Asia-Pacific Pivot: A New Cold War (Just Not the One You Think)

Who would win in a hot war between Japan and China? The more limited the scope of the engagement, the better the chance for Japan to prevail. While China has more ships and planes, Japan has better ships and planes, with more maneuvering experience.
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Don't look now, but there's suddenly a new cold war underway. As long predicted, it involves China as one of its parties. But the other party is not, as long expected, the US, but that almost
forgotten Asian power many once feared would take over the world economy, right up until the time it did not. That would be, of course, Japan, the resurgence of which is marked not solely by its recent winning of the 2020 Olympic Games for Tokyo.

A series of moves over the past two weeks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and China's reaction to those moves, makes it clear that cold war is underway. And some, like the Financial Times in this handwringing editorial, fear the outbreak of a hot war between China and Japan in the East China Sea.

Who would win in a hot war between Japan and China? The more limited the scope of the engagement, the better the chance for Japan to prevail. While China has more ships and planes, Japan has better ships and planes, with more maneuvering experience. And of course if a larger war were to be pursued by China, it would run right up against the Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan, signed at the same time in San Francisco in 1951 as the Treaty of San
Francisco which officially ended and settled World War II.

After pledging in advance some $15 billion in aid and development deals to a region of the world in which China has lately made great strides, Abe toured Africa.

It proved to be a fateful venture. Not allowing Japan to steal a march, China's foreign minister toured Africa almost simultaneously with Abe. Things got rather shirty.

In an implicit slap at China, the Japanese leader said: "It is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders, and leave. We don't want to see a new colonialism."

China's ambassador to Ethiopia blasted the Japanese PM: "Abe has become the biggest troublemaker in Asia."

Then came the annual elitist global conclave in Davos, Switzerland last week. In a speech to the World Economic Forum, Abe urged other world leaders to join together in resistance to China's aggressive moves in the East China Sea and South China Sea or else risk a conflict with potentially catastrophic consequences.

"We must restrain military expansion in Asia which otherwise could go unchecked," Abe told the annual meeting of global business and political leaders, which again trailing Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was to attend a few days later.

"If peace and stability were shaken in Asia, the knock-on effect for the entire world would be enormous," Abe declared.

"The dividend of growth in Asia must not be wasted on military expansion."

Under Abe, who attended graduate school in public policy at the University of Southern California, Japan has increasingly faced off with China over the People's Republic's increasingly aggressive moves to gain a group of small East China Sea islands (the Senkaku Islands in Japanese parlance, the Diaoyus in Chinese) held by Japan since the 19th century, a strategy which lately includes a Chinese attempt to impose an air defense zone over most of the East China Sea. Japan is also offering assistance to Southeast Asian nations in danger of being overawed by China's extraordinary claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea.

In resisting what it sees as Chinese attempts to control some of the most vital shipping lanes in the world, as well as potentially vast stores of oil, natural gas, minerals, and fisheries, Japan under Abe's leadership is choosing not to simply rely on the US to straighten everything out.

For their part, Chinese officials, whose country has ramped up its military spending more than any other of late, accused Abe of "arms expansion and war preparation." They say that Abe represents a return to Japanese nationalism and military adventurism, something which was seemingly wrung out of the Japanese system by the pacifist-oriented constitution imposed on
Japan by one of America's most warlike generals, Douglas MacArthur, in his post-World War II role as Japan's American proconsul.

While worried by some of Abe's moves, the Obama Administration sees thing differently, welcoming Abe's establishment of a new Japanese national security council and marine corps, which our Marines are doing a lot to help train up, with a particular emphasis on efforts to hold islands against attack or swiftly recapture them using troops delivered by sea and air.

Though his exertions in Davos and Africa captured the attention of many world leaders, Abe was't finished. Instead, he closed out a period of very active diplomacy by making a state visit to India, appearing as India's chief guest of honor Sunday at the annual Republic Day festivities in New Delhi marking the establishment of India as a fully independent constitutional republic. The emperor and empress of Japan, not exactly jet-setters, visited India less than two months ago.

The Times of India lauded the budding Japanese-Indian strategic partnership, not least for how Japanese industrial might and technological expertise can aid in India's industrialization.

"Not only does India need a modern industrial base, both India and Japan need a hedge against an increasingly powerful and assertive China which strongly presses land and sea claims against neighbours. Abe's central insight is that a strong relationship between Asia's richest and largest democracies -- which also happen to be its second and third largest economies -- can fundamentally transform power balances in the region. This insight is correct and New Delhi must act upon it, in its own interest."

