Does Abe Consider Obama a Lame Duck?

01.31.14
Pete SouzaPete Souza
World News /31 Jan 2014
01.31.14

Does Abe Consider Obama a Lame Duck?

And is Joe Biden the Designated Whipping Boy?

There has always been an implicit contradiction between Shinzo Abe’s declared desire to “bring Japan back” and the US wish to lead “Free Asia.” The divergence of aims has been obscured by the eagerness of the US defense establishment to encourage Japan’s increasing heft as a “security” “defense” “active pacifist”; well, let’s just say “military” power, in order to add to the credibility of US hegemony in the Western Pacific, and Japan’s awareness that US military backing – if properly exploited by invoking the US-Japan Security Treaty – can give Japan a significant leg up in its confrontation with the People’s Republic of China.

The Abe administration has performed exactly as desired by American military strategists, both in its willingness, nay eagerness to build up its military and endorse the concept of “collective self defense,” and on the highly contentious issue of shoving the Futenma airbase relocation down the throats of the resisting Okinawan people by a combination of financial blandishments and crude political pressure. However, there are signs that the are tensions in the US-Japan romance, largely because the Obama administration is serious about exploiting the potential of its “honest broker” role to carve out a role for itself as the even-handed interlocutor between Japan and China – a role that the PRC is encouraging in order to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington – and is therefore not giving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the full-throated support that he believes he needs and deserves.

Also, the Abe administration may consider the current moderate Asia policy of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry to be a fleeting, transitory dream of an administration entering its lame-duck phase, to be carefully defied in expectation of a more militant and pro-Japanese successor.

One of the less-noted ramifications of US Asia policy has been the marked divergence between US and Japanese responses to the Chinese declaration of its air defense identification zone or ADIZ in the East China Sea. Prime Minister Abe immediately jumped into Churchillian “this shall not stand” rhetoric and declared that no Japanese aircraft – including Japanese civilian carriers that had already declared their intention of complying with the Chinese declaration – would respect the ADIZ.

The United States, perhaps conscious that it maintains a ferociously defended ADIZ over North America, decided to defy the ADIZ only to affirm the right of United States military aircraft to fly anywhere they wanted outside of Chinese airspace, and sent two B-52s lumbering over from Guam into the ADIZ unannounced. The United States, however, did not recommend that US civilian carriers ignore the ADIZ. South Korea took advantage of the ruckus to expand its own ADIZ, which it apparently has been trying to do for a long time, gained the acquiescence of the PRC, and it appears that ROK civilian carriers now respect the zone.

This left Japan pretty much out on a limb by itself, a state of affairs that the Western press tactfully decided to ignore but that seems to have awakened some resentment towards the United States, perhaps by the Abe administration and certainly by its confront-China sympathizers in the US. Although Prime Minister Abe had failed to summon up a united front against the PRC over the ADIZ, he took another crack at it at the global elite confab in Davos, Switzerland. International affairs boffin Ian Bremmer and a suspiciously large contingent of think-tank poobahs were primed to love the speech (the text of which was, by Davos practice, not made available to the common herd), and they did.

First, according to Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group:

And Prime Minister Abe just came, he gave a great speech. Folks are optimistic about the economy. The one part of the speech that people were really concerned about was Japan-China. And understandably. He’s criticizing the Chinese as being aggressive and militaristic. He compared Japan-China relations explicitly to relations between Germany and the UK in 1914, where the economic relations were good but the security tensions, let’s say, were not so good. And we saw what happened there. I wouldn’t say that Abe was directly raising the specter of war, but he was saying that China is acting in a manner that’s unacceptable and Japan won’t tolerate it.

Bremmer also implied that the PRC was taking advantage of a certain lack of American testicular fortitude on the China question:

So clearly the Chinese want to engage with Americans in a serious way. There are a lot of reasons for that. The US economy is picking up. But also they see a window here because all of the hawks on China are gone from the US administration. Hillary’s gone, [former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs] Kurt Campbell’s gone, [former Treasury secretary Timothy] Geithner, much more focused on this region, is gone, and [former National Security Advisor Thomas] Donilon’s gone. And so they see an opportunity with Biden effectively leading US-China relations right now to build the US-China relationship while really changing the rules on the ground with Japan.

Contemporaneously, two worthies from the Center for a New American Security, a “left of center” security think tank, declared their concern that peace might break out between the US and the PRC, and advocated for heightened tensions instead, with an assist from Japan and other Asian allies:

US officials have been careful to avoid provoking a China that appears increasingly willing to flex its newfound military muscle. Perhaps that’s why Biden invoked his father’s advice in warning on the eve of his Beijing visit that “the only conflict that is worse than one that is intended is one that is unintended.” But an overemphasis on stability can be dangerous.

