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The Asia scrum


Rather suddenly there is a welter of developments turning Asia’s dozen-odd countries into a cat’s cradle of conflicting interests – some new — that could lead to war.

Central, of course, is “a rising” China. The Chinese, themselves, have given up the phrase “a peaceful rising”. That was a promise that the new boy on the block would not repeat a united Germany’s late arrival as a strong player in Europe, setting off two world wars. Now almost daily aggressive rhetoric in official Chinese media is matched by extravagant territorial claims against its neighbors in northeast and southeast Asia coupled with a rapid naval buildup. Infringement of the cease fire lines in the Himalayas accompanies temporary military thrusts against Indian forces.

China’s only ally in the region, North Korea – dependent on Beijing aid for its very existence – has turned even more enigmatic. A highly publicized – unusual in such frequent eruptions – purging of its No. 2 leader is inexplicable even to the experts. Its tightly controlled media showed Jang Song Thaek being yanked off to prison. Then the uncle by marriage to the 31-year-old Kim Job-Un, third member of the Kim dynasty, was summarily executed.

One side effect has been both official media in China and North Korea accusing each other of perfidy; Jang was close to Chinese official and business interests. Yet there is no sign that they are not still wedded in their opposition to Japan and the U.S. These events have written a death notice for Washington’s continuing hope that Beijing could and would intervene to halt North Korea’s expanding weapons of mass destruction program. And the Obama Administration, like its predecessors has no answer to the conundrum of the continuing Pyongyang blackmail for additional aid as an incentive to halt its weapons program.

On the other side of the East [or Japan] Sea, most of which Beijing now claims as a restricted area, Japan’s extremely popular Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has defiantly defended Tokyo’s longstanding claim to sovereignty of disputed rocks between its Islands and the Mainland. His attempt to restore Japan’s economy, dawdling for a decade, has been accompanied by a campaign to regain a sense of national purpose. His strategy includes breaking through the virtual monopoly of the leftwing mainstream media not excluding the government radio and the Communist Nikyoso teachers union. Visiting Japan’s shrine to its fallen war dead was part and parcel of that cultural offensive. But because of the enshrinement there of World War II war criminals, it was looked on askance [and for propaganda] by Beijing and South Korea.

Obvious self-interest is being flaunted for political advantage: Beijing threatens to impose economic strictures on Tokyo. Seoul has refused needed Japanese ammunition for its UN Peacekeeping Force under attack in South Sudan. In a period of rapidly declining GDP and attempts at reform, Beijing can ill afford to abandon its heavy reliance on Japan for China assembly for third Japanese markets. Furthermore, Beijing has always looked to Tokyo not only for investment but for technological and management know-how, reflected in Japan being China’s No. 1 supplier in their $334 billion trade [2012]. Seoul’s collaboration with Japan, including such recent joint naval exercises, is essential for any effective counter to China’s power sponsored by the U.S. in Asia.

Abe, anticipating that Beijing despite all the talk of reform will not be able to boost its domestic consumption, long the holy grail of Japanese and Western business, is encouraging Japanese business to look elsewhere. Already Japanese direct investment into China plunged by nearly 37% in the first nine months of 2013, to only $6.5 billion, in part because of the outlook for Chinese markets. Alternatively Japanese investment in Southeast Asia’s four major economies ­— Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines —­ surged by over 120% to almost $7.9 billion.

Tokyo is moving quickly to exploit the new opening in Burma through its traditional special relationship there, Not least it cultivates opposition leader Suu Kyi, whose father, one of the martyred leaders of the independence struggle, was a Japanese protégé. Tokyo has written off more than $5 billion in debt for the reforming generals, and offered new infrastructure loans. Completing the circle, Tokyo has just announced $3 billion for Burma’s long-suffering minorities in off and revolt against the central government since independence.

Japan’s attempt to move away from China toward South Asia has its geopolitical aspects as well: a recent joint naval exercise with Indian forces off that country’s coast, a first, backs up its attempt to encourage an export led investment in the other Asian giant. It is part of a growing Japanese military, integration with its U.S. ally, and projection of its power and prestige overseas.

