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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

China’s ADIZ over the South China Sea: Whole, Partial, or None

Ever since China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in late 2013, many wondered whether China would do the same over its claims in the South China Sea. Early this year, the United States began to publicly warn China that it would not recognize a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea. Given the timing of its admonition, Washington seemed like it was preparing for a Chinese reaction to a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on a Philippine case against China’s South China Sea claims, which is expected in May.

South China Sea Claims
South China Sea Claims

China’s declaration of an ADIZ over the East China Sea caught many off guard. Perhaps to prevent a recurrence, the United States chose to signal China in advance. Naturally, China’s defense ministry retorted that Beijing had every right to establish an ADIZ over the South China Sea. After all, Beijing considers the area within its “nine-dash line” claim to be sovereign Chinese territory. Yet the ministry’s spokesman was quick to add that China had no plans to set up such an ADIZ.[1]

Apart from placating the United States, there are other reasons why China might hold off from establishing an ADIZ over the South China Sea. They deal with Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) most influential members. Whereas China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea could narrowly target Japan, a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea would impact not only China’s two main antagonists there, namely the Philippines and Vietnam, but also all of the other disputants in the region, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

For decades, Malaysia has played down its dispute with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Rather than confront China, as the Philippines and Vietnam have, Malaysia has tried to use quiet diplomacy to persuade China of the benefits of a multilateral resolution to the region’s conflicting claims. That strategy reached its high point in 2002 when China signed ASEAN’s non-binding declaration of conduct in the South China Sea. Although China has since violated the declaration’s terms, Malaysia has stuck to its strategy. Even after China twice held amphibious exercises off Malaysian-claimed James Shoal, only 80 km from Malaysia’s coast, Malaysia chose not to escalate tensions with China.

Similarly, Indonesia has minimized its dispute with China. So much so that Indonesian diplomats routinely repeat that their country has no territorial dispute with China. Though technically true—the two countries have no land features in dispute—what they do have is a maritime dispute. China’s nine-dash line claim encompasses some of Indonesia’s richest offshore oil and natural gas fields. (See hatched area on map.) Plus, China has increasingly made its presence known in the area. Just last month, two Chinese coast guard vessels again clashed with an Indonesian fishing boat. Such incidents have alarmed the Indonesian military. But Jakarta has hesitated from providing it with the resources needed to strengthen its defenses near the Natuna Islands.

A Chinese ADIZ over the whole South China Sea would definitely infringe on the claims of both Malaysia and Indonesia. That would be difficult for China to explain away. It would also run counter to China’s long-time strategy in the South China Sea. For years, China has sought to divide its Southeast Asian opponents and convince them to individually settle their disputes with it. A Chinese ADIZ over the whole South China Sea does little to achieve those ends. Rather, it could do the opposite. It would put Malaysia and Indonesia in the same boat as the Philippines and Vietnam, pushing them together. Moreover, such an ADIZ would undercut those who believe that by taking a less combative approach toward China their countries can avoid its assertiveness in the region.

On the other hand, if China declared an ADIZ over the northern half of the South China Sea—overlapping only the claims of the Philippines and Vietnam—it could reasonably argue that its aim was only to protect itself from airborne intrusions from those two countries. Both are building stronger air forces to counter China. That would at least encourage some in Malaysia and Indonesia. Still, a partial Chinese ADIZ would likely make many others uneasy that China could someday extend its ADIZ further.

Given the potential for an ADIZ (whether whole or partial) to unify ASEAN’s core states against it, China has good reason to be cautious. Ultimately, a Chinese ADIZ could create more problems for China than it solves. It could push Malaysia off the fence or turn Indonesia into a full-fledged disputant. It could also make it harder for surrounding countries, like Australia and Japan, to give China the benefit of the doubt. Finally, it would likely undermine the goodwill that China has been trying to generate across Southeast Asia through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

More broadly, a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea would mark a real change in China’s approach to not only its maritime dispute, but also East Asia. It means that China has become confident enough to act, regardless of the international consequences. If so, China will have indeed stood up. But it might learn that standing up can expose one to stiffer headwinds.

[1] “China says no need to ‘gesticulate’ over South China Sea plans,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,