Friday, May 31, 2013

India Places Its Asian Bet on Japan...and Asian Neo-Nationalism?

[Correction: I incorrectly identified ex-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi as Shinzo Abe's father-in-law; he was actually Abe's maternal grandfather.  Thanks to a knowledgeable and sharp-eyed reader for catching the mistake.  PL 6/21/2013]

In a dismaying week for the PRC, India turned its back on China...and thereby drifted further away from the narrative of Japanese criminal aggression in World War II that China and the United States have exploited for the last half century.

Idon’t know if there is a term in the diplomatic lexicon for “deep tongue kiss accompanied by groans of mutual fulfillment”, but if there is, it seems it would be illustrated by the encounter between Indian President Manmohan Singh and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe in Tokyo May 27-29, 2013.

Speaking to an assembly of Japanese government and corporate worthies in Tokyo, Singh said:

Asia’s resurgence began over a century ago on this island of the Rising Sun. Ever since, Japan has shown us the way forward. India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia. Over the past decade, therefore, our two countries have established a new relationship based on shared values and shared interests.
Our relationship with Japan has been at the heart of our Look East Policy. Japan inspired Asia's surge to prosperity and it remains integral to Asia’s future. The world has a huge stake in Japan’s success in restoring the momentum of its growth. Your continued leadership in enterprise, technology and innovation and your ability to remain the locomotive of Asian renaissance are crucial.

India's relations with Japan are important not only for our economic development, but also because we see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast region in Asia that is washed by the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Our relations draw their strength from our spiritual, cultural and civilizational affinities and a shared commitment to the ideals of democracy, peace and freedom. We have increasingly convergent world views and growing stakes in each other’s prosperity. We have shared interests in maritime security and we face similar challenges to our energy security. There are strong synergies between our economies, which need an open, rule-based international trading system to prosper. Together, we seek a new architecture for the United Nations Security Council.

In recent years, our political and security cooperation has gained in salience. Japan is the only partner with whom we have a 2-plus-2 Dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministries. We have also begun bilateral exercises with the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force.

The romance was consecrated by an audience with the Japanese emperor and empress for Singh and his wife, and the announcement that the royal couple, apparently in Japan’s version of panda diplomacy, would be visiting India before the year’s end in only the second overseas trip for the aging emperor since 2009.

It should also be noted that India is studying Japan’s offer to sell an amphibious plane, the US-2, that would be de facto Japan’s first overseas military sale, though it would go out under the flag of “dual use”.

Compare and contrast Singh’s effusions in Tokyo with the proper but distant tone of the communique on Chinese PM Li Keqiang’s recent visit to India:

There is enough space in the world for the development of India and China, and the world needs the common development of both countries. As the two largest developing countries in the world, the relationship between India and China transcends bilateral scope and has acquired regional, global and strategic significance. Both countries view each other as partners for mutual benefit and not as rivals or competitors.

“Nettlesome neighbor” versus “strategic partner”.  I think the picture is clear.

Much of the Indian coverage gave full rein to anti-PRC feelings (The Hindu being the exception, although it perforce titled its skeptical editorial on Singh’s Japan trip as “Love in Tokyo” ), implying that India’s vociferous China bashers were celebrating an overt shift in Indian government attitudes or, at the very least, Japan had been extremely thorough in its spadework with right-wing Indian media to cultivate a Japan-India alliance.

Times of India:

First Post:

It’s true that no other country in the world today feels as threatened by China’s so-called “peaceful rise” as Japan. But then India too feels threatened by China. That is why Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister and a known India friend, had said in his address to the joint session of Indian parliament in the Central Hall in the summer of 2007 that the Indo-Japan relations were a “confluence of the two seas”, a phrase that he drew from the title of a book written by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh in 1655.

Abe is an unabashed China-basher who says he is determined to see that the South China Sea does not become a “Lake Beijing”.  He has proposed an ADSD – Asia Democratic Security Diamond, comprising Japan, India, Australia and the US.

This is what Abe said in a signed article in December 2012: “If Japan were to yield, the South China Sea would become even more fortified. Freedom of navigation, vital for trading countries such as Japan and South Korea, would be seriously hindered. The naval assets of the United States, in addition to those of Japan, would find it difficult to enter the entire area, though the majority of the two China seas is international water.”

Abe has forecast that in about a decade Japan-India relations would overtake Japan-China and even Japan-US relations. “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific,” he said in this article.
India and Japan were never as close to each other as they are today. The bonding is to become all the stronger in the near future. All thanks to China.

A brief note: the “Democratic Security Diamond” was originally bruited about in Abe’s first term and independently championed by US Vice President Dick Cheney back in 2007 as an effort to stovepipe freedom into Asia with the help of a conservative regional ally against the wishes of the rest of the Bush administration, which had decided to sideline Cheney's team and was rather desperately trying to engage the PRC on the North Korea nuclear issue.  

