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Tensions in East Asia provide a test to US commitment to peace

Staff Columnist

Published: Monday, December 2, 2013

Updated: Monday, December 2, 2013 22:12

Tensions among the regional powers of East Asia have exponentially increased in severity over the last two weeks. On November 23rd the People’s Republic of China unilaterally announced the establishment of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. This announcement has - unsurprisingly - sent Japan and South Korea, as well the U.S., into a bit of a panic, but China’s assertion that the ADIZ was necessary for defensive purposes is not completely devoid of validity.

I believe it’s important to first examine the history of relations between East Asia’s three great powers. China maintained a position of preeminence in the region for the majority of history, which went largely unchallenged until heightened tensions between a resurgent post-Meiji restoration Japan and the late Qing Dynasty of China erupted into an invasion of Korea in what became known as the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan emerged victorious from the conflict, which in turn snowballed into a series of campaigns against China culminating in the onset of the War in the Pacific - ostensibly beginning with the Japanese annexation of Manchuria and the infamous Rape of Nanking.

Japan’s Imperial pursuits inevitably pulled the United States into the global conflict– resulting in consequences we are all familiar with– and in China the American-backed Kuomintang government was exiled to Taiwan by Mao’s Communist Party. Japan’s constitution was rewritten in 1947, with the extraordinary Article 9 that effectively converted the country into a pacifist state by preventing it from operating a military force; though the US pressured Japan to build up a “defensive” force in the aftermath of the Korean war.

Recent events have drastically accelerated the pace at which each power, along with the US, have approached the potential for violent conflict. South Korea has begun petitioning Washington to renew its administrative control of the South Korean military past the 2015 deadline, at which point command would be formally turned over to South Korea; President Jimmy Carter attempted to cede military authority to South Korea’s civilian government in 1977, but General John K. Singlaub - then head of US and South Korean forces– openly criticized Carter’s decision, which ultimately cost him his job and scuttled Carter’s plans.

Japan, for its part, has become increasingly militarized under the right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returned to office in 2012 after resigning in 2007 over his 30 percent approval rating. Abe is a staunch supporter of U.S. involvement in Japanese and East Asian affairs, which stands in stark contrast to former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama; Hatoyama was elected on a platform promising to remove the overwhelmingly unpopular U.S. base on Okinawa, which houses approximately 50,000 troops, but Washington rebuked the proposal by demanding Hatoyama’s resignation in 2010. Abe has since proposed a change or repeal to Article 9 of the constitution, laid wreaths at the tombs of Japanese war criminals and on Oct. 3rd negotiated a deal to relocate 9,000 US troops at the cost of $3.1 billion and the installation of a second U.S.-owned X-band Radar system, which is a blatant attack on China’s nuclear deterrent.

This is not to say that China is an innocent victim; the decades of unwavering support for the ruthless North Korean regime is morally reprehensible and lends a sort of legitimacy– albeit weak– for the US policy of encirclement that President Obama titled “The Pivot to Asia.” The unilateral declaration of the ADIZ is also counter-intuitive to the interests of China as it justifiably frightens its neighbors into believing that a return to tributary status is imminent. The 2001 Hainan Island incident, in which a Chinese warplane on an intercept mission crashed into an U.S. spy plane, remains a sore in relations because of China’s demand that America apologize before releasing the American pilots and a refusal to make the contents of both aircraft’s black boxes public.

Vice President Joe Biden departed yesterday for Tokyo to discuss an easing in the mounting tensions, and for what it is worth Washington has instructed domestic airlines to abide by the rules of China’s ADIZ. At the same time, however, the U.S. has pushed China into a corner by flying two B-52 bombers through the ADIZ in what can only be called a flagrant dare to the Chinese government. The U.S. has a significant capability and responsibility to prevent its allies, as well as China, from inciting some conflagration of violence, which is what a global superpower should do.


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