As the United States and other world powers resume nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva, Barack Obama's administration is pushing hard not only to wrap up a short-term nuclear deal with the rogue nation, but also to dissuade Congress from imposing any new sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program. In a rare move, President Obama personally made his case to key Democratic and Republican Senate leaders this week. U.S. diplomats have explained that the United States seeks a deal that "stops Iran's nuclear program from moving forward," but careful analysis suggests the pact's reported terms fall alarmingly short of that stated goal.
First, the deal's current measures fail to get Iran to completely open up its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While Iran announced this week that it will provide more transparency to the IAEA on specific declared nuclear sites, the well-timed announcement elides Iran's ongoing refusal to let the world's nuclear watchdog verify that the country has not just correctly, but also completely, declared all its nuclear materials and activities. Indeed, Iran has rejected nearly a decade's worth of legally binding demands by the IAEA, the 35-country IAEA Board of Governors, and the U.N. Security Council for its full transparency and cooperation. That's a big problem because Iran has a long, long, long, long, long history of hiding weapons-relevant nuclear activities from the world.
Second, the proposed deal still fails to fully freeze the growth of what's known as Iran's "nuclear weapons-making capability" -- that is, Iran's ability to rapidly build a nuclear explosive on increasingly short notice. To be sure, the short-term deal would stop some discrete elements of Iran's nuclear program from advancing. Specifically, it would require Iran to halt the production of "20 percent" enriched uranium that (counterintuitively yet technically) represents nine-tenths of the effort required to produce "90 percent" bomb-grade uranium, and to convert at least some of its current inventory of 20 percent uranium into a form that creates technical -- but far from impossible -- hurdles to further enrichment. It would oblige Iran not to use advanced "second-generation" centrifuges that can enrich uranium much more efficiently than "first-generation" units. And it would temporarily prohibit Iran from bringing online a dangerous heavy-water nuclear reactor that's ideal for producing plutonium optimized for a nuclear explosive.
That said, the pending interim pact would still allow other key elements of Iran's nuclear program to move forward and expand. It would neither shrink Iran's stockpile of "3.5 percent" low-enriched uranium that represents (again, counterintuitively yet technically) seven-tenths of the effort required to produce bomb-grade uranium. Nor would it prevent Iran from producing more. Moreover, the deal would not actually roll back or disassemble Iran's fleet of over 19,000 installed "first-generation" centrifuges for enriching uranium (more than half of which are actively enriching), nor apparently prevent Iran from manufacturing more. And it would only delay, not dismantle, the plutonium-producing "heavy water" reactor that Robert Einhorn, a former nonproliferation official in Bill Clinton's and Obama's administrations, dubbed a "plutonium bomb factory."
Photo: EPA/HAMID FORUTAN
1. The history issue is not going away anytime soon. China has every reason to perpetuate it: Stoking the fires of the past provides Beijing with a ready tool in its strategic competition with Tokyo. As for South Korea, even if Japan did a "full Germany" in atoning for its past, it is not clear what would satisfy Seoul.
2. Tokyo has resigned itself to the above. It is engaging in clever diplomacy -- building up more trust and diplomatic space outside South Korea and China before pushing full throttle on the national security changes it needs to make. Its outreach to Southeast Asia, including substantial aid to the typhoon-hit Philippines has been eagerly welcomed. It will next turn to deep engagement with Europe.
3. Relations with the United States are uneven. Japan has much gratitude for U.S. statements that the Senkaku Islands fall under the mutual treaty alliance (accompanied by Hillary nostalgia), and the United States has been supportive of Japan's plans to form a National Security Council. But, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to the Chidorigafuchi cemetery for World War II dead was considered too clever by half by Japanese officials. The intent was to send a message to Japan to reckon with its past and stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. But as an important ally and friend, Japan would prefer that the United States express its desires privately. And, apparently, Japanese officials were not consulted about this move. China will have a propaganda field day with it.
