[This piece originally appeared at Asia Times Online on May 3, 2013. It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided. I was rather amused to see Paul Eckert of Reuters trolling the comment thread at Asia Times. Not the way to build the Paul Eckert brand, let alone the Reuters brand.]
Two PRC territorial disputes open doors on two competing paths to Asia’s future.
Door Number 1 – the sudden Sino-Indian confrontation in Ladakh – leads to the further development of the current Asian security regime as a network of bilateral relationships. Behind Door Number 2 – the festering Senkaku crisis – appears to lead to a multipolar regime with a powerful new independent player, uncertainty and danger. Asia’s security future will follow one of these paths, but which one?
Events on the Indian-Chinese border have a distinctly familiar flavor. As in 1962, there is tension in Ladakh. Once again, the PRC is being blamed for an incursion. And once again, it appears that the international press is getting the story ass-backwards.
The story in the US press is that Chinese forces have barged 19 kilometers across the Line of Actual Control in the area of the Depsang Bulge to set up tents in a bleak, 17,000-foot (5,000-meter) high flat spot near the Karakorum Pass as part of the Chinese campaign to nibble away at the Indian position in Aksai Chin and demonstrate the appeasement-inclined spinelessness of the Singh government.
Understandably, it is viewed as inexplicable that the PRC is getting so chesty with India just before Premier Li Keqiang’s state visit to New Delhi. As usual, when confronted with an implausible narrative, the reaction is to attribute the cognitive dissonance to Chinese irrationality, in this case to the PLA going “off the reservation” to make trouble on its own kick, demonstrating the party and state’s inability to control its military.
AP provided the soundbite:
Manoj Joshi, a defense analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said the timing of the incursion raises questions about “whether there is infighting within the Chinese leadership, or whether someone is trying to upstage Li”.
Actually, it looks like the disarray is probably in Western noggins and not inside the CCP and PLA.
Drawing on a source who attended an Indian military briefing, Calcutta’s The Telegraph posted a graphic that is well worth clicking on.
It illustrates that there is apparently no “Line of Actual Control” in the disputed region that is mutually acknowledged by India and the PRC. Instead, there are two “Lines of Perception”. The Chinese claim they control a swath of land 10 km thisaway and the Indians claim they control a 10 km swath of land thataway. So there’s a 10-km wide band of unpopulated and desolate wasteland whose “actual control” could be up for grabs.
In the past, both sides have patrolled this no-man’s land but make a point of not setting up permanent facilities inside it so that the zone would not become focus of a competitive exercise in asserting control, and part of a wider fracas.
It is not a matter of dispute that the PLA has moved troops into the area. But the troops are camping out in tents for now – non-permanent facilities in keeping with the traditional live-and-let-live precedent for the area. At the same time, the PRC is demanding that the Indian government dismantle bunkers and other permanent installations in the area. Permanent installations could very possibly represent an effort by the Indian military to transform “perceived control” of the disputed zone into “actual control”.
On the Internet, assertions have surfaced that the Chinese incursion was in response to the Indian military’s establishment of a permanent facility at Rika Nullah, inside the disputed zone. (It should be pointed out that a “permanent facility” in the bleak environs of Aksai Chin might simply be a few sheets of galvanized metal formed into a hut).
If this is true, a rather logical narrative emerges.
As the Times of India reporting indicates, the tussle over the “perceived control” of the “Depsung Bulge” looks like something of an inevitable glitch to be ironed out as both sides pour money, infrastructure, and forces into the area to institutionalize their “actual control” and jockey for the control of swaths of useful but not particularly vital “perceived control” territories before the security curtain comes down for good – and, hopefully, peace reigns on a well-defined and well-secured border.
The 15-day continuing face-off between troops at 16,300-feet, in a way, boils down to infrastructure build-up along the unresolved 4,057-km long Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has been assiduously strengthening it for well over two decades but has now objected to India’s belated attempts to counter the moves.
