Asian Great Power Politics: Spring 2013

Image Credit: Washington Post

Interesting things happen in Asia. Over the last few months a lot of interesting things have happened. Yet as 2013 rolls forward I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the standard explanations  American commentators rely on to explain Asia’s great power politicking. This post presents a few themes neglected by many analysts but nevertheless critical to understanding Asian geopolitics. The observations I offer are very candid.  I group these observations along three broad themes: 

1)When Historical Memory Matters
2) Pivots Have Consequences 
3) Profit and Peace on the Korean Peninsula

While each of these sections touches upon affairs in the entire region, each point has a natural national focus. The first section centers on China, the second Japan, and the third Korea.  

1. When Historical Memory Matters. 

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with an old friend from Hong Kong. When she reported that a card game version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms was all the rage among the city’s well to do young 20-somethings, I took the opportunity to lodge my characteristic complaint about the dearth of books on Chinese military history published in English.

“Can you believe that there isn’t a single history of the Three Kingdoms in the English language? [1] They’ve translated the San Guo Yan Yi, but it is the fictional version, not the real thing. Maybe I will just have to go and write the book myself.”

“You should! Put all of that history in your head to use somewhere.”

“Ah, but I have enough trouble as it is with Chinese.  To write a book like that I would need to learn Japanese as well – all of the best histories of the period are written in Japanese.”

Her reaction was sharp and immediate. 

You can’t believe anything the Japanese say about history. Don’t you know the lies they put in their history text books and teach in their schools?”

“But those books are about the Second World War. When it comes to the Three Kingdoms Period it is much easier for the Japanese to be even-handed. They were not participants.”

“I could never trust the Japanese when it comes to history. They are not honest with the past and their leaders are not trustworthy. You do know what the Japanese did in Nanjing?”

“Yes, I know what happened in Nanjing and I know what Prime Minister Abe has been saying about it. But you cannot condemn the entire Japanese people for something that happened 60 years ago. Heck, the Japanese I am friends with are the least aggressive people I know!”

And on it went, I trying to convince her that the Japanese public takes the values set forth in their constitution seriously, and she insistent that Japan is as jingoistic and dishonest as nations come. The conversation was surprising and a tad disconcerting; my friend was not a backwater provincial hoodwinked by PRC education and censorship, but a free citizen of Hong Kong educated (in the field of political science no less!) in the United States.  The conversation was a sharp, personal reminder that Americans and Chinese have very different perceptions of Japan’s place in history.

Most Americans who know enough about Asia to distinguish Japan from other Asian nations associate the country with harmless novelties. The Japanese are the kind of people who eat fish without cooking it, like robots a little too much, are altogether more polite than they need to be, use really complicated emoticons, have the quirkiest game shows on the planet, buy underwear from vending machines, and are crazy enough to not just invent Hello Kitty, but build a theme park devoted to her. If Japanese militarism registers with Americans at all, it is usually for the sake of a few laughs:

This image of the Japanese as the quirky game show contestants of the world, combined with 50 years of peaceful alliance, have dispelled any lingering trust issues Americans might have about the country or its people. Indeed, when the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked Americans what countries they trusted most, Japan came second only to Great Britain. [2]

Things are seen differently in China. Between 1937 and 1945 some 10 to 20 million men, women, or children died because of Japanese campaigns. That is more than 20 times the number of Americans who died in that terrible global war. [3] The Chinese have been slow to move past these horrors. Chinese pop culture ensures that even those born long after these events took place are well acquainted with their details. While American film makers feel a moral obligation to tell the story of the Second World War from the Japanese perspective, Chinese directors have no such compunctions. In Chinese cinema, Japanese people are most commonly depicted as vicious and vulgar soldiers who make perfect cannon fodder for the hero of the tale. [4]

Noting the clear differences between the way Americans and Chinese people think about Japan is not novel. Most observers recognize these historical tensions. Less recognized is the way these tensions and narratives shape the decisions made by the leaders of Asia’s great powers.

