Japan will hold parliamentary elections on December 16 that will bring a new prime minister to office, while China remains in the midst of a critical transition in national leadership. In both countries, foreign and security policies are points of contention. Tension between Japan and China is running high, largely focused on the small Senkaku islands in Okinawa, which both countries claim as sovereign territory but which Japan has had administrative control of for many years. China’s growing assertiveness throughout the East and South China seas raises the danger of instability and miscalculation in the region.
The Obama Administration was sufficiently concerned about these trends that last month the State Department authorized a semi-official delegation of former top US foreign policy officials to visit Beijing and Tokyo for talks with leaders in China and Japan. The delegation included Joseph Nye of Harvard University, who was chairman of the US National Intelligence Council and a top Pentagon official in the Clinton Administration; Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the first George W. Bush administration; Jim Steinberg, deputy secretary of state for Barack Obama; and Stephen Hadley, national security advisor to President George. W. Bush.
The initiative seems to have come from Kurt Campbell, the influential assistant secretary of state for East Asia, who is close to both Nye and Armitage. Nye knew Campbell from Harvard, and brought him into the Pentagon in 1994 to oversee efforts to upgrade the US-Japan security alliance in the post-Cold War era. Armitage, though out of government at the time, was already well-known as a staunch advocate of stronger US-Japan security ties, and became something of a mentor to Campbell. Nye and Campbell later developed a close bipartisan working relationship centered on deepening US-Japan relations.
Nye and Armitage were logical choices to deliver a message to Japan and China. But the Obama administration wanted a slightly larger, while still bipartisan group, so Republican Hadley and Democrat Steinberg were brought in. The trip was authorized by Hillary Clinton, presumably with White House approval. The State Department picked up the expenses, except those portions already paid for by Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun, which had earlier invited Nye and Armitage to participate in a symposium on regional security.
The delegation delivered a written report to Secretary of State Clinton in mid-November, and later met with her in Washington.
Comments from several members of the delegation have made it apparent that the main goal was to clarify to Chinese leaders the firm stance in Washington that the Senkakus fall within the parameters of the US-Japan Security Treaty. And, in a somewhat more nuanced fashion, the delegation emphasized to Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda and other Japanese leaders that neither side in the Senkaku territorial dispute should escalate, but rather manage events in a way that precludes the question of US involvement from ever being broached.
We asked Professor Nye to further discuss the conclusions he drew from the trip. He emphasized that he would be speaking only for himself, and not other members of the delegation. The interview was originally conducted for Weekly Toyo Keizai, and appears in the magazine’s November 24 issue. (PE)
DISPATCH JAPAN: How dangerous is the current conflict between Japan and China over the Senkakus?
NYE: I don’t think it is dangerous in the sense that someone is sitting around planning an attack. But it is a danger in the sense that events on the ground or close to the islands could escalate in a climate of populist nationalism in both countries, and may take governments beyond where they want to be. It is worth remembering that the 2010 incident seems to have occurred when a drunken Chinese trawler captain rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is there a broader strategy underlying China’s approach to the Senkakus, or is a Japan-China dynamic primarily at work?
NYE: Chinese regard Japan as having changed the status quo by having the central government purchase the islands from the private owner. China has not accepted Prime Minister Noda’s public explanation that he took that step to prevent Governor Ishihara from having the Tokyo municipality purchase the islands, which could have caused mischief.
The Chinese think there is a large plan by Japan to erode what they call “the outcome” of World War II. I don’t know how much of that is pure rhetoric, or represents the real thinking in China. But that is what senior Chinese say.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is your assessment? Is it rhetoric, or real thinking?
NYE: I think a lot of Chinese really believe that Japan is trying to erode the status quo. I think others are using that line in an effort to create a wedge between the US and Japan.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Some analysts argue that until the incoming Chinese leadership consolidates power, it may feel compelled to maintain a hard line toward Japan.
NYE: If your concern is a populist-nationalism, then a period of political transition is probably one of the most difficult times to exercise restraint, because nobody wants to be seen as less willing to defend the motherland than their political rivals.
If you look at China’s blogosphere, you see that there is considerable nationalism in the country. Some of it is manipulated by the top Chinese leaders. But a lot of it is indigenous, without manipulation.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How do Japan and China get out of this stalemate? Are there practical steps that could show progress, or is this likely to be a long-term problem?
NYE: I suspect the problem will be around for some time. Look back at 1972, when then-prime ministers Kakuei Tanaka and Zhou Enlai basically agreed to kick the can down the road. Tanaka had raised the issue, and Zhou Enlai said the two countries were not going to resolve the issue at that time, and the issue should not disrupt the process or normalizing ties.
That became the status quo, with both sides retaining their claims to sovereignty, but with Japan retaining administrative control after the United States returned the islands as part of Okinawa reversion.