While China's state-controlled media followed the party line in downplaying Abe's moves with India, Beijing certainly understands that India's earlier statements of general opposition to hegemonic moves in the Western Pacific, not mention its decision to counter China's aircraft carrier development program with its own, did not come in a vacuum. India and China have a long history of border skirmishes, with many Indian media complaints about Chinese military incursions.

Probably more reflective of the real Chinese mood about all this was the latest Chinese naval incursion around the Senkaku Islands at the beginning of the week. Three Chinese coast guard ships entered the 12-mile Japanese territorial limit around the Senkaku Islands on Monday.

The Chinese ships, warned off by Japanese forces, left after about two hours.

If China intends to seize the islands, it had better do so sooner than later. For Japan is quickly spinning up a new marine corps capable of swiftly seizing back islands lost in raiding actions.

Japanese troops began training with U.S. Marines last year in an exercise off the California coast. That training is going again for the next month in Exercise Iron Fist in and around Camp Pendleton in Southern California.

China is trying to discredit Abe by painting him as a throwback to the days of Imperial Japan, which rampaged across the Asia-Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s, brutally conquering much of China in the process.

Chinese officials make much of Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a famous tribute to Japan's dead in World War II that includes 14 prominent individuals judged war criminals, the prime ministers and military leaders of the war era.

But the PRC continues to offer huge memorials to Chairman Mao, whose policies caused the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese. And the only people punished for the brutal crackdowns after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were the protesters and their allies.

The reality is that Japan and China, for all the depth and beauty of their cultures, have a mutual history of conquest and empire.

When I backpacked as a grad student through China's Xinjiang province as part of an exploration of the old Silk Road trade routes which first linked East and West, I learned first hand of ongoing enmities over China's ancient conquests of its vast westernmost region, center of oil and natural gas and home to a host of conquered ethnic groups, most of which are Muslim. The mood there has not notably improved in the decades since. In fact, a dozen people were killed there earlier this week in the latest shadowy encounters between Chinese security
forces and Uighur dissidents.

Japan's less recent imperial overhang is much better known, since it is part and parcel of our own history in the US.

The infamous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the US into World War II, was actually just part of the Pacific War that had been raging for years before strategists in

Tokyo fatefully determined that Japan would have to defeat America in order to sustain their moves in establishing their imperium, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Between the battles of

Pearl Harbor and Midway, six very long months later, when the US at last began to turn the tide, Japanese forces struck in breathtaking fashion across the vast Asia-Pacific region, triumphing everywhere, making the vaunted German blitzkrieg look short-range and slow.

The reality is that the war in the Pacific was often very brutal, leaving many hard feelings that exist to this day. And the irony is that Japan is now aligning itself with nations it conquered then in resisting China's moves now.

And what of the US in all this? Unless Japan proves to be very headstrong, its emergence takes some of the pressure off the US in containing an increasingly aggressive China, something which, notwithstanding official protestations to the contrary, is clearly one of the major aims of the Asia-Pacific pivot. It's a situation quite unlike what we've been dealing with at the other end of the pivot, in the Middle East and Central Asia, where, with all due respect to Israel, the US has had no major in-theater ally.

While Japan's new assertiveness, does, at least at first blush, add to the risk of a larger war in the region, the Chinese must know that, beyond a certain point, the larger the war gets, the greater the likelihood that they lose it. For the US is bound by treaty obligations to protect Japan.

The Chinese also should know that they stand a decent chance of losing a very limited war to Japan as well, given the present qualitative, though hardly quantitative, superiority of Japanese aircraft and ships.

The trick for China would lie in striking the right correlation of forces to allow it to defeat Japan before the US moved on the side of its San Francisco security treaty partner.

Or, alternatively, hoping that the US would back down.

As much as most of us want to continue to pursue strategies of joint prosperity with China -- as Governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger and others have -- I think the number of Americans who would prefer that China prevail in its Western Pacific moves, not to mention allow China to defeat Japan, is distinctly in the minority.

What all this may really mean is that the US is in a position to mediate between its longtime strategic ally and its longtime trading partner while the long goodbye plays out in Afghanistan and hoped for neocon wars in Syria and Iran drift out of the rear view mirror.

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