Radical shifts are taking place elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Thailand’s feud between an urban Sino-Thai Establishment – including avid supporters of the King and Queen – and rural voters is escalating. Rioting with upcoming elections – which the opposition threatens to boycott – have already dampened continued rapid expansion of tourism which accounts for over 7% of Thailand’s economy. And it could threaten foreign investment which has made region’s leading automobile industry a cog in the growing worldwide car assembly network.

Eighty-six-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is ill and apparently unable, especially given his closest followers’ involvement, to make his usual intervention to calm political waters. And the Thai military, which many hoped had been ruled out of a new democratic, booming society, now have hinted they will lapse back into their old coup habit as they did in 2008 if street violence continues. Meanwhile, no one is paying much attention to a growing insurgency in Thailand’s Malay provinces on its southern border. That augurs badly for the region with Malaysia’s own increasingly Islamicist Malays moving toward conflict with its Chinese and Indian minorities, and more radical politicians arising in the more isolated states on Thailand’s border.

Indonesia, largely ignored despite its fourth largest population in the world nearing 250 million – almost a third under 14 — has temporarily staved off a balance of payments crisis. But its meager 3.6% increase in gross national product in 2013 is not what is required for one of the world’s most resource endowed countries with a generally docile and hardworking population. Highly dependent on a few mineral and agricultural specialty exports, Indonesia has been hard hit by the downturn in the world commodity prices. Despite large oil and gas potential, one of the founders of the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries [OPEC] became a net importer in 2009. Corruption, protectionism and fluctuating economic and fiscal policies have discouraged foreign investment and technological transfer. Despite conventional wisdom that Islam in Indonesia is moderate and catholic, incorporating large elements of its pagan and Hindu past, the world’s largest Muslim nation has always had a virulent jihadist movement. Indonesian authorities have been less than prescient in cracking down on it. In a deteriorating economy, it could become a major factor in the worldwide Islamicist terrorist network.

It was into this rapidly moving miasma that Sec. of State Hillary Clinton just two years ago announced the Obama Administration’s “pivot”, a turn from concentration on the Middle East to focus on Asia. But to continue Clinton’s metaphor, a pivot is a “central point, pin, or shaft on which a mechanism turns or oscillates”. It could well be that in the world of diplomacy – and geopolitical strategy — one does not reveal the fulcrum. The U.S. has every reason to hope and even pretend that the growing aggressive rhetoric and behavior of Communist China is not the central issue in Asia for the foreseeable future. But to ignore that threat publicly is not to make it central to the strategy shift which was so loudly proclaimed.

Yet, particularly in its relations with Japan, since 1950 the keystone of American strategy in Asia, the Obama Administration appears not to have a China policy beyond associating itself rhetorically with China’s neighbors resisting Beijing’s encroachment. It may be just as well that U.S.-Japanese military integration under an expanded Mutual Defense Treaty is moving rapidly ahead on autopilot. For despite Tokyo’s continued public espousal of close relations, the coolness between Abe’s Tokyo and Obama’s Washington are an open secret. The strong – by the exotic standards of formal diplomatese – of Washington denunciation of Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine [“disappointing”] — was a shock in Tokyo despite an earlier warning. Washington’s refusal to take a direct hand in smoothing relations between its two most important bilateral allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, has been …disappointing in Tokyo and elsewhere. That is particularly true since U.S.diplomats [and retired Foreign Service Officers] and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have publicly espoused mediation between Japan and China.

The Washington-sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership, an ambitious attempt to create a vast new common market including 40% of U.S. trade, all North America and some hangers-on, is stagnating, in part because of inattention from the Administration’s leaders. And it is no secret that excluding China from the TPP – even if there were not substantial justification given its unfair trading practices – is presumably a part of the pivot.

But shaking off the Middle East, even with repeated attempts at “leading from behind”, is certainly not conclusive. This weekend’s crisis in Iraq and Washington’s promise to intervene short of boots on the ground shows how hard it will be to disentangle the U.S. from primary concentration on the area. Sec. of State John Kerry’s persistent – if unrealistic – devotion of enormous time and energy toward a breakthrough in Israel-Palestinian relations, too, points in another direction

The U.S. President is scheduled for a swing through Asia in April. It remains to be seen whether the Administration will publicly try to tidy up its “pivot’ with new initiatives.

