Belmont Club


Despite the unswerving support of the media for the Obama administration and their unending efforts to portray him as strong, decisive, and sagacious, nobody wants to share a foxhole with him. Time magazine reports that Japan is not sure what his word is worth:

When the U.S. defense secretary arrives in Asia this weekend, his biggest challenge may not be convincing China that America will give its full support to longtime ally Japan in the escalating dispute over islands in the East China Sea. His biggest challenge may be convincing Japan.

“There is a perception in Japan that the U.S. commitment is ambiguous,” says Yoichiro Sato, director of International Strategic Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, in southern Japan. “If China thinks Japan will hesitate to respond, or that America will hesitate, that will embolden the Chinese. It’s better that America sends a clear, explicit message now than have to respond to something worse later.”

In that case, get ready.

The tension is partly the consequence of China’s decision to increase its naval power. Dr. Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College points out that Beijing sees naval geography in terms of “three seas.” The “near seas” encompass the waters between the Asian coastline and the chain of islands which comprise Asia’s outer coast — the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea. It is all the space between mainland Asia and the Malay Barrier, Japan, and Korea.

All the space, in other words, between the China coast and the chain of islands which have since the Second World War constituted the American outpost from which the United States maintained its vigil on Asia.

But China’s new great-power status has impelled it to assert what some have called a 21st century version of the Monroe Doctrine.

The phrase “Chinese Monroe Doctrine” is singularly ill-suited. Whereas Latin American countries of the period saw it as a bulwark against further European colonization (a job performed by the British, since President Monroe had no navy to speak of then), the countries surrounding China want to be protected from expansion coming from the Middle Kingdom. The Monroe Doctrine only acquired its cachet of hegemony once America grew into the colossus of the New World. “The trouble,” as Holmes put it, “started in the 1890s, with the United States’ rise to hemispheric supremacy. Physical power tempts political leaders to use it.”

And power may tempt Chinese political leaders again, especially when there might be considerable mineral wealth in the waters disputed by China and its neighbors.

The Washington Post recently wrote that the conflicting claims in the area were driven, in part:

 … because of their growing need for the oil and gas reserves in the waters around them. Japan fears prolonged energy shortages as it turns from nuclear power, and China, already responsible for one-fifth of the world’s energy consumption, is racing to increase its share as its economy modernizes.

Janes reported that “China is constructing a major underground nuclear submarine base near Sanya, on Hainan Island off its southern coast.” Janes concluded that “the extent of construction indicates the Sanya base (also known as Yulin) could become a key future base for People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carriers and other power-projection ships.”

From the U.S.N.’s point of view, China’s burgeoning naval capability represents yet another attempt to turn the “blue” water “green.” Scholars of the U.S.N.’s period of rivalry with the Soviet Navy think that China — like the Soviets — may be trying to turn the South China Sea into something even greener than “green.” They may be trying to convert it into a bastion; a defended area of sea from which the U.S.N. will not only be placed at risk, but for all intents and purposes excluded. Adam Grissom, writing in Strategic Insights, noted that the alarm bell began ringing insistently among naval professionals when China deployed long-range sensors and weapons systems on Hainan.

It is in this context that Japan’s concerns must be evaluated. China is now able to challenge the United States further out to sea. The U.S.N. can counter by blinding satellites, via long range drones, and by a host of new technologies. But all of these risk going to the mat with the Middle Kingdom.

The Time article goes to the crux of the matter. If America has to come to Japan’s support, will the administration have the guts?

Officially, the U.S. takes no position on the Senkaku-Diaoyu dispute, or the many other conflicting territorial claims that are upsetting the region. Under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the U.S. is obliged to respond to any attack on Japan or its territory. Pressed to declare whether that security umbrella includes Senkaku/Diaoyu, U.S. officials have stated publicly that the treaty applies to “all areas under Japanese administration” — a seemingly clear nod to Senkaku/Diaoyu.

But Sato says that’s not clear enough. The alliance also calls for Japan to take “primary responsibility” for territorial defense. That could give the U.S. a loophole to avoid confronting its most important trading partner and leaving Japan on its own, he says.

“If Japan loses the islands and the U.S. doesn’t come to aid Japan, the credibility of not only the U.S. alliance with Japan but of all U.S. alliances globally would be severely harmed,” Sato says.

We all know that it is shameful of the Japanese to doubt the commitment of the Obama administration to its allies, but for some reason the apprehension exists.

The phrase “as good as his word” signifies the store by which others put one’s declarations of honor. Given the recent American performance in the Middle East, the Japanese should be able to take the administration’s commitment all the way to the bank. To the Bank of China, maybe, but that’s another story.

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