India’s re-activation of the advanced landing grounds (ALGS) at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), Fukche and Nyoma as well as construction of some temporary posts and bunkers at Chumar and Fukche near the LAC in eastern Ladakh over the last four to five years in particular has incensed China. The DBO airstrip, for instance, overlooks the strategic Karakoram Pass, while the Fukche ALG is barely 5 km from the LAC.
As part of an overall strategy to formalize and assert its control over the border regions, perhaps the Indian government decided it is time to take a serious nibble out of the Depsung Bulge.
Or the Indian military, which (unlike the PLA) has a long and noble history of advancing its priorities and prerogatives in disregard for the civilian leadership, decides it wishes to create its own Senkaku moment, using the bulge as a territorial gambit.
Or the PRC did decide to commit an unprovoked incursion, squatting on bulge land in order to have a bargaining chip to get the Indian government to stand down on some of its more impressive and alarming military improvements in Ladakh. I consider this unlikely, not because of the essential law-abiding benevolence of the Chinese government but because it isn’t going to work. The Indian army (and its inescapable cohort, Indian nationalist public opinion) is not going to let the Indian government wind down military assets in uncontested border territory.
In any case, the Chinese government, interested in gauging the intentions of the Indian government, sent in 50 soldiers to pitch five tents at Rika Nullah. The Indian army sent in its soldiers to pitch its tents “eyeball to eyeball”.
The stage is now set for Li Keqiang to meet with Monmohan Singh and find a satisfactory way out of this ridiculous dispute.
In the big scheme of things, China is probably quite keen for good relations with India. Japan is another matter, and the Senkaku dispute – over another chunk of unimportant real estate – is considerably more unsettling.
World diplomacy is realigning in President Barack Obama’s second term. The confrontational “pivot to Asia” is morphing into a “rebalancing” the makes a place for China inside the structure where together with India as observers they can ponder a more alarming case of deja vu than Indian nationalists’ desire for a do-over on the 1962 war: the parallels between Germany in the 1930s and Shinzo Abe’s Japan today.
This is not to say that Prime Minister Abe is a genocidal maniac determined to ignite a catastrophic world war. It is to say that some of the imperatives and opportunities that informed Germany back then and are also present in Japan today – ones that can be addressed without recourse to personalities, thereby avoiding indictment under Godwin’s Law (the tongue-in-cheek rule that any Internet discussion of contemporary events invoking the name of a certain German dictator is prima facie discredited).
Consider that in its place in the international order Japan today is pretty much at the same spot Germany was in 1933: ready to shed the disarmament restrictions imposed by its conquerors (Versailles Treaty for Germany and the pacifist constitution for Japan) and reassume its role as a full-fledged (and unrestrained) member of the global community.
Impatience with foreign impositions is exacerbated by economic malaise created by the same group of foreigners who are gumming up the military works (Great Depression for Germany; Great Recession for Japan) and the concurrent transformation of a large but impoverished and dysfunctional neighbor into a rapidly growing and threatening force (the USSR for Germany; the PRC for Japan).
With the old order discredited, national rebirth becomes a matter of urgency and is heralded by a leader determined to throw off the restraints that have been shackling the military and economy, and swagger across the world stage in a manner that gratifies and electrifies the nation (he-who-must-not-be-named for Germany, Shinzo Abe for Japan).
Vulnerable territories are protected (Rhineland for Germany, Senkakus for Japan) and lost ones recovered (Saar for Germany, the Soviet-occupied Kuriles, maybe, for Japan). A risky and balance-sheet busting economic stimulus program (with a healthy military component) is enacted to translate the perfection of sovereignty and national spirit into national vitality (Germany’s massive exercise in Keynesian stimulus and Japan’s “Abenomics”).
A newly assertive foreign policy requires strengthened alliances to deal with the big unfriendly neighbor (the Anti-Comintern pact for Germany and the US pivot architecture for Japan).
Of course, the parallels are far from complete. Unlike Nazi Germany, the redefined Japan is not preparing to embark on a ruinous quest for Lebensraum and racial reintegration through conquest. Nor does Japan consider itself existentially threatened by alien forces within its own social polity.
