but also for its largest, the United States.  American interest in the TPP began during the last year of President George W. Bush’s tenure.  But it was the administration of President Barack Obama that moved the TPP to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.  So important has the TPP become that Obama persuaded his political opponents in the U.S. Congress to award him “fast-track” trade promotion authority, so that American trade representatives could assure their counterparts from other countries that the U.S. legislative body would not tinker with the specific terms of the trade agreement once it was reached.

Strategically, the United States has come to see the TPP as critical to its long-term security in the Asia-Pacific.  It helps to ensure that, even with China’s rise, countries around the rim of the Pacific Ocean would have economic incentives to pursue strong relationships with the United States.  As that line of thinking goes, the more closely the trade interests of the TPP’s twelve member countries are aligned, the more closely their economies will integrate and, ultimately, the more likely their political outlooks will align.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States is also pursuing a trade agreement similar to the TPP with the countries of Europe called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP.

That line of thinking is not lost on either China or Russia.  While China chose not to participate in the TPP to avoid more pressure to remove its many trade barriers, it pushed for another (less onerous) trade agreement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, which did not include the United States.  China has also championed its own form of economic integration, called the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (tying together China’s land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and sea-based “Maritime Silk Road” efforts).  That initiative has sought to knit together the various economies along the ancient Silk Road between China and Europe.  Beijing even created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year, in part, to support the construction of the trade infrastructure needed to facilitate that integration.

For its part, Russia has tried to cobble together the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) from the countries that were once parts of the Soviet Union.  Russia has pursued the economic integration of the former Soviet republics as a way to not only expand its market space, but also strengthen its sphere of influence over them.  While most of the former Soviet republics could not ignore the economic potential of the EEU, they have been cautious about their participation in it.  Even Kazakhstan, an early supporter of the EEU, has repeatedly stressed that the EEU should remain an economic, rather than a political, grouping.  As can be expected, most former Soviet republics are protective of their new-found sovereignty.  And so, they are keenly sensitive to any Russian scheme that may absorb them into a reconstituted empire, particularly in light of what has happened to Ukraine’s Crimea and Donetsk provinces.

But lest we are to believe that closer trade and economic ties will inevitably lead to closer political alignment, history provides plenty of examples where that failed to happen.  One cannot say that closer economic integration between the European Union and Russia has brought the two to a more closely aligned political outlook.  Instead, they have used their respective trade dependencies on one another as weapons against one another in their political clash over Ukraine.

In the Asia-Pacific, one needs to look no further than the experience of China and Japan.  In the 1990s, Japanese companies led the multinational charge to set up outsourced factories and develop new markets in China.  In 1999 the two countries did $66 billion in bilateral trade.  By 2011 that figure climbed to $345 billion.  The two economies became increasingly integrated, with China more reliant on Japan for industrial machinery and Japan more reliant on China for consumer goods.  But then tensions over the Senkaku Islands, which began in late 2010, boiled over in 2012 and sparked anti-Japanese riots in China.  Tensions have run high ever since, cooling their economic relationship.  Every year after 2011 trade between the two countries has fallen.  Last year their bilateral trade slipped to $309 billion; the trade figures for August 2015 suggest that this year’s total will be lower still (indeed it is on track for a steep decline).  Rising costs in China and a stagnant Japanese economy surely contributed too, but they cannot fully explain the drop, given China’s continued, albeit slower, economic growth.

China Japan Bilateral Trade in Goods

The causal logic that closer trade and economic ties will lead to closer political alignment could be turned on its head.  One could argue that it is when political outlooks are aligned that closer economic integration often seems desirable (and also that when political outlooks are in conflict that economic integration often seems dangerous).  That is not to say that the TPP is not a worthy accomplishment; it is.  But the United States should be wary of relying too heavily on the TPP to ensure its security in the Asia-Pacific.  Even if the U.S. Senate ratifies the trade agreement, the United States should continue to actively pursue other strategic initiatives in the region with equal verve.

[1] Japan External Trade Organization, Japanese Trade and Investment Statistics, 1999-2015.