.Until then the “pivot” is flapping in the growing East winds of change.

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Ghosts of East Asia


          

There is an eerie feeling of déjà vu about the drama in the East China Sea just now.

Again an authoritarian government with a rapidly expanding politicized military is making more and more aggressive noises, in large part in pursuit of its voracious appetite for energy. The U.S., hegemonic power in the Western Pacific since the beginning of the 20th century, is being challenged. Washington again follows a zigzagging policy, all the while protecting freedom of the seas – even for its adversaries.

It was after all imposition of the American oil embargo on Japan in the summer of 1941 which was the final tripwire leading to Tokyo’s attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew’s reports of rumors of a surprise attack were discounted. When it came, of course, the U.S. — despite an overwhelming majority opposition until then against a vocal minority adroitly headed by Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt — plunged into a catastrophic worldwide conflict. The U.S. saved the world from unprecedented organized bestiality, ultimately winning against initial odds.

Like all historical comparisons, this one is full of holes.

Still, a search for possible/probable oil and gas deposits is the main incentive for Beijing’s snowballing claims on its aquatic periphery. UN specialized agencies estimate China’s energy consumption by 2035 will grow by 50% to 1.8 times the United States’ [now at about one-fifth of world consumption]. That estimate may be exaggerated, considering China’s declining economic activity after two decades of unprecedented growth.

Nevertheless, much of a probable gigantic increase – given its already 1.3 billion people, four times the American population – will have to be imported. That’s despite exploitation of China’s large if poor coal reserves, limited possibilities for China from the U.S.’ shale revolution because of water shortages, exploitation of Tibetan rivers’ hydro potential despite endangering flow to most of South Asia, and significant solar and wind efforts largely based on American technology..

A solution to China’s problems could come from Russia’s vast reserves in Siberia, old Chinese claims there temporarily muted by Beijing. But despite frequent announcements of impending new agreements, China’s conversation with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, has channeled the old George Bernard Shaw gibe at Lady Astor, “Your profession has been established, Madame, it’s the price we are discussing.”  Ras’ Putin’s energy potential is handicapped with high costs, insufficient reinvestment in infrastructure and foreign investors wary after partial expropriation of their East Asian Sakhalin finds after they brought on production at huge cost.

Moscow’s industrial strategy is so muddled now that China has just made a deal to import Russian crude through a new pipeline to Central Asian producers. Another new Chinese pipeline to bring Burmese [and Mideast] crude, skirting the Malacca Straits chokepoint, to remote southwest China is threatened with a flare-up of long summering northern Burma Kachin revolt.

In other words, China’s energy future is precarious at best.

True, Chinese Communist leadership tries to use jingoistic appeals to its long suffering 200 year history of Western and particularly bloody Japanese aggression to justify claims on the farthest — albeit brief – historical reaches of imperial China. But nationalism, for all its notoriety – from the May 4th [1919] Movement of young intellectuals demanding modernization to Sun Yat Sen’s Republican campaign against the last “foreign” [Ch’ing or Manchu] imperial dynasty — is limited to a Westernized elite. It is not the force that for a millennium brought near total destruction to warring European nation states. Like the Indians, the Chinese despite the contemporary explosion of communication live in a parochial culture largely baring comparisons outside their own vast spectrum of language, ethnicities and race.

Bottom line: China’s new claims on virtually all the seas around it are largely economically motivated. But their drive to become a blue water naval power to advance those claims not only challenges their neighbors but inevitably the U.S.

For despite the Obama Administration’s aspirations for “leading from behind”, it’s the U.S. Navy which guarantees international freedom of the seas with America’s vast military expenditures, larger than the combined military budgets of its leading allies and contenders. The irony, and one about which Beijing has no illusions, is that it is Washington which insures China’s growing lifeline to its aggressive grabs at Mideast, African and Latin American oil. Even if China follows Japan’s successful search for modernization – as it always does – to go for “fire ice”, the vast methane hydrate deposits prominent in East Asian deep waters, it needs a claim. That’s what it is now staking.

