Tensions are rising in the West Pacific, damaging ties between the world’s three largest economies. Several recent developments highlight the mounting pressures: China’s creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed islands, a naval incident between China’s new aircraft carrier and an American vessel, and the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to a controversial shrine.
In light of these incidents, it is crucial to examine the role America plays in the region. Instead of alleviating tensions in the East China Sea, current American strategy may be adding to the friction – and indirectly solidifying the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.
In late 2011 Hillary Clinton announced a U.S “pivot” to Asia, promising to “lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.”
“Otherwise” was a reference to military deployments. As part of this strategy, the U.S Navy plans to deploy 60% of its fleet in the Pacific. This military repositioning is almost certainly aimed at containing China – 60% of the largest, most technologically advanced fleet in world history seems excessive for countering a half-starving North Korea.
Since the announcement of the U.S pivot to Asia, regional tensions have increased dramatically. In September 2012, the Japanese government announced plans to “nationalize” the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are disputed territory between China and Japan. This move set off the latest round of detonation in ties between Tokyo and Beijing.
Escalations continued in November 2013 when Beijing announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. The airspace over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands was included in this zone.
Another troubling incident was a recent standoff between China’s first aircraft carrier and the USS Cowpens. The USS Cowpens was physically blocked from approaching the Chinese aircraft carrier in international waters, in a move US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called “unhelpful” and “irresponsible”.
Finally, just a few weeks after the naval standoff, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine – a Shinto temple where the spirits of Japanese military men, including several convicted war criminals – are venerated. In response to this visit, China’s foreign ministry said: “Abe miscalculates regarding Sino-Japanese relations, making mistakes again and again. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where class A war criminals are enshrined… these war criminals were the planners of Japan’s war of militarist aggression… They are Fascists, the Nazis of Asia.”
In order to have a better understanding of Chinese (and Korean) anger over Abe’s Yasukuni visit, it is worth exploring the shrine’s viewpoint on Japan’s wartime actions. Regarding the Nanjing Massacre, a museum attached to the shrine teaches visitors: “The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”
Former Japanese Prime Minister Yuktio Hatoyama recently warned “Japan-China relations now face their grimmest situation since the two countries normalized their diplomatic ties in 1972.”
America’s regional stance may have emboldened Japanese nationalists to take a more provocative stance against China. The “nationalization” of the disputed islands and the visit of the Yasukuni Shrine were likely deliberate attempts to gain support by ratcheting up tensions with China.
Partially as a result of recent developments, 92.8% of Chinese now have an unfavorable view of Japan – a dramatic increase of 28% in one year.
American regional strategy has alienated not only Chinese leaders, but also the Chinese public. Chinese confidence in President Obama has plummeted from a high of 62% in 2009 to just 31% in 2013.
Not all of this shift in opinion can be attributed to Chinese state-controlled media and education. American regional military posture and support of Japan would likely be unpopular in China regardless of Beijing’s political system.
It’s worth noting that after Japan’s tragic earthquake in 2011, hundreds of Americans took to social media to say the earthquake was a form of “payback” for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. One can imagine how Americans would view react to Abe’ Yasukuni visit if Japanese forces had killed over 20 million Americans during a brutal eight-year invasion of the American mainland that involved systematic sexual slavery and the use of biological weapons.
Territorial disputes between China and its Asian neighbors have become more intense in the last several years. Supporters of America’s increasing military footprint in East Asia argue that the American presence helps to deter Chinese territorial ambitions, and helps to keep the region safe.
However, this assertion is based on a dangerous misreading of Beijing’s political strategy. First, any war would be against the interests of China’s leaders. The Communist Party of China has been able to maintain its control of the country largely through delivering economic growth, and China’s economy is hugely dependent on international trade. China does more international trade than any other country in the world, and China remains Japan’s number one trading partner even in the midst of their escalating political tensions.
So why did Beijing establish the ADIZ over disputed maritime territories? Part of the reason is strategic. China is making efforts to claim more of the West Pacific as its exclusive zone of influence. They seek to push American military assets further away from China’s shores – just as the U.S would do if Chinese aircraft carriers sailed two hundred miles off the coast of Los Angeles, or routinely patrolled the Gulf of Mexico.
However, the domestic political situation is the main driving force behind Beijing’s recent moves. China’s leaders knew America and Japan would react strongly against their ADIZ. This was a purposeful move. Xi Jinping has only been in power for a year, and he wants to demonstrate his nationalist credentials against China’s rivals.
By vocally supporting Tokyo in the territorial dispute, and by positioning more military forces in the region, the U.S is actually playing into Xi’s plan to boost Chinese nationalism. America’s proactive regional stance helps to distract Chinese people from the pressing domestic issues of pollution, censorship, and corruption.
All sides know that war is against everyone’s best interests. Nevertheless, the words and actions and words of Chinese, Japanese, and American leaders will have real consequences, both regionally and at home.