The emergence of Middle Power Asia

Over the past week, we have seen more signs of the shape that international relations in East Asia will take over the coming decades.

I’ve written before about the role that middle powers — most notably Japan, Australia, South Korea, ASEAN acting as a bloc, and to a lesser extent India — will play in the East Asia balance, maneuvering between the US and China, the region’s two giants as they attempt to enmesh China in regional institutions and profit economically from its rise while cooperating with the US to hedge against a violent turn in China’s rise and to ensure that they have strategic flexibility more generally.

Prime Minister Aso Taro visited China to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, renewing their commitment to building a “strategic, reciprocal relationship” and discussing a number of urgent problems, most notably the global spread of swine flu, the ongoing global economic crisis, and North Korea’s latest turn to intransigence. The deep freeze of the Koizumi years is increasingly distant, and these Sino-Japanese summits are becoming so routine in their agendas as to be boring. But in this relationship, boring is positive. Despite Chinese anxiety about the gift sent by Aso to Yasukuni Shrine for the Spring Festival prior to his trip to China (and the expected Chinese netizen protests about welcoming Aso to China after his gift), Wen and Hu mentioned the history problem but did not harp on it, just as Aso expressed his hope for Chinese participation in nuclear disarmament. Both sides seem content to accentuate the positive in their meetings, and — aside from Wen’s cautionary note — the Basil Fawlty line remains in effect: don’t mention the war.

In fact, looking at the post in which I first mentioned the Basil Fawlty line, Aso has proved me wrong. Last May I wrote, “Mr. Aso and his comrades will most likely not embrace the Fawlty line.” However, it appears that the structural factors that draw Japan and China to one another have tamed another Japanese conservative politician. In fact, in a speech in Beijing Thursday, Aso alluded to the possibility of an economic partnership agreement between Japan and China; the obstacles to such an agreement are high, certainly as high or higher than the obstacles facing an EPA or trade agreement between Japan and the US, but as symbolism goes it is significant that Aso mentioned the possibility of institutionalizing the Sino-Japanese economic relationship. In the meantime, Japan and China outlined the three pillars of their relationship going forward: economic cooperation (Japan will host a senior-level economic dialogue in June); environmental and technology cooperation; and cultural and educational exchanges. The beginnings of perpetual peace? Hardly: there is still much work to do, whether on the Senkakus, North Korea, the history problem (how sustainable is the Fawlty line after all?), or Chinese military transparency. But by acknowledging that there are areas on which they can cooperate and that there is value to meeting even without perfect harmony in their positions, Japan and China are making Northeast Asia ever so slightly more stable.

At the same time, even as Aso parlayed with China’s senior leaders in Beijing, Hamada Yasukazu, his defense minister, prepared for a Golden Week visit to Washington where he would be meeting with Robert Gates, his US counterpart. Gates and Hamada met Friday morning, and central to the discussion was Hamada’s practically begging Gates for the right to purchase F-22s from the US as Japan considers its next-generation fighter. “Even just a few,” Hamada said. Of course, it is not in Gates’s power to permit Japan to buy the F-22; as mentioned in this post, its sale abroad is prohibited by the Obey Amendment, meaning that the Japanese government should be making its case to Congress. (I am certain that if it isn’t doing so already, the Japanese government will be lobbying representatives and senators from the forty-four states involved in the production of the F-22. Sakurai Yoshiko tellingly included this detail in the articles mentioned in this post.) No word on how Gates received Hamada’s petition, but the Gates-Hamada meeting reveals the other side of Middle Power Asia. With one hand, Japan is reaching out to China, with the other it is balancing by constantly working to strengthen the US-Japan alliance. Gates and Hamada discussed coordinating as the US prepares its next Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Japan prepares its next National Defense Program Outline for later this year. They also talked about further strengthening missile defense cooperation and devoting sufficient attention to the realignment of US forces in Japan.

Australia, as I’ve written before, faces the same strategic imperatives, a fact thrown into relief by events this week. As it was characterized in the Economist‘s Banyan column this week, “On the one hand, Australia’s crackerjack fit with the Chinese economy is reshaping Australia’s trade and investment flows, drawing the country into a China-centred Asian orbit. On the other, Australia’s security hangs on America’s continued presence in the western Pacific.” One can easily substitute Japan for Australia without skipping a beat. This week Australia has been feeling the tension growing out of its economic relationship, due to an investment bid by Chinalco in Rio Tinto. In a speech at the Lowy Institute, Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the opposition, called on the government to reject the bid, which, regardless of the outcome of the bid, has brought concerns about the Sino-Australian relationship to the fore — anticipating, in a sense, the Rudd government’s defense white paper.

Much as Japan is looking to hedge against China, so too is Australia: reports suggest that the white paper will lavish Australia’s navy with new resources.