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Chinese Submarines and Indian ASW in the Indian Ocean

How to deal with Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean has become a practical question for India.  In December 2013, China let it be known that one of its nuclear attack submarines would sail through the Indian Ocean over the following two months.  It was the first time that China confirmed such a transit.  At the time, many thought it would be a relatively rare occurrence.  But over the last couple of months, two more submarines appear to have made similar transits, after they were spotted making five-day long port calls in Sri Lanka.

On September 19, a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine and its attendant Type 925 submarine support ship, the Changxing Dao, docked at the Colombo International Container Terminals for refueling and crew refreshment before the submarine set sail for the international anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden.  Six weeks later, on October 31, there was another port call by a Chinese submarine and the Changxing Dao at the same facility.  Whether that port call was made by the same Song-class submarine which visited earlier or by a Han-class nuclear attack submarine, as some reports have indicated, remains unclear due to a lack of photos associated with its visit to Colombo.

Indian Ocean - China and India

Either way, the two port calls suggested that China might send more submarines (and with greater frequency) into the Indian Ocean in the future.  Naturally, that has heightened Indian concerns about Chinese power in the region.  But even more troubling to India was Sri Lanka’s readiness to welcome those submarines, in spite of Indian reservations.  After the first port call, New Delhi expressed to Colombo its concerns about such submarines visiting Sri Lankan ports.  Colombo dismissed India’s qualms, contending that Chinese submarines were no different than the other 230 foreign warships that visited Sri Lanka this year.  Many Indian observers saw the rebuff as a sign that Sri Lanka had decided to cozy up to China.  A few even argued that Sri Lanka had violated the 1987 peace accord between it and India in which Colombo agreed that its ports would “not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.”

As to why the port calls occurred at all, some speculated that they were a response to India’s growing military relationship with Vietnam, a country locked in a dispute with China over the sovereignty of the South China Sea.  India has already become Vietnam’s principal military training partner, providing spare parts for Vietnam’s warships and training Vietnamese sailors in submarine operations.  In fact, India and Vietnam signed an agreement to engage in even closer military cooperation just days before the first port call.

The port calls also lent credence to long-held Indian suspicions of a Chinese scheme to encircle India through the development of military and economic ties with countries across the Indian Ocean.  Indian commentators have often pointed to the proliferation of Chinese infrastructure projects in the region as the manifestation of those ties, and collectively referred to the projects as China’s “string of pearls.”  Notably, the Colombo International Container Terminals facility (where the Chinese submarines docked) was one of those projects.  This year, China put its own name on its infrastructure-building efforts in the region: the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative.  Two weeks ago Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China would set up a $40 billion fund to support that initiative as well as contribute billions more to a new Asian infrastructure investment bank.  Both are designed to foster new building projects across South and Southeast Asia.  Both are also likely to further stoke India’s sense of unease over Chinese intentions.

No doubt Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean would complicate India’s naval situation in the Indian Ocean.  To reduce the danger from Chinese diesel-electric attack submarines, the Indian navy could step up its monitoring of Chinese submarine support ships and the region’s ports, which those submarines need to periodically refuel.  But Chinese nuclear attack submarines would pose a bigger challenge, as they do not need to refuel.  If supplied with timely intelligence, such submarines could put at risk Indian shipping throughout the region.

Already, the Indian navy has begun to prepare for that possibility.  But its planning has labored under a series of naval accidents in recent years, the deadliest of which occurred in August 2013 when an explosion aboard one of its Kilo-class submarines, the Sindhurakshak, killed 18 sailors.  At the same time, the navy continues to experience delays in its procurement of new warships and refit of its existing ones.  Between 2005 and 2010, 113 out of its 152 refit projects were late.  Many of them were combat platforms used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW).  But equally important are those platforms designed to search for and detect an adversary’s submarines.

