What Obama Should Say About China in Japan

A ChinaFile Conversation

On Wednesday, Barack Obama will land in Tokyo beginning a week-long trip to four of China's neighbors—but not to China itself.

In Obama’s stops in Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, and Kuala Lampur, the specter of China will loom large. This will be especially pronounced in Tokyo, where the big unanswered question is how involved the United States would be if China seized the Diaoyu, the disputed islands administered by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus. We asked contributors what President Obama should say about China in Tokyo. —The Editors


During his visit to Tokyo later this week, President Obama needs to strike a careful balance. His message in Tokyo needs to be two-fold: he needs to reassure Japan, but he also needs to encourage Japan to look for any opening for high-level diplomatic engagement with China.

First and foremost, Obama needs to reassure Japan of U.S.’ defense commitment.There has been rising concern in Japan about whether the U.S. can be relied upon to come to Japan’s defense should the situation grow more aggravated, particularly around the Senkaku Islands area. The U.S. response to allegations of Syrian use of chemical weapons last year and Russia’s aggressive behavior in Crimea make many in Japan seriously concerned about U.S. capacity and willingness to act decisively were a similar situation to occur in the East China Sea. Furthermore, many in Japan have expressed concern about what the Obama administration has in mind for “operationalizing a new model of major power relations.” Obama must articulate in Japan that the U.S. anchors its Asia policy in regional alliances, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is among such critical anchors.

At the same time, however, Obama also has to encourage Tokyo to stabilize its relationship with Beijing. This, however, is often easier said than done. In that context, he needs to make it clear (in private, as nobody, including Japanese people, wants to see their leader being lectured by a U.S. President in public) that, while Washington appreciates Japan’s grievances over Chinese behavior, it should refrain from demonizing China. In private, he also has to communicate that Japan should strictly refrain from the behaviors that give China excuse to blame Japan for Beijing’s own aggressive rhetoric and behavior, such as the recent seizure of Japanese commercial vessels “as a part of wartime reparation.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently said that the window of dialogue is always open for China. Obama should encourage Abe to continue to pursue policy that reflects this statement, thereby putting the onus on China to take the next step.

Overall, the most important message that Obama has to deliver in Japan is that, while differences may exist in approaches to specific policy issues, the United States and Japan share an interest in welcoming and encouraging constructive behavior from China that respects established international rules and norms, and that they stand united against any behavior to destabilize the status quo by force.

President Obama will visit four countries on China’s periphery this week, three of which (Japan, South Korea and the Philippines) are treaty allies and one (Malaysia) that is an emerging security partner. Look for Obama to emphasize, including in Tokyo, that the United States seeks positive and stable relations with Beijing and encourages countries throughout the region to do the same.

Further messages in Japan will echo three principal themes of the trip—that the U.S. rebalance to Asia is real, that the policy is multifaceted (i.e. not primarily concerned with security issues), and that U.S. alliances and partnerships provide important platforms for regional and global cooperation.

On security issues in particular, I’ll be looking carefully to see how the president addresses three specific issues. First, will Obama say explicitly that Article V of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty covers the Senkaku Islands? High-level U.S. officials have repeated this talking point in recent years, but it will have special meaning coming directly from the president himself.

Second, will the President single out China for engaging in uniquely provocative and destabilizing actions? Many observers thought National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s remarks at Georgetown University in November—especially during the brief question and answer period at the end—missed the mark in this regard by appearing to draw equivalence between the actions of Japan and China.

And third, will the president voice strong support for Japanese constitutional reinterpretation on the issue of collective self-defense? My hope (and expectation) is that the answers to all three questions will an unambiguous “yes.”

But the most powerful message Obama will send to Beijing during his time in Tokyo won’t actually have anything to do with China at all. Instead, it will be about the role of Japan as a responsible, generous and positive contributor to regional and international issues. On that score, Obama will highlight U.S.-Japan cooperation in Southeast Asia; U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation with India, Australia and South Korea; and the two countries’ collaboration on global issues, including climate, Syria, Ukraine, Iran and Afghanistan.

Quite distinct from the territorial row in the East China Sea, it is the many values and interests that the United States and Japan share in Asia and the world that will speak volumes to and draw distinctions with China.

President Obama is headed to a nervous Tokyo that needs clear signs of U.S. endurance and credibility. He should abandon the term “pivot,” which is causing more angst and confusion than reassurance and clarity.