Japan occupies a large space in Manmohan Singh's heart, and he has logged enough frequent flyer miles to Tokyo to prove it. When he lands in Tokyo on Monday, Singh is certain to get the kind of reception that will show Japan reciprocates in full measure.
Japan has the kind of technological and innovation heft India needs in spades. Acknowledging this, the PM once famously listed three of India's relationships he described as "transformational" - US, Japan and Germany - that if India used these relationships wisely, they could help transform our nation. …
With Shinzo Abe back in power in Japan with a convincing mandate and a will to resuscitate Japan from its "lost decades", India has a unique opportunity.
It is time India came out of the closet to strengthen the countries in the region: Indonesia, Vietnam and the real power in Asia - Japan. India should not waste its time looking for Japanese endorsement of Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh, though many officials will tell you this is why we're kind of reticent with them. Instead, India should be more helpful on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue - because if China gets away with this one, it will be unstoppable everywhere else.

Put China on the list of observers who came away with the impression of an Indo-Japanese lovefest.

For an illustration for the diplomatic equivalent of “green eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on” i.e. jealousy/envy/sour grapes, read this People’s Daily editorial which attempts to put the resolution of a minor border intrusion during Li Keqiang’s visit to India on par with the multi-course love feast between Singh and Abe (while diplomatically putting the blame for Singh’s dalliance on Abe’s shoulders):

Sino-Indian diplomatic miracle embarrasses Japanese politicians

“The clouds in the sky cannot blot out the sunshine of Sino-Indian friendship,” said Premier Li Keqiang when describing the Sino-Indian ties on the last day of his stay in India.

Before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit, the China-India border standoff was hyped up by international media. The divergence and contradictions between the two countries were also exaggerated as if the Sino-Indian ties had been strained suddenly.

But what surprised the media was that China and India properly solved the issue in a short time. During Premier Li Keqiang’s visit, the top leaders of both countries had sincere and candid talks and came to a series of strategic consensus and cooperation. The shift of Sino-Indian ties in such a short time is a miracle.

In the development of Sino-Indian ties there are several divergence and contradictions. Some countries see these differences as an opportunity to provoke dissension.

Not long ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on Japan, India, Australia and the U.S. to jointly form a “Democratic Security Diamond” to compete with the ascendant China. He also proposed that Japan should promote “Strategic Diplomacy” and “Values Diplomacy” and made visits in countries around China. Some politicians just made themselves petty burglars on China-related issues.

The so-called “Democratic Security Diamond”, “Strategic Diplomacy” and “Values Diplomacy” among other new terms seem very strategic. But in fact they unveiled the narrow-minded diplomatic thoughts of Japanese government. The conspiracy of these petty burglars is doomed to fail…

It is difficult to shed the feeling that Indian commentators who detect an anti-China shift in Indian government policy are on to something.

Certainly, the JapanIndia affair has sound diplomatic and economic bases.

India is not happy about its immense trade deficit with China; Japan sees India as a cheap overseas labor source and Abe needs some big ticket deals with India to keep the economy humming and keep Abenomics out of the ditch, especially with Japan-China relations in the icebox.

Various national quid pro quos are at work—several billion dollars in Japanese loans, Indian support for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, and a promise to work together to change the structure of the UN Security Council, to date notably China-heavy and Japan- and-India-free.

But an interested reader—and, for that matter the Chinese government—cannot escape the sense that Singh, encouraged by Abe’s vigorous approach to restoring Japan’s national and regional stature, has decided to place an open bet on Japan—a fellow democracy and, until recent years at least, acknowledged master of the global economic and financial game--instead of obstreperous, state socialist China in the Asian sweepstakes.

Therefore, I for once and very gingerly take issue with the esteemed Mr. Bhadrakumar’s conclusion  that China’s assertiveness in Ladakh strengthened the hands of India’s China bashers and queered Li Keqiang’s trip and Sino-Indian relations overall.  Given the apparent desire of Prime Minister Singh to opt for a Japan partnership, maybe somebody thought an Indian provocation in Ladakh would yield a timely and useful piece of anti-Chinese framing to the encounter in Tokyo.

Maybe Mr. Singh’s heart was in Japan from the beginning.

Guided by an admonitory op-ed in Global Times, I looked up “Radhabinod Pal“ on Wikipedia.