But then again, anxious and newly empowered nationalism frequently finds a domestic target.
On April 30, the Asahi Shimbun (which has displayed a notable dislike for things Abe) got around to reporting on the ugly fallout in Tokyo – in January – surrounding Okinawan opposition to US basing on the island:
A sidewalk in Tokyo’s Ginza district was crowded with people waving Hinomaru rising-sun flags and jockeying for the best position to yell their insults and curses.
That moment came when demonstrators from Okinawa Prefecture, including mayors, assembly members and labor unionists, marched by to protest the deployment of MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft to a U.S. military base in the southern prefecture.
“You traitors,” the roadside people screamed during the march on Jan. 27.
“Get out of Japan,” was another common cry.
A women’s group called Soyokaze (Breath of wind) and other organizations had urged people to discourage the protest by the Okinawans. Videos of the march later spread around the Internet, prompting a deluge of racist comments and conspiracy theories.
Many of the posters said the Okinawans were deliberately trying to weaken Japan’s defenses and give China the upper hand in the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Typical comments were “left-wingers in Okinawa are Chinese spies” and the protesters are “receiving funding from China.” …
… [A woman who attacked the march in an on-line post] said that during a time when outside threats against Japan are increasing, such demonstrations cast a pall over the Japan-U.S. security arrangement and serve the interests of China. She also said she believes China has funded anti-U.S. base activities in Okinawa Prefecture. …
… Others believe Koreans are behind the anti-U.S. base sentiment in Okinawa Prefecture.
A man in his 40s posted a message that said, “People who are protesting the Osprey are ethnic Korean residents in Japan.” …
… Takeshi Taira, 51, a deputy managing editor of the Okinawa Times [said] the feelings toward Okinawa have become hostile.
“It is distinctly different from what I thought Japan’s mainland is like,” he said.
The Okinawa Times had planned to distribute about 1,000 copies of a special edition opposing the Osprey at the demonstration site in Ginza. The newspaper scrapped that idea because it could not secure the safety of its employees.
While we’re addressing the issue of ideological mobilization in the service of redefined (but not yet universally accepted) national goals, there’s also this:
Riding high in the opinion polls and buoyed by big stock market gains, Abe has grown more outspoken about his conservative agenda, including revising the constitution and being less apologetic about Japan’s wartime past – a stance that has frayed already tense relations with China and South Korea, where memories of Tokyo’s past militarism run deep.
Many Japanese conservatives see the constitution, unchanged since its adoption in 1947 during the U.S.-led Allied Occupation, as an embodiment of Western-style, individualistic mores they believe eroded Japan’s group-oriented traditions.
Critics see Abe’s plan to ease requirements for revising the charter and then seek to change Article 9 as a “stealth” strategy that keeps his deeper aims off the public radar.
“The real concern is that a couple of years later, we move to a redefinition of a ‘new Japan’ as an authoritarian, nationalist order,” said Yale University law professor Bruce Ackerman.
The LDP draft, approved by the party last year, would negate the basic concept of universal human rights, which Japanese conservatives argue is a Western notion ill-suited to Japan’s traditional culture and values, constitutional scholars say.
“The current constitution … provides protection for a long list of fundamental rights – freedom of expression, freedom of religion,” said Meiji University professor Lawrence Repeta. “It’s clear the leaders of the LDP and certain other politicians in Japan … are passionately against a system that protects individual rights to that degree.”
The draft deletes a guarantee of basic human rights and prescribes duties, such as submission to an undefined “public interest and public order”. The military would be empowered to maintain that “public order.”
It should be pointed out that constitutional revision is not especially popular in Japan.
The key “bombs away” revision, which would entail altering Article 9 to permit “collective self defense”, ie military operations on behalf of an ally when Japan itself is not under attack, was opposed by 56% of respondents in a recent Asahi poll, and supported by only 33%. (Japan under Abe has already claimed the right to send troops overseas to evacuate Japanese nationals, and to engage in pre-emptive attack in national self defense. Thankfully, enshrining “unprovoked aggression” as a Japanese constitutional right is not on the agenda, at least for now.)