The “pivot” now appears ill-conceived for three reasons. The first is a mistake of strategic conception. Yes, Asia is of emerging consequence in world affairs: all post-Cold War presidents have recognized this. And, China has had the potential to pose the greatest challenge to the United States since it became the prime actor in world affairs. Without a doubt, Asia needs more American attention and resources. But the U.S. is a global superpower with vital interests in several, interlinked, regions. There can be no Asia policy without a global strategy. For example, Japan gets most of its energy from the Middle East where Washington has played a stabilizing role. And what about India? How will Delhi play the role we imagine for it in Asia if we mishandle Afghanistan? Furthermore, all Asian powers watch Washington’s handling of the other revisionist states – Russia and Iran— for clues about its fortitude in Asia. U.S. grand strategy must account for these facts.

The second mistake is one of implementation. It is not possible for Washington to play a consequential role in Asia while drastically cutting its defense budget, and demonstrating an uneven commitment to the Trans Pacific Partnership. A U.S. military second to none is the sin qua non of stability in Asia. The TPP is the gold standard of multilateral trade agreements, integrating Washington more deeply into Asia. But many countries have spent political capital on the TPP and worry that Washington is not doing the same. Tokyo needs to see the President build support for the pact in the United States.

Finally, no one believes that the pivot is “not about China.” Why keep up the charade? It has gained the U.S. nothing in Beijing, where Chinese policymakers view it with hostility. The U.S. China strategy should be what it has been for two decades, built upon the dual pillars of engaging China while balancing its power.

Instead of reaching for a new strategic masterstroke, the President should settle for something more mundane: building on the Asia work of his predecessors. If a slogan is needed how about an old one: “speak softly and carry a big stick?”

First and foremost, Obama needs to reassure the Japanese about America’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, and more specifically its commitment to protecting the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands alongside the Japanese, should the Chinese side attempt to seize the islands. There have been reports that the U.S. response to Ukraine has caused disquiet in Tokyo about Washington’s ability to stand up to powerful states. I do not believe that Japan can be equated with Ukraine (the latter is not a key ally and a linchpin in U.S. strategy in Europe, like Japan is in Asia), and neither do the Japanese seriously think that Obama’s stance towards Kiev is comparable to his Japan policy. Nevertheless, the fact that such reports got out probably means that the Japanese are sending a signal—they want a much firmer stance towards China from the US.

My (admittedly unrealistic) ‘wish list’ would also include that the Obama administration abandons the U.S.’s official stance of “not taking sides” towards the territoriality of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It is the U.S. that handed over the islands to the Japanese in 1972, so in a way it de facto recognized the islands as belonging to Japan. Washington has thus played a key role in this dispute, and claiming that it “takes no sides” while simultaneously stating that the islands fall under the remit of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance is deeply unhelpful. It could embolden (and perhaps already has) the Chinese to adopt aggressive tactics towards the Japanese in this dispute. It also serves to ensure that Japanese anxieties with regard to the U.S.’s commitment to the Alliance will continue to fester. If Japanese anxieties are not placated, Japan could seek to enhance its military capabilities further, and lead to an arms race in the region.

Alliances are built on the delicate balancing between the dynamics of ‘abandonment (i.e. fear that my ally would not support me in a time of need)’ and ‘entrapment (fear that my ally would drag me into an unnecessary war)’, and needs constant maintenance. Obama is understandably in a difficult position, as he has to navigate between these two factors. It is perfectly understandable that he does not want to see America pulled into a military standoff with China because of Japan’s disputes with the Chinese. Yet, at some point, he must make his stance clearer: does the US want to reach some sort of entente with China, even if that means sacrificing Japan and its interests? Or would Obama like to maintain US military supremacy in the region, with the help of its regional allies, including Japan? If Obama does not wish to see China, an authoritarian, one-party state, becoming the regional hegemon in the Asia-Pacific, then he should know which policy he has to ultimately choose.

