Tag Archives: China

American Strategy is Exacerbating Sino-Japanese Tensions

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.” 

Troubled Ties

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.

Beijing’s Strategy

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.


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China’s Foreign Ministry : Japan’s Abe has ‘closed the door of dialogue with China’s leaders’

Beijing has criticized Japan’s paramount leader in the harshest terms to date. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed interest in explaining his visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine to Chinese and Korean leaders. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang bluntly ruled out this possibility:

“In fact, Abe himself closed the door of dialogue with the Chinese leaders , the Chinese people do not welcome him . Abe should admit mistakes to the Chinese government and people to make a fresh start …

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 recent days Chinese state media has stressed the fact that Abe’s visit to Yasakuni has been controversial even within Japan. Spokesman Qin made an appeal to the Japanese people:

“We believe Japan has a conscience, and a love of peace…we are willing to join them in the spirit of ‘learning from history and facing the future…”

(Original translations of Qin’s press conference, as recorded in this transcript)

Abe’s visit to Yasukuni was the first of any sitting Japanese prime minister in over seven years. Coming at a time when Sino-Japanese relations have been strained to the breaking point by the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Abe must have known the Chinese reaction would be extremely hostile.

Yasukuni is controversial not only because it enshrines convicted war criminals, but also because the attached museum completely whitewashes Japanese aggression and war crimes. Regarding the Nanjing Massacre, the museum 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.”

Any individual in Germany similarly downplaying the Holocaust or the invasion of the Soviet Union would face criminal prosecution.

On a final note, I find The New York Times’ coverage of the controversy somewhat disingenuous: “The Yasukuni Shrine, an institution of the Shinto religion, honors ordinary soldiers who died fighting in World War II, but it has long generated enmity among the Chinese because it also has the remains of some who are designated Class A war criminals.”

First, China is not alone in condemning official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Abe’s visit has been criticized by China, Russia, the United States, and both Koreas.

Secondly, if Abe wants to honor war dead without enraging Japan’s neighbors he could visit the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery or Chinreisha. Abe’s made a calculated move meant to shore up his support amongst Japanese ultranationalists, and possibly provoke Beijing into a more militant stance in the East China Sea.

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China and Japan overreact to increased military spending

Tokyo is increasing military spending for the first time in a decade. Beijing has reacting angrily, with the Chinese Defense ministry saying on their website:

Japan, on the one hand, claims to be a peace-loving country, exclusively adhering to a defense policy. Yet on the other hand, it peddles a so-called ‘active pacifism..Where is Japan’s military security policy actually going from here? This cannot but arouse strong concerns in its Asian neighbors and the international community.”

Given the history of Japanese imperialism – and the current escalation of the territorial dispute between China and Japan – Chinese concerns about a re-militarized Japan are understandable. However, the proposed increase of the budget of Japan’s military is fairly small at just 2.6%.

China’s fears over Japan’s increasing military budget mirror similar concerns in Japan. In October Japanese Prime Minister Abe criticized China when he decried “an immediate neighbor” for swelling its military budget by more than 10% annually.

The problem with these criticisms is that these increases in military spending an in line with general economic growth. Japan’s increase in its military budget comes at a time when its economy appears to be on the mend. Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of Beijing’s military budget has largely matched China’s economic growth.

China spends 2% of its GDP on its military. Japan spends only 1%. This is largely because Japan is protected by the security umbrella of the United States (with a military budget roughly four times larger than China’s).

The Chinese government’s criticisms of Japanese military spending – just like the denouncements of China by the Japanese – are based more on domestic politics than they are on strategic fears. Economic ties between the two countries are vital. Toyota’s deliveries to China are up 41% in a single year.

Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo are rooted in the politics of fear. Many Chinese are extremely distrustful of Japan in the wake of the invasions and atrocities of the last century. Japanese citizens, on the other hand, are worried about a rising China. Japan dominated Asia politically and economically for a hundred years, and is now being supplanted by their biggest rival. Leaders on both sides play up these fears for domestic political purposes.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s recent visit to Yasukuni Shine (which houses the remains of war criminals along with common Japanese soldiers) has added fuel to the current dispute.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, recently warned, “Japan-China relations now face their grimmest situation since the two countries normalized their diplomatic ties in 1972.”

Meanwhile, an article in today’s People’s Daily brags of Chinese strategic bomber’s ability to cover the entirety of Japan.

Nevertheless, in the absence of a tragic accident, Sino-Japanese conflict will remain but a battle between conflicting currents of hot air.

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Chinese media downplays naval incident

Chinese armed forced have conducted deep-water drills of their first aircraft carrier. The U.S edition of China Daily proudly reports “Liaoning’s combat capability tested” while a link on the front page of People’s Daily features “Candid shots of the Liaoning aircraft carrier trials in the South China Sea”.

However, both stories ignore the most interesting development during the Liaoning’s maiden voyage: a confrontation with a U.S missile cruiser. The U.S vessel was told to stop while approached the Liaoning; when it continued on its path a Chinese tank-landing vessel blocked the American vessel and forced it to change course.

U.S Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed the incident, saying, “That action by the Chinese, cutting their ship 100 yards out in front of the Cowpens, was not a responsible action. It was unhelpful; it was irresponsible.” 

(Never mind that the U.S navy would probably react the same way if a Chinese vessel approached a U.S aircraft carrier in international waters.)

