Shadow Government

China's maritime aggression should be wake-up call to Japan

The Sino-Japanese standoff over Japan's detention of a Chinese trawler captain who acted aggressively towards the Japanese coast guard in waters near the disputed Senkaku islands is part of a larger pattern of Chinese assertiveness towards its neighbors over the past few years. This pattern includes renewed Chinese claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing's increasingly forceful claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, China's effort to claim suzerainty over the Yellow Sea (where it sought to prevent recent U.S.-South Korean naval exercises), and a series of naval provocations directed at Japan.

These have included China's unprecedented deployment in April of ten warships -- including Kilo-class attack submarines and advanced Sovremenny-class destroyers -- through the Miyako Strait just south of Okinawa, the buzzing by a Chinese naval helicopter of a Japanese destroyer near Japan's home waters, and heightened Chinese submarine activity in waters near Japan. These incidents come in the context of new frictions in the Sino-Japanese dispute over claims to disputed natural gas fields in the East China Sea - despite an earlier agreement between the countries for joint development -- and increasing Chinese heavy-handedness towards smaller Southeast Asian neighbors with regard to the South China Sea. 

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum meeting in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's jaw-dropping lecture to Asian ministers -- and the U.S. secretary of state -- that other countries were obstreperous to contest China's unilateral claim to international waters and island chains in the South China Sea still rankles with leaders who were present. Particularly galling, according to the foreign minister of one major power at the meeting, was Foreign Minister Yang's reminder that Southeast Asian states were "small countries" who depended on trade with China for their prosperity, while China was a "large country." There was therefore little chance of equality in their relations, Yang suggested. China's neighbors simply would have to take that asymmetry -- and, he added pointedly, their economic dependence on the China market -- into account before "internationalizing" their dispute with Beijing over competing maritime claims. 

As the Chinese characters for the word suggest, there is an opportunity for Japan in this unfolding crisis. Hazy talk by previous Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama about building a "fraternal" East Asian community centered on closer Japan-China cooperation has given way to a new realism in Tokyo about China's attempts to displace Japan as Asia's dominant power. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, re-elected as party leader last week in the face of a challenge from "China school" competitor Ichiro Ozawa, has emphasized strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, including by sticking with a plan agreed with Washington to realign American forces on Okinawa. New Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara comes from the right wing of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and is a well-known China hawk. He is a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance who was warning years ago of the dangers posed by China's aggressive military modernization.

Japan is developing new defense guidelines that must factor in China's increasing military challenge -- and provide budget support for the development of new capabilities to protect Japan against Chinese bullying. Many DPJ members support the notion of a more equal U.S.-Japan alliance -- which means they must be willing to bolster Japanese defense capabilities so that it can punch its weight without being overly dependent on the United States. Japan's defense budget has declined by five percent in real terms over the past decade; it is past time to reverse this trend in light of regional developments. In addition to missile defense, this should include investing in new platforms, technology, and training for the Japanese navy and coast guard to secure Japanese territorial waters and maritime interests against Chinese revisionism.

Japan is also well-positioned for a new diplomatic activism. Japan is hosting the APEC summit this November and has succeeded in encouraging the United States to join the East Asia Summit. As Southeast Asian leaders unite in their apprehension of Chinese power and look to closer partnership with bigger powers to stabilize the Asian balance, Tokyo could re-emerge to play the leading role in regional diplomacy it did in the 1990s, when it was instrumental in founding Asian regional institutions designed to engage, enmesh, and constrain China so as to encourage it to be a constructive regional player. 

Japan boasts the world's third-largest economy, cutting-edge technology, one of the world's biggest navies, an advantageous geographic position, a rich and cohesive society, and an enduring alliance with the international system's preeminent power. But leaders in the West and Asia, their eyes riveted on China, sometimes forget the possibilities offered by closer partnership with Japan. At the same time, many Japanese seem all-too-willing to live with diminished expectations for their country as it ages and remains caught in an economic funk. Given China's increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbors, it is not only the Japanese public but the wider world that has an abiding stake in Prime Minister Kan's agenda to reform and renew Japan for a new -- and more dangerous -- era.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Should Obama reach for the Iranian dangle?

By coincidence, I happened to read two stories back-to-back: the Iranian regime is apparently dangling offers to help us in Afghanistan; and Secretary Robert Gates thinks the proliferation-related sanctions are hurting Iran more than expected. My reading them back-to-back may be a coincidence, but I suspect the stories are related in a fundamental way.

David Ignatius notes one way the stories are related: Skeptics will argue against grasping the Iranian dangle for fear that would "dilute the main focus of Iran policy, which is stopping Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons." He claims that similar fears derailed an earlier potentially fruitful collaboration with Iran on Iraq in 2006, and he hopes the Obama administration won't make the same "mistake." To bolster his case, he cites "hardliners" in Tehran who exploited the abortive diplomatic maneuvers in 2006 to discredit the United States as a negotiating partner.  

But I don't find Ignatius's reasoning very persuasive because he avoids addressing the most obvious connection. Perhaps Iran is dangling these offers now precisely so as to disrupt the sanctions. Consider the similarities in the pattern. The earlier Iranian dangle came when a) the situation in Iraq was unraveling so U.S. local leverage was eroding but b) after a long period of paralysis there was finally modest progress on the nuclear file with credible threats of tighter sanctions on Iran and even rumors of more serious military action. In such a climate, shifting the diplomatic focus from terrain where Iranian leverage was weakening to terrain where it was strengthening made a lot of sense -- for the Iranian regime.

The current Iranian dangle comes when a) the situation in Afghanistan is dodgy (and probably some within the Obama camp even fear it is unraveling) but b) after a long period of paralysis there is finally modest progress on the nuclear file with increased sanctions inflicting noticeable pain on the Iranian regime and even rumors of more serious military action. In such a climate, shifting the diplomatic focus from terrain where Iranian leverage is weakening to terrain where it is strengthening makes a lot of sense -- for the Iranian regime.

It only makes sense to take up the Iranian dangle on Afghanistan if we can do so without relaxing pressure on the nuclear file. If, as Ignatius and other optimists assert, the Iranians are doing this out of a sincere desire to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, we should be able to explore that without relaxing nuclear-related sanctions. Indeed, the sanctions might even improve our leverage leading to more fruitful cooperation. If Iranians set as preconditions for talks on Afghanistan some sort of relaxation of the economic pressure -- or if our allies on their own relax the economic pressure so as to "help" negotiations on Afghanistan -- then the bargain is a bad one for U.S. foreign policy.  

There was a brief window when the Iranian regime actually was helpful on Afghanistan -- during the early post-9/11 window when the Iranian regime was afraid, with some justification, that the United States had an unchecked arsenal of military options at its disposal and was in the mood to wield them. During that period, many previously problematic regimes (Iran, Libya, Sudan) got "on side" with the United States, albeit temporarily or provisionally in some cases. Once the difficulties in Iraq undermined U.S. leverage, however, the incentives for cooperation shifted and the Iranian regime returned to its more common pattern of doing everything it could to frustrate U.S. foreign policy objectives in every arena.

The best way to break that pattern is with smart diplomacy. Smart diplomacy begins with a robust pressure track and builds other components -- direct talks, regional talks, and other carrots -- on that foundation. So let's not take the dangle on Afghanistan until we have locked in the sanctions and have corralled all of our allies in that effort. Once we have, it would be worth exploring other diplomatic avenues, but not before.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images