Once President Obama has finished reminding Mr. Abe that the U.S. commitment to defend all the territories administered by Japan is unlimited and unconditional, he can next assure  Mr. Abe that China's post-2008 excursion into noisy navalism and would-be expansionism must end in a debacle—the alternative would be too catastrophic even for a reckless leadership. But in the meantime, China's words and deeds are generating a real threat that in turn propels a process of coalescence from India to Japan, in which Japan must shoulder an unequal burden by paying for strategic roads in India, submarines in Vietnam and the building of real military forces for the Philippines, whose ports Japanese warships should start visiting on a regular basis. After reminding Mr. Abe that China is 70% good, 30% bad as well as a great market for all—both Toyota and Nissan are working hard to recover their market share which declined from 20% to 16%  after the 2010 incidents—Mr. Obama can insist on the importance of reinforcing good China by firmly resisting bad China. Finally Mr. Obama should clearly declare that Japan must accept the discipline imposed by its strategic predicament; it cannot afford to lose support for itself and thus for the entire coalition because of the absurdly unhistorical Yasukuni museum (the ashes can stay there) and because of Antarctic  whaling that is an important problem for the splendidly  supportive Australian ally. Now that China's conduct has forced Japan to become an independent strategic actor again, it pays full price for whatever is sub-optimal in its conduct, and at least those two irritants must be eliminated. Not to do so would mean that Japan does not accept the discipline of strategy, that it is not a serious power.

I am assuming that this conversation will occur in private.

First, avoid the ringing clichés. We already know that all sides are, at least in the abstract, in favor of stable relations, peace and stability in Asia and the world, and cooperation for the good of all. The issues are how to achieve these given the obstacles that impede reaching those goals.

Second, what the Japanese government needs are clear statements of what the United States would do and under what circumstances. When a PACOM admiral says that he sees climate change as the worst threat to Asian stability, that sets, as Mike Green put it, alarm bells ringing in Tokyo. Although Japan is not the Philippines, similar concerns ensued when CNO Greenert said in Manila that “of course” the U.S. would help the Philippines ”I don’t know in what that help would be specifically. I mean, we have an obligation because we have a treaty. But I don’t know in what capacity that help is.”

Strategic ambiguity is good up to a point. The operative clause of the NATO treaty is that an attack of one member is to be considered an attack on all. The US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, by contrast, says

In the event of an armed attack against these islands, the United States Government will consult at once with the Government of Japan and intends to take the necessary measures for the defense of these islands leaving far more room for ambiguity. So when U.S. spokespersons affirm that the U.S. will live up to its treaty obligations, the Japanese are not sure how this would be operationalized. Moreover, what has been happening is not an armed Chinese attack but what seems to be a gradual osmosis. The United States warns both sides against provocative actions and in general the Japanese coast guard warns Chinese coast guard ships and fishing boats against intrusion but does little else. Wisely, the GoJ fears that a more forceful reaction would provide Beijing with what it would term a provocation to which it would be “forced” to respond. In other words, the Japanese lose if they do not respond and lose if they do.

The Japanese side needs to know in a more scenario-specific way what the US is or is not prepared to do.

Third, Obama should urge Abe to move forward in creating a consensus that Japan must be able to defend itself. That he understands why visits to Yasukuni Shrine have symbolic importance. But priority must be given to the larger issue. Abe is not, of course, the obstacle: he believes that Japan must be an “ordinary country,” futsu no kuni, with a real military. Yet half the population opposes alternations to article 9 of the constitution. And the China School in the gaimusho seems bent on accommodating to China’s wishes. Both need to be dealt with; doing the latter might be easier than doing the former. Abe should expect opposition from China, and must counter it with repeated references to (a) the size of China’s defense budget at anti-Japanese statements by many high-ranking PLA officers (b) the Pancha Shila, which rejects interference by one foreign country in the affairs of another.

Finally, Japan must either decide to accommodate to China—for example, agree to surrender the islands and forswear visits to Yasukuni—or learn to say no to China. But it would help Japan to reach a decision on which if the US made clear how far it is willing to support Japan.

I like the way this discussion has started but it, like other recent discussions of the problem, neglects one important possibility—a resort to the resources of international legal institutions for resolving the current disputes. Chairman Mao admonished us to "walk on two legs." Rebalancing is indeed desirable, including reconfirmation of American security commitments. Yet that alone will only increase the likelihood of an arms race and the risks of military clashes. All around the periphery of China nations should follow the Philippine example of seeking to test China's claims and their own before an impartial international tribunal, and the U.S. should be openly encouraging them to do so, despite its own mixed record in dealing with international law.