4. Unlike Vegas, what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East. As fellow Shadow Government blogger Mike Green wrote, there is deep concern that the United States warned Syria against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing when Bashar al-Assad used them. I speculate that a bad Iranian nuclear deal will do grave harm to U.S. credibility in Asia as well. Japan is completely dependent on the United States to protect it against weapons of mass destruction. Both North Korea and China have them and view Japan as a rival if not an enemy. It is simply not possible to cordon off one part of the globe and say that you are focusing on another. As Asian energy consumers more deeply engage the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction spread, what happen there matters to the United States' Pacific allies.
5. Abenomics, which makes all else possible, is in danger of petering out. Without serious corporate changes and restructuring, it will appear as though Tokyo simply primed the pump. For a variety of reasons, Japan needs more productivity. While exporters have benefited, the bad old ways of corporate cross-ownership and protection of majority shareholders remain. This will stifle attempts to inject vitality and dynamism into the economy.
6. The Japanese are excited to have Caroline Kennedy as the U.S. ambassador, as they should be. A new post-Cold War generation rules Washington, without the memories of what the U.S.-Japan alliance accomplished. Political leaders across the aisle need to educate themselves about how important the alliance is for this century's problems. Kennedy has a great opportunity to reintroduce Japan to a new generation of political leaders. And given the respect her family engenders across the United States, she can help inject new vitality into the U.S.-Japan relationship more broadly.
PHoto: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images
Tokyo and Beijing are certainly rivals, but given demographic trends, the rivalry will be among grumpy old men.
Things are heating up in the East China Sea, as China continues to pressure Japan to abandon its claim that its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyus by China) is nonnegotiable.
And after a year of dangerous intrusions and escalations, such as a Chinese frigate locking its radar on a Japanese vessel around the disputed islands, recently Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera accused China of sending its coast guard vessels into the Senkaku waters more than once a week: "I believe the intrusions by China in the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands fall in the 'gray zone' [between] peacetime and an emergency situation."
The Sino-Japanese dispute is coming perilously close to conflict, as China finds in Shinzo Abe's government a wall of resistance to its recent pattern of aggression in its near seas. Abe has ambitious plans for reviving both the Japanese economy and its national security institutions to deal with dual threats from China and North Korea.
But there is some irony in Onodera's choice of words, "gray zone," to describe the state of affairs in the East China Sea: This great-power competition is unique in that the protagonists are getting old fast.
Never before have we seen a strategic rivalry in which the opposing sides are getting so old. While both countries are using the tools of traditional statecraft -- rising military budgets, high-stakes diplomacy, economic leverage -- to gain strategic advantage, they are rapidly losing the actual people to sustain this great game.
According to Chinese statistics, the 15-64 age-group cohort, the most productive age group, shrank by 3.45 million last year. Meanwhile, the China Research Center on Aging announced that there are now 202 million elderly in China -- the size of a large country.
According to my colleague Nicholas Eberstadt, the demographic guru, China's working-age population will shrink at a rate of 1 percent starting soon (if it hasn't already). By way of contrast, during the past three decades of massive economic growth, China's working-age population grew by 1.8 percent per year. The cohort of Chinese 65 and older will grow at an astonishing rate of 3.7 percent per year for the next two decades; the elderly as a percentage of the entire population will double, reaching 17.2 percent by 2030.
As for Japan, more than 23 percent of the population is already 65 or older. Over the next few decades the proportion of elderly in Japan could grow to one-third of the total population Already, the total population is shrinking and not being replaced through either birth or immigration. Over the next two decades, the working-age population will decline by about 17 percent from 81 million to 67 million.
Each country will lose military-age personnel needed to populate its increasingly sophisticated military capabilities or innovative industrial bases that build greater wealth and power. Accompanying the erosion in wealth and power will be a loss of political will to meet current leaders' ambitions.