The point is simply that a country with the power of the USSR or China, unsatisfied with features of the existing order, motivated to do something to change it, and skeptical of the resolve of the United States, could well pursue a policy of coercion and brinkmanship, even under the shadow of nuclear weapons.

[T]he United States needs to inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing’s calculus, even as it searches for ways to cooperate with China. This does not mean abandoning engagement or trying to contain China, let alone fomenting conflict. But it does mean communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think. China must understand that attempts to roil the waters could result in precisely the kinds of costs and conflicts it seeks to avoid.

To make this work, the United States should pursue policies that actually elevate the risks – political, economic, or otherwise – to Beijing of acting assertively. … [T]he US military needs capabilities and plans that not only prepare it for major war, but that also offer plausible, concrete options for responding to Chinese attempts to exploit America’s perceived aversion to instability. Leaders throughout Asia will be watching. Too much caution, especially if China is clearly the initiator, may be read as US weakness, thereby perpetuating rather than diminishing China’s incentives toward adventurism.

The United States can further raise the stakes by deepening its military ties with Japan…

Senator John McCain, whose confidant Roy Pflauch handles the Abe administration’s careful and extensive informal outreach to the American right wing, also invoked the 1914 analogy during the confirmation hearings for new ambassador to the PRC, Max Baucus, an indication perhaps that Abe’s allies in Washington are all determinedly singing from the same hymnal. Wow, looks like everybody’s ready to join Japan and stand up to China except that Chamberlain in VPOTUS clothing, Joe Biden! Well, almost everybody.

President Obama’s relations with Prime Minister Abe are considered cool at best. Abe, it should be pointed out, is an unreconstructed Cheneyite when it comes to admiration and emulation of Dick Cheney’s Manichean worldview, especially where it pertains to China. (In passing, it might be noted that Cheney’s loyal aide Scooter Libby introduced Abe for his September 2013 speech to the Hudson Institute). Abe has also been insistent in his quiet outreach to Republican, hawkish, and anti-Obama elements in Washington, most recently in an effort to obtain US acquiescence for his Yasukuni shrine visit, and, as a result, is reportedly no particular friend of the White House, let alone the amiable and often-maligned as “soft on everything” Joe Biden.

Maybe the Obama team did not appreciate the implication that they had to stand beside Japan right now! 1914! (I guess World War II analogies are a bit awkward) – in an anti-PRC alliance, or risk getting tarred with the brush of appeasement, and made its displeasure known. In any case, Abe quickly backpedaled on the 1914 analogy, lamely blaming the misunderstanding on an interpreter’s interpolation and going into full-court spin mode. He didn’t mean war was possible if the world didn’t stand up to China. He meant war was impossible! Per Japan Times:

The government has repeatedly said that what Abe wanted to convey is that a war between Japan and China is not possible because it would cause devastation not only to the two countries but to the world as a whole. “We will convey what the prime minister meant through diplomatic channels,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.

When meeting with journalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abe was asked whether a war between Japan and China is conceivable, and in response he compared the current tensions between the countries to the rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years before World War I. Abe called it a “similar situation,” according to the Financial Times and some other media.

By Friday morning, the government had briefed the BBC about Abe’s intention, a Foreign Ministry source said. The British public broadcaster was among the media outlets that were reporting intensely on the prime minister’s comments. Tokyo will also brief Reuters soon, the source said. Many media reports “left the impression that Abe had not denied (the possibility of) a military clash (between Japan and China) and this caused misapprehension,” a different government source said.

Then Abe jetted off to the welcoming environs of India, where he served as guest of honor at the Day of the Republic celebrations and concluded a passel of agreements – and there were no dissenting voices when it came to advancing an anti-PRC Japanese-Indian security alliance. The trip was apparently arranged at the last minute and at the cost of Abe missing the preparations for the opening of the Diet. One is free to speculate that his disappointment at the hands of the Obama administration provoked him to make a statement that Japan was not by any means solely reliant on its US patron to make its way in 21st century Asia.

