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Obama in Asia: The Elephant in the Room

By Gwynne Dyer

Poor old Tony Blair is condemned to spend the rest of his life trying to justify his decision to help George Bush invade Iraq. He was at it again recently, insisting that the threat of Islamist extremism is the great problem of the 21st century. Western countries, he said, must put aside their differences with Russia and China in order to “cooperate” in the fight against radical Islam.

President Barack Obama, however, is tending to his real priority in world affairs: deciding whether the US-China relationship will be one of cooperation or conflict. Not that that is the stated purpose of his current Asian tour. Officially he is discussing a free-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with three countries that have already joined the negotiations (Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines) and one that probably soon will (South Korea).

It’s a very big deal. The twelve countries on the Pacific Rim that are currently in the negotiation – Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chile on the eastern side, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand on the western side – account for nearly 60% of global GDP and over a quarter of world trade. But there is an elephant in the room (or rather, not in the room): China.

China is  the second-largest economy in the world and trades extensively with almost every member of the Trans-Pacific  Partnership (TPP) – but it is not part of the negotiations, or at least not yet. If it is kept out permanently, many consequences will follow.

None of the twelve governments negotiating the deal has said that it wants to exclude China. The usual formula is to say that China would be welcome to join if it can meet the standards of financial transparency and equal access to domestic markets that are being accepted by the TPP members – but of course it can’t, unless the regime is willing to dismantle the controls on the economy that it still sees as essential to its survival.

Keeping China out of this planned free-trade area, the biggest in the world, is economically attractive to the current members, and especially to the United States and Japan: the TPP would give  US and Japanese companies preferential access to Asia’s markets. But the real motive driving the deal is strategic: they are all worried about what happens when China’s military strength matches its economic power.

The Chinese regime insists that it has no expansionist ambitions, but it has alienated most of its neighbours by pushing hard on its extensive claims to islands in the East China Sea (the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayoyu Islands)  and to seabed rights in the South China Sea (where it has disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines). They all want to nail down US support, including military backing, if those disputes flare into open conflict.

The US is willing to oblige. Even before leaving on his trip, President Obama publicly assured Japan that the US military commitment to defend Japan included the islands claimed by China. He will doubtless give his hosts in South-East Asia comparable assurances in private about American support in their seabed disputes with China. The TPP is not a military alliance, but it definitely has military implications.

That is not to say that a great-power military confrontation in Asia is imminent, let alone that China is really expansionist. What drives the process, as usual, is more likely to be the threat that each side sees in the power of the other.

Asked in a recent BBC interview about President Obama’s decision to shift US naval forces from an equal division between Atlantic and Pacific to a 60:40 ratio in favour of the Pacific, retired Major-General Xu Guangyu, former vice-president of the People’s Liberation Army Defense Institute, replied: “How would (the Americans) like it if we took 60 percent of our forces and sailed up and down in front of their doorstep?”

Then Xu added: “We want to achieve parity because we don’t want to be bullied. It will take us another 30 years.” That’s no more than anybody else wants, and it’s hardly imminent.

Former US Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley was expressing essentially the same sentiment when, commenting on Obama’s trip, he said that “Many traditional allies…value a strong US presence in the region to balance against an assertive China.”
In other words, it doesn’t take evil intentions to produce a tragedy. In any case, it’s not likely to happen soon. The point for the moment is that the strategic balance in Asia is what the US cares about most, not the Middle East or even Russia.

The United States still drops drones on the heads of various bearded fanatics in the greater Middle East, but they are just a nuisance, not a real strategic threat.

Washington has just sent 600 American troops (600!) to reassure allies in eastern NATO countries that are worried about Russian intentions, but it doesn’t really anticipate a new Cold War with Moscow, nor would it feel really threatened if that happened. Russia is not the old Soviet Union, and the US defence budget is ten times Russia’s.