The costs of the coming old-age tsunami are mind-boggling. China is relatively poor and has no national pension system and a limited patchwork of locally run systems. Japan is far wealthier but deeply indebted. Neither country has enough kids to support aging parents.
It would be easy enough to conclude that these demographic trends portend more inward-looking countries tending to their elderly. But there is nothing inevitable in international politics -- aging countries do not necessarily make more peaceful ones. And these are long-run trends; there can be much trouble before they're all old.
While it is amusing to consider that the walker may replace the missile as the weapon of choice for China and Japan, there are also far more dangerous possibilities. An aging Russia, for example, relies on its nuclear weapons (the most bang for the least manpower) for security. Both Japan and China are seriously interested in drones and robotics as systems of the future. Given the inclinations of youth in both countries, conflict may seem like a complicated video game.
And like grumpy old men, the countries may become more impatient and disputatious. Where this plot leads is anyone's guess, but for guidance we are better off searching in the science-fiction section of the library.
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A public debate about a U.S. military strategy for China is most welcome. While the debate's particulars are important, it is equally significant that the U.S. national security community is now openly discussing ways to deter Chinese aggression and defeat it should deterrence fail.
This was hardly the case just a decade ago. Most in the U.S. national security elite were dismissive of China's military capabilities and believed that even talking about possibilities of conflict with China was provocative. Not only was this line of argument misguided -- taking seriously the possibility of conflict with China should lead to more robust deterrence and reassurance -- but it also wished away the fact that the Chinese security elite had been thinking about war with the United States for a long time.
If Washington is now more or less settled on a policy of engaging China while balancing its power and hedging against greater aggression, it is incumbent upon national security leaders to think as much about the balance and hedge part of the equation as they do the engage side. In an attempt to fill this gap, the Defense Department has developed a new concept, Air-Sea Battle (ASB). While much of ASB is classified, enough has been said to piece together its various moving parts. The operational concept requires that the U.S. military position itself to: 1) operate in an environment in which Chinese cyber-, anti-satellite, and electronic forces are seeking to degrade the C4ISR network upon which U.S. military effectiveness has become so reliant; 2) create better synergies between naval and air forces so they can effectively combat "anti-access" forces; and 3) hit targets on China's mainland to end Chinese salvos against U.S. allies and interests.
ASB is a direct descendent of the Cold War's AirLand Battle concept. Then, defense planners were worried that Soviet forces could quickly overrun allied forces at the central front of the Cold War -- Western Europe. AirLand Battle took a more offensive approach against the Soviet Union, using joint air and army forces to attack the Warsaw Pact states and targeting forces deep in Soviet- held territories before they had a chance to stage mass sweeps into Europe.
ASB is also a response to an operational problem: The Chinese have built anti-access capacities that seek to deny U.S. forces entry into its traditional defense perimeter in East Asia and use its coercive power to force its political objectives upon its neighbors.
The difficulty that analysts, proponents, antagonists, and defense planners all have with ASB is that, unlike AirLand Battle, which was developed after years of U.S. forces operating under the framework of a containment strategy, ASB is an operational concept without a strategy. The United States has a policy of engaging, balancing, and hedging against China, with some vague notion that doing so will nudge it into becoming a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. But is U.S. military planning supposed to force it to become this kind of world actor? That sounds far-fetched. So what are U.S. military goals in a conflict with China?
Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Happiness research is a growing discipline in social science that is taken more seriously in the academy and increasingly among policymakers as well. AEI President Arthur Brooks has done research on the subject, finding the happiest people are those who have earned their success. That does not always mean making a lot money, but rather achieving success of any kind through enterprise, perseverance, creativity, and so on. Others, such as authors of the famous Grant Study, have found that "happiness is love," including family, friendships, and social relationships. This is only a small sampling of the literature. Why are these findings of relevance to policymakers? As Ronald Inglehart and Hans-Dieter Klingemann have written:
"A society's level of subjective well-being....is intimately related to the legitimacy of the socio-economic political system...if subjective well-being of an entire society falls sharply below its normal baseline, it can destabilize the entire political order."
