Obama runs China’s pivot gauntlet
By Peter Lee
April 22, 2014
In recent days, the People’s Republic of China has dropped several public relations clangers: it barred Japan from a fleet review in Qingdao and, after the US pulled its ship in solidarity with Japan, cancelled the whole review; it snubbed Japan’s Marine Self Defense Force delegation by refusing a bilateral meeting; and a Shanghai court ordered the seizure of a Mitsui OSK Line vessel – a gigantic ore carrier longer than three football fields – as compensation for a 1937 legal case.
This string of events occasioned a certain amount of triumphalist hooting that China’s goonish behavior was a series of own goals and soft-power defeats for the PRC that would contribute to the preferred US dynamic of overbearing PRC behavior strengthening a defensive alignment of Asia democracies led by, of course, the US of A.
This new Asian security regime is due to be celebrated as the successful implementation of the “pivot to Asia” during President Barack Obama’s visit to the region. (Obama leaves the US on Tuesday for a week-long tour, taking in Malaysia the Philippines, Japan and South Korea.)
The question that should be asked is whether the PRC leadership has looked at events in Asia and developments worldwide and decided to do something other than fight on the West’s preferred ground of “soft power”.
It should be pointed out that whenever the PRC wants to get serious about its Japan-related gripes, it does not engage in what I would characterize as Senkaku kabuki, the ritualized display of sovereignty-asserting chicken-of-the-sea encounters between PRC and Japanese maritime patrol vessels and aircraft.
Instead, it kicks off hostilities on its home ground, where the PRC holds the legal and diplomatic advantage and can draw on the assiduously cultivated anti-Japan hostility of a significant swath of its citizenry.
Therefore, the fact that the PRC has chosen to flex its anti-Japanese muscles in Qingdao and Shanghai, pivot be damned, should be a matter of interest to the US and the Asian democracies.
As to the context in which the PRC is seemingly abandoning its hope of modifying its behavior to win the approval of its perennially disapproving liberal democratic audience, consider recent developments.
While the US was preoccupied with developments in Ukraine, the PRC decided to interfere with the Philippines’ resupply of nine marines stationed on the Sierra Madre, a hulk that had been beached on the Second Thomas Shoal/Ayungin Shoal/Ren’ai Shoal in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea in 1999 in order to strengthen the Philippines’ claim to the atoll.
From the UN Law of the Sea standpoint, the Sierra Madre is a man-made structure that is irrelevant to claims of sovereignty, which might explain why the PRC decided it was OK to mess with it. However, blocking the resupply could be construed as a violation of the standstill agreement negotiated in 2002 between the PRC and ASEAN.
The Philippine government failed, then succeeded in resupplying the Sierra Madre by air. Then, on March 29, a civilian Philippine vessel made it past two Chinese coast guard cutters and to the Sierra Madre.
This was presented as one of those heart-warming David versus Goliath stories, with the plucky Philippine vessel successfully eluding the hulking PRC cutters to bring succor to the stranded marines.
The truth is perhaps a little more complicated.
The PRC cutters first intercepted the Philippine vessel an hour before it reached the shallow water of the atoll but was unable to block the vessel. This might have less to do with expert seamanship than with the fact that the ship was chock-a-block with reporters – 12 journos and photographers from seven media organizations, including AP and Reuters. An AFP reporter and photographer were on board a Philippine military aircraft overflying the action.
Perhaps the PRC’s unwillingness to play the role of the Ugly Chinese in front of an international prestige media audience had something to do with its forbearance. If the journos felt any ethical qualms about serving as human shields for this display of Philippine bravado, their reporting does not record it.
But there’s more.
A US surveillance aircraft – and a PRC “balance beam” early warning turboprop – were also overhead, implying that the US and PRC had prior knowledge of the resupply effort.
So, the resupply mission now looks like a calculated show of US and Philippine resolve against PRC “salami slicing” – the incremental strengthening of China’s geostrategic position in its adjoining oceans – and opportunistic testing of US determination subsequent to an embarrassing display of the limits of US power in the matter of the annexation of Crimea to Russia.
But yes, there’s more.
Shortly after the resupply incident, two Japanese destroyers made a port call to Manila, something that was reported only by the PRC and Philippine press – not the English-language Japanese press, or the US press, as far as I can tell, which I consider to be a rather telling omission since journos had been packed to the gunwales ion the Philippine resupply ship just a few days before.
And then an interesting op-ed appeared on the Huffington Post, by T Dean Reed, writer of the Reed Report, rang the soft power changes, and passed along an interesting tid-bit:
[The PRC] has already shown signs of fear of public opinion branding it as a rogue nation. The first sign came when China appeared to blink and made last-minute offers if the Philippines wouldn’t file its case [in The Hague where a five-judge tribunal will determine if China has violated international law by its continuing efforts to take over the South China Sea]. The offers were believed to include withdrawal from contested islands and reefs and a huge trade-and-aid package to the Philippines, described as leading to a new golden age of cooperation between the two countries.