Abe described the Japan-India relationship as “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.” Insert crying bald eagle graphic here, since it’s another indication that the Abe administration’s rejection of the “victor’s justice” of World War II is not just a matter of cheesing off China; it’s a rejection of US diplomatic and security tutelage and an announcement that Japan will give priority to pursuing its own interests, instead of sacrificing them as America’s loyal ally. The visit was marked by an Indian pundit writing in the Nikkei Asia Review and explicitly making the case for an Indian-Japanese alliance to contain China and, in fact, touted security ties as the most stable foundation for economic ties. As in:

Japan and India, natural allies strategically located on opposite flanks of the continent, have a pivotal role to play in ensuring a regional power equilibrium and safeguarding vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region – an essential hub for global trade and energy supply.

…The logic for strategic collaboration is no less compelling. If China, India and Japan constitute Asia’s scalene triangle – with China representing the longest Side A, India Side B, and Japan Side C – the sum of B and C will always be greater than A. It is thus little surprise that Japan and India are seeking to add strategic bulk to their quickly deepening relationship.

Indeed, the world’s most stable economic partnerships, such as the Atlantic community and the Japan-US partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties lacking that strategic underpinning tend to be less stable and even volatile, as is apparent from China’s economic relations with Japan, India, and the US. The transformative India-Japan entente promises to positively shape Asia’s power dynamics.

Upon Abe’s return to Tokyo, it was promptly leaked to the Kyodo news service that Vice President Biden had fruitlessly attempted to persuade Abe not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in December. This is an interesting state of affairs, since the previous version of the story was that Prime Minister Abe had received mixed messages from a mixed bag of formal and informal Japanese envoys in Washington on the official US government attitude toward his visit. A one-hour phone call from VP Biden saying “Please don’t go”; on the other is a pretty unambiguous message. And, I might add, that Prime Minister Abe disregarding Biden’s call and going to Yasukuni anyway is also a pretty clear message that he does not want to buy whatever Biden is selling. As AFP put it: “But the news that personal overtures from Joe Biden, who has enjoyed a good working relationship with senior Japanese figures, were rejected will be an embarrassment to the White House.”

It is possible that Abe believed that he deserved to be lobbied on this vital issue personally by President Obama and declined to heed American intentions out of pique; however, it’s more likely that he wanted to make it clear that the United States is not going to receive automatic fealty from Japan on matters that Abe believes to be against Japan’s interests. Also, he may wish to send the message that a US administration that does not back Japan’s China gambits to the hilt is no real ally – and no real leader of the Asian coalition.

It will be interesting to see whether Abe and his allies regard President Obama as a lame duck, and will concertedly criticize his China strategy – by attacking the convenient cut-out Joe Biden – while waiting for more a more militant administration come 2016, either under pivot architect-helmswoman and China-basher Hillary Clinton or a suitably anti-PRC Republican administration.

Key indicators of the Abe administration’s attitude might include a spate of op-eds in the US that the Obama administration is too circumspect in confronting the PRC, and more than the usual sniggering at Vice President Biden as an amiable foreign-policy lightweight (the latter theme has been greatly assisted, in the media at least, by the PRC’s high-handedness in refusing to provide visas for two New York Times correspondents assigned to China, despite the earnest presentations of Biden to the Beijing leadership.)

A more significant assertion of an independent Japanese regional policy in the waning years of the Obama administration would be unilateral contacts with North Korea, thereby breaking the PRC-ROK-US united front that is the hallmark of the current negotiations. Abe’s chief cabinet secretary has already been called on to deny reports that Japanese envoys met with DPRK representatives in Hanoi. Also, the Indian embassy in Pyongyang – potentially a eager and supportive cut-out for Prime Minister Abe, since direct Japanese diplomacy is hindered by the demand that the abductee issue be resolved first – and the DPRK regime have been suspiciously fulsome in their expressions of mutual regard. According to North Korean media, the Indian ambassador hosted a reception at the embassy for DPRK worthies and stated:

[I]ndia would value and boost the traditional friendly ties with the DPRK, hoping that the country would prosper and make dynamic progress. He referred to the fact that the two countries, member nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, have common views on many international issues. He hoped that tensions would be defused and Korea be reunified peacefully through dialogue, adding that India would send every possible support for this. He said that the Indian people revere President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il, eternal leaders of the Korean people.

Noting that Marshal Kim Jong Un, supreme leader of the Korean people, is paying deep attention to the development of the bilateral friendly relations, he expressed the belief that thanks to his wise leadership, the cause of building a thriving nation would be successfully accomplished. Anyway, expect surprises in the evolution of the Japanese security posture in its “near beyond.” And, for the United States, don’t assume that all the surprises will be pleasant ones.

Anyway, expect surprises in the evolution of the Japanese security posture in its “near beyond.” And, for the United States, don’t assume that all the surprises will be pleasant ones.

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