Barack Obama’s Asia tour, which took place from April 23-29, 2014, was planned in the autumn of last year. It was motivated by the general “shift to Asia” of key interests, as well as by the problematic provision of national security by the world’s leading superpower. This “shift” has given rise to various questions among both America’s allies and opponents, questions to which definitive answers have still not been reached, even within the US itself.
What, for example, will be the American response to China’s transformation into the world’s second superpower? Will it lead to a strategy of deterrence, similar to that used in relation to the USSR, or will it be diluted by attempts at normalizing constructive relations with China?
The first course of action was observed in the US policy toward China as adhered to by Hillary Clinton during her time of leadership over US foreign policy. European allies of the US began to consider their future in the face of a possible US “withdrawal from Europe” during this time period.
From the beginning of Obama’s second presidential term and John Kerry’s appointment as Secretary of State, however, the second political course of action could be seen in the development of US-Chinese relations, and questions were raised among the US’ Asian allies. The content of these questions, moreover, greatly differed from those which interest Europe, which is absolutely unconcerned by the growth of China’s military-political significance. The recent successful visit of Xi Jinping to Germany demonstrated Europe’s desire to further develop already well-established trade and economic relations with China.
The majority of US allies in Asia, however, (both those in theory and those in practice) are neighbors of China, and reliance on the US has become practically their main guarantor of escaping the prospect of falling into a state of dependence on China – first, economically, then politically. Countries in East Asia are therefore interested in how seriously the US intends to implement “Kerry’s Course”. Could it be time to look to an alternative savior, which Tokyo is more and more definitively becoming, but into which New Delhi could also be turned in future? Clarity on these fundamental questions, as well as on a number of other, specific issues may be expected from the US president’s Asia tour.
Several of these specific issues, only just now gaining significance, may turn out to be certain long-standing problems accompanying the US “shift to Asia”. Continuing uncertainty regarding the extent and consequences of Japan’s “normalization”, the prospect of forming a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and problems in Japanese-South Korean relations – both close allies of the US – may be listed among the most pressing issues. On a secondary level, the Ukrainian crisis and, in particular, Russia’s actions in Crimea, have taken on an unexpected significance for the situation in East Asia.
Do answers to these and similar questions exist at the present time (and if yes, then what are they)? This may be judged in light of the main portion of the tour, which concluded with Obama’s visit to Tokyo. Japan is a key US ally in the Asia-Pacific region, but the character of this alliance is in a state of fundamental transformation.
Up until the very end of the Cold War the formula for US-Japanese relations was extremely simple: Protector (US) – Protected (Japan). However, beginning in the mid-1990’s a trend appeared tending toward a gradual equalization in the “weight categories” of the participants in the US-Japanese alliance.
It can be observed especially clearly beginning in 1997, when the official Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation, defining the format for bi-laterel cooperation in the defense sphere during the post-Cold War period, was ratified. This trend will undoubtedly be strengthened in a new, similar document, which US and Japanese leaders have agreed to ratify by the end of this year.
This trend is an inescapable consequence of Japan’s normalization process, witnessed in its gradual abandoning of limitations on positioning in the foreign policy arena, signed into the constitution drawn up under the supervision of WWII victors, in 1947.
Until very recent times, both of these tendencies were welcomed in the US, in so much as they allowed for lessening the Pentagon’s role in solving issues pertaining to the interests of both allies in the Asia-Pacific region. The Japanese normalization process, however, has been accompanied by the revival of past phobias among Japan’s neighbors, in particular China and South Korea.
For both China and South Korea the resumption by current Japanese leadership of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, not observed since 2006, serves as a significant symbol of the “rebirth of Japanese militantism”. This shrine is dedicated to the “resting spirits” and Japanese leaders of the WWII period, convicted by the Tokyo tribunal. Washington’s most persistent “counsel” in regards to Tokyo in recent months has therefore been rife with requests to not aggravate relations with its neighbors and calls to not “provoke” them with similar exhibitionistic ceremonies.
In anticipation of Obama’s visit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refrained from visiting the Yasukuni shrine, but sent a sapling to be planted in the surrounding park. The Shrine was also visited by a number of ministers and 150 members of parliament. In a televised speech on April 20, Abe stated that “it seems natural for state leaders to pray for the souls of those who fought for the country”. (Abe sends offering to Yasukuni Shrine, but to refrain from visiting, Kyodo, Apr. 21, 2014).