That status quo basically persisted until Governor Ishihara tried to purchase the islands for Tokyo. That, in turn, led the Chinese to conclude that the long-standing status quo was gone, and could not return.
So, what can be done? The best we can hope is to get the issue off the front burner of the stove so that it does not boil over and spoil the other dishes.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You’ve mentioned possibly reviving the framework for joint development of oil and gas reserves in the area.
NYE: If you can get to a situation where the issue is treated with a low posture, where it is not playing a role in China’s political transition or in the upcoming Japanese elections, then several things might be possible. There is the idea put forward by the London Economist to take the six square kilometers of what is basically rock, and create a marine sanctuary with no human habitation but devoted to fish and birds, to the benefit of the ecology of the region.
That would not resolve the sovereignty issue. The Senkakus would still be regarded by Japan as its sovereign territory. But devoting the territory to the broader good of the region might help diffuse the issue.
In addition, it would be beneficial to revive agreements for joint exploration of some of the undersea resources, including oil and gas, in the East China Sea. There are some fields that straddle the line between Japan and China. The idea is to create an atmosphere in which the Senkaku issue could be more easily managed.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is the onus on Japan to make these proposals? Where will the impetus come from?
NYE: Japan has administrative control. Japan could say that, while maintaining its sovereign rights, we are hereby dedicating these six square kilometers to marine ecology. I don’t think this would satisfy the Chinese, but it might take the issue off the front burner, and reduce the dangers of landing of troops, habitation or other actions that would serve as a red flag to the Chinese. The Chinese would protest that they still maintain their claims to sovereignty, but you wouldn’t have provocative actions of the sort that Governor Ishihara might suggest.
DISPATCH JAPAN: There are some questions in Japan about what exactly the United States would do in the event of a deeply provocative action by China with respect to the Senkakus. The US is a war-weary country. Is it realistic to expect US Marines to be involved?
NYE: I don’t think so. We can try to solve this, or at least manage this problem, well-short of that. Both Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Panetta have made clear that Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty covers the Senkaku islands because they are part of the territory returned to Japan in 1972. But we have also made clear that each side should manage the problem in a way that ensures it never reaches that point.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Japan now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having territorial disputes simultaneously with Russia, China, and Korea. Does this reflect poor strategic thinking in Japan?
NYE: Japan has to think through its relations with both China and Korea. It does Japan no good to have things harken back to the 1930s. Japan today is so much different. But occasionally there are politicians in Japan who take actions that instead of looking to the future look to the past.
That is something that Japanese strategists have to grapple with.
But thinking strategically, and thinking politically in the context of an impending election, are often very different things.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Are you concerned that a populist-nationalism in Japan could disrupt the country’s diplomacy?
NYE: Japanese with whom I speak during my visits really are thinking of moderate positions. But I did not speak with Governor Ishihara or Mayor Hashimoto. The question is whether they will refrain from stirring up populist-nationalism in the context of a competition for political power. Otherwise, among the people I know and speak with, everyone from students, to businessmen, to Diet members, I do not see any signs of a dangerous nationalism at this point. But there are some people who would like to stir up dangerous nationalism.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Would it be wise for Japan to consider some kind of quick resolution of the Takeshima dispute with Korea, so as to better focus on managing relations with a rising China?
NYE: If one thinks strategically, Japan should be asking itself how to improve relations with Korea. Takeshima/Dokdo is part of that.
I am also concerned about talk of revising the Kono Statement from the 1990s regarding Korean ‘comfort women.’ Japan should not shoot itself in the foot. Japan does not need this. It makes no sense to appeal to history in an unfavorable way, when the country should be thinking about the future and improving relations with Korea.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you see any significant movement in Japan toward development of nuclear weapons?
NYE: No, I do not. Japan obviously could develop nuclear weapons. This came up at a recent conference on security issues in Japan organized by Nikkei, and again in front of a large audience of students at Waseda University that Rich Armitage and I addressed.
There was a polling device available at both events allowing audience members to express their views. There was not any indication of a strong desire for development in Japan of nuclear weapons. There are always some voices in favor, but it remains a very small minority view.
There is a desire to have a stronger Japan capable of participating in collective self defense. But that is not necessarily a desire for a nuclear arsenal.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Why has the talk in Japan about phasing out all use of civilian nuclear energy caused so much concern in Washington?
NYE: Last summer, Rich Armitage and I expressed concern in our report that Japan would not be able to give up nuclear energy entirely and still be able to sustain the kind of economic growth we all would like to see in Japan. Our major concern was the effect that eliminating nuclear energy would have on the Japanese economy.
We also said that having Japan as a participant in the global civil nuclear energy regime puts another ‘good guy’ at the table. Japan is concerned about safety, and safeguards. And one of Japan’s most distinguished diplomats, Yukiya Amano, is head of the IAEA. So we came out in favor of Japan maintaining civilian nuclear energy, though we understand that there is considerable controversy in the wake of the Tohoku tragedy.