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As Asia Waltzes Forward on Two Right Feet, America Fixates on the Middle East

By James Farrer | November 20, 2012

CREDIT: Jacob Ehnmark (CC).

Rising Rightwing Nationalists in Japan and China

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda surprised even his own party last week with the announcement that new parliamentary elections would be held on December 16. Noda, a low-key politician from a humble background, had lost support due to reversals on nuclear policy and a principled, but unpopular, move to raise taxes. His administration also stumbled into a dangerous confrontation with China over a few uninhabited islets claimed by both countries. Now he has fumbled his way into a lower-house election at a time when his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) suffers from its lowest-ever level of popular support. Almost everyone expects the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to trounce the DPJ by a wide margin and make Shinzo Abe prime minister.

The final meltdown of Noda's DPJ government comes as somewhat of a relief, but Abe and the LDP promise to pull Japan sharply rightward at a critical moment, abetted by a new Japan Restoration Party even further on the right. Abe's vague pronouncements about protecting Japan's "beautiful lands and seas" are reminiscent of Japanese nationalist rhetoric of the 1940s, and the United States should be concerned that an Abe-led regime, with its aestheticized nationalism, poses an even a greater risk of military confrontation with China in the East China Sea.

China meanwhile has experienced its own a political transition. Last week we saw the emergence of a new Politburo headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, both of whom we might expect to harbor some positive feelings towards America. Xi sends his daughter to Harvard University. Li is a graduate of Beijing University who has translated law texts from English.

The Chinese transition does little, though, to reassure the world about China's relations with America's closest ally in the region, Japan. The problem in China is deep-seated popular sentiment. As seen in the fierce anti-Japanese protests in September 2012, many Chinese protesters displayed a gut-level hatred of Japan that went beyond the usual politics. Whether profound anti-Japanese feeling is the result of post-1990s Chinese nationalist education campaigns, as many Japanese analysts argue, or the direct legacy of Japan's invasion of China in the 1930s, as many Chinese claim, is a moot point. Both are true. Japan brutally invaded China, and the Chinese Communist Party has unrelentingly used anti-Japanese propaganda as political cover for its own atrocities and failings.

The immediate problem is that many Chinese people are simply unwilling to stomach any kind of compromise with Japan on territorial claims. And China's young, disproportionately male population is restless, angry, and overtly itching for military conflict. No Chinese politician wants war with Japan, but if war erupts—by accident, or by provocation—no Chinese politician could afford to back down. Forget the old Maoist categories of "left" and "right." Chinese politics, too, is driven forward by a nationalist and populist right wing, one younger and potentially more volatile than the aging right wing that is leading the rightward charge in Japan.

Anti-Japan protest in China. CREDIT: Terence H. (CC).

The Gordian knot of territorial claims at the heart of this dispute is not easily cut. Scholars and politicians in Japan and China have spun endless arguments as to the legitimacy of the historical claims and the economic importance of the natural resources surrounding these islands. The historical claims center on events in the late nineteenth century or much earlier, and none of the economic arguments hold up when we factor in the risks of war and costs of military buildup. Make no mistake: This conflict is driven by gut-level fears and resentment, not rational calculation. Long-term political solutions must address and assuage these emotional undercurrents.

The core problems in Asia are fundamentally political, not military or economic in nature. Japanese politicians do their country repeated and gratuitous disservice when they fail to address the history of Japan's World War II aggression. A broader historical consciousness and a proper tone of remorse may not come easily, but they are cost effective in comparison to the alternatives.

In contrast, Chinese politicians are nearly always circumspect in their public language. Yet behind this smooth exterior lie expansive Chinese maritime claims, based on ancient dynastic maps and trading routes. They are a major source of instability in the region and may be detrimental to China's own security by provoking a backlash among countries along China's eastern and southern periphery. China's revived imperialism is no more attractive to the rest of Asia than was Western imperialism, no matter how sanguine China acts about its own imperial past.

A Distracted United States

What most Americans fail to understand is that the United States is neck deep in these Asian problems already. With troops stationed in Okinawa, a mutual defense treaty with Japan, and a stated obligation to defend the disputed islets in the event a conflict with China, America could be drawn into a major shooting war if the two sides misstep in their maritime pas de deux. A skirmish could quickly spiral into a full-scale military conflict between the United States and China, unfolding at lightning speed through cyber attacks, rocket attacks, and naval-air operations, resulting in a scale of destruction not seen since 1945.

Yet few people on the U.S. side of the Pacific are really worried. Why?

There are two possible reasons. One is that the situation is actually under control. Quiet diplomacy is under way, while the U.S.-Japan alliance deters escalation by either side. The other possibility is that things are not under control, but everyone refuses to see the danger. Sitting in Tokyo, I hope the first scenario is true, but I have my doubts.

Seen from Asia, one scary development is that America's foreign policy and security establishment, with its traditional Republican leanings, has been hijacked by an anti-jihadist New Right obsessively focused on the Middle East to the detriment of America's broader global interest. The result is that a region with a collective share of global trade less than South Korea garners far more political attention than East Asia with its billions of citizens.