If Inglehart and Klinemann are correct, China watchers and policy analysts need to start thinking differently about the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There is something close to a consensus among Western observers of China that the CCP's legitimacy rests on two pillars. The first is performance -- sustained economic growth that translates into better living standards for all Chinese people. The second is a distinct kind of nationalism -- the CCP convinces the Chinese people that it and it alone can right the many wrongs of the past and restore China to its proper place of greatness.
The latter pillar actually makes more obvious sense than the former. The idea that legitimacy is based on growth in material well-being implicitly assumes that man can be reduced to homo economicus-that is, that man is interested in the material alone. The latter pillar, on the other hand, seems to be grounded in a better understanding of human nature. That is, man is driven by honor, pride, and anger as well as other emotions or virtues.
The findings of two social scientists, Jiayuan Li and John W. Raine, when combined with the conclusions of Inglehart et. al. about happiness and legitimacy has consequences for how we and Chinese leaders should think about the CCP's longevity.
By any measure, China has experienced tremendous economic growth since 1978. Living standards have improved markedly as has China's performance across a wide range of social indicators -- poverty reduction, school enrollment rates, life expectancy. And yet, Li and Raine's research shows a negative correlation between happiness and economic growth in China. Chinese are less happy than northwest Europeans, Mexicans, Thais and other Southeast Asians.
Li and Raine also found that China's happiness has declined over time. Li and Raine fully acknowledge the limits of their research. For example, one measurement they use is the number of grievance protests in Beijing. More Chinese petitioning of Beijing could indeed be a sign of increased unhappiness, it could also be a sign of increased happiness in that the Chinese people feel more like citizens than subjects and have some way to try and secure justice. And collecting statistics and conducting surveys in China is notoriously difficult.
Even so, their findings do not overly surprise me. Take the two findings about happiness mentioned above, earned success, and social networks. To really earn success one needs a strong sense that the playing field is level and fair. Given the levels of corruption in China and the special privileges afforded to the well-connected, it is doubtful that Chinese feel that they can truly earn success without somehow cheating or gaming the system. There is a serious loss of dignity -- a profound human desire -- in living in a society where people feel compelled to cheat to get ahead or that no justice exists when others cheat.
Then there is the issue of social and family relationships. Through the one-child policy, the Chinese government is destroying the traditional Chinese family. A generation of Chinese is growing up without siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts. Given the importance in Chinese history of the extended family for social insurance and security as well as for the proper ordering of one's place in society, its destruction has broad repercussions for societal happiness. Add to that a general trust deficit in China and the findings of social scientists focused on happiness ring true.
Many thought the CCP's days were numbered after the fall of the Soviet Union. Given the patterns of democratization in East Asia, most China watchers and policymakers thought that more wealth would bring greater demands for political participation and democracy. Policymakers needed an explanation for why the CCP continues to monopolize power in China, despite the fall of other Marxist-Leninist regimes and more wealth. But now it may be time to develop other indicators to measure the regime's resilience -- societal happiness is a good place to start.
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The Internet is now a battlefield. China is not only militarizing cyberspace -- it is also deploying its cyberwarriors against the United States and other countries to conduct corporate espionage, hack think tanks, and engage in retaliatory harassment of news organizations.
These attacks are another dimension of the ongoing strategic competition between the United States and China -- a competition playing out in the waters of the East and South China seas, in Iran and Syria, across the Taiwan Strait, and in outer space. With a number of recent high-profile attacks in cyberspace traced to the Chinese government, the cybercompetition seems particularly pressing. It is time for Washington to develop a clear, concerted strategy to deter cyberwar, theft of intellectual property, espionage, and digital harassment. Simply put, the United States must make China pay for conducting these activities, in addition to defending cybernetworks and critical infrastructure such as power stations and cell towers. The U.S. government needs to go on the offensive and enact a set of diplomatic, security, and legal measures designed to impose serious costs on China for its flagrant violations of the law and to deter a conflict in the cybersphere.