The real strategic game is now in the Asia-Pacific region. Which doesn’t mean that it’s any less futile and dangerous than it was in the old days.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 11. (“None…survival”; “The US…implications”; and “Then…imminent”)

It’s Abrupt Climate Change, Stupid

16 February 2014

It’s Abrupt Climate Change, Stupid

This is not how it was supposed to happen. The standard climate change predictions said that people in the tropics and the sub-tropics would be badly hurt by global warming long before the people living in the temperate zones, farther away from the equator, were feeling much pain at all.

That was unfair, because it was the people of the rich countries in the temperate zone – North America, Europe and Japan, mainly – who industrialised early and started burning large amounts of fossil fuel as long as two centuries ago. That’s how they got rich. Their emissions of carbon dioxide over the years account for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin that are now in the atmosphere, causing the warming, yet they get hurt least and last.

Well, what did you expect? The gods of climate are almost certainly sky gods, and sky gods are never fair. But they have always liked jokes, especially cruel ones, and they have come up with a great one this time. The people of the temperate zones are going to get hurt early after all, but not by gradual warming. Their weather is just going to get more and more extreme: heat waves, blizzards and flooding on an unprecedented scale.

“In 2012 we had the second wettest winter on record and this winter is a one-in-250-years event,” British opposition leader Ed Milliband told The Observer newspaper last Friday. “If you keep throwing the dice and you keep getting sixes then the dice are loaded. Something is going on.”

The “something” is abrupt climate change. In Britain, it’s an unprecedented series of great storms blowing in off the North Atlantic, dropping enormous amounts of rain and causing disastrous floods. In the United States and Canada, it’s huge blizzards, ice-storms and record low temperatures that last much longer and reach much further south than normal. Welcome to the “temperate” zone of the northern hemisphere.

There have been extremes in the “temperate” parts of the southern hemisphere, too. Australia has just had the hottest year ever, with record-breaking heat waves and severe bush-fires. Argentina had one of its worst-ever heat waves in December, and parts of Brazil had record rainfall, floods and landslides. But that is probably just the result of gradual, relentless warming. The abrupt changes seem to be mainly in the northern hemisphere.

Geography may explain the differences. There isn’t all that much land in the southern temperate zone, and the vast expanses of ocean that surround it moderate the land temperatures. Moreover, the polar jet stream in the southern hemisphere simply circles the Antarctic continent, and does not operate over land – whereas the northern polar jet stream flows right across North America and Europe. And it’s the jet stream that matters.

The extreme weather trend in North America and Europe is less than five years old, so the science that might explain exactly what is happening is still quite tentative. The first hypothesis that sounded plausible, published in 2012 in Geophysical Letters, blamed a slowing of the northern hemisphere’s polar jet stream.

The paper, entitled “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” was written by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors’ methodology has been challenged by other climate scientists, but I think that in the end Francis and Vavrus will turn out to be largely right. That is not good news.

They start with the fact that the Arctic has been warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, so the difference in temperature between the Arctic air mass and the air over the temperate zone has been shrinking. Since that difference in temperature is what drives the jet stream that flows along the boundary between the two air masses, a lower difference means a slower jet stream.

Now, a fast jet stream travels in a pretty straight line around the planet from west to east, just like a mountain stream goes pretty straight downhill. A slower jet stream, however, meanders like a river crossing a flood plain – and the big loops it makes extend much further south and north than when it was moving fast.

In a big southerly loop, you will have Arctic air much further south than usual, while there will be relatively warm air from the temperate air mass in a northerly loop that extends up into the Arctic. Moreover, the slower-moving jet stream tends to get “stuck”, so that a given kind of weather – snow, or rain, or heat – will stay longer over the same area.

Hence the “polar-vortex” winter in North America this year, the record snowfalls in Japan in 2012 and again this winter, the lethal heat waves in the eastern US in 2012 – and the floods in Britain this winter.