Now China denies any such offer – “sheer fabrication” – because no formal offer was made, only back-channel efforts that were rejected by the Philippines. China has resumed its litany of bluster and threats, warning the Philippines of untold consequences. The next sign came when China displayed anger that the Philippines told the world how its supply ship successfully evaded Chinese naval forces by entering shallow waters at Second Thomas Shoal to feed and rotate troops stationed there. Journalists were aboard, and the story immediately received worldwide acclaim. 
What is interesting is that Mr Reed is a registered lobbyist, not for the Philippines, but for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, implying that the Philippines was discussing its PRC policy – and perhaps discretely communicating the price tag for a truly satisfying Philippines-Japanese alliance – with its Japanese interlocutors. 
And then the Japanese government publicly stated its support of the Philippines in its island disputes with the PRC.
And the Philippines proposed that all of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including “unqualified” members, be admitted immediately to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade regime, thereby gutting its usefulness as a “high standards” trade pact, but very much furthering the interests of Japan, which craves a central role in a China-excluding trade bloc, the bigger the better, in order to give the Japanese economy, Abenomics, Japan, and Abe a much-needed geopolitical leg up. 
So one has a picture of the Philippines and Japan coordinating a series of moves to strengthen their bilateral alliance and accentuate their polarization with the PRC, with behind-the-scenes acceptance by the US.
The PRC has also not done itself any favors with its hectoring of Malaysia over its faltering management of the MH370 passenger aeroplane disappearance; and Indonesia recently went public with its dissatisfaction with the anachronistic nine-dash line that the PRC uses to stake its geopolitical claims in the South China Sea.
Add to that the KMT’s debacle in Taiwan, where a combination of the DPP opposition and student protesters has successfully stalled the approval of a services trade pact between the mainland and Taiwan, further wounded Ma Ying-jeou’s crippled presidency, and raised the unwelcome (for the PRC) prospect that an emboldened and energized Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will take the presidency in 2016 and steer Taiwan further out of the PRC’s orbit.
In fact, the DPP, which has a strong bent toward Japan’s ultranationalist camp, might even renounce Taiwan’s claims to the Senkakus in favor of Japan. And of course, there’s always the de jure independence boogeyman.
And there’s more.
One of the under-reported stories is the steady stream of high-level contacts between North Korea and Japan, ostensibly on the limited bilateral issue of the abductees. One can also speculate that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is happy to demonstrate that his negotiations with North Korea are more effective than the PRC-led negotiation process with that country – the one meaningful area of US-PRC diplomatic engagement outside of the Iran issue – and, indeed, he is taking advantage of the purge of the pro-PRC faction in North Korea to position Japan as a frontrunner in economic cooperation with the isolated nation.
Add to this catalogue of Asian problems the possibility that the PRC will be declared the loser in the Philippine case in the Hague over the nine-dash line and you have makings of a pretty fraught decade or two for the PRC in East Asia.
The success of the pivot dynamic has also been marked by the concurrent erosion of US credibility as “the honest broker” – ie the grown-up liberal democratic superpower that deters China and also restrains Japan.
The US had worked to sustain its honest-broker credibility by quietly conciliatory sidebars to its vociferous criticism of the PRC on the issue of air-defense zones, and its coordinated pushback on Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine for war dead. (Abe, whose visit to the shrine in December was the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006, was not among 150 lawmakers who visited the shrine on Monday, but he sent a traditional offering.)
Recently, an observer optimistically opined to Reuters that there was still room for a cooperative relationship between the PRC and the US, especially if President Obama declined to publicly throw red meat to his allies on the islands issues during his visit:
“They [Chinese officials] are trying to figure out whether it’s the lower-level [American] people coming out and making these comments so the boss doesn’t have to, or whether it’s moving to a crescendo,” said Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I think there is a concern that this debate could be swayed substantially if Obama were to make very forthright comments on this trip,” he said, “and that could tip the balance internally and make it more difficult for Xi to emphasize the Sino-US relationship as paramount.” 
The PRC had also attempted to find some geopolitical (and anti-Japanese) common ground with the United States concerning Japan’s undeniable (but frequently denied) capabilities as a threshold nuclear weapon power, complete with a large store of fissionable material, missiles, and scientific expertise sufficient to cobble together a nuclear deterrent.
After all, President Obama owes his Nobel Peace Prize to his anticipated and as yet largely unrealized achievements in nuclear non-proliferation, so it may have been hoped that some NPT hay could have been made over suspicions concerning Japan’s actual atom-bomb related capabilities.
But no dice. Japan agreed recently to return several hundred kilograms of weapons grade plutonium it had received from the US (while waving aside the issue of Japan’s nominally fuel grade but weapon-worthy in-country stash of nine tons of plutonium and its plans to produce more), occasioning hosannahs from the US.