In Internet speak, TIL (today I learned) that Pal was an Indian jurist on the Japan war crimes tribunal in 1946.  Pal was enamored of the anti-colonial rhetoric that accompanied the Japanese “advance” into SE Asia.  He believed the United States had provoked Japan into war (the Japanese response was therefore not “aggressive”), was concerned with unpunished Allied wartime atrocities, and declined to endorse the “triumph of civilization” narrative of Japan’s defeat or the creation of “Class A” war criminal category that the Occupation used to prosecute the Japanese military and civilian leadership.    
While acknowledging the commission of atrocities in the field (though a Nanjing Massacre skeptic), Pal voted for acquittal of the “Class A” defendants and prepared a 1235-page dissenting opinion—suppressed by the Occupation until 1952-- stating that the trial was a “victor’s justice” travesty.

So far so good.

After his dissent was published, Pal, unsurprisingly, became a hero to Japanese nationalists.  Given the legal and moral flaws of the tribunal, the standard explanation is that Pal was simply a scrupulous jurist whose dissent got cherrypicked by nasty nationalists for verbiage that supported their claim that the only thing Japan did wrong in World War II was lose it.

Actually, as an article at Japan Focus by Japanese scholar Tekeshi Nakajima points out, in his dissent Pal went beyond challenging the legality and validity of the tribunal to excusing Japanese--activities? Aggression? Advances? Choose your favorite word-- on the grounds that Japan was getting picked on by the West.

This is rather obvious in Pal’s treatment of Japan’s incursion into Manchuria, which Japan did on its own kick without the excuse that the US was forcing it into war.

Pal probably found it extremely awkward that Japan, in his mind the front line of resistance to western colonialism, adopted nakedly colonial policies in its dismemberment of China and subjugation of Manchuria.

He attempted to resolve his difficulties by deploying what might be characterized as the “monkey see monkey do” defense—that Japan, deluded by the precedent, pretexts, and spurious legality of Western colonial intrusions, mistakenly adopted the same methods and, indeed, erroneously adopted the very idea that it needed to occupy Manchuria, from the West.

After dismissing the Manchurian and Marco Polo Bridge incidents as examples of simple overexuberance by officers in the field and not elements of a conspiracy to justify occupation of north and northeast China, Pal deployed the “delusion” defense, as Nakajima writes:

Justice Pal then critically examined Western Imperialism, which, he asserted, Japan had imitated. Quoting the Survey of International Affairs 1932, he turned the target of the criticism toward the colonial policies of Western Powers:

Was it not Western Imperialism that had coined the word ‘protectorate’ as a euphemism for ‘annexation’? And had not this constitutional fiction served its Western inventors in good stead? Was not this the method by which the Government of the French Republic had stepped into the shoes of the Sultan of Morocco, and by which the British Crown had transferred the possession of vast tracts of land in East Africa from native African to adventitious European hands?30

For Justice Pal, Japan’s ‘farce’ was nothing but the result of imitating Western fashions of imperialism. From this point of view, he questioned why only Japan’s establishment of Manchukuo could be assessed as ‘aggression’. Weren’t Western countries morally guilty as well in practicing colonialism? If the acts of aggression by Western countries were not charged as crimes, why was the establishment of Manchukuo by Japan?

Justice Pal further quoted the Survey of International Affairs 1932:

Though the Japanese failed to make the most of these Western precedents in stating their case for performing the farce of ‘Manchukuo’, it may legitimately be conjectured that Western as well as Japanese precedents had in fact suggested, and commended, this line of policy to Japanese minds.31

By saying, ‘[i]t may not be a justifiable policy, justifying one nation’s expansion in another’s territory’,32 he emphasised that both Japan and the Western countries were morally responsible for the colonisation of other nations. Justice Pal explained that Japan was at that time possessed with a ‘delusion’ and believed that the country would face death and destruction if it failed in acquiring Manchuria.33 

Pal regarded this as the reason for Japan’s attempts to establish interests which it saw as necessary for its very existence. Justice Pal said that carrying out a military operation driven by ‘delusion’ was not unique to Japan as it had been repeatedly practised on a large scale by Western countries for many years. Saying, ‘[a]lmost every great power acquired similar interests within the territories of the Eastern Hemisphere and, it seems, every such power considered that interest to be very vital’, Pal argued that Japan had the ‘right’ to argue that the Manchurian Incident was necessary for the sake of ‘self-defense’.34 

Japan claiming national ‘self-defense’ in regard to its territorial expansion in China was in step with international society at the time, Pal said, and thus Japan’s actions stemmed from the ‘imitation’ of an evil practice of Western imperialism. Based on this premise, he concluded: ‘The action of Japan in Manchuria would not, it is certain, be applauded by the world. At the same time it would be difficult to condemn the same as criminal.’35

I, for one, find that Pal’s brief goes beyond the questioning of a dubious legal proceeding by a distinguished and experienced international jurist to rather dishonorable special pleading on behalf of his favorite country, Japan on the grounds of “everybody else was doing it, so it should have been OK, oops, make that that 'necessary'.”

Try that defense next time you’re caught cheating on your taxes.

