Belmont Club

Hotline to History

An AFP article covers efforts by leaders of China and Japan to set up a hotline between their leaders in the wake of naval incidents between the two countries. “The premiers of China and Japan agreed Monday to set up a hotline following a series of tense naval incidents, and to resume formal talks on jointly exploring offshore gas and oil fields.” The incidents occurred when “Chinese naval helicopters twice buzzed Japanese destroyers, and a Chinese marine survey ship pursued a Japanese coastguard vessel.” Another AFP story described the incidents which took place on April 8 and 21 near the island of Okinawa. A Japanese destroyer was monitoring a Chinese flotilla of 2 submarines and 8 surface vessels. The story is a reminder that international conflicts are part of the long history of regions and nations. Although it may be hard to believe, Washington, D.C., is not the exclusive source of the world’s problems.

According to Japan’s defence ministry, the sea-borne helicopter approached the Japanese destroyer Asayuki some 500 kilometres (300 miles) south of the main Okinawan island in the latest incident.

The helicopter flew at an altitude as low as 50 metres (165 feet) and twice flew around the destroyer, approaching as close as 90 metres (295 feet).

Between April 7 and 9, the Chinese fleet conducted drills in the East China Sea near Okinawa and then moved to the Pacific Ocean on April 10, Kyodo news agency said, quoting Japanese government officials.

Mainichi described a second, more recent event. “A Chinese marine research vessel chased a Japan Coast Guard (JCG) survey vessel in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea on Monday, JCG officials said.”

The latest incident occurred on Monday afternoon in the East China Sea, about 320 kilometers northwest of Amami Oshima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture.

A crewmember of the Chinese ship, the 1,690-ton Haijian 51, demanded by radio that the JCG’s 3,000-ton Shoyo discontinue its marine survey, claiming that Chinese rules apply to the area.

The Haijian pursued the Shoyo for about three hours from around 2 p.m. and came as close as one kilometer to the Japanese vessel at one point, forcing the JCG to discontinue its survey mission.

This is the first time that a Chinese vessel has approached a Japanese survey ship and asked it to discontinue a marine survey.

There may be more firsts as China feels its oats.  But they are not really firsts. The historical rivalries and differences are reasserting themselves and the Chinese and Japanese leaders were setting up an infrastructure to manage them. Max Boot argues that recent events have thrown cold water on naive notions that the Age of Aquarius was descending on northeast Asia. Despite its economic dynamism, the region remains a rough neighborhood. Even relatively left-wing governments are rediscovering that the Chinese dragon, while sleek, still breathes fire — and the North Korean Hermit Kingdom harbors a crazy man and not a sage. Boot writes:

What of America’s two most important allies in Northeast Asia — South Korea and Japan? Not long ago, relations with Seoul were frosty because it was pursuing a “sunshine policy” of outreach to North Korea that the George W. Bush administration (rightly) viewed as one of the world’s most dangerous rogue states. More recently, relations with Japan became strained after the election of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009 on a platform of cozying up to China, rethinking the 50-year-old alliance between the U.S. and Japan, and moving U.S. bases out of Okinawa. Now Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has had to undertake an embarrassing U-turn by agreeing to an earlier plan that would move a U.S. Marine Corps air base from one part of Okinawa to another but keep it on the island.

In justifying his reversal, Hatoyama said that “we cannot afford to reduce the U.S. military deterrence” because of “political uncertainties remaining in East Asia.” There is no shortage of such uncertainties with the Chinese navy becoming increasingly assertive in moving into Japanese waters and with North Korea, which has missiles that can easily hit Japan, sinking a South Korean naval ship with the loss of 46 sailors.

The latter incident naturally has focused attention in Seoul and served to accelerate the reaffirmation of close American-Korean ties that had already begun with the election of the more conservative President Lee Myung-bak in 2008. The anti-Americanism that had been prevalent in South Korea only a few years ago has all but disappeared, and it is not only (or even mainly) because of President Obama’s vaunted charm. It is largely because South Korea has tried detente and found that it did nothing to moderate the aggressive behavior of the North Korean regime.

The most important presence in the arena, and indeed in the rest of the world, is the referee: the third man in the ring. And that is the United States of America. Boot argues there is still no substitute for American leadership. The global economic woes have afflicted everyone.  So in relative power terms the United States will for the foreseeable future continue to play a lead role. The security map of the world is still divided into the following regions: EUCOM, CENTCOM, PACOM, AFRICACOM, SOUTHCOM and NORTHCOM. “The very fact that the entire world is divided up into American military commands is significant. There is no French, Indian or Brazilian equivalent — not yet even a Chinese counterpart. It is simply assumed without much comment that American soldiers will be central players in the affairs of the entire world. It is also taken for granted that a vast network of American bases will stretch from Germany to Japan — more than 700 in all, depending on how you count. They constitute a virtual American empire of Wal-Mart-style PXs, fast-food restaurants, golf courses and gyms. … They may resent us, but they fear their neighbors, and that’s the ultimate buttress of our status as the world’s sole superpower.”