Consider the recent border dispute between India and China. Three weeks ago a PLA platoon crossed 19km over the border between Aksai Chin and Ladakh and set up camp. In New Delhi there was a minor political crisis; for three weeks Indian media personalities, opposition politicians, analysts, and military men protested and pontificated. In China things were different. There was no heated rhetoric emanating from Beijing. The Chinese press was silent; the dispute was covered on the margins, never reaching the front page. Even though the dispute ended on terms favorable to China, the usual wave of national triumphalism just waiting to erupt on Weibo never came. More important matters had captured the Chinese imagination: the week Chinese troops withdrew the Global Times and Peoples Daily published op-eds by Chinese academics questioning Japan’s claim to Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands.

Notice the gap between the percentage who feel that China’s 
relationship with Japan is “hostile” and the 
percentage that believes the same thing about
 Sino-Indian relations.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project. 
Growing Concerns in China about Inequality, Corruption.”
 (Washington: Pew Research Center). 16 October 2012. p. 13.

All of this reflects broader Chinese attitudes towards Japan and India. Less than a fourth of Chinese citizens surveyed by Pew believe that China has a hostile relationship with India; more than double that number believe  China and Japan’s relationship is marked by hostility. There is little evidence to suggest that these feelings come from government propaganda efforts. The reverse is true: government propaganda uses these beliefs to bolster the government’s legitimacy.  Narrative is at the crux of the problem. “China Dream” [5] is Xi Jinping’s spin on this narrative, but its contours have been adopted by the Chinese elite for at least a decade. “China is resurgent, returning, taking back its former glory. The imperialist nations that shamed China will never do so again.”

The legitimacy of the Chinese government rests on its ability to live up to this narrative. As long as this is the dominant narrative pushed by leaders of the CCP, Beijing will stands its ground when facing national embarrassment at the hand of old enemies. And none of China’s imperialist enemies was so malicious in its heyday or infamous in the present as the Japanese Empire.

2. Pivots Have Consequences

That is the Chinese side of things. Lets turn to their rivals across the sea.

The Japanese have been spectacularly active diplomats in 2013. Over the last few months they have restarted talks with the Russian government to reach an official peace agreement, agreed to give the Philippines a set of $11 billion dollar patrol boats to ensure Chinese ships stay out of Filipino waters, struck a deal allowing Taiwanese ships to fish near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, doubled the number of jets scrambled over the South China Sea, declared that the Japanese Self Defense Force has the right to develop pre-emptive strike capabilities, sent a flurry of ambassadors and special representatives to ASEAN member states, joined the American led Pacific-free trade negotiations, placed its final touches on a nuclear plant capable of producing nuclear grade weapons, invested its reserves in the South East Asian bonds market, held bilateral talks with Vietnam on maritime security, set up a fund for investing in Myanmar’s infrastructure and reaffirmed its promise to waive the $6 billion dollars of debt Myanmar owed the Japanese government, and announced that it would begin talks to strike a trade deal with Mongolia while building the country a new world-class airport.

This flurry in diplomatic activity has surprised many observers; Tokyo’s current energy stands in marked contrast to the moribundity that defined its foreign policy over the last decade. Washington has been positively alarmed with Japan’s activities and has not kept their discomfort secret.

What accounts for Tokyo’s new found assertiveness? American observers tend to focus their answers on the person of Shinzo Abe. This focus is misplaced; many of these activities began well before Prime Minister Abe took his current office. Moreover, this is his second tour as Prime Minister. His first run did not display such vigor. Perhaps the man has changed. It is more likely that the position that he helms has changed instead.

Japan’s strategic environment has changed in recent times. The change began on the other side of the Pacific when the Obama Administration declared its decision to “pivot” to Asia. Strategy is no different in America than it is elsewhere; to strategize is to prioritize, to open doors at the cost of closing others. The “pivot” to Asia was just such a choice. To pivot to is also to pivot away, and the administration’s declaration was designed to assure America’s Asian allies that they would take priority over the superpower’s many other concerns. The primary audience for the announcement was the string of democracies that marks the Asian periphery. Why America sought their support was clear: central to the United States’s strategic vision is a ring of solid allies to be arrayed against resurgent China if the need arises. Major Robert Chamberlain describes this strategy as “Containment Lite” in an essay for Armed Forces Journal:

The grand strategic solution to this challenge is “containment-lite.” In this approach, America seeks out smaller regional states threatened by China’s growing power and facilitates their balancing strategies by offering a much less threatening alternative than simply bandwagoning behind China’s regional aspirations. Thereby, American power in Asia is pooled with smaller states and incipient Chinese militarism is checked. However, unlike the Cold War, Chinese membership in regional organizations is encouraged, expanding Chinese trade is welcomed and Chinese economic growth is applauded. The goal is to raise the cost of militarizing international disputes such that the only rational Chinese alternative is to seek pacific resolution through the tools of economic or diplomatic power. [6]

As it turns out, America’s allies were listening when the United States announced its pivot. Japan did more than listen; it acted.