And there’s this:

In In 1966, the Emperor of Japan conferred upon Pal—who stated his lifelong admiration of Japan as the one Asian country that stood up to the West-- the First Class of the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

The Pal dissent is more than ancient history; it is a cornerstone of the recent nationalist tilt of the Japanese government and the determination of Japanese nationalists to claim an untainted leadership role for Japan as the pre-eminent Asian practitioner of the modern arts of economics, democracy, and warfare (defeated but not discredited in the "great war"), as can be seen from this Telegraph report of the aftermath of the LDP’s victory at the polls in 2012:

"The view of that great war was not formed by the Japanese themselves, but rather by the victorious Allies, and it is by their judgement only that [Japanese] were condemned," Mr Abe told a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee on Tuesday. 

In his previous short-lived spell as prime minister, for 12 months from September 2006, Mr Abe said that the 28 Japanese military and political leaders charged with Class-A war crimes are "not war criminals under the laws of Japan." 

Pal was enshrined at Yasukuni, which gives the lie to the claim that it is simply a war dead memorial and not a revisionist shrine.  The photo illustrating Pal’s entry in Wikipedia is his Yasukuni stele.

Prime Minister Abe made a pilgrimage to Kolkata in 2007 to meet with Pal’s son and receive a couple pictures of Pal with Abe’s father-in-law [correction: Abe's maternal grandfather], ex-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was detained after the war as a suspected Class A criminal but never indicted or tried.

For those who like their national history convoluted, it should also be pointed out that Pal was an admirer of the Indian National Army, which fought with the Japanese against the British in Malaya and Burma.  When the British attempted to try the leaders of the INA for treason after the war, the combination of outrage in the Indian military and popular revulsion against the British exercise of justice was a crucial factor in Great Britain throwing in the towel and granting Indian independence.

So, by an alternate reading of history, Japan can claim credit for the decolonization of India as well as Malaysia and Burma.

Prime Minister Singh is unlikely to go the final mile in supporting the Japanese liberation narrative as his primary political patrons are the Gandhi family, which demands sole credit for India’s independence on behalf of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Singh’s attitude to the potent symbolism of the Pal dissent and the Japanese decolonization narrative was displayed in Singh’s toast to Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi in 2005:

The dissenting judgement of Justice Radha Binod Pal is well-known to the Japanese people and will always symbolize the affection and regard our people have for your country. 

On December 14, 2006, Singh upgraded Pal’s judgment to “principled” and an expression of Indian-Japan solidarity in his speech in the Japanese Diet. He stated:

"The principled judgment of Justice Radhabinod Pal after the War is remembered even today in Japan. Ladies and Gentlemen, these events reflect the depth of our friendship and the fact that we have stood by each other at critical moments in our history."

This does not look like a matter of parsing the legal and moral flaws Pal detected in the war crimes tribunal.  It looks like Singh’s heart, like Pal’s was with Japan—and its view that it got jobbed by history as written by the World War II  victors and China benefited excessively from the unfair Japan = monster framing.

As memories fade of the concrete miseries of Japan’s romp through Asia, resurrecting the comforting abstraction of the Japan decolonization narrative is a potent political and diplomatic weapon, despite the fact that Japan has to be discreet in wielding it before the United States, which is completely vested in the Greatest Generation/triumph over evil version.

Anyway, maybe India thinks it’s time to repudiate the idea of war guilt along and give Japan back its rightful place in the sun (and consign its undeserving rival, the PRC, to the moral and geopolitical doghouse).

Singh did not have to endorse that reliable if somewhat misleading anti-Chinese bugbear “freedom of navigation” and claim an overt Indian strategic role in East Asia through the Look East policy.

But he did so in his remarks in Tokyo.

Our Look East engagement began with a strong economic emphasis, but it has become increasingly strategic in its content.
Our relationship with Japan has been at the heart of our Look East Policy. Japan inspired Asia's surge to prosperity and it remains integral to Asia’s future. The world has a huge stake in Japan’s success in restoring the momentum of its growth. Your continued leadership in enterprise, technology and innovation and your ability to remain the locomotive of Asian renaissance are crucial.

India's relations with Japan are important not only for our economic development, but also because we see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast region in Asia that is washed by the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Our relations draw their strength from our spiritual, cultural and civilizational affinities and a shared commitment to the ideals of democracy, peace and freedom. We have increasingly convergent world views and growing stakes in each other’s prosperity. We have shared interests in maritime security and we face similar challenges to our energy security. There are strong synergies between our economies, which need an open, rule-based international trading system to prosper. 

For outside observers, India’s overt buy-in validates the idea of the anti-China alliance and the narrative that the PRC is a rogue actor that needs containment.

It appears that Singh decided to follow his heart and match Abe’s boldness with his own, making a risky move to help Abe's anti-China gambit succeed with some conspicuous Indian support.

