Home > Analysis, Opinion, politics > Obama Asia tour: US-Japan treaty ‘covers disputed islands’ – A Case of Dipping into One’s Savings to Live Large?

Obama Asia tour: US-Japan treaty ‘covers disputed islands’ – A Case of Dipping into One’s Savings to Live Large?

Obama makes toast to Emperor and Empress of Japan

Obama makes toast to Emperor and Empress of Japan

It’s never good to dip into one’s savings just to live large.  Gluttony and largess – when one can ill afford it – is foolish … and a sign of decadence.  To me, the U.S. so-called pivot to Asia – emblemized by President Obama’s trip to Japan – represents just that.

The New York Times – even with its usual spin PR in over-drive – already calls the trip a “setback.”  In an article titled “Obama Suffers Setbacks in Japan and the Mideast,” the Times reported:

TOKYO — President Obama encountered setbacks to two of his most cherished foreign-policy projects on Thursday, as he failed to achieve a trade deal that undergirds his strategic pivot to Asia and the Middle East peace process suffered a potentially irreparable breakdown.

Mr. Obama had hoped to use his visit here to announce an agreement under which Japan would open its markets in rice, beef, poultry and pork, a critical step toward the trade pact. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not able to overcome entrenched resistance from Japan’s farmers in time for the president’s visit.

This trip was supposed to show that the U.S. is back – and that the pivot is back on track.  Yet, on the Washington Post, you will not see any article on Obama’s Japan trip on the top (home) page.  On New York Times Home Page, you see just one (the one linked above) – with that one lamenting the visit’s failure.

If the “pivot” is back, it seems hard to tell.  The U.S. seems distracted by other world events in Middle East Ukraine.

As the Times article continued:

In Jerusalem, Israel’s announcement that it was suspending stalemated peace negotiations with the Palestinians, after a reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the militant group Hamas, posed yet another obstacle to restarting a troubled peace process in which Secretary of State John Kerry has been greatly invested.

The setbacks, though worlds apart in geography and history, speak to the common challenge Mr. Obama has had in translating his ideas and ambitions into enduring policies. He has watched outside forces unravel his best-laid plans, from resetting relations with Russia to managing the epochal political change in the Arab world. On Thursday, as Russia staged military exerciseson the border with Ukraine, Mr. Kerry denounced broken promises from the Kremlin but took no specific action.

Mr. Obama has not given up. Indeed, his advisers insisted that they had achieved a “pathway” to resolving the sticking points in a trade deal during marathon talks that continued until just before the president left Tokyo for Seoul. There were indications, administration officials said, that some progress had been made in trade talks.

On Friday in South Korea, Mr. Obama continued his weeklong quest to breathe life into his shift to Asia. Mr. Kerry, the tireless campaigner for Middle East peace, was still working the phones, trying to maneuver the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating room.

[Underline above by me]

Obama’s vaunted “pivot” is looking more and more like what Eric X. Li has described as a “continuously swirling pivot,” requiring, as the Times article called it, Obama on this occasion to “breathe life” to resuscitate.

Be that as it may be, Obama is bent on breathing life, and in breathing life, Obama gave a bombshell yesterday.  The BCC in an article titled “Obama Asia tour: US-Japan treaty ‘covers disputed islands'” gave a little more detail:

Mr Obama’s trip – which ends on 29 April – comes nearly seven months after he cancelled a visit to the region because of a US government shutdown.

Officials say it is aimed at reassuring America’s Asian allies of its commitment to the region amid concern over China’s growing power.

On Wednesday Mr Obama had an informal dinner with Mr Abe. The two leaders then held talks on Thursday morning and gave a joint press conference.

“Article five [of the US-Japan security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration including [the] Senkaku islands,” Mr Obama said, echoing comments published in Wednesday’s Yomiuri newspaper. “We do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally.”

“This is not a new position. This is a consistent one,” he said.

However, Mr Obama also said he told Mr Abe that it “would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue instead of dialogue”.

The islands are called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

This is a bombshell of sorts because for years U.S. has publicly stated they would remain “neutral” in any island disputes between China and Japan.  Sure the Chinese side have for some time questioned U.S.’s sincerity.  And recent remarks by various U.S. officials (e.g. Clinton, Hagel, etc.) all points to the U.S. taking side.  Still, this is important because it came directly from the president.

Some may think that this is end of dispute for China.  I mean, with the full might of the U.S. military behind Japan’s claim to Senkaku islands, what option does China have?

But the wording is important.  Obama was careful not to remark on sovereignty during his announcement.  And even as he announced that the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty covers the Diaoyutai /Senkaku Islands, he also warned Japan not to escalate … and importantly, to start a dialogue with China.

The tone of the whole announcement suggest that the Defense Treaty is not about “law” or “obligations” per se … but about political will.  If it were about “law” or “obligation,” Obama would not have lectured Japan about starting a dialogue.  Instead, it sounds more like an edict.  the Treaty is qualified … by America’s largess and political will.

The Time’s article described it this way:

Mr. Obama also declared that the United States was obligated by a security treaty to protect Japan in its confrontation with China over a clump of islands in the East China Sea. But he stopped short of siding with Japan in the dispute regarding who has sovereignty over the islands, and carefully calibrated his statement to avoid antagonizing China.