However, revising the constitution is more a matter of political determination, not national will.
Prime Minister Abe is looking for a big win in the upper house elections in July in order to translate his current popularity into an overall two-thirds LDP super-majority. Then the LDP can push through a bill allowing the constitution to be revised by only a majority vote – something that will perhaps serve it in good stead especially if the Abenomics and Senkaku chickens come home to roost earlier than expected and the LDP’s political dominance erodes.
Given his high personal popularity levels and the disarray of the opposition, Abe doesn’t have to burn down the Reichstag to attain a dominant position in Japanese politics. However, the nationalist pot must be kept boiling, so don’t expect things to quiet down on the Senkaku and Dokdo and Yasukuni fronts in the run-up to the elections.
The point is not that 21st century Japan is 1930s Germany. The point is that a combination of time, malaise, threats, opportunities, politics, and ambition have unleashed forces that, for good or ill (well, frankly, mainly for good), were kept bottled up for over half a century.
Thanks to a well-founded anxiety over China’s rise, ineluctable US marginalization, and Japan’s relative decline, Japan’s conservatives are leading an effort to redefine Japan’s national polity and international role in a way that is potentially more destabilizing than that traditional bugbear, “Rising China”.
It is a time of national urgency and political flux, a chance for leaders with strong and not necessarily popular views to act boldly if not rashly to seize the political initiative, define the national agenda, and set the direction for the country at a crucial point in its history before time, circumstance, and elections combine to shut the window of opportunity.
And a combination of risky policies, untested leaders, unformed public opinion, powerful interests, and a dangerous strategic and economic environment could lead to unpleasant outcomes beyond the directionless dithering we’ve come to expect of Japan in the last decade.
China’s dustup over Ladakh may be viewed as potentially stabilizing as the PRC and its neighbors develop the economic, military, and diplomatic tools to formalize control of what they already have and manage disputes that have been bubbling along for decades.
However, if Prime Minister Abe succeeds in repositioning Japan as an independent power broker in Asia – in particular, by escalating Japanese support of Philippine, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese resistance to Chinese pretensions to include military backing – the regional status quo could be upset and these disputes have the potential to be much more disruptive than the old, familiar, and often meaningless bilateral frictions between China and its neighbors.
Ironically, the prospect of Japan – an imminent nuclear weapons power– actually putting some teeth into the US posturing that China’s island disputes should be multi-lateralized appears to be giving the Obama administration and US media some significant collywobbles.
Even if World War III is not on the agenda, Japan emerging as an independent force in Asia is bad news for the United States and its quest for relevance and control in the West Pacific. As a result, “pivoting”, ie “Asian democracies – plus Vietnam – equals soft containment of China” seems to be out. “Rebalancing”, ie a condominium of regional powers including China, seems to be in.
“Managing Japan”, I believe, is also in, as a potential area of shared US and Chinese concern and rapprochement.
Japan’s assertive posture vis a vis South Korea has also been a godsend to the PRC in its effort to cement economic and strategic relations with the ROK. China is on the alert to go on the diplomatic counteroffensive and promote an alternative to the unfavorable narrative of “Chinese bully” that has dominated East Asian discourse for the last few years.
“Developments concerning Japan are closely watched by its Asian neighboring countries for historical reasons,” Hua Chunying told a regular press conference in Beijing on Thursday, responding to a reporter’s question on Japanese leaders’ recent comments on historical issues. She also expressed hope that Japan could adhere to peaceful development and take history as a mirror.
“History is like a mirror,” Hua said, adding that one could truly embrace the future only after honestly facing the past.
Let us hope and expect that history’s mirror in the upcoming decade reflects something better than the 1940s.
1. See Associated Press, May 02, 2013.
2. See Times of India, May 1, 2013.
3. See Asahi Shimbun, April 30, 2013.
4. See Reuters, May 1, 2013.
5. See Asahi Shimbun, May 2, 2013.
6. See China Matters, April 26, 2013.
7. See Xinhuanet, May 2, 2013.