My personal feeling is that Singh is going too far by “Looking East” and meddling in the China seas together with Japan, the world’s third-largest economy and committed China-basher, even if it is simply in retaliation for China’s conclusion of a “strategic cooperative partnership” with Sri Lanka and port-related initiatives –the notorious ‘string of pearls’- with India’s troublesome but less than intimidating neighbors Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Myanmar.

The confrontation between Japan and the PRC over the Senkakus may very possibly not end well, and having India sticking its oar in will probably not make things better.

If Singh’s ambitions go beyond playing the Japan card in order to wring better behavior out of China on South Asia and Himalayan issues  to concluding an overt alliance with Japan against the PRC to alter the balance of power in Asia, I think he’s writing checks that the world—let alone India—can’t afford to cash.

History, as they say, will judge if Singh made the right bet.  If it goes bad, people will be asking why he placed it so early in the game.

Global Times talked tough on the occasion of the Singh visit, putting the onus on Abe once again but presumably also sending a message to India not to end up on the wrong side of (long term) history (as well as reassuring itself that, despite the pretty unfavorable set of current circumstances, the PRC will come out on top in the end):

It will take time for Japan to face the reality that the once only great power in East Asia has to give way to China, whose GDP and marine strength will surpass that of Japan. The process will be tougher for Japan, which will be sincerely convinced some day.

The day will come sooner or later. The little tricks that Japan is playing are nothing but a struggle for self-comfort, which will not affect the development of Asia.

Japan is trying every means to hide its decline against China in order to boost its national morale, but China  does not need to compete with Japan to regain confidence and prove its strength.

The conflict between China and Japan should not be regarded as a "strategic" game. In fact, the overall strategic future of Japan and China has already been determined. Gains and losses incurred by the frictions between China and Japan make no difference to the futures of either country. There is no need for China to exert too much energy on Japan.

As a growing but young giant, Chinese society will unavoidably have to deal with various conflicts with Japan. It will be a long journey for China to become mature enough so that a real great power will emerge with confidence.

This is not a final showdown between China and Japan, neither is it an opportunity for China to mend its broken fences with Japan. All China should do is "take it easy." China should be aware that Japan tricks can never impact China strategy. China should take the initiative to decide when and how seriously we respond to it.

But maybe Singh sees a once-in-a-career opportunity for rollback against the PRC with Abe in Japan, the US in Myanmar, and China’s problems with ASEAN on a prolonged, ugly boil.

It is already clear that India is slow-walking its negotiations with the PRC over a free trade agreement.  If India and Japan both insist that China’s proposed regional trade zone regime, the RCEP, needs to look more like the TPP, negotiating initiative for all of the region’s trade pacts may switch over to Japan and India.

The PRC might decide it is a good idea to draw closer to the United States (which Abe is discreetly shouldering aside as he pursues his Japan-centric initiatives and promotes his vision of Japan as a victim of “victor’s justice”).  

The PRC premier, Le Keqiang, found himself in the unlikely position of trying to reawaken nostalgia for the Potsdam declaration—which mandated the return to their owners of territories like Taiwan, the Pescadores, and Manchuria that Japan had stolen—during his trip to Germany.  Beyond giving the PRC some kind of claim to the Senkakus, invoking the Potsdam declaration is probably meant to remind the United States of a happier time when the West’s writ was respectfully acknowledged and not covertly defied by the subjugated and defeated nations of Asia.

It will be interesting to see if the PRC decides that, given the Japan-India partnership, maybe the time has finally come to throw North Korea under the bus for the sake of Sino-US rapprochement.  

On the other hand, if the weakened yen and Abe’s frenetic regional dealmaking fail to keep the Nikkei afloat and the long-expected revulsion against Japanese bonds (and the 240% of GDP national debt they fund) materializes and spikes Japan’s borrowing costs, Japan will be licking its wounds a few months from now and Singh will face some awkward moments in dealing with Beijing.

But for the time being, the vision (or to the PRC, the specter) of an active Japan-India alliance inciting and recruiting opposition to Chinese strategic and economic penetration in Asia offers the prospect of an interesting rejuggling of Pacific relationships.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Japan tips its hand via North Korea

[This piece appeared at Asia Times Online on May 21, 2013.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]
The big story in Asia affairs today is a little trip that was supposed to stay a secret: the dispatch of Isao Iijima, adviser to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to meet with senior officials in North Korea, thereby breaking the united US/South Korean/Japanese front in negotiations with Pyongyang.

It is the first instance of an overt divergence between Japanese and US diplomatic and security strategies, something that has been implicit in Japan's sometimes-inflammatory brand of nationalism under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - and Abe's determination to move Japan beyond its traditional role of obedient US ally to independent regional force.