This Chinese pursuit of more and more extravagant boundaries – even to the point of damaging its short-term strategies such as cultivating anti-Japanese, anti-U.S. feeling in South Korea to prevent the consolidation of “an Asian NATO” – may be as subtle as some believe. That is, by making outrageous demands, then backing off, Beijing ends up exploiting well-known American impatience and the nervousness of the Japanese and smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. Or, more likely to some observers, these new thrusts represent a less studied Chinese strategy than they do a struggle over the loosening hold of Communist civilians over its traditional Siamese twin, the People’s Liberation Army.

Either way, the Obama Administration – just as the Roosevelt Administration in the late 30s – is giving off mixed signals.

It was Sec. of State Hillary Clinton who in 2012.ostentatiously launched the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia”: in her article “America’s Pacific Century” in the flashy Foreign Policy. Not that most American international affairs wonks had an argument against the general thesis: developing Asia would increasingly change the world balance of power and Washington ought to shake some of the dust of the Middle East and pitch toward the unknown role a renascent China seemed more than eager to play.

But some of us wondered at the time if the Mideast curtain would be so easily closed, and whether Washington wasn’t underestimating the Chinese challenge. Nor was it clear how the U.S. Navy was to honor its enlarged task with numbers of ships at a pre-World War I level. Granted, increased technology – one has only to look at the drone revolution – compensates for tonnage in any new strategic environment. But that marvelous seagoing monster the USS George Washington neither can be in two places at one time nor is there no limit to its projection of power.

That can only mean a dubious worldwide strategic vacuum entails.

Alas! Not only did that Mideast tarbaby’s sticky hold turn out to be minimized  but a new Chinese-Japanese dispute over rocky atolls between them – coming out of nowhere on the Chinese side – has befuddled Washington. The Obama presidency has said the U.S. recognizes their longtime Japanese occupation. It has no alternative: in the 1971 Washington-Tokyo agreement returning Okinawa to Japan, an accompanying map includes the rocks along with islands south of that important East Asian American base. This chain, along with the Japanese archipelago itself, and Taiwan is the island barrier the Chinese naval power must finesse to reach trans-Pacific significance.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just reiterated the proposition that the American-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, the keystone of American strategy in East Asia since the 1950s, covers these islets. But at the same time, Foggy Bottom spokesmen keep repeating the inanity Washington does not recognize Japanese sovereignty.

When China announced its most recent seaside ploy, most of the territory between China and Japan and South Korea incorporated into its “air defense zone”, the Obama Administration, uncharacteristically, sent unarmed B-52s zooming through it as an in-your-face denial of China’s claims. But then it promptly turned around and first suggested, then ordered American airlines flying through the area to signal Beijing prior to transiting. Thus, in effect, Washington recognized Beijing’s claim. Furthermore, it came just hours after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had ordered three Japanese airlines to withdraw their earlier acceptance of just such a procedure. There is a hint that Washington didn’t even tell Abe, our principal Asian ally, the turnabout was coming.

Beijing’s game is a dangerous one. Having U.S., Japanese and Chinese military aircraft in more than usual juxtaposition in a relative small area, even up in the air and naval craft e also involved, is scary. Chinese communications, much of it built on stolen American intellectual property, are probably better now than they were in the 2001 Hainan incident. Then a cowboy Chinese fighter pilot killed himself when he scraped an unarmed American surveillance plane over international waters. Circumstantial evidence indicated Beijing wasn’t running the show, that the locals were out of control, and the foreign ministry was ill informed. A rather naïve retired admiral, the U.S. ambassador, told newsmen he couldn’t understand why his old friends in the Chinese military weren’t returning his calls. The Chinese saved face by forcing the U.S. plane down, then returning its crew — and the plane, literally in pieces. But it was not an attractive template for the kind of international disputes which could now erupt at any moment.

The rest of Asia is now holdings its breath, waiting for an episode or for the Chinese to back off, now that Obama has made major concessions. Hopefully, and there are plenty of signs, U.S. military and intelligence collaboration, especially with Japan but increasingly, again, with old Southeast Asia allies, is growing in view of the Chinese threat. It’s apparently without much White House input, perhaps luckily.

And, yeah! everyone can take reassurance from the dispatch of Vice Pres. Uncle Joe Biden on a swing through the area.