Per the New York Times in late March:
The announcement is the biggest single success in President Obama’s five-year-long push to secure the world’s most dangerous materials, and will come as world leaders gather here on Monday for a nuclear security summit meeting. 
Events in Ukraine have clearly colored US thinking, pushing the US out of the “honest broker” win-win zone, and will probably elicit something of a sea-change in Chinese attitudes toward the US role in Asia.
Pushed by the need to assert the strength of its deterrent against China during the Ukraine crisis and the supremacy of the pivot during President Obama’s upcoming visit, the United States has lurched over to the Japanese side of the teeter-totter.
National Security Council director Evan Medeiros’ recent interview with Asahi to tee up President Obama’s trip strongly indicates that, post Crimea, the Obama administration now regards forestalling any PRC moves against the Senkakus as a matter of vital geopolitical necessity and will back Japan to the hilt in order to sustain the credibility of the US deterrent capability.
Q: Finally, the impact of the Ukraine situation on the Asia-Pacific region. You pointed out in the recent speech that China’s action regarding the Ukraine situation produced “uncertainty about how China defines its interests and how it pursues them.” Can you elaborate on that?
A: Well, very specifically, what I mean is China regularly, publicly, says that territorial integrity and sovereignty are of the utmost importance, but yet, in the face of a violation of them by Russia through its actions in Ukraine, China has remained agnostic, and has provided essentially de facto support to Russia. For example, it has abstained in UN Security Council and UN General Assembly votes.
So, the question is, “Does China feel that there are some conditions that are actually attached to its support for territorial integrity and sovereignty?” It is raising questions all over the world about China’s intentions. 
Maintaining US deterrent credibility means obsessive attention to the Senkakus, closer integration of the US-Japanese alliance, and a wholehearted embrace of the problematic and polarizing “collective self defense” arrangement.
Concerning the unfortunate fetishization of the worthless Senkaku islands, Kyodo News Agency headlined comments by a US general on Okinawa: “If China grabs Senkakus, US military would snatch them back”.
Lieutenant General John Wissler, who heads up 18,000 Marines based in Okinawa, was actually glossing a statement made by Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command, before a senate committee to the effect that the US did not have the amphibious assets in the region to retake the Senkakus.
Locklear’s statement, if useful from a budget-enhancement perspective, was not the message that the US wished to send at this particular time, with the Russian flag flying over Crimea. So Wissler made the rather logical observation that US air assets could destroy anything and everything on the island, rendering moot the need to consider an amphibious assault on the Senkakus (downplaying the amphibious assault angle also allowed General Wissler the welcome opportunity to pour cold water on the Army’s desire to muscle into the Marines’ pivot action by cluttering up Navy ships with its attack helicopters). 
The US military’s stated eagerness to mix it up in the Senkakus on behalf of Japan and deter the awkwardness of another Crimea grab also adds an unwelcome dimension to “collective self defense”, or CSD, for the PRC.
To American military strategists, CSD, together with jamming US military bases down the throats of resistant Okinawans, is apparently the holy grail of pivot planning. It is publicly justified on the rather dubious ground that otherwise Japan could not perform the vital service of shooting down North Korean missiles headed for the United States.
Considering the still rather sorry status of North Korean ICBMs and the rather significant capabilities of the US Navy in the vicinity (which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has decided to augment with two additional missile-whacking Aegis destroyers arriving in 2017), this threat by itself does not seem to justify the revision of Japan’s so-called “pacifist” constitution.
In the eyes of US military planners, it is more likely that CSD would permit Japanese vessels and aircraft to engage in joint operations in a nominal support function to US forces but blast away at anything Chinese or North Korean once things got hot. This crablike segue into an offensive military capability is, understandably, viewed with less than complete enthusiasm by the Japanese public; a recent Asahi poll put opposition at 68%, and support for revising the CSD ban through “interpretation”, ie sleight of hand by the Abe cabinet, clocking in at 12%. 
I suppose US military diplomacy can draw encouragement from the fact that this level of opposition is about the same as measured on Okinawa to the relocation of the Futenma Air Base, a challenge that the Abe government has met with a relatively successful campaign of bullying and unilateral executive action.
From a US perspective, conditions for President Obama’s pivot promotion trip to Asia might appear quite satisfactory. Through a combination of local anxiety, self-interest, and opportunism, PRC assertiveness, and the occasional provocation, the political and economic foundation for a China-containment regime led by the US and keystoned by Japan has been laid.
And with the prospect of a viscerally hostile DPP administration in Taipei in 2016 ready to outdo the Philippines in anti-PRC effrontery and pro-Japanese outreach, the pre-conditions for further rounds of pivot-enhancing crises seem to be at hand.
The question is, what is the PRC going to do about this?