While India’s land-based ASW helicopters and short-range maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), like its 14 Do 228 aircraft, are valuable to protect its key ports, the Indian navy must use long-range aviation assets to patrol the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean.  Historically, that mission has fallen to the navy’s handful of Soviet-vintage prop-driven aircraft.  Its four Tu-142M MPAs based at Rajali naval air station are responsible for the waters off India’s east coast; and its five Il-38 MPAs based at Hansa naval air station for the waters off its west coast.  But both sets of aircraft are showing their age.  Even setting aside the quality of their ASW sensors and the quantity of sonobuoys and weapons they can carry, the aircraft themselves are relatively slow compared to modern MPAs.  That is an important factor, given the long distances they need to cover in the Indian Ocean.

Hence, it was significant that the Indian navy began to upgrade its long-range MPA fleet in late 2008.  At that time, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta explained the need for better “maritime domain awareness and network-centric operations along with a reliable stand-off deterrent” to deal with China’s naval rise.  That approach was reflected in India’s purchase of twelve P-8I MPAs from the United States.  Based on the Boeing 737 jet airliner, the P-8I provides the Indian navy with not only a more capable suite of ASW sensors and weapons, but also greater speed.  The aircraft has a cruising speed over 100 miles per hour faster than India’s current MPA fleet, allowing it to better prosecute any submarines that it detects at longer ranges.[1]

Long-range detection and prosecution are important if the Indian navy is to conduct ASW on an oceanic scale.  Fortunately for India, geography helps to some extent.  The eastern approaches into the Indian Ocean are funneled through narrow straits created by the Indonesian archipelago.  The most significant of these are the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits.  They offer Chinese submarines the most direct routes from their bases in southern China, particularly a major new one at Yalong Bay, into the Indian Ocean.  Naturally, the Indian navy would want to monitor those straits for the passage of Chinese submarines.

However, the Indian navy must watch its western flank too.  There, Pakistan—China’s “all-weather friend”—has drawn ever closer to Beijing in the wake of America’s scaled back engagement from Afghanistan.  Recently, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa went so far as to say that “Pakistan sees China’s enemies as their own.”  Though his comment was directed at China’s Xinjiang militants, it also raised eyebrows in India, which has had a long history of conflict with Pakistan.  Hence, the Indian navy must also have ASW resources ready to counter the possibility that Chinese submarines may use a Pakistani port as a base of operations or that Pakistan’s five French-built Agosta-class diesel-electric attack submarines may even sortie in support of China.

Considering these strategic parameters, we can gauge the number of long-range ASW aviation assets that India would need to conduct oceanic ASW in the Indian Ocean.  We can assess that the Indian navy would have to establish at least two ASW barrier patrols along the eastern and western peripheries of the region (as well as keep a sufficient reserve for escort duty).  Given an operational readiness rate of 75 percent, we can then estimate that India would require a force of 40 to 48 long-range MPAs, likely divided into five or six squadrons of eight aircraft.[2]

The Indian navy could assign three of these MPA squadrons to its Eastern Naval Command, which would likely operate them from not only Rajali, but also Utkrosh naval air station in the Andaman Islands.  From these bases, it could use one squadron to establish an ASW barrier patrol at the western exit of the Malacca Strait and a second squadron to do the same further south, closer to the exits of the Sunda and Lombok Straits.  Finally, it could use a third squadron to support its surface fleet operations.  On the other side of the Indian subcontinent, the navy could assign the other two or three MPA squadrons to its Western and Southern Naval Commands to monitor the western approaches to India’s coast as well as the waters around Sri Lanka for submarine activity.

No one said that oceanic ASW was going to be easy or inexpensive.  But Asia’s changing strategic environment has begun to force India to reassess the kinds of resources that it will need to maintain its naval position in the Indian Ocean.  Given the pace of China’s military modernization, India would do well to mobilize those resources faster.

[1] Gulshan Luthra, “Indian Navy to induct 24 Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft,” India Strategic, Dec. 2011; Rahul Bedi, “Indian naval head warns of Chinese military challenge,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 12, 2009; Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy (New Delhi: Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), May 2007), p. v.