Fashioning an adequate response to this challenge requires understanding that China places clear value on the cyber military capability. During the wars of the last two decades, China was terrified by the U.S. military's joint, highly networked capabilities. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) began paying attention to the role of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets in the conduct of war. But the PLA also concluded that the seeds of weakness were planted within this new way of war that allowed the United States to find, fix, and kill targets quickly and precisely -- an overdependence on information networks.
Consider what might happen in a broader U.S.-China conflict. The PLA could conduct major efforts to disable critical U.S. military information systems (it already demonstrates these capabilities for purposes of deterrence). Even more ominously, PLA cyberwarriors could turn their attention to strategic attacks on critical infrastructure in America. This may be a highly risky option, but the PLA may view cyber-escalation as justified if, for example, the United States struck military targets on Chinese soil.
China is, of course, using attacks in cyberspace to achieve other strategic goals as well, from stealing trade secrets to advance its wish for a more innovative economy to harassing organizations and individuals who criticize its officials or policies.
Barack Obama's administration has begun to fight back. On Feb. 20, the White House announced enhanced efforts to fight the theft of American trade secrets through several initiatives: building a program of cooperative diplomacy with like-minded nations to press leaders of "countries of concern," enhancing domestic investigation and prosecution of theft, promoting intelligence sharing, and improving current legislation that would enable these initiatives. These largely defensive measures are important but should be paired with more initiatives that start to play offense.
This article was crossposted on foreignpolicy.com. Read the rest of the article here.
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North Korea is yanking the world's chain yet again, sending all relevant parties hither and yon. As we contemplate what to do and the Kim clan perfects its ability to deliver its growing nuclear arsenal to targets in South Korea, Japan and the United States, we could do worse than turn to a rising star of Korea analysis: Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University. Dr. Lee provides a much-needed dose of reality about what exactly we are dealing with. The basics are not a bad place to start in thinking or rethinking how to deal with the criminal-nuclear enterprise that we call North Korea. Here is an edited version of what he said at a conference in Seoul last week (my commentary is in italics and the final thoughts are my own).
1. North Korea is "uniquely unique." It is the world's sole communist hereditary dynasty, the world's only literate-industrialized-urbanized peacetime economy to have suffered a famine, the world's most cultish totalitarian system, and the world's most secretive, isolated country -- albeit one with the world's largest military in terms of manpower and defense spending proportional to its population and national income. The result is an exceptional state, perhaps the world's most influential regional power commensurate with its territorial and population size and economic and political power.
That is, North Korea has managed some seemingly impossible feats. It has remained a cultish communist dictatorship even though all its like-minded brethren have been relegated to the ash heap of history. It has managed to produce a spate of famines despite the fact that its population is urbanized and literate. And through its combination of supremely disproportionate spending on military forces, its nuclear program, and its unique ability to outfox, out-negotiate, and outplay the world's industrialized powers, it has become a regional nuclear power with disproportionate influence in Northeast Asia despite its poverty and privation.
2. The other Korea, the one south of the 38th parallel, is a global leader in trade, shipping, automobiles, and electronics. It is also a free democratic polity. And on December 19, South Korea elected Park Geun-hye as president. Park is the first elected female leader in Korea and also in Confucian civilization, which consists of China, Japan, the two Koreas, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam and makes up nearly a quarter of the world's population. The contrast between the two Koreas could not be starker -- beyond the obvious, you have a cultish male hereditary dictatorship in the North, and a freely elected female leader in the South.