Rory Medcalf at the Interpreter writes that Japanese and South Korean analysts look favorably upon Australia’s plans, although he suggests that the Rudd government’s plans could spark a spate of middle power arms building. But regardless of what other middle powers do, the Rudd program and Japan’s desperate pursuit of the F-22 suggest that the middle powers will not feel secure simply by pursuing external balancing (tighter alliances with the US and other countries in the region). Particularly as the US looks to deepen its cooperation with China across a range of issues — whether or not it is appropriate to refer to Sino-US cooperation as a G2 — the middle powers will likely rely more on internal balancing, concluding that while their alliances with the US are fine, perhaps an additional guarantee of security is worth the investment. They may look to each other for security too, although as I argued when Australia and Japan issued a joint security declaration, it is unclear what Japan and Australia can do for each other.

In any case, there are limits to how far the middle powers can and will go in their hedging against China. They will continue to work on their economic relationships with China, they will continue to look for opportunities to bind China through regional institutions, and, especially in the case of Japan, they will face fiscal constraints in maintaining capabilities adequate to defend themselves without the US. Despite concerns about the Gates defense budget, the US is not going anywhere — and it is as imperative for the middle powers to ensure that that remains the case as it is for them to ensure that the US does not go overboard with containing China. For the foreseeable future, this is the delicate balance facing the middle powers.

11 thoughts on “The emergence of Middle Power Asia

  1. Anonymous

    Tobias, realistically, what are the chances of Japan ridding itself of the American military presence? To my mind this would do more to increase stability, and help Japan to become a real force for peace in the world than any other action. And yet, Japanese politicians simply do not have the spine for this kind of bold initiative.


  2. I have to agree with Anonymous. The potential scope for disarmament set forth by the Constitution is lost in the mix of current Japan realpolitik analysis. This kind of analysis includes a positive assessment of the security arrangement with the US (which, as far as I can tell, you support).You mention 1960: The year of the AMPO riots over the joint-security treaty, and the year PM Kishi ran roughshod over the establishment Left to renew it. Serious debate over disarmament was likely prevented from this point on.


  3. I disagree with Anonymous\’s argument that Japan\’s ridding itself of the US military presence would increase stability. On the contrary, I still think that the US plays a \”cap in the bottle\” role in regard to Japan, in that ending the US forward presence — in effect abrogating the 1960 treaty, if not the alliance altogether — would probably have a greater impact on Japanese rearmament than constitution revision would.Adam, I\’m not quite clear what you mean by \”serious debate over disarmament.\” I\’m not sure serious debate over disarmament was an option regardless of what happened in 1960.


  4. Refer to the photo, Tobias. The Socialist Party advocated disarmament and were the strongest opposition party. In addition, the way the LDP bulldozed AMPO through (with a youthful and vigorous Kanemaru Shin at the head of the scrum) after shutting the other parties out of the chamber was the ruling party\’s way of saying that the rules had changed and disarmament was off the table.If this was not the case, then how else was 1960, as you say, an important year in Japanese politics?


  5. I don\’t think 1960 was significant for ending the possibility of disarmament — again, I don\’t think disarmament was a realistic possibility in the first place.Rather, I think it was significant because it basically pushed the revisionists into the anti-mainstream for at least twenty years, redirecting the LDP\’s attention to economic growth and the incremental implementation of brakes on security policy to placate those worried about the implications of the 1960 treaty (i.e., entrapment by the US).


  6. I\’m not exactly sure what you mean by \”revisionists\”. Recently, it is applied to those who \”reinterpret\” the Constitution to allow for a more proactive military profile, or who desire to \”revise\” it for the same end. I\’m arguing the Left became \”anti-mainstream\” due to the aforementioned events. I would even argue that the Yoshida Doctrine\’s (\”Growth First!\”) repercussions for political life in civil society might have been deliberate. In short people were made to stop thinking about the issues — give \’em enough butter, and they won\’t worry about guns.Back to the idea of disarmament: A common usage may elude us. It could be the actual scaling-back of the possession of arms, or else simply its acceptance as an ideology in policy debate. The former may not be viable to some, but all parties should see the latter as an obligation. That the conservative wing — some of whom openly scoff at the idea — have ascended so highly in the LDP ranks is very disquieting. Although there have been other variables, when taking the long view it possible to see the origins of political conservative resurgence in 1960.


  7. \”The left wasn\’t anti-mainstream — it was the opposition, and 1960 was arguably the point at which the JSP became doomed to permanent opposition.\” Point taken. Plus, I would add, the point when serious discussion about disarmament became doomed (but hopefully, not permanently).Thanks for the exchange. I look forward to having the time for the next one.


  8. Anonymous

    I agree with the tenor of your argument and rebuttal to criticisms expressed here. I was in the sixties a young idealistic supporter of disarmament and hence sympathetic to the JSP protests against the Mutual Security Treaty, but in retrospect, the prospects for a move to independence and neutral unarmed status were completely unrealistic for Japan at the time. This remains the case and the weakened condition of the JSDP or what remains of it, makes it almost as difficult for a new disarmament movement to succeed today. Rather the danger is as I have said in many posts here, that the temptation to \”go nuclear\” by the ascendancy of the ultra-conservative Abe-Aso-Nakagawa axis is the cause for greater anxiety of the peace movement.


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