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Japan Gains Significant Strategic Pledge from United States: An Analysis

Paper No. 5692                                         Dated 28-Apr-2014

By Dr. Subhash Kapila

Japan today has a troubled security environment with China having lately indulged in conflict-escalation and political coercion in claiming sovereignty over the Japanese Senkaku Islands.

In this context, Japan gained a significant strategic pledge from the United States during President Obama’s visit to Tokyo last week that security of the Senkaku Islands too is covered under Article 5 of the Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty.

It needs to be recalled that when tensions arose between China and Japan two years back, the United States was diffident and hesitant in conceding that the United States under its Treaty commitments was treaty-bound to assist Japan against any aggression by China against the Senkaku Islands. United States’ ambiguity then was not only causing security concerns but also affecting the credibility of US security commitments not only in Japan but also in the Philippines similarly affected by China’s conflict escalation against it over its South China Sea islands.

The ongoing tour of President Obama to its three military allies in East Asia i.e. Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and also Malaysia was intended to ‘rebalance’ the US Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific’ and further provide security reassurances to these nations against the backdrop of China’s unceasing military aggressive provocations in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Japan has been a reliable and long-standing ally of the United States and can be said to be the lynch-pin of the United States security architecture in the Asia Pacific.  As explained in my last Paper this trip was to be a big strategic challenge for President Obama as the United States could ill-afford to ignore the security concerns of its major military ally in the region and a contending Asian power against Chinese hegemonistic impulses and that the United States could not subordinate this strategic reality to United States illogical ‘China-Hedging Strategy’

In the same context it was brought out earlier too that United States’ credibility was at stake in Asian capitals when it exhibited diffidence in standing up to China’s rising military adventurism in the Asia Pacific when the United States as the global superpower with substantial stakes in the Asia Pacific was found wanting in firmness.

Significant it therefore becomes, and a big strategic gain for Japan, when after hard negotiations, President Obama asserted: “Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and Article Five (of the Security Treaty) covers all territories under Japan’s administration including the Senkaku Islands”.

While the above assertion is unambiguous in terms of coming to the assistance of Japan against any Chinese aggression on the Senkaku Islands, the United States however refused to be drawn-in on the question of sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands when it was added that “We don’t take a position on final sovereignty on the Senkaku Islands but historically they’ve been administered by Japan and should not be subject to change unilaterally”. In this assertion also despite skirting judgement on sovereignty of Senkaku Islands it is implicit that the United States is messaging China that any ‘unilateral” action by China meaning ‘use of force’ would be ill-advised and in the spirit of the assertion above would involve the United States in intervention in Japanese favour.

Continuing in the same vein, it needs to be brought out that preceding President Obama’s visit to Tokyo last week, US Defense Secretary Hagel also paid a visit to Tokyo in the first week of April 2014 for security talks before proceeding to China for a similar visit. In a very strong message directed at China (but with a tail end footnote mentioning Russia so as to provide a sense of balance for Chinese sensitivities), Secretary Hagel minced no words when he asserted “Coercion and intimidation is a deadly thing. You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation, whether it’s small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe”.

China expectedly came out with strong responses to President Obama’s assertions on the Senkaku Islands both through its Foreign Ministry spokespersons and its various media organs. The repetitive themes in Chinese responses were that China’s sovereignty on the Senkaku Islands was indisputable and warning the Japan-US combines not to impinge on Chinese sovereignty and that both these nations would fail to “cage the rapidly developing Asian Giant”. Another thread running in Chinese response was that while the United States may make any noises in Tokyo and Manila, the reality is that the United States “ had also sought to avoid irritating China” due to economic compulsions.

China also has now sought to make bold its new assertions that China can never be ‘contained’. When US Defense Secretary Hagel was conducted on board China’s first Aircraft Carrier the Chinese General accompanying him asserted that “With the latest developments, China can never be contained.”

Cutting through the above Chinese ripostes to President Obama’s strategic assertions and the warning implicit in US Defense Secretary’s strong statements, the analysis begs answers to two questions. “Is the United States President indulging in mere rhetoric in deference to Japan’s strategic concerns when he asserted that the United States is committed to Japan’s security including the Senkaku Islands or is it a significant course correction by the United States in its China policy formulations”? Secondly, “Would the United States also issue similar bold declarations on the South China Sea conflicts in favour of its military ally ,the Philippines and countries like Vietnam similarly victims of Chinese aggression and brinkmanship.”?

The United States has been under dual pressures from its traditional allies and also domestic political pressures to “Draw Red Lines” in the Asia Pacific for China which it must not cross or else risk United States intervention, in the interests of regional security and stability. If that be so the President Obama may have signalled China that United States would not hesitate to deter China from any military adventurism against Japan.

The South China Sea conflict escalation by China at the expense of the Philippines and other AEAN disputants should normally call for similar declaration of ‘Red Lines’ for China not to cross. But in this case the United States may not be that much categorical except in the case of the Philippines with which it has a bilateral security assistance treaty. The South China Sea conflicts already stand “internationalised” and the United States may opt for international processes to take the lead. However, here too the United States, the West and other Asian powers have reiterated that the principles of freedom of navigation and access to global commons cannot be subjected to country laws. Would China be deterred by such declarations? Rather unlikely when China is in a military adventurist mode stands stiffened by its burgeoning military capabilities.

Concluding, one would like to observe that Japan has gained a significant strategic pledge from the United States for military assistance to withstand aggression in term of China’s confrontation with Japan on the Senkaku Island. Significant in terms of United States China-policy is the new development that President Obama has finally broken, hopefully, the United States self-imposed shell of “China Hedging Strategy” and drawn ‘Red Lines’ for China over any possible aggression against the Japanese Senkaku Islands.

Asia Pacific security and stability would be greatly enhanced to the United States advantage if the United States could issue similar deterrent declarations on the South China Sea. Asian capitals logically and expectantly would await such a development.