The United States has been quietly disapproving of Japan's China strategy - witness Kurt Campbell's statement that the US advised Japan against nationalizing the Senkaku islands - and provocative nationalist hi-jinks on issues like the Yasukuni Shrine, but excused them as politically motivated exercises in domestic base-pandering.

However, the North Korean trip has revealed the cloven hoof beneath the robe, as far as Japan's independent aspirations in Asia are concerned.

Japan Times made it clear that the US was not consulted in advance about the trip; US special representative for North Korea Glyn Davies was only briefed after the visit:
Japan briefed the United States on Thursday about the surprise visit to North Korea by an adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

After meeting with his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo, Glyn Davies, US. special representative for North Korea policy, said he hopes to gain more "insights" into Isao Iijima's unannounced trip in the coming days. ...

The trip, apparently an effort to resolve the issue over North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, has raised concerns that Japan could be seen as acting alone, while the United States and South Korea continue to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear arms and missile threats.

"I have begun the process of learning a bit more about [Iijima's trip]," Davies told reporters after meeting with Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.

"I think we have some days to wait for all of us before we know there are any results from this mission ... we obviously will look forward to hearing from the government of Japan more details about this in [the] coming days," he said.

While South Korea has criticized the Japanese move as "not helpful," given the importance of coordinating a united front by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo against Pyongyang, Davies said, "I'm not going to address it in that way." [1]
The Christian Science Monitor calls it from the US side: "Japan's 'secret' trip to North Korea disrupts united stance against Pyongyang." [2] South Korea was less circumspect:
Seoul criticized Tokyo Thursday for dispatching an envoy to North Korea voicing concerns that the visit could undermine efforts to forge a coordinated approach toward Pyongyang.

Without prior notice to South Korea, Isao Iijima, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, arrived in Pyongyang spawning speculation that Japan might be trying to mend broken fences with the North, while South Korea, the US, recently even China, are making efforts to punish North Korea for conducting its third nuclear test in February by imposing sanctions.

"It is important to maintain close coordination, among South Korea, the US and Japan, toward North Korea," said [South Korean] Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young in a media briefing. "In that sense, we think that the visit by Iijima to North Korea is unhelpful." [3]
According to Japanese sources, public revelation of the trip was something of a diplomatic fiasco maliciously inflicted by North Korea:
Japan speechless on PR chief's 'secret' N.K. trip
Blown mission reveals bid to sidestep trilateral denuclearization strategy for abduction issue.

The government is keeping mum on a secret visit to North Korea by one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's advisers after Pyongyang revealed it to the United States and South Korea.

We "can't reasonably explain" the visit because it was supposed to be kept secret, a government source said. ...

Only a handful of people, including Abe, Suga and Keiji Furuya, the minister in charge of the abduction issue, were involved in setting up the visit, they said.

A government source said there was no choice but to say: "I'm sorry, but I haven't been told about it at all," when a US official asked about Iijima's mission. [4]
It should be pointed out that secret trips to North Korea - in addition to outreach to North Korea's UN Mission in New York - are a common feature of US diplomacy.

Quite possibly, Abe believed his North Korean move would be granted equivalent secrecy by Pyongyang and Japanese diplomats could brief US diplomats with quiet pride after the fact concerning Japan's adept, confident exercise in unilateral diplomacy. If so, the media carnival unveiled by Pyongyang on the occasion of Iijima's visit revealed Abe to be rather naive, as North Korea leapt at the chance to highlight disarray in the anti-DPRK alliance.

Abe's decision to stir the North Korean pot has several elements.

The first is the desire for domestic political advantage. A breakthrough on the issue of the remaining Japanese abductees would be a feather in Abe's cap and help secure the electoral tidal wave in the July upper house elections needed to secure a two-thirds majority - and constitution revision clout - for the Liberal Democratic Party.

Second is a genuine and understandable awareness that Japan's foreign policy needs, both on North Korea in particular and Asia/China in general, have often played second fiddle to whatever grand strategy the United States is pursuing.

The "Nixon shock" of US outreach to China in 1972 is still remembered, especially among Japanese conservatives who remember it as a betrayal of the anti-communist ethos that was supposed to permeate US diplomacy. In 2007, Japan was humiliated when the US State Department undertook to resume discussions with North Korea following its first nuclear test, without even bothering to obtain North Korean lip service on the hot-button issue of the abductees.

So there is a definite sense that Japan has to look out for and advance its own priorities; for conservatives, that translates into a willingness to pursue an independent foreign policy while shrinking from overt conflict with US priorities (though Iijima's North Korean trip indicates that Japanese deference to US policy and face may be increasingly "honored in the breach" as it were).

Third and, perhaps, less appreciated, is Japan's desire to leverage its independent foreign policy into a decisive role in Asian diplomacy. Japanese unilateralism - and the demonstrated threat of Japanese unilateralism and even brinksmanship - ensures that the US has to grant Japan a de facto veto over US policies such as rapprochement with China and negotiations with North Korea in order to keep the increasingly assertive and independent Japanese government on board.

