East Asia and the Countdown to the Second Round of the New Cold War

Does Japanese diplomacy have room to outmanoeuvre the hawks?

G.P. Gray, 23rd April 2023.

[Note: The Iconoclast was an outgrowth of the activities of the Hestia group’s annual gatherings and existed to share opinions derived from discussions that occurred at and around those events. Unfortunately, Covid-19 put the group’s activities on hold for a significant amount of time but recently we were able to hold our first in-person event in over two years. You can read a summary of the event here. With a return to such events, we will also return to sharing opinions on various issues.]

Recently, it’s rare to find myself agreeing with anything said regarding the ongoing Ukraine Conflict by representatives of the US government, yet, as with the old adage of broken clocks, at times some measure of truth is almost inevitable. This is not to say that I am any more trusting of Russia, or anyone else with a dog in the fight; generally speaking during times of conflict we should expect all sides to cloak their true intent in rhetoric, partisan propaganda, and media friendly sensationalism.

So I was a little surprised to hear the US Commander in Japan, General Joel Vowell, bluntly declare that as far as “lessons learned” from the current conflict, he and his Japanese counterparts considered “Taiwan is Ukraine and Japan is like Poland”. Of course, the comparisons themselves are obvious but it is somewhat astounding that anyone would want to draw such analogies given the utter devastation being wrought in Ukraine. The USA has effectively sacrificed an entire nation, its economy, its security, its very citizenry, in an effort to cripple Russia as an international power. In pure power politics terms, it is a legitimate strategy, though one only apt to be chosen by a country as desperate to hold onto to hegemonic status as the US currently appears to be. For every other party involved, the conflict offers no perceptible upside and comes down to a question of who will suffer the least from its ruinous consequences.

This is why you might imagine the US would want shy away from reminding anyone in Asia that, should similar events be allowed to occur here over an issue like Taiwan, the entire region can expect to be devastated by economic and military fissures that might last decades. Certainly, the Americans are expecting their Asian allies to buy into the rhetoric that such a crisis is being generated by Chinese aggression and that the USA and her ‘NATO in Asia’ alliances are simply planning to ride in like the Lone Ranger to save the day, but is this the consensus view in Tokyo?

US influence over Japan goes far beyond the ubiquitous presence of McDonalds and Mickey Mouse, and for decades foreign policy set in Tokyo has rarely strayed from the broader paths laid out in Washington.  Throughout the initial conflict in Ukraine, from 2014 to 2022, Japan steadfastly refused to address the fact that civilians in the Donbass were dying or that their right to self-determination was in question. Instead it referred repeatedly to the situation as a violent effort to “change the status quo”, conflating it with aggressive Chinese action in the South China Sea and East China Sea. More recently the Kishida government has claimed that it intends to act with “like-minded” countries to maintain the “rule based international order”.

This has become a common refrain of the US and its allies in recent years but the inconsistent way in which Western states have approached such ‘rules’, from Kosovo’s independence, to US protection of Israel, to the Invasion of Iraq, makes claims of double-standards hard to refute. The Chinese Foreign Ministry recently launched an unprecedented, scathing attack on American foreign policy, highlighting its failure to support or abide by numerous international agreements, such as the Biological Weapons Convention, and a pattern of withdrawing its support from international organisations like the United Nations Population Fund as soon as they fail to adhere to its diktats.

The implied meaning of the “like-minded states” comment is, of course, that others, such as Russia and China, are not genteel, law-abiding adherents to the rule of law. The reality is that, like the US and more powerful states of the EU, these countries practice realpolitik and are happy to stretch international norms as far as they can to accommodate their national interests. Western states setting precedents like 2010’s military intervention Libya and the US’ varied efforts to interfere in Venezuelan domestic affairs, simply provides fodder for Russian efforts to justify intervention in the Donbass and Chinese claims that it has a right to influence events in Taiwan. In essence, if Japan truly wishes to belong to a ‘rules-based order’ it is likely something that it will have to create entirely anew.

This is not to say that Japanese concerns over its security and the stability of the East Asia region are unwarranted. A normalised military is a perfectly reasonable aim for a country that has at least four powerful neighbours that view it with some hostility. As such, Tokyo’s recent pledge to double its defence budget is justifiable, even if only to offset an ongoing reduction in its military industrial base, in which many firms have moved out of the sector, a development that leaves it even more dependent on US military ties. Greater investment in production, especially if for defence-oriented weapons systems, could allow Japan greater room for strategic manoeuvring.