But this power has to be used intelligently. The power of the referee rests in great part on his predictability. Everybody should know what he will call a foul. When Washington triangulates in the wrong way or relies on a Rube Goldberg scheme full of unknown variables to achieve its ends, a policy disaster may ensue. Imagine what would happen if America tried to re-architecture its Northeast Asian alliances in the middle of crisis. That would be to court disaster. Yet that’s exactly what may be happening in the Middle East. The Wall Street Journal says President Barack Obama’s “dream of knitting together a kind of loose American-Arab-Israeli front to stand up to Iran and its nuclear program” was in a shambles.

In a few violent minutes at sea Monday, that all went out the window. … All this began unfolding before the sun had even risen over Mr. Obama’s Chicago home, where he was spending the Memorial Day weekend. Israeli commandos stormed a convoy of ships headed for the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian supplies to Palestinians there in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. …

Worse for the administration, this twist complicates its Iran strategy. The United Nations Security Council has been moving toward a resolution imposing new economic sanctions on Iran, but that’s now in danger of being slowed or sidetracked by the inevitable clamoring to condemn Israel.

It was a complex undertaking, replete with feints and bilateral talks. It had more moving parts than a Swiss watch. Then “nuance” met Murphy in the Clausewitzian “fog of war” and Murphy won. The Gaza flotilla upset the calculations and now the question is whether it can all be glued back together again. Simplicity has its virtues. The purpose of the Japanese-Chinese “hotline” was to simplify tense situations, to cut through the ambiguity of events, to make everything clear to everybody just as the cards are placed on the top of poker table. Then things can be settled within a well-known and accepted strategic framework. Japan and South Korea can call upon its ally, and America, if it does not want to muddle the situation, must act the ally in turn. All that clarity may have gone out the window in the Middle East in efforts to execute a complicated minuet. The WSJ described the steps of that intricate dance. Obama would pretend to beat up on Netanyahu, then at a precisely the right moment, he would reverse course. Brilliant, no?

Their feuding actually has had an element of theatrics—with the theatrics suiting both men’s interests. President Obama’s strategy has been as much about Iran, his paramount security concern, as Israel or the Palestinians. He calculated at the outset of his term that he needed to get tough with Mr. Netanyahu to push him into peace talks with the Palestinians.

Forcing talks, Mr. Obama figured, was crucial to his dream of knitting together a kind of loose American-Arab-Israeli front to stand up to Iran and its nuclear program. Without movement on the Palestinian question to ease Arab public opinion, the president calculated, moderate Arab leaders would be less willing to cooperate on Iran.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is so weak he needs all the help he can get. If that meant getting tough with Mr. Netanyahu, it was a price worth paying.

From Mr. Netanyahu’s point of view, standing up to a new, young American president trying to enhance American relations with the Arab and Islamic worlds wasn’t all bad either. Doubts about Mr. Obama (whose approval in Israel has plunged) only strengthened Mr. Netanyahu’s hand in standing up to him.

But for both men, this feuding had reached the point of diminishing returns, and they’ve been trying to turn things around. Israel apologized for embarrassing Vice President Joe Biden by announcing more East Jerusalem construction just as Mr. Biden was visiting.

The Obama administration has been talking up security ties to Israel. Two weeks ago, the president met with 37 Jewish Democrats in Congress and told them that he had spent more time one-on-one with Mr. Netanyahu than any other world leader, and that ties were solid.

But like a traffic light showing green in all four directions of an intersection, a foreign policy based on complicated signaling and on theater was bound to become an accident waiting to happen. It is possible that as Washington surveys the wreckage of its efforts the terrible words of Napoleon to keep things simple will come to mind. “Give your orders so that they cannot be disobeyed,” the Great Corsican said. So too would be his adage to rely on your allies and not on your enemies. “A general in the power of the enemy has no orders to give. Whoever obeys him is a criminal.” That way you know which way to face, a problem which sometimes afflicts diplomats. And above all the foreign policy wonks might have remembered that old saw familiar to everyone in military history: “order, counterorder, disorder.” In the world as it happens everything is potentially once step away from a Chinese Fire Drill. And that may be where Washington finds itself.

The raid particularly complicates dealing with Turkey. The Turks once were Israel’s best friend in the Islamic world. They’ve been drifting away, though, and essentially sponsored the Palestinian relief flotilla that Israeli forces confronted Monday.

As it happens, Turkey also occupies one of the rotating seats on the Security Council right now, and has been maneuvering to help Iran escape more economic sanctions. The U.S. is trying to dissuade the Turks from giving aid and comfort to Iran. Monday’s tragedy at sea won’t make those conversations with Turkey any easier, proving anew that the law of unintended consequences is always in effect in the Middle East.

Back to the drawing board.

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