An Asian Turn in U.S. Foreign Policy

The Obama administration has promised a pivot toward Asia in U.S. foreign policy, though this is scarcely reflected in mainstream American media. When that pivot in political consciousness finally happens, Americans will realize that their country's power is indeed waning. Nonetheless, the United States should push for solutions on the issues where it still has influence.

In the short term, the United States could persuade China and Japan to limit provocative coast guard patrols near the disputed islets, where the U.S. Navy still has the largest military footprint. A cooling off on the high seas could give room for negotiations on the ground, and avoid the peril of accidental conflict. Above all, the Americans should endeavor to keep Japanese and Chinese military vessels out of the area. In the long term, the United States could use its remaining influence to nudge Japan and China toward negotiations on a de facto boundary, with a formal solution many years, even decades, in the future.

China's young militant nationalists and Japan's aging right wing feed off each other in a vicious symbiosis.

The root challenge for U.S. foreign policy in Asia is the rise of China. China's economic advance in and of itself is not a threat to U.S. interests, but American foreign policy for the past 30 years has been premised on the idea—actually the hope—that Chinese economic reforms would be accompanied by political reforms that would make China not only capitalist but also free and democratic. Now the United States is faced with the threat of an economically dynamic China that will become the world's largest economy while remaining repressive, undemocratic, and, if recent trends hold, increasingly militaristic. In short, Western democracies have not faced such an ideological threat since the 1930s.

A shooting war in Asia is not inevitable, but the war of words is, and we should hope that freedom-loving Chinese people will win out over their own authoritarian government. Still, there is little the United States can do to influence these internal developments in China other than continuing to support the types of educational, economic, and cultural exchanges that already exist.

Some Diplomatic Options

But there are a few areas of foreign policy in which U.S. influence could matter greatly, not by being more confrontational with China, but by reducing the military tensions in the region that feed militant nationalism in China.

One option is to contain the dangerous movement to the right in Japan. There is nothing more conducive to China's own militarism and xenophobic nationalism than provocative actions and rhetoric from their old nemesis Japan. China's young militant nationalists and Japan's aging right wing feed off each other in a vicious symbiosis. Liberal and democratic voices in China are marginalized or silenced anytime there is a confrontation with Japan. The types of slow-moving cultural and public diplomacy that may eventually reduce animosity in Asia are not possible in a climate of disputed borders.

Japan and the United States should both recognize that Japan's strategic position is fundamentally weakened, along with the alliance, by Japan's foreign policy failures, which are in turn partly a result of America's influence on Japan. The most telling failure of Japan's postwar foreign policy is its continuing territorial disputes with all three of its closest neighbors—Russia, Korea, and China. Good fences make good neighbors, and the United States should urge Japan to begin to repair its fences, even if some of the solutions represent a reversal of previous U.S. positions.

Japan's strategic position in Asia is not improving, and the country needs allies closer to home.

Japan could first solve its territorial disputes with Russia over the so-called Northern Territories or Southern Kuril Islands. A solution could be based on a long-discussed compromise that would return to Japan the two smallest islands closest to the main island of Hokkaido, leaving the rest to Russia. This is the deal that the Soviet Union and Japan nearly agreed to in 1956, before the idea was vetoed by the United States. A deal would open the door to a closer partnership between Japan and Russia that might also counterbalance the growing Chinese pressures in Northern Asia, while providing greater energy security for Japan. From the American perspective, closer relations between Japan and Russia no longer pose the same threat to the U.S.-Japan alliance that they did 50 years ago.

Next, Japan should negotiate a maritime border with Korea. This would probably have to acknowledge the de facto Korean control over yet another disputed island, but a pragmatic compromise could allow both sides to draw a maritime border very close to the island, and close to a line of control agreed upon in the 1960s. In any case, improved relations between Korea and Japan are essential to regional security, and to the U.S.-led alliance structure, and should be one of the top priorities of American diplomacy in the region.

Finally, after concluding negotiations with Korea and Russia, an eventual compromise with China could be possible. All of these suggested solutions would taste like bitter betrayal to Japanese right wingers, but more level-headed nationalists should recognize that a strategic partnership with Russia and Korea would improve Japan's position in the region far more than maintaining symbolic territorial claims that only the Japanese acknowledge. Japan's strategic position in Asia is not improving, and the country needs allies closer to home.

Indeed, American influence in Asia is limited and waning. The United States cannot dictate foreign policy to its Asian allies, much less to China. Playing god in the affairs of weak regimes in the Middle East is much easier in comparison. Still, especially in the case of a rudderless Japanese foreign policy, U.S. influence can make a difference. Encouraging Japan to take a tough stance against China might seem to be an easy way for America to apply pressure on China without itself paying the price of direct confrontation. In reality, such policies would eventually backfire, and might even draw the United States into a disastrous war.

Rather the United States should encourage regional integration, effective public diplomacy, and the pragmatic resolution of territorial disputes. The long-term result might mean a much lighter U.S. security presence in Asia, and that would be good for everyone.

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Read More: Culture, Democracy, Diplomacy, Economy, Peace, Security, Trade, Youth, China, Japan, Korea (South), Russia, United States, Americas, Asia, Middle

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