Fourth, Japan's conservatives apparently possess an atavistic desire to confound and humiliate South Korea for its pretensions to regional economic and diplomatic leadership.

As the celebratory circle jerk of stock market punters over the soaring Nikkei continues, it should be noted that for the first time since 1998 the growth rate of yen-weakened Japan will exceed that of South Korea.

Currently, South Korea has stated a noble commitment to addressing its economic difficulties through stimulation of domestic demand, thereby letting Japan reap the unilateral benefits of a weak-yen policy. However, as South Korean corporate profits erode - and if South Korea's financial markets are roiled by hot money released by Japanese quantitative easing - it is an open question as to how long South Korea will take a generous view of Japan's lunch-eating/middle-finger flourishing attitude toward its neighbor.

There are already rumblings that South Korea is facing a Japan-style aging/stagnation crisis that Keynesian pump-priming is ill-equipped to address. If so, domestic pressure will grow for the Korean government to take Japan-style countermeasures and export its own miseries-presumably to China - with quantitative easing and a weakening of the won.

Then it will be up to China to hold the line and decide if its growth prospects are strong enough to meet the challenge with greater productivity and efficiency - or take the easy route of devaluing the yuan (employing the universally sanctioned fig leaf of "quantitative easing") and drive the Asian economy into a ditch.

In an article excoriating Japan's approach to North Korea, Korea Times' Kim Tae-gyu detoured into trade and economic grievances:
Beggar-thy-neighbor policy

Abe's flagship economic policy of depreciating the country's currency to boost the price competitiveness of made-in-Japan products is also under criticism as it tries to galvanize its economy at the expenses of its neighbors.

Critics say the Abe administration's large-scale monetary easing and the resultant fast devaluation of the yen are tantamount to economic aggression toward Asian nations.

The weakening of currency of the world's No 3 economy spills over to its rivals in international markets such as Korea and China whose exporters are now panicking - it is the very essence of a "beggar-thy-neighbor" policy.

The yen was traded near a historical high of 78 yen to the dollar last year but it now fluctuates in the vicinity of 100. Many global agencies expect that the depreciation is only halfway done as it is likely to further rise to around 120 yen by the end of next year.

The weakening yen has breathed fresh life into its moribund economy, which experienced a two-decade slump. By contrast, Korean and Chinese exporters that compete with Japanese ones are complaining about their substantially reduced bottom lines. [5]
From the US point of view, South Korea and China lining up to protect their interests against predatory Japanese trade policy - on top of Japan alienating South Korea with its go-it-alone North Korea initiative - is not what the US pivot/rebalancing to Asia is supposed to be all about.

1. U.S. briefed on Abe aide Iijima's surprise Pyongyang visit, Japan Times, May 17, 2013.
2. Japan's 'secret' trip to North Korea disrupts united stance against Pyongyang, May 17, 2013.
3. Seoul slams Japan for sending envoy to NK, Korea Times, May 16, 2013.
4. Japan speechless on PR chief's 'secret' N.K. trip, Japan Times, May 19, 2013.
5. Abe taking Japan back to imperial past, Korea Times, May 15, 2013.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Syria Peace Process Scorecard

As Attentive Reader knows, I’ve been pushing a couple ideas about the diverging aims of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar ever since the reboot of the overseas Syrian opposition at Doha in November 2012.

First, the logical endgame for the increasingly radicalized and bloody Syrian insurrection is not victory; it is a clubbing together of moderate, conservative, and authoritarian forces to suppress the jihadis, as occurred during the “Anbar Awakening” (or less politely, “death squads a go go” or “liquidation of AQ-aligned forces by an opportunistic alliance of local Sunni elites and US special forces”) in Iraq.

Case proven on this point.

The United States is way past hiding its anxiety about extremists in Syria.  According to UAE’s The National, it wants to kill them even before scores are settled with Bashar al Assad:

Then, by the rebel commander's account, the discussion took an unexpected turn.

The Americans began discussing the possibility of drone strikes on Al Nusra camps inside Syria and tried to enlist the rebels to fight their fellow insurgents.

"The US intelligence officer said, 'We can train 30 of your fighters a month, and we want you to fight Al Nusra'," the rebel commander recalled.

Opposition forces should be uniting against Mr Al Assad's more powerful and better-equipped army, not waging war among themselves, the rebel commander replied. The response from a senior US intelligence officer was blunt.

"I'm not going to lie to you. We'd prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad's army. You should kill these Nusra people. We'll do it if you don't," the rebel leader quoted the officer as saying.