Japan cannot long sustain its increasingly ridiculous position that there is no "dispute" over the Senkaku/Diaoyu. This makes hollow Japan's repeated statements about being willing to improve relations with China. Just before Abe's ascent, Japan's then Foreign Minister Gemba showed the way by publishing an op ed in the International Herald Tribune calling upon China to test this territorial claim before an impartial tribunal by launching a suit against Japan before the International Court of Justice. This was not some wild-eyed shot in the dark by a grandstanding politician about to leave office but had the support of sober legal officials in the Gaimusho (Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Unfortunately the Abe administration has not endorsed this proposal. But it should.

Japan, following the Philippine example, should also initiate an arbitration case against China in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea challenging the "9-Dash Line," which is of major interest to Japan, the U.S, and other states that want to maximize freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The U.S. should publicly encourage all interested states that have serious claims against China under public international law to creatively take advantage of opportunities offered by the vast experience and considerable successes of international legal institutions, which have proved far more flexible and imaginative than most diplomats realize.

Sometimes such efforts manage to conclude territorial disputes. Sometimes they stimulate a negotiation process between the parties that had previously remained moribund. At a minimum they get states focused on giving greater weight to acting in accord with international norms instead of relying on weapons, bluster and nationalistic politics. China's new leaders should be bombarded with serious legal claims that make them think more deeply about international law.

The PRC has shown itself capable of adjusting its international law conduct and attitudes in the past. Having initially shown no interest in placing an expert on the International Court of Justice after its entry into the UN, in recent decades it has always posted very able specialists to join judges nominated by other countries. China has also adapted to the dispute resolution processes of the WTO in impressive fashion. The recent PRC decision to reject the Philippine arbitration instead of fulfilling its United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) obligation to test its claim of no UNCLOS jurisdiction before the designated tribunal was deeply disappointing to many of us who hope to see international law become a prominent part of the new type of diplomacy China says it seeks. That decision also disappointed many specialists in China, including some experts within its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and remains controversial and perhaps subject to eventual reconsideration.

Japan and the U.S. in any event have little to lose if China shuns any new international law dispute resolution initiatives, since the world will see the effort as enhancing their "soft power."

As a Chinese, I expect President Obama to say:

1. I had a very successful meeting with President Xi Jinping last June in Sunnylands, California. The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. I welcome the peaceful rise of China. President Xi and myself have agreed to build a new model of big power relationship. This is a historical agreement. We are determined to avoid past confrontation and conflict between rising power and established power. This is good news not only for our two countries but also for Asia and rest of the world.

2. East Asia remains the global growth center. The whole world needs Asia's growth to overcome the consequences of the financial crisis, to stimulate growth and to create jobs. We have to do our best to maintain East Asia as global growth center.

3. China and Japan are two important countries. I hope they will resolve their territorial disputes through peaceful means. Peace, stability and détente in East Asia are in the best interest of the world's peace and prosperity. 

4. In the Second World War, Japanese militarists brought untold sorrow and devastation not only to China, Korea and other Asia countries, but also to America. We all remember Pearl Harbor. This war left deep wounds. On the Japanese side, one should refrain from doing anything which may reopen these wounds. I strongly recommend you to stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine. Any act of denial and defiance would be highly undesirable.

There is no way the POTUS can assure the Government of Japan that the US can be relied on to come to Japan's aid should the CCP government use force against Japanese-administered territory. There is no way the POTUS can assure CCP ruling groups that America's re-balance toward the Indo-Pacific is not about constraining China. Why?

The international system is an amoral, self-help world. People in power in Tokyo today, as in Paris during the Cold War, can never fully persuade themselves that another government will spill blood and treasure on their behalf. Today, they may say that US military inaction in Syria and the Crimea shows the US can not be counted on. But should the US have committed itself militarily in Syria and Crimea, Tokyo would say that the US balance to Asia is unreliable since its interventions elsewhere show the US is not focused on the Indo-Pacific. Tokyo therefore will feel it has to do more to defend itself and to make the US more likely to fulfill its commitments to Japan should worse come to worst. This is natural.

Similarly, the CCP presumes that the goals of the USG include constraining China from becoming the dominant power in Asia and undermining the CCP which is the force promoting Chinese predominance. There is nothing the USG can do to change this CCP mindset which under-girds CCP power and policy.

Yet it is a fact that the POTUS imagines himself as America's first Pacific president and has from early on wanted to get the US out of the quagmires of a so-called war on terror and focus US attention more on the region which has been the fastest growing since the end of WW II. The US wants to avoid a China-Japan war. But it cannot stop the expansionist forces which surge inside of Chinese politics.

The task of the POTUS is not easy.