“They’ve been pummelled by storm after storm this winter (in Britain),” said Jennifer Francis at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago last week. “It’s been amazing what’s going on, and it’s because the pattern this winter has been stuck in one place ever since early December.” There’s no particular reason to think that it will move on soon, either.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7.  (“There have…matters”)

Playing Chicken in the East China Sea

26 November 2013

Playing Chicken in the East China Sea

By Gwynne Dyer

Since Saturday, when China declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ) that covers the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, the media have been full of predictions of confrontation and crisis. On that same day Japan scrambled two F-15 fighters to intercept two Chinese aircraft that approached the islands.

“This announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region,” said US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, and on Tuesday the US Air Force flew two B-52 bombers from Guam into the ADIZ. A Pentagon spokesman said Washington “continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies.”

But forcing incoming aircraft to do just that is the whole point of creating an ADIZ. Aircraft entering the zone must provide a flight plan, maintain two-way radio communications and clearly identify their nationality, said the Chinese Defence Ministry, and aircraft that ignore the rules would be subject to “defensive emergency measures.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Japan’s parliament on Monday that the zone “can invite an unexpected occurrence and it is a very dangerous thing as well” – but on Tuesday Tokyo instructed Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines (ANA) to simply ignore the zone when flying through it. It is turning into a game of chicken, and the East China Sea is just about the worst place in the world for that kind of foolishness.

China and Japan have been pursuing an increasingly angry dispute over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are under Japanese administration. They also have a long history of conflict (in which China was generally the victim), and they both have strongly nationalist leaders. Beijing is looking for a diplomatic victory here, not a war, but it is taking a very big gamble.

“The Japanese and US complaints that the ADIZ is a “unilateral” move that changes “the status quo” are inherently false,” wrote the China Daily. “The US did not consult others when it set up and redrew its ADIZs. Japan never got the nod from China when it expanded its ADIZ, which overlaps Chinese territories and exclusive economic zone. Under what obligation is China supposed to seek Japanese and US consent in a matter of self-defence?”

Fair comment, as far as it goes – but it would normally be prudent to discuss the matter with the neighbours before proclaiming an air defence identification zone that overlaps by half with one of theirs. (Japan already has an ADIZ that covers the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands.) Moreover, ADIZs usually require only aircraft that intend to enter the country’s national airspace to notify the controllers, not all aircraft transiting the ADIZ.

Just how does China intend to enforce its new ADIZ? By shooting down a Japan Airlines 787 and a US Air Force B-52? If not that, then how? National pride and the personal reputation of new President Xi Jinping are both seriously committed to this game now, and if the foreigners ignore the zone China cannot just shrug its shoulders and forget about it.

Which brings us to the key question: did Beijing really game out this move before it decided to set the zone up? Did it set up teams to play the Japanese and the Americans realistically, look at what they might do to challenge the zone, and consider its own counter-moves? That’s what most great powers would do before launching a challenge like this, and maybe China did that too. But maybe it didn’t.

When you put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese navy or air force commander trying to enforce the new ADIZ, you can’t help feeling sorry for him. He can shoot something down, of course, but even his own government would quail at the possible consequences of that. Quite apart from the grave danger of escalation into a full-scale military confrontation with Japan and the United States, the economic damage to China would be huge.

On the other hand, if he doesn’t compel aircraft transiting the zone to accept China’s new rules, both he and his political superiors will be open to the charge of failing to defend national sovereignty. This is a lose/lose situation, and I suspect that the Chinese government and military really didn’t game it through before they proclaimed the ADIZ.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are not worth a war, or even a single ship or aircraft. They are uninhabited, and their alleged connection with the seabed rights to a natural gas field around 300 km. (200 miles away) is extremely tenuous. This move is a deliberate escalation of an existing dispute, made with the intention of forcing the other side to back down and lose face.

It’s quite common in games of chicken to block off your own escape routes from the confrontation, in order to show that you are not bluffing. And in almost all games of chicken, each side underestimates the other’s will to risk disaster rather than accept humiliation. This could end quite badly.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The Japanese…ADIZ”)

 

 

What Drives Shinzo Abe?