Clearer than any specific activities in the field of defense and security (in themselves quite remarkable) this ceremony, updated by Japanese leadership to include a trip to the Yasukuni Shrine, shows a trend which is fundamental to the development of the situation in the Asia-Pacific region. It can be boiled down to the ebbing of Japan’s Cold War-era image as an “economic giant and political dwarf” and its transformation into one of the leading players of the global political process.
At the heart of current US policy in regards to Japan is awareness of the objectivity and irreversibility of the process. In order to preserve some small influence over the new geopolitical player, its interests and concerns must be taken into account. A central theme in Obama’s public rhetoric during his visit to Japan was the opinion that the Senkaku (Diaoyo) Islands are subject to Article 5 of the US-Japanese security treaty of 1960.
These statements, made on the heels of similar statements made 3 weeks earlier by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – also in Tokyo – send a clear warning to Beijing that its territorial disputes with Japan (and others) should under no circumstances turn into a repeat of recent Russian actions in Crimea. The rigidity of the current US message to China may, indeed, be explained by the Russian operation in Crimea.
The Russian operation’s presence can be sensed even in negotiations and statements made by leaders of both countries in connection with “increased Chinese naval activity in the East and South China Seas”. The Crimea factor and the possible improvement of Sino-Russian relations as a result of the upcoming visit to China by Russian president Vladimir Putin pushed the US and Japan to emphasize the necessity of strengthening “trilateral” relations with Australia, India and South Korea in their final joint statement.
Obama’s reference to Article 5 of the US-Japanese security treaty was received with satisfaction by Abe – only naturally, when taking into account that Japan cannot do without the support of its “big brother” in the defense and security field.
The Japanese press especially emphasized that, for the first time in lengthy Sino-Japanese confrontation over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the US president affirmed the efficacy of the afore-mentioned article, in accordance with which an attack by a “third party” on the territory of either of the allies would mark the beginning of military action. (Obama says bilateral security treaty applies to Senkaku Islands, April 24, 2014, Mainichi).
This statement, extremely significant for Japan, was not simply a gift from the US president. It came at the price of a Japanese promise of support in the “G7” of US anti-Russian activities in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. This promise may carry negative consequences for Japan, which has taken a course of developing comprehensive Russian relations, in which Tokyo’s interests extend far beyond the “problems of the Northern territories”.
Obama’s statement clearly raises tensions in the US-Chinese confrontation, as evidenced by the Chinese foreign ministry’s immediate and strong reaction to it. Other remarks by the US president, however, show that the US has not closed the door to political dialogue with China. This is partially evidenced by the subsequent call upon Abe to “take steps” toward lessening tensions in relations with China.
In the context of US-Chinese confrontation, a solution to problems raised during the formation of a TPP and in attempts to create a military-political alliance made up of the US, Japan and South Korea takes on a new significance for Washington.
As far as the TPP is concerned, independent of Japanese concessions on several points in the initial positions of both parties, their differences are still significant – leaving the prospect of the creation of the TPP in an uncertain position. Against this backdrop, Japan’s remarkable progress in the conclusion of free trade agreements with Australia, ASEAN countries and the EU, outside the TPP format, is especially noteworthy.
It seems safe to say that Obama failed to make significant progress in overcoming tensions in Japanese-South Korean relations during negotiations in Tokyo and Seoul.
Thus, a general summary of the US president’s Asia tour may be that it resulted in both fundamental and more specific issues being left in an indeterminate state. The contradictory trends in US foreign policy – toward China, for example – are oscillations, superimposed on the new global political game, subject to their own – far from clear – internal logic.
The current sharpening in US rhetoric toward China is highly situational, in that it is the consequence of extrapolation in the East Asia region, suddenly intensified by the situation in Europe. In view of the inevitable merging of Crimea and Russia, this rhetoric may, in time, take on a more “constructive” character.
As far as the Ukrainian crisis in general, further promotion of the practical implementation of speculative, semi-literate plans for building up “intellectuals”, based on such fallacies as the “West” (meaning Europe), “freedom”, “Soviet mentality”, “democracy”, “power” and anecdotal “history” can have no other consequence than multiplying the grief of the Ukrainian people.
Spin-off benefits for the US from supporting the madness in Ukraine will be of a purely temporary and tactical nature. In the long-term, strategic plan this course may become a threat to the actual interests of the US, in Europe as well as Asia.
Vladimir Terekhov, leading research fellow at the Asia and Middle East Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.