06.08.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

US–Japan Tandem Exerts More Pressure on China

081745In the recent months, the increase of direct and indirect pressure exerted on Beijing by its major regional opponents, involved in the complex network of partner relations in the strategic “China-US-Japan” triangle, has been observed.

It is hard not to notice that both partners of the American-Japanese military and political union act with certain level of coordination in their attempt to suppress the expanding influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region (APR), and particularly in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia found itself in the center of feverish activities of the American-Japanese tandem operating in this region under the pretext of warding off the threat, which the international navigation was subjected to due to the construction works undertaken by China on some islands of the region.

The fact that almost all of the island chains of Southeast Asia are subjects of territorial disputes between China and its southern neighbors tremendously aggravates the situation.

Recently the US transformed its official rhetoric pertaining to the sovereignty of these islands, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in East China Sea. To this day Washington continues to insist that the US maintains a neutral position in respect of the legal aspects of this issue, and that American interests do not stretch beyond the desire for the matter to be resolved peacefully. However, on July 23, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russell issued a symbolic statement asserting that the US did not “always have a neutral position” as to the conflict of interests in Southeast Asia. He тщеув that the reason behind the abandonment of the “neutral position” was “violation of international law,” and it is not hard to guess who the alleged “violator” is.

This statement followed the gesture of no lesser significance made by Admiral Scott Swift, commander of US Pacific Fleet, in the course of his tour across the region adjoining the southeastern coast of China. It was a seven-hour surveillance flight aboard a maritime intelligence P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane, which flew the high-ranking American commander over some of the disputed islands of Southeast Asia on July 19. His itinerary included South Korea and Japan, where his tour ended. In both of these countries, Admiral Swift made a number of tough statements implicitly directed at the People’s Republic of China. In particular, he said that he is ready to deploy forces entrusted to him to provide aid to Japan “in the defense of the Senkaku islands” whenever a relevant order is issued by the US leadership.

As for Japan itself, China took a note of the latest version of the annual digest Defense of Japan (Annual White Paper). The part dedicated to the “intensification of Chinese navy activities requiring a response on the part of Japan” has drawn their particular attention. The digest was published by Japanese Ministry of Defense several days after the adoption of the raft of new security laws by the Japanese House of Representatives (lower house) on July 16, 2015. In the opinion of Chinese experts, the subsequent approval of the laws by the upper house will be an important phase in the development of the general political course aimed at the “creation of a breach” in the Japanese postwar Constitution. It will also challenge the Potsdam Declaration signed on July 26, 1945 by the leaders of the US, Great Britain, and the Kuomintang China.

Beijing has always perceived the Potsdam Declaration as the “cornerstone” of the political order in the postwar Asia-Pacific region, and a clearly expressed respect for it on the part of Japan—as a prerequisite for the revival of bilateral diplomatic relations between the two countries. The fact that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were “nationalized” in 2012 makes Chinese wonder whether Japan continues to duly observe the provisions of this document 70 years into its signing, or not.

A 6-day tour across Japan undertaken by 92-year old Lee Teng-hui, who served in the position of the President of Taiwan from 1988 to 2000, and who is tagged by Beijing as a “notorious propagandist” of independence of the island republic, was the reason why Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China issued stern philippics. This tour, undertaken “without coordination with official representatives” of the People’s Republic of China, triggered yet another appeal of Chinese government to Japan “to respect the ‘One China’ principle,” constituting the basis of the contemporary Japanese-Chinese relations.

However, as it was noted previously, fortunately, there is no reason to view the vector of the development of political relations between China and both of its chief opponents in a gloomy light.

For example, during the final debates over the abovementioned raft of laws in the Japanese National Diet (at the point when there were no doubts as to the results of the forthcoming voting), Shotaro Yachi, First Head of the National Security Council of Japan and the closest advisor of Prime Minister Abe, was visiting Beijing.

Apparently, the main topic of the meeting of Mr. Yachi with the State Council of the People’s Republic of China Yang Jiechia was a prospective visit by Mr. Abe to Beijing on September 3, on the occasion of celebration of the 70th anniversary of the End of the Pacific War. If this visit becomes a reality, it will probably be held in the format similar to that of the trip of Angela Merkel to Moscow on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Victory over Germany in the Second World War. Most probably, PM Abe will just be present in China to manifest his respect for Chinese, but will not attend the military parade on the occasion of the military defeat of his country.

China would most probably be satisfied with such format of Japanese PM’s visit, provided, however, that three conditions, which have been already communicated to the high Japanese guest, would be met. First, PM Abe would have to confirm that all the previous bilateral government statements are still in effect. Secondly, he would have to reproduces the so-called “Murayamy statement”. Lastly, he would have to promise to stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

Since China realizes that it is almost certain that PM Abe would not be able to meet all these requirements, they have engaged in a bilateral bargaining, that is going on behind the scene, on how to hold the meeting Abe–Jinping so as to not cause for both leaders of the major Asian powers to lose their “public faces.”

Among the positive developments, there is the first meeting (after an extended break) at the level of the heads of departments of ministries of both countries, which was held on July 29 in Beijing in a form of a bilateral economic dialogue. This dialogue is considered a turning point in the discussions on the development of bilateral economic relations. And the fact that the experts of two countries met after a four-year break highlights the complexity of the relations. A possibility to organize a Japanese-Chinese dialogue in the domain of economics at the level of ministers was also discussed. A dialogue of such format has not been organized since 2010.

Three months earlier, interactions between representatives of two countries concerning the creation of free trade areas were resumed. The format of the interactions should either be bilateral or with the participation of South Korea.

However, the assessment of the fact of resumption of interactions and their results revealed that they could be graded only as “better than nothing.” August 15 remains the first milestone, passing of which would allow to make at least preliminary forecasts of the further development of the “China-US-Japan” relations. On that day, PM Abe is expected to make a statement on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the End of the Pacific War.

In Japan, the official End of the Pacific War falls on the day that followed the date on which Emperor Hirohito delivered his radio address (August 14, 1945). Both Beijing and Washington will closely follow the PM Abe’s speech.

The second milestone should be passed on September 3. Even simple presence of the Japanese PM during this time in Beijing would alleviate hopes for positive development of Japanese-Chinese relations, reinforcing the hopes that arose after Mr. Abe and Mr. Jinping met in November 2014 during a regular APEC summit.

Finally, an official visit by Mr. Jinping to the US, which is also scheduled for the coming September, after the celebrations in Beijing on the occasion of the End of the War in the Pacific Ocean, would be the third milestone in the development. Since there is almost a 100 per cent guarantee that this visit will take place (unlike the situation with the prospective trip of PM Abe to China), its role in the development of relations between the two countries and in the strategic triangle “China-US-Japan” could be judged only based on real (not declarative) results.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.