Old Questions and Few Answers as Japan’s Abe and Obama Discuss Asia Security Tensions

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Toru Hanai / REUTERS

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his official residence on Jan. 19, 2013

On Shinzo Abe’s first trip to the U.S. as Japan’s Prime Minister, the key issues included the rise of China, North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons and whether Japan would revise its constitution to allow a standing military. The year was 2007, the U.S. President was George W. Bush and the global economy had yet to begin its spectacular implosion. Since then Japan has had five Prime Ministers, but as Abe, who resumed his country’s top office in December, visited Washington again Friday, the agenda was remarkably similar to what he discussed with President Obama’s predecessor six years ago.

“Prime Minister Abe himself is no stranger to the United States. I think he and I studied in California around the same time, and this is not his first visit to the Oval Office,” Obama said Friday, before listing security issues and economic cooperation as some of the key topics of their meeting. While many of the issues have remained the same, Abe’s approach has shown a dramatic shift, particularly when it comes to China. While Abe has long advocated a muscular Japanese foreign policy, he spent much of his first term in office trying to ease regional tensions. He made his first overseas trip as Prime Minister to China and didn’t visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of Japanese war dead — and most controversially 14 class-A war criminals — are enshrined. That helped ease tensions with China and South Korea, which were occupied by Japan during World War II and were infuriated by repeated visits to the shrine by Junichiro Koizumi during his 2001-to-’06 term as Prime Minister.

Sino-Japanese tensions are inflamed once again, this time over a group of uninhabited islets northeast of Taiwan known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese. Japan’s annexed the islets in 1895, and following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the U.S. administered them until 1972, when they were handed back to Japan. China argues that the Diaoyu were originally Chinese territory and should have been returned to its control. Last year, after Tokyo’s right-wing governor Shintaro Ishihara said he wanted the municipality to purchase the islands from the Japanese family that owned them for 40 years, Japan’s central government stepped in, buying three of the islands with the hope that it could manage them in a less provocative manner than the nationalist Ishihara.

China was furious that Japan’s purchase had changed the uneasy status quo that had existed for decades. Protests erupted in Beijing and other large Chinese cities, and China began near daily patrols by its civilian maritime and fisheries ships and aircraft in waters near the islets. Japan says that in January, Chinese navy ships twice used targeting radar to lock onto Japanese defense-forces craft in the East China Sea, moves that can prelude an attack. Japan protested the use of targeting radar, and China strongly denied the incident.

The unstated goal of China’s escalating patrols is to force Japan to acknowledge the Diaoyu are disputed territory, which Tokyo has so far refused to officially admit. The U.S. government doesn’t take a position on the sovereignty dispute but says that because the islands are presently administered by Japan, they fall under a defense treaty that could call for U.S. military involvement in the event of armed conflict. Many Chinese observers have questioned the U.S. position, saying that by recognizing Japan’s administration and even using the Japanese pronunciation of the islands’ name means it is hardly a neutral player. On Friday, Abe argued that the alliance would help prevent tensions from worsening. “Concerning the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, we agree that the very existence of the Japan-U.S. alliance is a stabilizing factor, which contributes to peace and stability of the region,” he told reporters.

The escalating Sino-Japanese tensions have prompted some concerns that the Diaoyu dispute could, 100 years after World War I, set off a similar devastating armed conflict. Certainly some parallels exist with the great conflagration that tore apart Europe. China, like Germany before, is a rising economic and military power that craves greater respect and global influence. It is engaged in disputes with several of its neighbors over islands that it says are rightly its territory. Japan’s defense treaty with the U.S. only increases the risk that a small incident at sea could, like the assassination of a little known archduke in 1914, lead to a broader war.

But just as there is a risk of ignoring history, there’s a risk at being trapped by it. While the Sino-Japanese conflict is very real and worrying, it does not necessarily mean a new world war. “I don’t put much stock in the recent claims or arguments that the China-Japan dispute is somehow analogous to the start of World War I,” says M. Taylor Fravel, a China expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I do believe the situation is dangerous, and such analogies may help bring attention to the dangers. Nevertheless, we are most likely not on the cusp of a war involving all the major powers of the world for dominance over a region. This is a conflict over rather limited aims.”

An all-out conflict would harm both sides, with China and Japan — the world’s second and third largest economies, respectively — suffering significant economic loses, says Linda Jakobson, East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. “I fear a naval or air incident that leads to loss of life, which in today’s world could not be kept secret, would ignite national sentiments to a much higher degree than we’ve seen so far,” she says. “That would really box in the leaders of each side and drastically curtail maneuvering room.” And while China’s military clout is growing rapidly — it’s posted double-digit budget increases for much of the past two decades and recently launched its first aircraft carrier — it hasn’t been tested in combat since a short, bloody border war with Vietnam in 1979. An unsuccessful military campaign could have serious repercussions for the Communist Party’s hold on power, its overriding priority.

In an interview with the Washington Post before his trip to meet Obama, Abe complained that Chinese schools teach a form of patriotism that promotes “anti-Japanese sentiment.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Friday that China was “strongly dissatisfied with the Japanese leader’s comments that distort facts, attack and defame China and stir up confrontations between the two countries.”

Meanwhile in the waters northeast of Taiwan, the dispute over the islets continued this week as a Japanese fishing-boat captain said his ship was pursued by three Chinese maritime surveillance vessels on Feb. 18, according to reports from Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper and Tomas Etzler, a Czech television correspondent who was on the Japanese vessel. On Friday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga complained that China’s State Maritime Administration had installed buoys near the islets, the New York Times reported. War may still be a distant prospect but so too is a solution.