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has acknowledged the incident. However, it is generally being downplayed in Chinese official media. There is some coverage of the confrontation on the high seas – the military section of People’s Daily quotes Hagel’s commentary on the issue, and features some snippets of media coverage of the incident from outside of China.

One final note: Russia Today quotes a Chinese media source as saying Beijing may build an ultra-modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier by 2020.

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“Canberra risks more by crossing China”

Here I expand on themes I covered in a post last week. I’d like to note that in the original article sent to Asia Times, I wrote “Numerous international financial institutions expect China to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy this decade” which was edited to:

“Numerous international financial institutions expect China to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in the not-too-distant future – though others question if that will happen this century.”

Even if a massive housing bubble bursts, bringing down the entire Chinese economy leading to general anarchy, U.S GDP would still probably be overtaken by India’s within 80 years.

Still, this may be my first Asia Times piece to break 300 “likes” on facebook!

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December 22, 2013 · 11:52 am

“American hawkishness is against its own interests”

Interestingly enough, Global Times left out the part where I specifically cite the American B52 bombers that tested China’s ADIZ. 

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December 22, 2013 · 11:46 am

Complicated ties between China and Australia

Despite deepening economic ties, not all is rosy in relationship between Australia and China. Australia, along with Japan and the United States, condemned China’s establishment of an ADIZ/ Canberra even summoned the Chinese ambassador to discuss the move. Australian Prime Minister Abbot has called Japan Australia’s “closest friend” in Asia. Abbot has been unapologetic in the matter, even in the face of severe Chinese criticisms: “We are a strong ally of the United States, we are a strong ally of Japan, we have a very strong view that international disputes should be settled peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law and where we think that is not happening, or it is not happening appropriately, we will speak our mind… China trades with us because it is in China’s interest to trade with us.”

China’s Foreign Ministry has said: “the entire Chinese society and the general public are deeply dissatisfied” with Abbot’s remarks.

However, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop focused on economic matters with her Chinese hosts during her trip to Beijing. She was hopeful, after eight years of talks on establishing a bilateral FTA: “There are many opportunities for our economic relationship to be broader and deeper and more diversified and the potential for a Free Trade Agreement was discussed…Indeed, the Vice-President indicated that he thought we had the opportunity to conclude a Free Trade Agreement in the very near future.” China is Australia’s largest trading partner.

The relationship between Australia and China is important not only in its own right, but also because it symbolizes the relationship between China and many of America’s Asia-Pacific allies. Although China is their largest trading partner, these nations play up the “China threat” for domestic political purposes. Beijing has used economic leverage to extract political concessions in the past. The Australian government may have overplayed their hand by publicly wading into the treacherous waters of the East China Sea.

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China’s World Trade

In 2012, China overtook the United States as the country with the largest volume of international trade. The value of this trade is over 3.87 trillion dollars per year. This map help serves as a visual aid for this staggering figure.

China is the largest trading partner for all countries and territories in red. Countries for which China is the second largest trading partner are orange.

Data is from the IMF and CIA World Factbook via Wikipedia.

Note that EU countries are measured individually. For the purposes of this map, Taiwan’s economy is shown as separate from that of Mainland China.


December 9, 2013 · 2:30 pm

China’s Asian Relations

China's Asian Trade


CORRECTION: The previous version of this image, seen below, confused East Timor (yellow) with Indonesian-controlled West Timor (orange).

China's Asian Relations

This image demonstrates China’s economic importance to the Asia-Pacific. China does more international trade than any other country on the face of the earth. China’s exports – as well as its growing demand for resources, food, and consumer goods – are transforming the economic landscape of the Asian continent.

Also of note: China is the most important trading partner to Japan, Vietnam, and India, even in the midst of their territorial disputes.


December 8, 2013 · 1:14 pm

Biden avoids publicly discussing China’s ADIZ in Beijing

Vice President Biden has not publicly discussed China’s recently-established Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) during his trip to Beijing. While in Tokyo, Biden was more stringent, calling the ADIZ an effort to “unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea”, and warning, “This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”

However, once in China Biden’s tone became rather conciliatory. Talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping focused on areas of mutual interest, although important disagreements were brought up. Biden said “Candor generates trust” and Sino-American relations should be “based on trust and a positive notion of each other’s motives”. Vice President Biden also met with American journalists in Beijing, were he stressed the need for freedom of information:

“Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences…We have many disagreements, and some profound disagreements, on some of those issues right now, in the treatment of U.S. journalists.”

In recent months several prominent American journalists have lost their legal rights to report from China. Biden’s call for people to “breathe freely” has somewhat humorous undertones, given the severe air pollution of Beijing.

Meanwhile, official Chinese media coverage of Biden’s visit is somewhat contradictory. A piece in People’s Daily says Biden and Xi had frank talks about disagreements over the ADIZ, while another article is entitled “Why Didn’t Biden Challenge Xi Jinping?”

Also of note: just before Biden’s visit, a spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry made a lengthy clarification of the new ADIZ, saying  it “will not affect the freedom of overflight, based on international laws, of other countries’ aircraft”. Along with these reassuring words was a rather confident assertion of power to regional rivals and the United States: “The Chinese military’s determination and volition to safeguard the security of national territory and territorial airspace are unwavering, and the military is fully capable of exercising effective control over the East China Sea ADIZ.

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