United States steps up provocations in East China Sea

By Jane West

The decision of the United States to fly two B-52 bombers unannounced through Chinese strategic airspace was nothing less than a calculated, and extremely dangerous, act of aggression against China, further whipping up tensions in the East China Sea.

The B-52 fly-through was directly aimed at toughening up Japan’s stance vis-a-vis China. Two Japanese airlines that had previously agreed to inform China of flights over the disputed Diaoyu islands withdrew this agreement following the US action.


Contrary to the picture painted in the Western media – that China’s economic rise is now being accompanied by an aggressive regional policy that is leading to conflict with its neighbours such as Japan – in fact it is China which faces new aggressiveness from the US and reinvigorated right wing Japanese imperialist nationalism.

The current escalation in tension between Japan and China dates from the April 2012 intervention by Shintaro Ishihara, the extreme right Mayor of Tokyo, into the long-standing dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu islands , which are claimed by Japan under the name Senkaku. Ishihara unilaterally announced the intention of the Tokyo municipality to ‘buy’ the islands from the private landowners who formally had title to the land. The city administration proposed to then start developing the islands, which have remained untouched since 1945 due to the disputed sovereignty over the islands.

This inevitably ratcheted up tensions with China. Any cursory glance at a map reveals why the issue of control over the islands is such an explosive matter for China. The Japanese archipelago stretches from the Korean peninsula in the north to Okinawa in the south in an arc enclosing China’s eastern seaboard. China’s access to the open ocean lies between Okinawa (home to a major US military base) and Taiwan further south. The Diaoyu are positioned roughly midway between the two, controlling vital sea-lanes from China to the Pacific. Japanese control of these islands gives it the strategic possibility of closing China’s Eastern access to the Pacific. A naval base – whether Japanese or American – on the Diaoyu would complete the US’s planned military encirclement of China.

Ishihara’s proposal to buy the islands led the then government of Yoshihiko Noda to bend to nationalist pressure to more aggressively assert Japan’s claim to the islands, and in September 2012 the Japanese government itself bought out the private landholders on the islands. This led to demonstrations across China against Japanese revanchism, boycotts of Japanese imports and retail chains, and a diplomatic freeze in relations between the two countries.

This rightward, nationalist tendency in Japanese politics was deepened by the choice of hard-right Shinzo Abe as the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, who went on to win the December 2012 General Election.

Both on the economic and diplomatic front the government of Shinzo Abe has pursued an aggressive Japanese nationalist policy, with profound echoes of that carried out by Japan in the 1930s in the build up to war. Abe has pursued a relentless campaign in the interests of big Japanese capital, devaluing the yen by roughly 20 per cent, to cut the price of Japanese exports, and run a large budget deficit to reduce taxes and other constraints on business. The military budget has been expanded by 3 per cent, the largest increase for 22 years, and a debate opened on changing the interpretation of Article 9 of the post-war Japanese Constitution that outlaws the development of armed forces with a potential for waging war. As this results in plunging living standards – rising import costs, inflation, and no rise in wages – it is accompanied by increasingly strident nationalist rhetoric that is stoking up both anti-China and anti-Korea sentiment.

The parallels with the 1930s are stark – a 70 per cent devaluation of the yen, huge budget deficits, a military build-up, a squeeze on living standards and aggressive nationalism. In the 1930s belligerent Japanese imperial ambitions were put into practice in the 1931 invasion of China and occupation of Manchuria then full-scale war against mainland China from 1937. However, in the 1930s China was at the nadir of 200 years of decline, while Japan was already an industrial power. This time around China is already the second largest economy in the world, and soon to be the largest. Invading China is not on Japan’s agenda!

But it has entirely reoriented its military policy towards China.

Japan’s military policy after 1945 was primarily directed against Russia – as part of the Cold War axis with the West against the Soviet Union. Japan’s key military bases and main deployments were in the north of the country. However, in a very significant shift, in December 2010 Japan announced the outcome of a strategic defence review, that in future it would reorient its military focus to confronting China. It proposed to scale down its defences in the north and refocus in the south. The review also strengthened the military alliance with the US, which it described as ‘indispensable’.

Japan is militarily dependent on the US, including as a result of the constraints on Japanese re-armament imposed after the World War II – although these have not stopped it having the world’s 5th largest military spending. The US has 23 military bases in Japan. Given the US’s announced ‘pivot to the Pacific’, i.e. to prioritise a military encirclement of China, these bases have become even more crucial and the alliance with Japan more central.

The fact of rising aggressive Japanese nationalism leading to increased conflict with China is broadly in the US’s interests. It is precisely seeking to ratchet up problems for China around its borders. But Japan’s aggression is not confined to China and in other areas it is undermining the aims of the US’s strategy in the Pacific.

The dispute over the Diaoyu has also strained relations with Taiwan, which itself claims sovereignty over the islands. In Taiwan’s case its claim is driven primarily by economic rather than strategic motives. The fish-rich seas around the Diaoyu are traditionally fished out of Taiwanese ports. And the much vaunted potential mineral and oil deposits are an attraction. Japan’s stepped up claims have created an episode of strengthened ‘cross-Straits’ harmony. While China does not acknowledge Taiwan as a separate state, as a region of China it has no objection to Taiwan’s claim to the islands. Hence in 2012 a mass protest of Taiwanese fishermen landing on the islands to claim their rights was supported in China. And the Taiwanese administration turned a blind eye to Chinese nationalist protesters traveling to the Diaoyu via Taiwan to raise the Chinese flag on the islands.

Taiwan immediately agreed to observe China’s ‘air defence identification zone’ over the East China sea and the Diaoyu islands, the announcement of which provoked the US B-52 over-flight.

It is not in the US’s interests for Japan to drive Taiwan and China closer together. And its problems do not end there.

South Korea like Japan has refused to recognise China’s new ‘air defence identification zone’, but its relations with Japan are also in deep freeze following a 2012 verbal confrontation over the disputed Dokdo islands, which led to the temporary withdrawal of the South Korean ambassador. Offensive remarks by Abe about Korean ‘comfort women’ – implying they were not coerced – and visits by senior Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni shrine have further stirred up the weeping wounds of Japan’s 35-year-long brutal military occupation of Korea, for which it has never apologised or acknowledged its crimes.

This reaction to Japan’s renewed aggression and revisionism has led to a suspension of military co-operation and a reduction in economic ties, including currency swaps, between Asia’s second- and fourth-largest economies.

Instead South Korean (ROK) President Park Geun-hye broke with precedent and, before she had arranged to visit Japan at all, undertook a ground-breaking four-day trip to China in July this year. Her China visit was warmly received, her command of Chinese made her a particular ‘hit’, and it was widely seen as re-establishing a close bilateral relationship. Despite US pressure she has still set no date for a Japan visit, and Japan-ROK relations remains extremely chilly.

Mike Green, a former policy advisor to George W Bush accurately spelled this out to the FT in October 2012: ‘There’s no development that could do more to undercut the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the region. When Japan and South Korea are in a cycle of confrontation, it weakens US influence vis-a-vis China and North Korea, and makes co-ordination much harder.’

Nonetheless, these nationalist tendencies in Japan have been egged on by the US’s new more aggressive policy towards China.

The current sabre-rattling over the skies of the Diaoyu is just a taste of what we can expect in the future. The US scale-down in Afghanistan and the new deal with Iran are not signs of the beginning of a new era of ‘world peace’, but necessary preconditions to shift up a gear in anti-China aggressions and provocations.