First, the back-drop: a delicate dance between two jealous giants is little fun. For the last decade the Japanese, as acutely aware of China’s rising power as anybody in Washington, has tried to court both suitors.  The source of some frustration in Washington, it is a game played by many of United State’s friends.   Americans have little sympathy for their allies’ dilemma; what Americans seem to forget is that the United States has the least to lose in all of this. If the dance does not go her way and China becomes the central hub of all Asia, America will still be a first class super power. She will retain a fully independent foreign policy. Even a disastrous war is unlikely to scar her cities or kill many of her people. The same cannot be said for India, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, or Japan.

Thus the uncomfortable position Japan found herself in – she could not move to closer to one giant without standing square in the firing line of the other. The American nuclear umbrella ensured that Washington would win out if the Japanese were forced to make a decision, but the Japanese were far less sure America would reciprocate. Heavy commitments in the Near East signaled Washington’s true priorities. Japan could not afford to be assertive when its defensive line was so preoccupied.

The “rebalance to Asia” announcement made clear that these preoccupations were over. The Far East would be the focus now. Alas, if Washington hoped that publicly declaring the fact would increase American influence in the region then they were sorely mistaken. [7] The effect has been the opposite. By publicly guaranting American commitment to her allies’ defense, the United States has given them the  space they need to pursue foreign policy goals with an independence they never would have employed when they knew that they would have to bear the consequences of their actions alone.

it is for this reason that suggestions like those made by the New York Time‘s editorial board asking Japan drop its “unnecessary nationalism” are not just arrogant; they are unrealistic. [8] While the Japanese might tone their rhetoric down for diplomacy’s sake, there is no compelling reason for them to change their actions. If American designs in the region are to succeed then we need the Japanese. They know this. As Prime Minister Abe wrote a few weeks after assuming office: In a period of American strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region, the US needs Japan as much as Japan needs the US. [9]

American observers have been slow to realize the consequences of their pivot. [10] Peter Lee, who writes a column for the Asia Times Online, is one of the few to recognize the connection between American and Japanese policies. His analysis is compelling enough that I will break my customary rules and place their citation in the body of the post instead of burying them in the foot notes:

Japan Stirs Campbell’s U.S. Pivot Soup
Peter Lee. Asian Times Online. 26 April 2013.

U.S. Hoisted by its Own Pivot Petard
Peter Lee. Asian Times Online. 10 May 2013.

Fox Leads Tiger into China’s Crosshairs
Peter Lee. Asia Times Online. 17 May 2013.

Almost five years ago I suggested that America’s relationship with China is not “the most important bilateral relationship in the world this century.”[11] As I noted:

Our relationship with China is nowhere near as important as our relationship with another Asian country- Japan. …Our relationship with Japan is the foundation of all other American activities in Asia. If we want to get our “Asia policy” right, we have to get our relationship with Japan right first. [12]

This judgment has aged surprisingly well. As recent events suggest, the real spark in the East Asian tinderbox is not China, but Japan. If our relations with Tokyo fail then our relations with Beijing will not succeed; to guide the rise of China is to manage the decline of Japan.  

This whole thing ought to serve as a cautionary tale for all of those think-tank types who hope to rope India into an alliance with the United States. When the leading members of India’s foreign policy establishment published their strategic vision for the Deccan republic in Non-Alignment 2.0, American observers were shocked (shocked!) that India’s relationship with the United States was relegated to a few stray bullet points. [13] The report puts China front and center, expressing skepticism that a stronger relationship with the United States would guarantee American aid once the bullets began to fly. Does Washington really want to change this perception? Is America prepared to defend and support an India whose foreign policy is as assertive as Japan’s is proving to be?

 I do not think many have considered the question.