Perhaps the PRC is drawing the conclusion that the tipping point may have been reached, there is no useful daylight to wedge between Japan and the United States, and it is useless and perhaps even dangerous to play along, especially since the PRC can see eight years of Hillary Clinton and her even more aggressive anti-PRC strategy in the offing.
Given the unfavorable west Pacific environment, sitting idly by, or trying to ingratiate itself with the Asian democracies and the United States through soft power gambits do not appear to be high on the PRC’s list of options.
During Defense Secretary Hagel’s recent visit to China, his PRC counterpart, Chang Wanquan, drew the line: “The China-US relationship is neither comparable to US-Russia ties in the Cold War, nor a relationship between container and contained. China’s development can’t be contained by anyone.” 
With its overtly confrontational moves in Qingdao and Shanghai, it appears the PRC is signaling it is prepared to abandon “soft power”, give up on the promise of US forbearance, and manage its business in an increasingly hostile regional environment.
And it doesn’t seem likely that the PRC is blustering in order to obtain some face-saving concessions or lip service from the US. It is targeting Japan instead of dealing with the US, and challenging the United States to do something effective in support of its ally.
The PRC has always been alert to the need or opportunity to challenge the credibility of the US deterrent and, with the heightened anxiety fostered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, that day has arrived perhaps sooner than anybody wished.
If the PRC intentionally fomented the Ayungin Shoal resupply crisis with the resolve to let the US-PRC relation go south if needed rather than passively let the pivot dynamic play out to its disadvantage, we are definitely in for some tense and unpleasant times – and the costs of maintaining the credibility of the US deterrent might be considerably higher than we prefer.
The PRC appears to be signaling its determination to hunker down and weather the geopolitical storm – which might include a sooner-rather-than-later Taiwan crisis and the need to blame a handy US scapegoat – for years if need be, and pursue the struggle in domestic venues where it holds an advantage.
The PRC will draw some succor from Russia which, thanks to the heavy-handed US policy in Ukraine, is driving President Vladimir Putin into China’s arms. (Russia’s ostentatious increase in air patrols over the Kurile Islands were, perhaps, concrete displays of Russia’s eagerness to play ball with the PRC and side against Japan).
A revealing indicator will be if the PRC abandons the World War II “victor’s justice” line that it attempted to establish as the basis for the US presence in Asia and some kind of US-PRC condominium. This movement achieved a mini-boomlet with Prime Minister Abe’s provocative December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, sub voce US uneasiness over the essentially anti-US character of right-wing Japanese nationalism, and the PRC’s rather clumsy invocations of the Potsdam Declaration (in which the US and Chiang Kai-shek’s China jointly called for the unconditional surrender of Japan) as the basis for the peaceful Asian order.
But that dog doesn’t hunt anymore, thanks to Prime Minister Abe’s support for US initiatives such as Futenma relocation, collective self-defense, and the TPP trade pact. To further mix metaphors, with the tightening US-Japan alliance, it looks like the US “honest broker” ship has sailed for good as far as the PRC is concerned.
If the PRC abandons its celebration of the US “greatest generation” World War II narrative, it will, somewhat ironically, contribute to the erosion some of America’s vaunted soft power. As memories of World War II fade (or, to be more accurate, less flattering narratives of the current significance of that increasingly remote conflict gain traction), the US, instead of exercising its historical and moral prerogative to Asian leadership by sashaying into the region and telling the local powers how they should behave, will simply be another outside power trying to shoulder into the “Pacific Century” and belly up to the economic trough as its rivals and partners grow in military and economic strength and the relative US advantage dwindles.
The PRC, on the other hand, will be determined to demonstrate that it is the central power in East Asia, with existential interests and the credible capability to pursue them over decades in the face of US-orchestrated resistance.
Maybe it should be understood that the beginning of the “Pacific Century” is perhaps the end of the “American Century”. That would certainly be an ironic coda to President Obama’s visit.
1. The Philippines Takes China to Court, but It’s Public Opinion That Will Decide, April 3, 2014.
2. See here.
3. Philippines: Invite all SE Asia to Pacific pact, Yahoo News, April 10, 2014.
4. China warns US ahead of Obama’s visit, fearing high-profile tilt over disputed isles, Reuters, April 10, 2014.
5. Japan to Let US Assume Control of Nuclear Cache, The New York Times, March 23, 2014.
6. Evan Medeiros: China’s attempt to isolate Japan worsens bilateral relations, The Asahi Shimbun, April 6, 2014.
7. Top Marine in Japan: If tasked, we could retake the Senkakus from China, Stars and Stripes, April 11, 2014.
8. Asahi poll: 63% oppose Abe’s attempt to lift ban on collective self-defense, The Asahi Shimbun, April 7, 2014.
9. Nobody can contain China’s development: defense chief, Xinhua, April 8, 2014.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.