To say that departing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton soured U.S.-Chinese relations with her constant saber-rattling rhetoric about China’s intentions in East Asia is an understatement. China’s new leadership will be closely examining the record of prospective Secretary of State John Kerry, a Navy SEAL officer during the Vietnam War, for past statements decrying America’s military intervention in Southeast Asia. How Kerry responds to growing friction between China and neighboring nations over maritime waters and island disputes may reflect his past experiences in fighting in an unpopular war in Asia and his later activism against such future wars involving America.
One of Mrs. Clinton's lasting legacies from her time as Secretary of State is her penchant for encircling China with governments that are advancing America's interests in the region. For example, Clinton’s use of India to confront China in the South China Sea officially avoided getting the United States involved militarily in the Sino-Southeast Asian maritime conflict while assuring claimant countries like the Philippines and Vietnam that other non-claimant naval powers like India, in addition to Australia, have stakes in the maritime dispute with China.
However, it is the future of Sino-Japanese relations, especially with the advent of a right-wing revanchist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government in Tokyo and a new and younger Chinese government willing to flex China’s new-found financial and military might that poses the greatest challenges and risks for a Secretary of State Kerry.
The new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated he will not yield one inch of claimed Japanese land and maritime territory of the disputed Senkaku isles in the East China Sea. China maintains that it retained sovereignty of the islands before World War II and the U.S. occupation of the islands did nothing to change China’s claim over what it calls the Diaoyu islands. The United States transferred control of the Ryukus — where the U.S. maintains military bases on Okinawa — and the uninhabited Sekanku isles to Japan under the terms of the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Treaty.
The LDP captured 294 seats in the lower house of parliament and the LDP allies, the new Komeito, won 31 seats. In what will surely push the LDP even further to the right, the pro-imperialist Japan Restoration Party of ex-Tokyo Governor Shintaro Isihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto won 54seats. The governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the former Socialists, saw their majority reduced to 54 seats. Outgoing DPJ Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda never deviated from Japan’s pro-U.S. policies so, in fact, Japan’s foreign policy will shift from right-wing to farther right-wing.
Isihara is the author of the book The Japan That Can Say No, which seeks to warn the United States that Japan can go it alone and not be under any dictates from the United States.
The prospects for military showdowns with not only China over the Senkakus / Diaoyus, but South Korea over the contested Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan (called Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea), loom on the horizon. South Korea’s conservative government studiously avoided congratulating Abe and his LDP on their election victory. Abe said he wants to review a 1993 apology from the Japanese government to South Korea for the wartime use of Korean women as forced prostitutes for the Japanese Imperial Army. That has set off alarm bells in Seoul. Memories of Japan’s occupation of Korea are so incendiary, North Korea backs South Korea’s claim over the Liancourt Rocks, which is astounding considering that South and North Korea are in a technical state of war with one another.
What may also exacerbate Sino-Japanese tensions is Abe’s stated desire to increase ties between Japan and Taiwan, which China claims as its territory. Abe’s nationalist policies will likely result in Japan scrapping the nature of Japan’s military from a «self-defense» force to a full-blown military with offensive capabilities capable of a global reach. What will drastically change the dynamics of East Asian relations will be a decision by Abe to shift Japan’s «screwdriver's turn» short turnaround time for the acquisition of nuclear weapons to a fully functional deployed nuclear deterrent. Such a development will impact Japan’s relations with all of its neighbors and the wider international community.
Abe’s government can also be expected to increase pressure on Russia for the return of what Japan calls the «Southern Kurils», four islands in the Kurile chain north of Hokkaido occupied by the Soviet Union as World War II was ending.
Japan may also seek to increase its military presence in the South China Sea, as China increases its naval presence in the area. A Japanese naval presence in the disputed waters, in addition to an increased U.S. and Indian naval presence in the waters could trigger a naval confrontation that could easily expand into attacks and counter-attacks on naval bases and even cities in China, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and India. Top Chinese People’s Liberation Army generals responsible for China’s military in southwest China, including Tibet, have long wished to deliver a knockout blow to India’s armed forces in the Himalayan region.
India, Singapore, and the United States, all non-claimants to South China Sea territory, have stated that if China boards and seizes any vessels in the region after January 1, 2013, they will look on it as a violation by China of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Joint naval exercises during the past few years between the United States and the Philippines and Vietnam have incurred the ire of Beijing. In April 2012, U.S. and Philippines naval vessels participated in the Balikatan 2012 exercise in the South China Sea. The same month, the U.S. and India conducted the joint Malabar 2012 naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal. The United States has extended the reach of its joint military exercises to Mongolia with Khan Quest 2012, South Korea with Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2012, Thailand with Cobra Gold 2012, Keen Sword/Keen Edge 2012 and Ichi Ban with Japan, Talisman Saber 2012, with Australia. The annual Rim of the Pacific exercises involve the U.S. and Australia, South Korea, Japan, Britain, Chile, Canada, and, after a long hiatus after a breakdown in military ties with the United States over U.S. Navy nuclear ship visitation policy, New Zealand. The annual Valiant Shield exercise, based out of Guam, is a major American «show the flag» military demonstration aimed at getting the attention of China and Russia.
The United States has invited Myanmar to participate in military exercises in the region. There is an interest in expanding full participation in Cobra Gold to include military personnel from not only Myanmar but Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
The U.S. and India also conduct an annual joint special operations exercise called Yudh Abhyas 2012. The last was held in the desert of Rajasthan near the Pakistani border and there was little doubt about the identity of the fictitious country being attacked in Operation Desert Lark. The U.S. and Indian armed forces have conducted joint jungle warfare training as part of exercise Balance Iroquois at the Indian Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Vairengte in Mizoram, northeastern India. The exercises have not only involved U.S. and Indian troops, but also those from Bhutan, Bangladesh, Singapore, Nepal, and Israel. And in a move that threatens to inflame China, the U.S. military exercises have included members of the Indian Special Frontier Force, ethnic Tibetans who engage in counter-intelligence activities within historical Tibet, which extends beyond the borders of the Tibetan Autonomous region of China…
The U.S. strategy, as outlined by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is to have U.S. naval forces nearby to respond to any crisis in the region. The U.S. is transferring 60 percent of its naval assets to the Pacific region.
Abe and the right-wing LDP in Japan, the effects of Mrs. Clinton’s China encirclement, and a resurgent China all spell huge diplomatic problems for Mr. Kerry at Foggy Bottom.