Development experts and theorists of democratization take note. South Korea has the same culture, historical legacies, and so on as its neighbor to the North. And yet it is an advanced industrial economy and a thriving democracy that has just, despite its Confucian culture, elected a woman as president. It has managed to reach this high point of prosperity and human dignity because of -- to reduce a complex set of phenomena to its minimal essence -- different institutions than those in the North: democratic and capitalist ones. (I realize that I may be violating some tenet of doctrinaire realism with this observation. For the less doctrinaire, the contrast between the two Koreas is a useful reminder of why we try and favor and even push for democratic capitalism). Given the stark contrast between the two countries one can safely draw at least one conclusion: There is nothing inherent in culture or history that ipso facto should keep a country poor and enslaved.
3. The Park Geun-hye administration and the Obama administration should ... not deprive themselves of the credible, non-military deterrent that would weaken or debilitate the Kim regime. They should attack the North Korean regime's two most glaring systemic contradictions: 1. Over-reliance on its shadowy palace economy instead of making licit goods that are competitive on the world market or opening up to foreign investment and trade worthy of the name. Pyongyang's palace economy is particularly vulnerable to tools designed to counter international money laundering. 2. [T]he unfeasibility of controlling the population over the long-term through its vast network of prison camps, fear, and thought police; that is, its egregious human rights violations.
The North Korean state is essentially two things: 1) a large money-laundering concern; 2) the world's largest prison and slave labor camp. Now, however, it is a large money-laundering concern and prison camp that has additionally extorted its way to nuclear weapons. Any U.S. policy should begin and end with the knowledge of what North Korea really is. It is not a state engaged in the normal give-and-take of diplomacy, seeking "security assurances" in return for "denuclearization" or some other such deal conjured up by diplomats whose experience is in dealing with real countries who negotiate in good faith. Rather, North Korea has had a pretty good run with its current approach of extortion, criminality and the deprivation of its own people.
4. The Obama administration is in a position to take the lead on squeezing Pyongyang's palace economy. It should designate the entire North Korean government a Primary Money Laundering Concern, which is a legal term for entities that fail to implement adequate safeguards against money laundering. It should also enforce Executive Orders 13382 (signed June 2005) and 13551 (signed August 2010), which call for the freezing of suspect North Korean entities' assets and those of third-country entities suspected of helping North Korea's WMD proliferation (and criminal) activities. Furthermore, the incoming Park Geun-hye administration is in a position to take the lead in implementing a sustained human rights campaign against Pyongyang. It should vastly increase funding for information transmission efforts into North Korea, encourage North Korean defection and reinforce resettlement programs, and raise global awareness on the Kim regime's egregious human rights violations so that people living in democratic societies around the globe come to think less of the Kim regime as an oddity or an abstraction and more as a threat to humanity.
North Korea's nature underscores its vulnerabilities. It cannot survive without laundering money for its dangerous and illicit activities. It should not be treated as a normal country when most of its people are enslaved. The countries threatened by Pyongyang have in their toolkit the ability to treat the entire state apparatus as a criminal enterprise and can block it and anyone (including many Chinese banks and enterprises) doing business with it from engaging in transactions within the international financial and commercial system. Rather than pretending that they are negotiating with just another regime, the United States and South Korea should instead unleash a campaign to highlight just how abnormal and illegitimate the Kim family is. Here is a simple formula that policymakers can use in setting our approach to North Korea: North Korean existence=criminal activity + human enslavement + nuclear exhortation. There may be little to nothing the world can do now about the fact that it has allowed the North to become a nuclear weapons state. But it can and should treat it like one big criminal/slave state.
Some Concluding Thoughts: South Korea and Japan, for reasons that should be obvious (North Korea, China, an unsteady and retrenching American presence), have elected right-of-center hawkish governments. They are uniquely open to dealing with reality, not a common occurrence in international politics. Reality in this case means taking all necessary deterrent measures against a nuclear state (Tokyo and Seoul appear poised to actually call North Korea a nuclear-weapons state, which -- for those unfortunate to have witnessed to the unfolding tragedy of North Korea policy -- is a big deal). Rather than engage in diplomatic conferences that result in more North Korean extortion, more North Korean nuclear weapons, and more illusions that through combined U.S. and Chinese exertions North Korea can actually be persuaded (against all evidence) that the illegal possession of nuclear weapons actually has a price, we would be wise to consider Dr. Lee's basic idea. Let's deal with North Korea as Dr. Lee describes it -- a criminal enterprise whose crimes can and must be stopped.