20 May 2013

What Drives Shinzo Abe?

By Gwynne Dyer

Shinzo Abe, now six months into his second try at being prime minister of Japan, is a puzzling man. In his first, spectacularly unsuccessful go in 2006-07, he was a crude nationalist and an economic ignoramus who rarely had control of his own dysfunctional cabinet. By the time he quit, after only a year in office, his popularity rating was below 30 percent and his health was breaking down.

Last December his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in the elections for the lower house of the Diet (parliament), and as party leader he became prime minister again – but what a difference six years makes. He’s still a radical nationalist who on occasion comes close to denying Japan’s guilt for the aggressive wars of 1931-45, but in economics he is now Action Man. His approval rating is currently over 70 percent.

In only six months Abe has broken most of the rules that defined Japan’s budgetary and monetary policy for the past twenty years, and he has promised to break all the old rules about restrictive trade policies as well. (Together, his new policies are known as “Abenomics”) He has launched a make-or-break race for growth that only the boldest gambler would risk. Who is this guy, and what happened to change him so much?

A resident foreign academic with long experience of Japan once told me that there were only around 400 people who really counted in Japan: they would all fit into one big room. Most of them would be there because their fathers or grandfathers had also been there, and Shinzo Abe would certainly be one of them.

Abe’s grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, was a member of General Tojo’s war cabinet in 1941-45, a co-founder of the LDP in 1955, and prime minister in 1957-60. But heredity does not guarantee competence, and on his first outing in power Shinzo Abe was an embarrassment to the LDP. He has obviously acquired some braver and perhaps wiser advisers since then, most notably Yoshihide Suga, now chief cabinet secretary.

Abe put several ultra-right-wing ministers in the cabinet, and it is Suga’s job to keep them from giving voice to their revisionist views on history. “Our Cabinet will adopt a unified perception of history,” he told them. “Make no slip of the tongue because it would immediately cost you your post.” He also polices Abe’s own tongue: no more remarks like “It is not the business of the government to decide how to define the last world war” or “comfort women were prostitutes.”

Abe doesn’t mind, because he has bigger fish to fry this time round. He has launched a high-risk strategy to break Japan out of twenty years of economic stagnation by cutting taxes, raising government spending, and flooding the economy with cash. One of his first acts was to put his own man in as head of the Bank of Japan, and order him to break the deflationary spiral by adopting a target of 2 percent annual inflation.

He has also promised to smash the protectionism that has hampered the Japanese economy for so long, although this will require him to take on the powerful agriculture and small-business lobbies. He has even promised to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an American-led effort to liberalise trade in the region, in order to guarantee that the structural reforms will continue.

Structural reforms will have to wait until Abe also has a majority in the upper house of the Diet, which he confidently expects to win in the July elections, but already his strategy is showing results. Economic growth in the first three months of this year equates to about 3.6 percent annually, more than four times higher than the long-term average of the past two decades, and the Japanese stock market is up 80 percent since January.

The strategy is high-risk because Japanese government debt is already the highest in the developed world: 240 percent of Gross Domestic Product. If the surge in growth does not last, the government’s income from taxes will not rise (it is no higher now than it was in 1991) and in a few years the debt will soar to an unsustainable level. The country will essentially go bankrupt.

Of course, the surge may persist; creating a perception of vigorous growth is half the battle. But why take such a risk? Probably because Abe is keenly aware that Japan had the world’s second-biggest economy when he was prime minister the first time, and now it’s only the third-biggest. The country that overtook it was China.

For a thousand years China was the dominant power in eastern Asia. Japan wrested that role from it in the late 19th century, but now it’s going back to its natural home – and Abe would do almost anything to prevent that. That’s why he takes such a hard line on the dispute between the two countries over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But much more importantly, he must get the Japanese economy growing again, or the country will end up far behind China.

To avoid that, he will take any risk.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“A resident…them”; and “He has…continue”)