[2] With a 75 percent readiness rate, each squadron would have six of its eight aircraft operational.  To maintain an effective ASW barrier patrol, two MPAs would constantly need to be on station.  Another two aircraft would be flying to or from the patrol area, and the last pair would be on the ground, preparing for their next patrol.

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Contested Border: China, India, and the Asian Century

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to India last week was supposed to have breathed new life into ties between Asia’s two giants, China and India.  It was the first visit to India by a Chinese president in eight years.  Many hoped it would reboot what was once heralded as the “Asian Century.”  Implicit in that hope was the belief that good relations between the two countries would have to develop to realize the potential of such a century.  On that score, Xi assured his host, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that China believed its neighbors would be vital to its wellbeing, after all “a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually perish.”

That assurance was needed, because during Xi’s visit to India, Chinese troops twice crossed into territory that India claims as its own.  One incident began near Chumar about a week before Xi’s arrival.  Chinese forces brought heavy construction equipment and workers into the area with the intention to build a new road there.  Indian troops confronted them and a standoff ensued.  Meanwhile, another incident developed at nearby Demchok, where over a hundred Chinese nomads gathered to protest India’s construction of an irrigation canal that they believed was on Chinese soil.  Thirty Chinese soldiers accompanied the protesters.  Local Indian authorities dispatched 70 border policemen to the scene.  That created a second standoff.  Both then escalated during Xi’s visit.  At their height, about 800 Chinese troops and 1,500 Indian troops were deployed to the areas.  No doubt, the incidents gave Modi something to talk about with Xi during their time together.

China India Asian Century - Border Dispute over Chumar and Demchok

In public, however, Modi and Xi tried to downplay the border incidents.  For Modi, the visit was a chance to attract Chinese investment into Indian infrastructure and manufacturing projects.  For China, it was an opportunity to pry India away from the overtures of Japan and the United States.  A number of agreements were signed.  The two sides agreed to jointly study improving India’s railway system, ease the trade imbalance between them, and cooperate on developing a new economic corridor through South Asia.  China pledged that it would invest $20 billion into India over the next five years, of which $6.8 billion would go into building two new industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra.  In a speech at the end of his visit, Xi contended that “only when the China-India relationship develops, will a real ‘Asian Century’ emerge.”

Nevertheless, many issues still split the two countries.  Their disputed border is only one of them, albeit a particularly thorny one.  In the first nine months of 2014, India recorded 344 Chinese border incursions.  Seventeen rounds of negotiations between the two governments since the 1990s have done little to settle the issue.  But even without the border dispute, there were still other instances of friction between the two countries in just the last week that would have taken some of the shine off of Xi’s visit.

On September 15, India agreed to extend to Vietnam a $100 million export credit for defense equipment that Hanoi has been busily acquiring to counter China.  As if that was not enough, India’s state-owned national energy company, OGNC, signed an agreement with its Vietnamese counterpart, PetroVietnam, to expand their cooperation in oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its maritime territory.  That prompted China’s foreign ministry to warn India against entering into any deals that infringe on China’s territorial claims in those waters.

Similarly, India remains suspicious of Chinese intentions regarding its neighbors in South Asia.  Over the last decade, China has financed and built a string of major port and airport infrastructure projects in places like Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.  Now, China has announced its “Maritime Silk Road” initiative in the region, which echoes its “New Silk Road” effort in Central Asia.  Indeed, prior to arriving in India, Xi was pushing the new initiative in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  India has naturally grown concerned that China might challenge it as the dominant power in the region.  Last week, the Maldives only fanned those concerns when it gave a highly lucrative contract to manage its international airport to a Chinese company, after taking it away from an Indian one in 2010.

During Xi’s visit, Modi suggested that their two countries should put the past behind them.  Unfortunately, the present looks little better than the past.  The twenty-first century may well be remembered as an Asian one.  But one should not assume that an “Asian Century” will necessarily lead to prosperity and renewal, as Xi implied.  Europe dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Both were known as much for the conflicts and rivalries among European powers as for their economic development.

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