The net result, seen in a news conference in which the leaders referred to each other a bit stiffly as Barack and Shinzo, was an alliance clearly on firmer footing than it was earlier, but still vulnerable to political frailties on each side.

Besides the bombshell announcement – albeit couched in careful wording – I want to take a step back and take a look at the broader the context of Obama’s announcement.

First, China’s recent “assertiveness” around Diaoyutai is not to start a shooting war with Japan. It is only to “force” Japan to concede there is a dispute. In that context, Obama’s words to defend Japan, in practical terms, is empty. But the act of the announcement carries important, if nuanced, ramifications. Finally, China has forced the U.S. and Japan to concede that there is a dispute.  With Obama now publicly announcing the U.S. coming to Japan’s aid for the whole world to see and all but ordering Japan to start a dialogue with China over Diaoyutai / Senkaku, there can be no doubt in any objective person’s mind that there is a dispute!

Second, the (sometimes overlooked) fact that Japan needs U.S. support over its dispute with China means that China finally presents a credible threat now over the East China Seas. If China did not (as have been the case for most of the last century), the U.S. can truly remain neutral and allow Japan to play the game. The only reason the U.S. has abandoned its “honest broker” status in the Asia Pacific is because of the strength of China and the weakness of Japan: specifically Japan’s inability to bring itself to face China in negotiations when China’s brings to the table a credible military force.

Third, perhaps with some irony, President Obama seems to have made a fool of himself caught doing double-speak in front of the Chinese audience when he announced that “[t]he policy of the United States is clear – the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security. … And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”

Given how the U.S. has been so vocal in opposing anything China does (be it patrols in the East China Seas, ADIZ over the East China Seas, etc.) that has the look of “unilateral” action, here Chinese people see the U.S. turn around (coddling Japan) unilaterally pronouncing that administrative areas now come under the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty.

Lest people get confused.  Obama’s words notwithstanding, the treaty was never interpreted that way until now (hence all the melodrama surrounding the announcement).  Even stranger, the U.S. has no sovereignty rights over Diaoyutai / Senkaku.  Yet it is ready to pronounce unilaterally its right hand administrative control of the islands to Japan … and to defend Japan’s right to that control?

Fourth, with U.S. publicly supporting Japan over China in their island disputes, U.S. is burning fast its reserve of goodwill with the Chinese people.  Much has been written about “soft power” these days.  But the single strongest strand of “soft power” the U.S. commands over the world, in my opinion, is the goodwill of the Chinese people (notwithstanding the Cold War). The basis of that good will lies in the narrative of Americans fighting a good and just war in WWII has strong cache in China.  In contrast, that narrative does not have much cache in Japan at all.  By supporting Japan now in contradiction of the Potsdam Declaration, the U.S. loose loosing the narrative of the U.S. as a just power for at least 1.3 billion people.  That would be a huge loss for America.

Fifth, Abe has made several speeches about how Japan needs to move the world beyond the post-WWII world – echoed somewhat by Hagel recently saying that China should “be informed by history but not driven by it.”  The trouble for Japan is that it is trying to move beyond the post-WWII world unilaterally – without moving with China (or S. Korea).  This desire to move unilaterally beyond the post-WWII world order is against the interest of U.S. also.  An emboldened Japan can easily spin its post-WWII narrative into one of victimization by U.S. at any time.  The U.S., I believe, understands the problem, but is too distracted by other world affairs or too shortsighted to control Japan on this.

In summary, despite the cautiousness of the wording on the U.S. side on Diaoyutai / Senkaku, I believe the U.S. has bumbled onto the wrong side of history here.  By ganging up with Japan against China over a core interest of China, and in the process in joining with Japan in whitewashing history, the U.S. has dipped deeply into its precious savings of goodwill with the Chinese people – all for tactical political advantage?  That is not very smart.  The move may set off tectonic motions future historians will point to represent the beginnings of the the end of U.S. influence in the Asia Pacific.  The sad thing for future U.S. generations is: it needed not have been this way.

  1. pug_ster
    April 26th, 2014 at 14:57 | #1

    Excellent post. America’s desperation towards the Asia pivot is apparent. By sending people from Washington who don’t understand facts from fiction, these people has become nothing more than slick salesman selling snake oil. America looks more like paper tiger in the pacific region, now they are trying to gets its “allies” to poke against China but these efforts are futile at best.

  2. N.M.Cheung
    April 26th, 2014 at 22:53 | #2

    Very interesting, together with the point made on the Schmidt interview that those financial assets held by China can easily be devalued or even confiscated one must realize the China regardless of the difficulties involved will slowly divest those financial assets to hard assets or/and more infrastructural and environmental investments. I expect more of buying those companies like Smithfield or leasing lands in Ukraine for food production. China has been denied buying high tech companies like 3-Com which were probably best as probably over inflated. With coming climate warming it’s best invested in clean and alternative energies and food supplies. I think China will need all the resources and foreign exchanges to develop Tibet and the water supplies for Northern China.
    As far as Japan is concerned China is not interested in military conflict and will be happy to restore status quo ante. China will continue to patrol Diaoyu Islands and assert her legitimate interests. I suspect Shinzo Abe and Japanese rightists know better than provoke China in this regard.