3. Profit and Peace on the Korean Peninsula  

The recent crisis in North and South Korean relations have brought international attention to the peninsula. Many editorials and opinion pieces were written in response, each explaining how America can best temper the region’s boiling tensions. No one has stopped to ask an important question: What interest does Washington have in defusing the situation?

Observers seem to miss just how well the status quo suits everyone involved. Running the thin line between war and peace is a dangerous game and it is a game that may prove harder to control than the interested parties anticipate. But who really wants a war on the Korean Peninsula? Who stands to profit by breaching the peace?

The North Korean regime does not. One has difficulty dreaming up a scenario where war does not end with the destruction of the regime all together. While totalitarian regimes do not have a great track record when it comes to acting in a rational manner, the North Koreans know the forces arrayed against them. They know what war will mean for them.

South Korea has no more reason for war than its adversary. South Korea is prosperous now; war would change that. They would suffer the brunt of the war’s potentially catastrophic human cost, and would be saddled with the enormous burden of reconstructing a country scarred by war and decades of totalitarian rule. 

China, for its part, would lose a client state and face the justified extension of American military power right up to its front door (more on that in a bit).

This brings us to the United States and Japan. What do they have to lose if war comes to Korea? Korea itself.

This is another problem of historical memory. All of the grievances and historical baggage that the Chinese bring to their relations with Japan is matched or exceeded by the Koreans. It was Seoul, not Beijing, that withdrew its foreign minister from a scheduled trip to Tokyo after 168 members of the Diet visited the Yasukuni Shrine. Recent public opinion polls

Koreans protesting visits to the Yakusuni Shrine.

Source: The Japan Times.

show that the Korean populace trusts China more than it does Japan. [14] Following the public’s lead, Prime Minister Park will be the first Korean Prime Minister to visit Beijing before traveling to Tokyo first.

There are deep historical roots for all of this. Korea has been a part of the Chinese sphere since the Han Dynasty; the two have a history of presenting a united front in the face of Japanese provoactions since the Imjin War in the 1590s.The current alliance structure in Northeast Asia is a historical anomaly. In a world where the two Koreas are united in peace, there is no guarantee that Seoul would reject an offer to join hands with Beijing – especially if the offer was prompted by perceived Japanese aggression.

Fear of North Korea is the glue that binds South Korea, Japan, and the United States together. Washington has nothing to gain from war – but nor does the United States have much to gain from undisturbed peace. Tension keeps South Korea dependent on the alliance, and provides a pretense Japanese and the American statesmen can use to accomplish broader strategic goals. Consider, for example, the logistical maneuvers the two allies have put in place in response to North Korea’s most recent provocations:

B-2 and B-52 bombers, radar-evading F-22s and anti-missile system vessels like the USS John S. McCain represented the initial U.S. response to North Korea’s repeated, explicit threats to launch nuclear strikes against the United States.

The U.S. also said it would shift THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System) to defend Guam from missile attack. And Tokyo’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said Japan would permanently deploy Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-missile systems in Okinawa to counter North Korean missiles. [15]

These weapon systems will aid South Korea, Japan, and the United States in a conflict with North Korea. They will also prove useful if relations with Beijing begin to sour.  

So to return to the original question: what interest does the United States have in resolving the situation on the peninsula? Very little. North Korea is just too useful of an enemy to lose.


[1] The obscene nature of this travesty is explained with more depth in T. Greer. “Troubles With the Chinese Military Tradition.” The Scholar’s Stage. 23 March 2013.

[2] Pew Global Attitudes Project. “U.S. Public, Experts, Differ on China Policies.”(Washington:Pew Research Center).12 September 2012. p. 8. A recent article from The Diplomat provides a fair example of how American opinion makers perceive Japanese militarism:

One of the interesting outcomes of the postwar Constitution is that the public bought Article 9 and it has often been presented as a source of pride for Japanese—theirs is the one country to renounce war. In conversations with many Japanese over the years I have occasionally used the term “guntai” in reference to the SDF. I am always corrected that the SDF is “jietai” (or rikujô jietai for ground forces), meaning a self-defense force as opposed to the meaning of guntai, which refers to an army and implies offensive capabilities. I have been told that the U.S. has a guntai, while Japan does not. While from an American perspective, it is difficult to see the difference beyond the fact that the Japanese do not maintain offensive weapons like aircraft carriers—oh, right, they have helicopter carriers now—don’t have ICBMs, and don’t participate in offensive actions alone or with their allies, from a Japanese perspective the difference is real and allows for the conceptualization of Japan as a country that does not maintain a military or at least not in a way that other countries do. In other words, Article 9 is a basis for a kind of Japanese exceptionalism built on the idea that Japan is the only country to renounce war.