Second point was that the Gulf states are split between Qatar’s desire to shoehorn its Muslim Brotherhood proxies into a transitional Syrian government, and Saudi Arabia’s willingness to let ‘er rip: support the jihadis in their single-minded determination to crater the Syrian government and, perhaps, expand the chaos to bring down the Iran-aligned Shi’a central government in Iraq.

Case definitely proven on the Qatar/Saudi split.  

The Financial Times revealed that Qatar has already spent $3 billion on its Syrian adventure and has, in the process, aroused Saudi resentment and anxiety, provoking the Kingdom to “nudge Qatar aside” as the leading provider of arms to the rebels.

But case unproven on the matter of unequivocal Saudi support for the jihadis and an insurrection-driven endgame in Syria.  

Saudi Arabia, fearful of blowback, is actively discouraging Saudi volunteers from fighting in Syria (and is attempting to deprogram Saudi AQ members under luxurious, spa-like conditions at the “Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Counselling and Care”); whether this reflects utter abhorrence of the Syrian jihadis' leadership, personnel, and Caliphitic agenda is unknown. 

Maybe Saudi Arabia regards a Syrian anti-Assad jihad cleansed of young Saudi enthusiasts the same way Pakistan’s ISS regards the Afghan Taliban: unruly but supremely useful and murderous proxies.

The FT version is that Saudi Arabia is asserting itself as the opposition’s armorer because Qatar was indiscriminately showering arms on radicals like Jabhat al-Nusra, which recently declared allegiance to Al Qaeda.

The military reverses recently suffered by the insurrectionists after two years of battling Assad’s weary forces probably reflect a reduction in foreign aid and fighters under US pressure.

Which means that Salafi-friendly governments have presumably heeded US calls to withhold resources from the most effective but least-West friendly jihadi elements inside Syria. 

I leave it to the experts to determine if Saudi Arabia’s actions are driven by constitutional distaste for Jabhat al-Nusra (and its ties with the constitutionally Saudi-hostile al Qaeda leadership), or represent an attempt to wrongfoot local rival Qatar and gain a measure of useful leverage over Syria’s most potent insurrectionist force.

Anyway, after two years of bloody and counterproductive cheerleading for the insurrection, the United States has belatedly clubbed with Russia to support some kind of peace process.

The idea is to short-circuit the armed insurrection, start some political jaw-jaw, thereby sidelining the jihadists and bring Syria’s reformist, liberal opposition back into the game.

My feeling is that from the US side, this initiative is…Dishonest? Disingenuous? Dissembling?

Choose your dis word.

After two years of bloodshed, I don’t think there is a lot of meaningful domestic reformist opposition to reboot.  The reformist expectation that popular demonstrations would elicit government repression, thereby accelerating popular alienation from the regime and hastening its non-violent fall at the hands of overwhelming secular and moderate forces, pretty much backfired.

Instead, distaste for Assad has been matched and perhaps exceeded by dismay at the influx of jihadis and the shredding of Syria’s economic and social fabric while the forces of neo-liberalism cheered blindly from the sidelines (and the Guardian dug its journalistic grave with its ghastly anti-regime agitprop).

Syrian domestic disgust with the revolution is pretty widespread, and the pathetic overseas opposition has done nothing to establish itself as a viable political force.  A true peace process would probably find it necessary to preserve a central role for key elements of the current regime in a new government.

But I don’t think that’s the ultimate purpose of the peace process.

If and when West-sponsored civilian forces manage to put on a suitable reformist show (including a display of anti-jihadi as well as anti-Assad revulsion), the United States will have sufficient moral and political cover to seize upon some real or manufactured Assad outrage, condemn Assad and his cronies as insincere and inadequate peace partners, declare that the immiserated Syrians are incapable of defending themselves against the depredations of the regime, and cobble together some kind of intervention to topple Assad that denies a leading and decisive role to the jihadis.

In other words, Qaddafi redux, this time with a brisk stab in the back for Assad after a few weeks of rapprochement (instead of after the expensive ten-year cozying up to the West to which Qaddafi subjected himself).  I think Assad himself is well aware of this possibility.

I would speculate that this is the kind of too-clever-by-half ostentatiously moralizing approach (freedom rings! Jihad baffled! lessons of Libya ignored!) that President Obama adores, and represents the kind of action that Turkey’s PM Erdogan—who has ingloriously hoisted himself on his anti-Assad petard—is begging the West to implement with Ankara’s support.

And maybe the Salafist extremists will resist the urge to sabotage a peace process transparently targeting them and, at the urging of their Gulf paymaster,s accept a brief hiatus in their anti-Iran/anti-Shi’a crusade in order to appease the United States.   With the anti-Shi’a insurrection in Iraq burgeoning and Syria in ruins, maybe they feel they can stand down for the time being and re-seize the initiative at their leisure.

Or else…

We’ll see what new kinds of war the peace process brings.