  3. May 6th, 2014 at 22:26 | #3

    Article titled “Japan/U.S. double dealing on Diaoyu Islands is a betrayal of history” from People’s Daily:

    U.S. President Barack Obama assured Japan during a visit to the country that Washington was committed to its defense, and went on to indicate that the U.S.-Japan security treaty would apply to the disputed Diaoyu Islands. This extension of the U.S.-Japan security treaty to the Diaoyu Islands was a new first; it was confirmed by summit-level documents issued by Japan and the U.S.

    Later, on April 30, a senior U.S. official emphasized that Obama’s commitment on the Diaoyu Islands should not be interpreted as a provocation to China. This is a standard U.S. approach, a political cliche, and nothing new. A similar position has previously been taken by other high-ranking U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense.

    The reality is that these remarks are not only a provocation to China, but also a betrayal of America and China’s own history.

    The Diayou Islands have belonged to China for centuries. In 1894 Japan launched a war of aggression against China and stole the Islands. At the end of Nov, 1943, China, the U.S. and Britain held the Cairo Conference in Egypt; the Cairo Declaration was released on Dec. 1. It declared categorically that all Chinese territories stolen by Japan, including Northeast China, Taiwan, and the Penghu Islands must be returned to China. This was a heavy blow to the Japanese invaders and an important international recognition of China’s resumption of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Three days after the Cairo Declaration, a special report marked in bold in the headline of “The New York Times” said that The Cairo Conference represented a revision of Japanese territory and sovereignty back to the situation that had applied before 1895.

    China and the U.S. fought side by side in the world anti-fascist war, and made great sacrifices to defeat Japanese militarism. If, in order to maintain the U.S.-Japan alliance, the U.S. betrays this history and profanes the dignity and the memory of its own war victims, its action will be intolerable. While Obama was in Japan, a large group of Japanese politicians paid visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, testimony to Japan’s denial of its history of aggression. The gesture was also an insult to Obama’s support for Japan.

    In order to apply its so-called “Strategic Rebalancing in Asia”, the U.S. has fallen into the trap of trying to constrain China. It is trying to take advantage of the U.S.-Japan alliance to make Japan an accomplice to its rebalancing strategy, constrain China’s peaceful rise, and force concessions on China’s core interests. At the same time, Japan is taking advantage of American greed to cause trouble around the historical issue, setting aside the peace constitution on collective self-defense, provoking its neighbors over territorial disputes, and reinstating the principle of arms exports. Japan’s conduct has caused concern to its neighbors, including China.

    China’s peaceful rise will not be constrained by any other country. The U.S. and Japan will taste bitter fruits if they continue their betrayal of history.

    The author is deputy director of the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War Memorial Hall

    The article is edited and translated from美日私相授受钓鱼岛是背叛历史 , source: Global Times, Author:Li Zongyuan

  4. May 6th, 2014 at 22:28 | #4

    Article titled “US shows its true colors” from China Daily:

    Just as many have observed, united States President Barack Obama’s Asia visit is essentially about Washington’s and its allies’ unease about a rising China.

    From Tokyo to Manila, Obama has tried to pick his words so as not to antagonize Beijing. But from the US-Japan joint statement to the new US-Philippines defense agreement, it is increasingly obvious that Washington is taking Beijing as an opponent. With Obama reassuring the US’ allies of protection in any conflict with China, it is now clear that Washington is no longer bothering to conceal its attempt to contain China’s influence in the region. It is even less convincing to say the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific is not targeted against China.

    Obama’s rhetoric about peace and international law sounds hollow because it contradicts what Washington and himself have been up to. The US-Japan statement, for instance, is a dangerous license for the increasingly rightist Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to provoke more trouble. Its shameless disregard of historical facts and endorsement of Abe’s rightist inclinations will only cause further instability.

    For a considerably long period, Chinese have cherished the naive thought that Washington will rein in its unruly allies when they go too far.
    Obama’s current trip should be a wake-up call that this is just wishful thinking. His sweet promises of a new type of major-country relationship should not blind us to the grim geopolitical reality: Ganging up with its troublemaking allies, the US is presenting itself as a security threat to China.

    The foremost threat is not the disputes that estrange China from its neighbors such as Japan and the Philippines. It is rather the threatening image of China that is being projected and marketed by these malicious neighbors and their backstage supporter.

    Washington’s biased portrayal of China and its legitimate territorial claims is conducive to the US’ pivot and stronger bonds with its allies. But if the US wants to benefit from the thriving Asia-Pacific, it should promote good-neighborliness.

    The further prosperity of the region calls for closer intra-regional connectivity, to which the current tensions are a threat. Washington should try to ease those tensions, instead of fanning them.

    Most important of all, Washington must come to terms with the reality that China will continue to grow, though it will not follow the US’ hegemonic path.

    Washington’s best bet lies in collaborating with, not standing against, Beijing before it is too late.

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