John Traphogan. “Revising the Japanese Constitution.” The Diplomat. 17 May 2013.

[3] Wikipedia has an informative entry on this topic. It lists the number of American dead as a bit less than 420,000.

[4] Anti-Japanese themes are not restricted to theaters; even more common are TV dramas devoted to the topic:

According to a local news report, 70 of the 200 primetime dramas on major TV networks in 2012 were about the Sino-Japanese War. Sources from Hengdian Movie and Television City [a drama and film production compound] in Zhejiang province said [zh] that among its 300,000 contracted actors, 60 percent have performed the role of Japanese soldiers.

Oiwan Lam. “China’s Anti-Japanese TV War Dramas Knocked For Vulgarity.” Global Voices Online. 14 April 2013. 

See also:  ‘Shanghaist.’ “More and More Anti-Japanese Dramas Being Produced.” The Shanghaist. 20 March 2013; ” China Cracks Down on over the top Anti-Japanese Dramas.South China Morning Post. 17 May 2013.

[5] In my opinion “China Dream” is a more accurate translation of “中国梦” than “Chinese Dream.” 中国 means “China.” It is occasionally used the same way we might use the word “Chinese”, but it usually refers to the Chinese state or things unique to the Chinese state. Over at Tea Leaf Nation Liang Pen takes this even further, arguing for a dynamic translation of the term as “National Chinese Dream.”

[6]  Robert Chamberlin. “Back to Reality: Why Land Power Trumps in the Rebalance Towards Asia.” Armed Forces Journal. May 2013.

[7] It seems fairly clear that this was their intent. Mark Manyin et. al. “Pivot the Pacific: The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalancing’ Towards Asia” Congressional Research Service. 28 March 2012. p. 7.

[8] “Japan’s Unnecessary Nationalism.” New York Times. 24 April 2013. 

[9] Shinzo Abe. “Asia’s Democratic Diamond.” Project Syndicate. 27 December 2012.  I recommend reading his whole essay (it is short). Beyond explicitly connecting the pivot to America’s “need” of Japan,  Prime Minister Abe’s worries about the South China Sea becoming “a Chinese lake” are laid out in language clear and unmistakable. 

[10] Chinese observers, on the other hand, see matters clearly: 

“The U.S. has been criticised – not least by Beijing – for giving its partners the false expectation that it might back them in their territorial disputes with China. “This signal by the U.S. [of its desire to strengthen alliances] may embolden some U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines to pursue more hard-line positions for their territorial disputes with China,” argues Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University. “They may think that the U.S. will lend them unconditional support. This perception may lead to unintended consequences”. …In its newly released Defence White Paper, Beijing again criticised the U.S. rebalancing, which it said was making the situation in the region ‘tenser.’ ”

Trefor Moss. “America’s Pivot to Asia: A Report Card.” The Diplomat. 5 May 2013.

[11] The phrase belongs to Hillary Clinton.  See her “Security and Opportunity for the Twenty First Century.” Foreign Affairs. Nov/Dec 2007. 

[12] T. Greer. “The Future of East Asian Security (i.e. The Future of the U.S.-Japanese Relations).” The Scholar’s Stage. 9 June 2008.

[13] Some typical examples: Ashley Tellis, et. al. “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace panel discussion. 12 March 2013;  Sadahand Dhune. “Failure 2.0.” Foreign Policy. 18 March 2012; Lisa Curtis. “China’s Rise and India’s Obvious Partner (the U.S.)” Heritage Institute: The Foundry Blog. 5 march 2013.

[14] Atsushi Hiroshima. “Poll: Japanese like South Korea more than China, but South Koreans Like China Better.” Asashi Shimbun. 8 May 2013. 

[15] Paul Eckert. “Analysis: In Bitter irony for China, North Korea Furthers U.S. Strategic Goals.Reuters. 10 April 2013.

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I am glad you're back. You're work is always informative and provocative. On Sino-US relations, have you read Contest for Supremacy or Red Star Rising Over the Pacific?