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America Must Stop China's Bullying of Japan

Aaron Friedberg

Is the Obama administration pivoting away from its “pivot”? Today’s visit to Washington by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will begin to provide an answer.

The pivot, of course, was the Obama administration’s signature first-term foreign policy initiative. Starting in 2012, in response to signs of increasing Chinese assertiveness, Washington began a series of steps designed to reassure its friends and allies in the region by bolstering the U.S. presence in Asia. The pivot was an appropriate and widely-welcomed response to the growth of Chinese power and the worrisome trends in its behavior. Mr. Abe’s visit provides a highly visible test of the President’s resolve to follow through on his initiative.

Over the past several years, Japan has been on the receiving end of much of China’s belligerence. The perpetually insecure Chinese Communist party leadership appears to believe that confrontation with Japan will stir nationalist sentiment, buttressing its public support and its grip on power.

To that end, Beijing has:

  • escalated a minor incident involving a drunken Chinese fishing boat captain into a major diplomatic crisis;
  • blocked exports to Japan of rare earth minerals essential to high-end electronic manufacturing;
  • permitted (and perhaps encouraged) violent mass demonstrations that resulted in extensive destruction of Japanese property in China;
  • stepped up provocative movements by air and sea around disputed islands controlled by Japan;
  • allegedly “painted” Japanese naval vessels with fire-control radar, risking escalation into a shooting war.

It is this brinkmanship that has Prime Minister Abe in a state of genuine anxiety about Japan’s security. North Korea’s most recent nuclear test, under indifferent Chinese eyes, has only exacerbated his fears. He is traveling to Washington in search of reassurance.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to fear that he will not find what he is seeking. There are signs that President Obama’s Asia policy could end up more closely resembling a full pirouette than a pivot.

For one thing, there is a new team in Washington. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and her tough-minded deputy, Kurt Campbell, have departed the scene, as has Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Sec. of State Kerry and Sec. of Defense (if confirmed) Hagel hold strikingly different views about the exercise of American power.

While the Obama administration, in its first term, stressed the need to strengthen U.S. military capabilities in Asia, Mr. Kerry has already cast doubt on this commitment, declaiming in his confirmation hearings that “I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet” and that we already have “a lot more bases out there [in the Pacific] than any other nation in the world, including China today.” In any event, whatever Mr. Kerry intends, and even if sequestration can be avoided, the administration’s planned cuts in defense spending have already called its promises into question.

That is the backdrop. On the foreground are some more subtle shifts in the Obama administration’s disposition that have left Tokyo perplexed and dismayed. After talking tough over the last two years, the administration has toned down its rhetoric in ways that have not gone unnoticed in the region. Indeed, the blunt word pivot has been excised from its diplomatic lexicon, replaced by the bland accounting term of “rebalancing.”

That rhetorical shift is part of a broader effort to reassure the new Communist leadership in Beijing that America’s highest priority is avoiding confrontation. Specifically, on the hottest-button current issue, while the administration has reiterated its position that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are covered under the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty, it has simultaneously displayed nervousness about being forced to take sides in Tokyo’s territorial disputes. Administration officials fended off Mr. Abe’s initial request for a visit to the White House and they have reportedly declined proposals for a joint press conference out of concern for what the Japanese leaders might say in public.

There is no doubt that it would be foolish to get involved in an unnecessary confrontation with China. But is attempting to propitiate China by trying to appear even-handed the best way to reduce the risk of bloodshed, or would we be better off maintaining a posture that is unmistakably strong enough to deter aggressors and reassure friends? The administration appears to be tilting toward the former approach, but the latter is the only reliable pathway to continued peace in Asia.

American policy should reflect the fact that Tokyo is not the party primarily responsible for ratcheting up tension in the region. To be sure, there is a nasty streak of Japanese nationalism and politicians, including Mr. Abe, have occasionally flirted with it, to the detriment of Japan’s reputation and position in the world. But it is risible to equate a handful of offensive statements about the past with the virulent and violent strain of nationalism unleashed by the Chinese government.

It is China that has been probing, testing the strength of the alliance, building up its forces, and seeking to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo. The paramount danger here is that if we seek to put distance between ourselves and Japan, we will actually encourage more Chinese aggression. And after too much such encouragement, we might well find ourselves forced either to come to Japan’s defense or watch our alliances in Asia crumble. If this happens, the Obama administration will have earned the dubious distinction of accomplishing the very outcome it most seeks to avoid.

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