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A new turn in the U.S.-Japan alliance?


Obscured by the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear-threat tragedy, and Mideast crises, there have been subtle Western Pacific geopolitical shifts.

With little publicity in U.S. [or for that matter, the left-leaning Japanese mainstream] media, American military forces played a magnificent role in rescue and early clean-up of the Japanese tsunami.

Grotesquely incompetent Japanese politicians – at any moment there may be another revolting door prime minister – have obscured this along with their studied refusal to honor their own high-performing Self Defense Forces. This is the ruling Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] core recruited from a 60s generation vociferously opposed to the American alliance and reconstitution of a civilian led Japanese military. It’s taken three years of provocation by Beijing – now seemingly at least temporarily abated – to force full recognition of the growing threat posed by a rapidly arming China, and its obstreperous North Korea ally.

In sharp contrast was the public’s stoic response to 30,000 lives lost with destruction of whole towns and villages. But a 15.3% factory output drop has imperiled Japan’s “just on time” internationally linked export assemblies. Already a ¥4 trillion [$50 billion] extra budget has been voted. Japan’s central bank has doubled its asset-purchases, injected record amounts into money markets and unveiled a one-year lending program.

It’s early to know whether the tragedy will reawaken “yamato damashii!” – that remarkable ethos to overcome adversity characterizing Japan since its rapid emergence as a world power beginning only 150 years ago. But recuperating the $300 billion loss might reinvigorate the world’s third largest economy suffering two decades of deflation. Prejudicing this hope, of course, is the rating agencies’ downgrading of the huge and growing government debt [if held almost exclusively in yen at low rates], the most rapidly ageing and declining population in the industrialized world, and lack of dynamic leadership.

Much depends on whether growing internal strife within the JDP will produce a long hoped for political realignment introducing younger blood and new ideas. Luckily, the JDP’s campaign against Japan’s powerful bureaucracy has been mostly talk. In fact the legendary bureaucrats performed well in this unprecedented emergency – certainly compared with corrupt utilities management in bed with the politicians.

Backed by public appreciation of American efforts and repeated Chinese provocations – the latest an attempt to corner the rare earths markets on which Japan’s movement toward advanced technology so heavily depends – muffled calls have arisen for strengthening the U.S. alliance. Tokyo’s concern is enhanced by Taiwan’s new formal economic integration with Mainland China and the possibility political domination could follow despite Pres. Ma Ying Jeou’s protestations to the contrary. [Ironically, Taiwan, whose native islanders have fond memories of the relatively benign Japanese 50-year occupation, 1895-45, made the largest contributions after the U.S. to disaster aid.] Tokyo has always seen Taiwan as critically strategic to its defense. And the Obama Administration’s continued foot-dragging on weapons for Taipei has certainly been noted even as they constitute a major issue between Washington and Beijing.

Any expansion of Japanese-U.S. military collaboration will come up against both countries’ budgetary constraints. Rapid American technological progress – with Japan as a junior partner especially in anti-missile defense — could compensate partially for more cutbacks likely in military spending by U.S. Secretary of Defense-designate Leon Panetta, noted for his dovish views.

But this confluence of events has led to whispered speculation the expensive – and strategically dubious — U.S. Marine move from Japan’s southern island of Okinawa to Guam might be shelved. That Marine “fire brigades” could arrive within two hours off the quake area operating from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was demonstration of why the Ryukyus chain historically has played such an important role.

This year’s just approved military construction contains another $246 million, added to a $1.2 billion down payment already appropriated, on an estimated $4 billion for transferring 8,600 U.S. Marines from Okinawa. The Japanese government has pledged another $6 billion.

To halt the plan, Tokyo would have to confront local opposition to Okinawa facilities expansion, difficult for the DPJ with its leftwing constituencies. But even if a U.S. diplomat was fired recently for saying so publicly, the Okinawans’ half century blackmail of both Tokyo and Washington is wearing thin. A stronger Tokyo team might just call their bluff, cancel the Guam transfer, and put those yen into reconstruction, producing welcome savings for Japanese — and American — taxpayers. Only a hint of a rainbow on the horizon but…

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