There is another looming problem. A second term in a presidency seems to provide a unique temptation to American secretaries of state across administrations to go for the brass ring-a Nobel Peace Prize for "solving" the North Korean problem. In this case, at least from Pyongyang's perspective, there is nothing to be solved. North Korea has pretty much what it wants. But now that Seoul and Tokyo (hopefully Washington too?) are ready to call North Korea a nuclear power, there may be one thing to discuss with Mr. Kim: What would happen if he dared use those weapons?
Perhaps to guard against the "North Korea Nobel Peace Prize" temptation, a parallel prize can be created, awarded to those diplomats who avoid attempts to bargain away that which the North has never put on the table, and instead achieve the more modest task of bettering the lot of the North Korean people and putting an end to the many crimes of Kim Jong Un and his cronies.
While there is no scarcity of trouble in the Sino-American relationship, special attention should be paid to the unfolding Sino-Japanese contretemps over the Senkakus (which China and the Republic of China call the Diaoyutais). During the last few years the bulk of Washington's attention has been focused on disputes between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines. Obviously, these are important. Manila is a treaty ally, and Vietnam is a potential strategic partner. In both cases we have dual interests in de-escalation and in helping the two countries stand up for their rights and interests.
But Japan is different. It is arguably Washington's most important ally. A successful Asia strategy is impossible without a strong alliance with Japan. Japan's location makes it essential to any U.S. military operation in Asia. Its strength and resilience make it a reliable partner. Its shared sense of interests and values cement our bond. And, Japan is still a very strong and militarily capable country.
China's incessant incursions into Japanese and disputed waters, and its bullying and badgering of Japan over the Senkakus, have prompted an unproductive nationalist response among some politicians in Japan. But it is Beijing that has created a vicious cycle. Its provocation leads to nationalism. Japanese nationalism in turn sparks strong emotions among the Chinese people. But the Chinese Communist Party also looked the other way as Japanese businesses in China were ransacked and boycotted.
While the United States affirmed that the U.S.-Japan treaty covers the Senkakus, there still is a disagreement between Washington and Tokyo over who has sovereignty over the islands. This disagreement dates back to the 1970s and is yet another manifestation of the careless and rushed way in which Washington handled its normalization with China.
Japan feels isolated, and cannot understand why Washington remains neutral over this sovereignty dispute. Japan has a point. The United States has dined out on a neutral stance -- falling back on apathy toward the outcomes of territorial disputes throughout Asia, as long as they are "resolved peacefully" -- for a long time. This position was reasonable enough when China was weak and unable to press its claims, but those days are over. Is the United States really agnostic about the outcome of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas? Of course not. It does not want conflict, but neither does it want China to control territories that sit along important sea lanes.
Washington also wants to side with its allies. The time has come to assess how we really want the various sovereignty disputes in key waters to be resolved. The assessment should be based both on calculated geostrategic interests as well as the interest we have in supporting friends and allies.
The Sino-Japanese dispute may be the most important test for the United States in Asia in the coming year. The tension between two very powerful countries shows no signs of abating. Japan will not back down from its sovereignty claim. In this case, Beijing is playing with fire. While ambiguity is sometimes necessary, the need for clarity from the United States is pressing. As China challenges the established order -- one that has kept the peace in Asia for three decades -- the United States must take the lead in defending that order. That means standing by an ally. Perhaps even more daunting, it also means the time has come to define our preferred outcomes in territorial disputes between China and our friends.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.