The problem for Japan is not expansion of its defence industry or its military, but rather ensuring that its defence policy is squarely focused on Japanese needs. Since the start of the current phase of the Ukraine Conflict, in February 2022, Japan has largely accepted without critique the narrative of Russian aggression as the catalyst for the war. This, in turn, supports a newly forming narrative that in order to offset similar Chinese aggression, the ‘allies’ must prepare themselves for potential conflict.

The problem with this approach is that it is precisely the type of escalation that pushed Russia into its military response. NATO expansion into Ukraine had always been a well-established redline that would clearly lead to a Russian response. Despite this, the US successfully instigated a coup in 2014, supported Kiev through eight years of civil, and provided the military training and support for military plans which would have seen NATO-backed, Ukrainian troops roll up to the Russian border. In early February 2022, Zelensky declared that for Ukraine to seek nuclear weapons would be “to turn from humans into beasts,” yet, on the very eve of Russia’s invasion Zelensky threatened that Ukraine would withdraw from the Budapest Memorandum on nuclear non-proliferation and put the nuclear option back on the table. Regardless of Russia’s culpability for the invasion itself, it is hard to argue that the Western states, through constant rejection of Russian requests for safeguards and incessant threats of reprisals, were making an effort to defuse tensions rather than exacerbate them. Even pro-Western perspectives largely accept that the run-up to Russia’s invasion involved a failure by all sides to understand how willing the other parties were to cross from rhetoric to bloodshed.

Asian governments who are being encouraged to prepare for a similar potential crisis regarding Taiwan, need to be more circumspect. Both before and after the invasion of Ukraine, efforts to find peaceful resolution were squandered. The Minsk Agreements, were presented as a sincere effort to find a reasonable peace between Kiev and the break-away states of Donetsk and Luhansk, first in 2014 and again in 2015. Recently, Angela Merkel stated that Minsk was viewed by NATO merely as “an attempt to give Ukraine time” to fully join NATO. A revelation which led Putin to question whether further negotiation was possible given that “trust had dropped to almost zero”.

After the invasion in February 2022, immediately negotiations  were established in Belarus to seek a speedy resolution were set up in Belarus. During these the Ukrainians bizarrely claimed that the Russians had tried to poison their negotiation team, something even the US found unbelievable, and shortly after the Ukrainian SBU killed one of their own negotiators, with differing claims that he was both a traitor and a hero. In just the first month following the start of conflict five separate rounds of peace talks were held with no outcome. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed that this was a deliberate effort by the US, UK, and elements of the Ukrainian government to block any peace deal.

In Asia, tensions are not yet so high that negotiation and de-escalation are impossible. Trust is not yet at zero, but it is certainly falling and without a concerted effort to prioritise diplomacy, there is a real chance that less stable actors, on all sides, will enflame tensions past a point of no-return. Already, even in Tokyo, sabre-rattling is being advocated by some. We can perhaps hope that the economists have a better grasp of reality and manage to curb such instincts within Japan’s inner circles. Setting aside military costs, a trade war with China would be devastating for Japan, and Taiwan suffering a similar fate to Ukraine would cripple many of Japan’s major industries. While the US, sitting more than twelve thousand kilometres from Taipei, has been gifted with a geostrategic bounty of ample resources and sound distance from its foes, Japan has neither. As such, while the US can risk its declining hegemonic status on implementing its own ‘Sampson option’, bringing the pillars of the international system crashing down and hoping it is the first to clamber out of the rubble, Japan can be under no such illusions.

Thankfully, Prime Minister Kishida seems to be fully aware of this and in a recent interview highlighted the need for “proactive diplomacy” with China. Japanese security is dependent upon broader East Asian security and, whether Japan views them as ally or potential enemy, this requires accommodating and maintaining stable relations with China, a country that is a necessary and immutable element of the regional framework in a way that the US simply is not. Because of its liberal and democratic values, Japan should try to maintain a relationship with the US. Because of its proximity, trade, and the impact of failing to do so, Japan must maintain a relationship with China. This is not a zero-sum game, there is plenty of room for both goals to be met and for a stable regional order to be established in which all parties have room to prosper. Such an outcome, however, can never occur by following past patterns of uncritical adherence to US foreign policy or by letting the hawks within Japan generate the same kind of escalatory rhetoric which played a key role in instigating the Ukraine crisis. Japan has reasons to expand its defence budget, and reasons to remain wary of China. Yet, the most vital element for future Japanese security and economic health is likely to be the deployment of a level of heretofore unseen nuance and independence in its diplomatic activities, and an effort to prevent others from creating implacable enemies where none need exist.