February 6, 2014 12:00 am JST

What's really at stake after Abe's remark in Davos

TSUYOSHI SUNOHARA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama © Reuters

TOKYO -- The repercussions are still being felt from a comment Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made on the chilly Japan-China relationship. In a remark in Davos, Switzerland, Abe referred to the relationship of Britain and Germany before World War I when he tried to explain about a current tension between Japan and China. But many political scientists in the West think the 19th-century U.K.-German relationship is more like that of present-day Beijing and Washington, not Tokyo and Beijing.

     "The Chinese talk about this new relationship (between the U.S. and China), but they've never spelled it out very clearly," said Joseph Nye, a Harvard University scholar who has many friends in both the Japanese and the Chinese governments. "The best I'm able to understand from talking to Chinese friends is that they look at the histories of rising powers in the past and notice that, very often, a rising power gets into a conflict with an established power, like Germany and Britain did a century ago."

     Nye pointed out it is clear to many Americans that Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, are sending a well-designed message to Washington that they want to avoid any conflict with the U.S. "What they mean by this new type of relationship (between the U.S. and China) is that it -- the rise of Chinese economic power -- should not lead to a conflict with the U.S.," Nye said.

     Nye's analysis echoes those of many experts and former U.S. government officials in Washington, especially those who are associated with the Barack Obama administration, partly because the White House is uneager to see any sort of turmoil in Asia, which is expected to lead world economic growth over the next couple of decades.

     Knowing this, the Chinese have conducted a series of negative campaigns against Abe and his administration. They claim that Japan is trying to destroy the world order established after World War II and that therefore Japan will become a negative or destabilizing factor not only in Asia but the entire world, despite the fact that Japan is an ally of the U.S. in Asia. Abe's comment on the 19th century British-German relationship inadvertently provided new fuel for Beijing to assert that it was not China but Japan that was looking for confrontation on the horizon in East Asia.

     On the other hand, Beijing has been intimidating Tokyo by dispatching ships and aircrafts to the Senkaku Islands area since Japan nationalized them in the fall of 2012.

     Now China is trying to drive a wedge between the West, namely Washington, and Tokyo by calling Japan a destabilizer or an irresponsible stakeholder, in hopes of weakening the commitment of the U.S. to defend the islands in the East China Sea under the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

Mind the gap

"I see certainly some gap between the U.S. and Japan regarding how to deal with the rise of China," said Tokyo University Prof. Fumiaki Kubo, one of Japan's leading scholars on U.S. politics.

     "The U.S. thinks its priority is to stabilize the region by appeasing China one way or another, while Japan is spending more energy on how it might defend its territories such as the Senkaku Islands against China," Kubo said.

     There is a wide perception gap between Japan and the U.S. over the best way to deal with China. Among many Japanese strategists such as Shinichi Kitaoka, who plays a key role in the special colloquium working on Japan's controversial right to collective self-defense, there is growing concern that the U.S. and Europe will eventually misunderstand Japan's real intentions regarding some future-oriented initiatives or policies being introduced by Abe.

     Those initiatives include setting up the Japan National Security Council, enacting the State Secrets Law and exercising the right to collective self-defense under Japan's current constitution. In Kitaoka's view, the actions are designed to make Japan a more responsible stakeholder in the international arena, but China accuses Tokyo of using these steps as preparations to re-militarize.

     When the Obama administration issued a statement about Abe's sudden visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines several class-A war criminals, Tokyo was upset by the "disappointment" expressed by Washington. This was also taken by Beijing as another sign that the gap between Tokyo and Washington is widening.

     Former Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto was one of those who immediately worried about the negative impact on the alliance.

     "We should make it clear to our American friends and others that the Yasukuni visit has no relationship to Japan's modern strategy, including exercising the right to collective self-defense and setting up Japan's NSC. They are all designed to strengthen our alliance structure with the U.S.," he said.

     In fact, many pragmatic conservatives, including Abe's right-hand man Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Japan's NSC Secretary General Shotaro Yachi, reportedly tried to dissuade Abe from going to Yasukuni, fearing a strong backlash, this time from the U.S. But they failed to change Abe's mind.

A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force P3C anti-submarine patrol plane flies over the Senkaku Islands of Okinawa in this file photo from October 2011.

     Simultaneously, Tokyo was also disappointed when Washington did not take a strong position after Beijing declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea. It is widely believed in Tokyo that the U.S. was keen not to damage the evolving great-power relations with China and came short of strong opposition against the zone. Abe is still asking China to withdraw the declaration.

     "The establishment of the zone is consistent with the series of moves that have been made by the Chinese within the South China Sea, as well as the East China Sea. I think a motivator was the contest over the Senkakus, but I think the issue is broader than that," Robert Willard, former U.S. Pacific Commander, said.

Broader claims

Willard said he agrees that China's ADIZ is a power play.

     "It is a demonstration by the Chinese, within the international framework of the establishment of an ADIZ, to establish a broader claim over the East China Sea. In general (it is) directed not just at Japan but also at the international community. And in that sense it is objectionable, certainly to the U.S.," he said.

     Clearly, Abe shares Willard's concerns. Abe also knows that Japan's position is not that of the U.K. but rather of France in the 19th century when it signed the Triple Entente with Britain and Russia to counter the rise of Germany.

     Now, Abe is preparing for an official visit from President Barack Obama in April. This visit will demonstrate the U.S.-Japan alliance is still firm and can be made even stronger under their leadership. Indeed, it was Abe who overcame a lot of opposing voices in Japan regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, immediately after forming his second cabinet in December 2012. Many political analysts in Tokyo said there was a strong message from Abe to Washington that Japan was ready to play a role in the major U.S. trade initiative.

     Nye thinks the British-German model of the 19th century does not fit well with the Sino-U.S. relationship in the 21st century. "Germany had passed Britain in total size by 1900, while China is not going to pass the U.S. in terms of overall power for decades to come, and I don't think they will even then," he said.         

     If that is the case, then all Abe and Obama need to do, as Abe pointed out in our interview, is make sure their alliance is still strong, so that the U.S.-Japan strategic joint deterrence can work toward stabilizing the entire Asia-Pacific region throughout the 21st century and contribute to building global prosperity.

     In achieving that goal, it really doesn't matter whether it is Japan or the U.S. that better fits the role played by Britain in the 19th century.