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Foreign Policy

What Should the US Take Away from the Xi-Abe Meeting?

Dec 10 , 2014

During the APEC meetings in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upon request, ending a protracted silence and causing much attention. U.S. President Obama’s praise expressed the sense of relief shared by many countries. However, what happened next seems to darken the fresh highlight. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida first came out to say that the four-point principled agreement with China was not legally binding. Then the Japanese government stated at a cabinet meeting that there was no dispute over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Japan had a “Keen Sword” joint military exercise, with the George Washington Strike Group and advanced F-22 stealth fighter, complete with the media hailing the scale of such an endeavor. The Chinese reactions, on the other hand, have been quite low profile. With regard to the Kishida remarks, only the spokesman of Chinese Embassy in Japan responded with “serious concern and dissatisfaction.” When asked about Keen Sword, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson only briefly expressed the hope that the relevant countries respect security concerns of countries in the region, act with caution and do more things that are conducive to safeguarding regional peace and stability and enhancing mutual trust.

Such a contrast reflects different political mentalities of China, U.S. and Japan in today’s world. When the APEC summit was held in Shanghai, Chinese GDP was only one eighth that of the U.S. and one third of Japan’s. In the thirteen years since then, Chinese GDP is twice that of Japan and increasingly close to the U.S. More importantly, China took the lead to create the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Silk Road Fund to support the Silk Road Economic Belt, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and Asian connectivity. The conclusion of free trade area agreements with ROK and Australia contrasts the U.S.-proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has been difficult to deliver. All of these have boosted China’s confidence and composure. Now China sets its eyes on the general trends in coming years or even decades rather than getting into a rage over temporary gains or losses.

America, on the other hand, is in a state of unprecedented vacillation. Recently, American media put up a pageantry to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, besides memories of old glory, they had little to say about today. Since the beginning of the new century, the U.S. has faced big trouble every year. The Islamic State, Ukraine crisis and U.S.-Russia disagreements are but a few latest examples. More deadly are domestic issues. With increasing voters’ dissatisfaction over widening wealth gap and dropping living standards, the recent mid-term election has completely hindered President Obama. Beset with difficulties existing and emerging both at home and abroad, the fatigued superpower increasingly finds its ability falling short of its wishes and hesitates over its global missions.

In Japan, with economy in a formal recession, all three arrows of “Abenomics” have gone astray. As the twenty years of stagnation drags on, Japan seems to place its hope on being the third dog that runs away with the bone in a fight between China and the U.S. As Tani Tateki, a statesman of Meiji period, pointed out, when powers are in conflict, Japan finds its opportunity. Japan tasted the sweetness during the Korean War and Vietnam War. As such, the Meiji mentality of watching in safety while others fight and then reaping the spoils when they are exhausted still lingers in the minds of Japanese politicians today.

However, the Pacific era has arrived, and only China and the U.S. are in a position to dominate. As early as six years ago, President Obama talked about “G2” and China later responded with the idea to build a new model of major power relations. Before the APEC summit in Beijing, Zbigniew Brzezinski, an advisor to Democratic U.S. Presidents in the past three decades, in an interview with Politico Magazine advised President Obama that the U.S. should sign a Pacific Charter with China to jointly design future international order just as it signed the Atlantic Charter with Great Britain during World War II. Although there are major differences in terms of political systems and values between the U.S. and China compared with the U.S. and UK 73 years ago, he stressed one key commonality: in today’s world, without the involvement of the U.S. and China, no global agreement from climate change to free trade can be concluded or implemented.

Maybe U.S.-China cooperation will not necessarily take the form of a Pacific Charter, yet the series of important agreements reached between the two countries during the APEC summit serve to footnote Brzezinski’s vision. Be it “G2” or a new model of major power relations, China and the U.S. have already joined hands to demonstrate leadership on the global stage.

Japan naturally does not wish to see this. On the closing day of the APEC summit, a Mainichi Shimbun editorial stressed that “China should be aware that the G2 model of U.S. and China governing the world will not work,” echoing the Japanese politician’s refusal to acknowledge the latest agreement with China. China has been calm because it knows that the ultimate resolution will depend on time, and time is on its side.

The U.S. seems to be vacillating. With the ink on its “historic agreements” with China still not dry, it joined a sword dance with Japan. America is a pluralistic country. Many senior military officers and politicians have innumerable interests in a U.S.-Japan alliance. To protect such interests, they appear as hawks and regard countering Communist China as the ultimate political correctness. But hollow ideology brings nothing but harm to American interests. When it is used by Japan to contain China, the U.S. faces the risk of losing out on the Pacific era. For most of the 20th century, the U.S. played a leading role on world stage. This time in the 21st century, the U.S. is promised a new choice. Does it want to move onto a larger stage and still be the leading character, or does the U.S. prefer being led by the nose by a former follower to play the villain on the periphery and ultimately be abandoned by the main stage? This is the question that the U.S. should seriously think over after the Xi-Abe meeting. In this connection, Brzezinski’s advice is worth contemplation.

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