The Japanese nationalist cause was dealt a heavy blow this month when a district court in Kyoto ordered an extreme right-wing fringe group to pay damages to a local Korean school outside which the group had staged racist demonstrations. The move, which was an unprecedented condemnation of hate speech in Japan, may herald a departure from the government’s historically hands-off approach to the racism leveled at Koreans and Chinese living there. Prime Minister Abe, meanwhile, has discarded many of his nationalist talking points in favor of a more populist platform rooted in economic revitalization, the safe containment of the Fukushima nuclear reactors and preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. South Korea and China should applaud this new tack from Mr. Abe’s ruling coalition, but it comes amid a torrent of bad news for Beijing.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with their opposite numbers in Tokyo early in October to discuss new developments in the US – Japan military alliance. In addition to an outline for future cooperation on cybersecurity, the talks confirmed the deployment of reconnaissance drones to Japan and the installation of advanced radar systems near Kyoto. The particulars of the cybersecurity collaboration do not explicitly cite China as a potential threat, but recent US allegations of Chinese state-sanctioned cyberattacks leave little room for interpretation. Japan’s commitment to support Southeast Asian nations currently engaged in territorial disputes with China is likely to antagonize Beijing even more, especially considering that it comes with the United States’ implicit approval. The Chinese, eager to conduct negotiations on their own terms, are likely to criticize any American intervention.
The American stance on territorial disputes in the Pacific has been, for the most part, diplomatic. While attending the 8th East Asia Summit (EAS) meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan immediately following his stay in Japan, Mr. Kerry called on ASEAN leaders to adopt a uniform framework of international legal principles for conducting territorial negotiations with China. Making the disputes more transparent for the international community would likely have the effect of neutralizing much of China’s clout; few claimants can match Beijing behind closed doors, where economic and military power take precedence. The Philippines, in particular, has garnered international support in seeking arbitration from a UN panel on maritime law. China is no doubt concerned that other Southeast Asian nations — Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have disputes with Beijing — will take similar action should they receive the United States’ blessing. A UN adjudication in favor of the Philippines would be a watershed moment in East Asian governance that could severely diminish China’s stature in the region, and although the United States has not gone so far as to engineer such an outcome, Mr. Kerry’s words at the EAS meeting make it plain that Washington favors a sea change in the Asian dispute resolution process.
Although the Chinese Foreign Ministry has agreed to participate in low-level consultations to establish a code of conduct that would facilitate negotiations, a ministry representative has stated that China will not recognize an international arbitration and censured the United States for meddling in affairs concerning only East Asian nations. A recent commentary from the state-run Xinhua news agency called for the “de-Americanization” of the world, and although the author’s primary concern was the stability of dollar-denominated assets given the possibility of a US debt default, the piece also expressed displeasure regarding American interference in global affairs.
As an alternative to prominent American influence in international relations, however, that same commentary urged the world to defer to UN authority in “handling global hotspot issues,” which is precisely what the Chinese government appears reluctant to do. Mr. Kerry may not be the ideal messenger, but his advocacy of the international rule of law is appropriate and claims of American hypocrisy will not free the Chinese from their obligations to East Asian nations. If more nations pursue a course of action similar to that of the Philippines, China cannot, in good conscience, reject entreaties to open up territorial disputes to international adjudication. In the zero-sum game of territorial negotiations, claimant nations would only be placated if China were to back out altogether; as such, Beijing’s best chance at prevailing is to make a compelling case before an adjudication panel.
If China wishes to maintain constructive relationships with East Asian nations, it must begin by addressing its primary diplomatic liability: North Korea. With threats abound from Pyongyang, any defensive military cooperation on the part of the United States and Japan can be justified to the global community, rendering any Chinese protests ineffectual. Beijing’s continued silence is tantamount to tacit acceptance of North Korea’s sword rattling, while a more hawkish approach could secure key support in the region. Japan and South Korea have typically made strange bedfellows, but Prime Minister Abe’s reconciliatory posturing and persistent North Korean belligerence could align them behind the United States. If Mr. Abe followed through on past proposals to amend the Japanese constitution to allow for military action beyond self defense, Seoul would almost certainly throw support behind Chinese protests, but Beijing’s foreign policy doctrine should not be to wait for its diplomatic rivals to do something morally reprehensible.
Protests from the Chinese that the United States has no place in Pacific regional disputes will be fruitless, since the salient question at this time is why Southeast Asian nations should capitulate and forgo the rule of law in the process of territorial dispute resolution. If China is displeased with the rising level of military cooperation between its neighbors, it must do something to temper North Korean aggression. Chastising a historical ally may constitute an ideological defeat, but it could have the tangible effect of boosting China’s standing in the global community.
Colin Moreshead is a freelance writer living and working in Tokyo. His research focuses primarily on East Asian trade relations and exchange rate policy.