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When Theresa May meets Donald Trump, China will the be the elephant in the room

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The Telegraph, January 26, 2017

When the Prime Minister sits down with President Trump on Friday in the Oval Office, she will be in a privileged position. She will the first foreign leader to meet the president since the inauguration. Second, she will be entering “friendly” territory. Already hailed by the President as “my Maggie”, Theresa May will feel a warmth from the President that has been lacking in her recent meetings with European leaders.

Naturally, May will wish to capitalize on his open affection for the “special relationship” and hammer out a new “fair” free trade deal, propelling London to the front of the queue. She will also wish to shore up the President’s support for Nato, a bulwark against Russian revanchivism, by calling for greater European adherence to the 2 percent principle agreed by Nato member states.

What is unlikely to come up – but what should – is China. In some ways, Theresa May and Donald Trump share some concerns towards the rising Asian superpower. After all, the delay over the Hinckley Point nuclear power plant deal, backed by Chinese financing, revealed May’s security concerns over Chinese investment. On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s drive for greater access to the Chinese market may put her at odds with the Trump administration’s increasingly bellicose approach.

While it is still too early to say with certainty how serious the Trump administration is about “confronting” China, the selection of Peter Navarro – author a book called Death by China – to head the newly-created National Trade Council is a clear sign this administration will move against perceived distortions and unfair advantages inherent in the Chinese economy. As state owned enterprises (SOEs) still comprise 40 percent of the economy, these distortions have had a global effect this year, including on European steel.

While a US-China trade war could remain bilateral in the strictest sense, many agree that the fallout would be global, impacting China’s beleaguered RMB, leading to a sudden devaluation of the currency – supposedly a part of the basket of reserve currencies. In turn, this could cause jitters in London’s financial markets. Chinese goods might also increase in price if they were to be tariffed out of the American market, which has been China’s top export market since 2012. On the plus side, May might be able to use the issue to press China for greater market access, increasing British exports to the country.

Trade is not the only issue between the US and China that is set to explode this year. The South China Sea has long been a slow-burn issue for the two, but now appears to be leading to crisis. When Secretary of State appointee Rex Tillerson asserted that…

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Trump’s bromance with Putin will split the West in Two

CNN, December 19, 2016

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When the Financial Times and Time magazine both named President-elect Trump as their person of the year, the publications did so as less of a plaudit and more of a recognition that his election is a pivotal event for the West. Certainly, it represents a major challenge to the shared foreign and security policies of the broad community of nations known as the Western alliance. Only two years after Russia illegally occupied a sovereign nation’s territory in Crimea and then began a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, an American leader has come to power, promising to improve relations with Moscow. How will Trump’s “pivot to Russia” affect European security, and what impact will his increasingly hard line on China have on Washington’s Asian allies? Trump has revealed time and again on the campaign trail — and now, more disturbingly, over the hacking scandal — a willingness to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt.

However, despite his apparent soft spot for authoritarian leaders, Trump has not extended this friendliness to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In the wake of the Taiwan phone call and the President-elect’s ambiguity over the “One China policy,” the Chinese have responded by flying a bomber over the South China Sea. They have also held life-fire drills on the PLA Navy’s new aircraft carrier and revealed that they are arming their illegal island bases in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Then, on Friday, China seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea. The country used its state media to declare “the drone that emerged from the South China Sea is just the tip of the iceberg in US military strategy on China.” President-elect Trump has responded in the manner to which we have become accustomed, tweeting: “China steals US Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented (sic) act” and “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”

Some commentators, like David Martin Jones in the Telegraph, have wondered if Trump is trying to execute a reverse Henry Kissinger by building ties with Moscow while freezing ties with China. While such a diplomatic move is technically feasible, is it probable? After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is well positioned at the moment vis-a-vis Beijing. While China has clearly become the dominant partner, and its One Belt, One Road strategy unilaterally consolidates Beijing’s influence over central Asia at Russia’s expense, China has been careful to pay the Russians lip service and accord them the face that Moscow craves. Putin’s ties with China’s Xi Jinping are commonly described as a “bromance,” as the two have met 19 times in four years.

Trade between the countries mushroomed in the wake of Crimea-related Western sanctions against Russia, and the defense forces of the two nations are growing closer. Last September, Russian forces drilled alongside their Chinese counterparts, in apparent support of Beijing’s claims. As a consequence, any ideas Trump may have of splitting the two continental giants should be tempered by reality. We simply aren’t at the position in the Cold War where Beijing and Moscow were eyeball to eyeball and welcomed American balancing. So, if a Kissinger-style swap isn’t on the cards, what are the likely effects of Trump’s new foreign policy? Unfortunately, his policy is likely to exacerbate a tension already running through the Western alliance, in which the European allies — like the EU, NATO member states, and Sweden — balance against Russia while welcoming warm diplomatic and trade ties with China. This is the polar opposite in the Pacific, where Washington and its allies — concerned about Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea — are attempting to balance against China while improving ties with Russia. While it may not look like much, this split is likely to divide the West in two, while doing little to worry China and Russia.

There are some very real dangers that might arise from this: Europeans might soften on the arms embargo to China, or dampen their criticism of Chinese moves in the Pacific even more than they have already done. Washington, for its part, might undo sanctions on Russia, effectively legitimizing the first territorial invasion of a state by another in post-War history. This would not bode well for the Baltic states.

So, what’s to be done? Well, first it’s a long way to January 20. Trump’s Cabinet is still being picked, and it is difficult to know how much his foreign policy tweets represent the actual future positions of his administration. Furthermore, his administration may yet be challenged– either by the hacking scandal or even by a rejection of Trump’s polices within the Washington policy establishment. US presidents are notoriously dependent on the other branches of government to implement their policies. Any number of things could collide, making Trump a sitting-duck president before he’s even hung his name up in the Oval Office. Regardless of all this uncertainty, neither Americans nor Europeans can afford to ignore the very real possibility outlined above that Trump’s attempt to split the two authoritarian states will actually split the West. Much diplomacy and intra-alliance dialogue will be necessary in the next four years. No less than the future of the liberal, rules-based global order is at stake.

Are Japan and the UK Trading Places?

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The National Interest, July 18, 2016

At times, British and American policymakers and academics have wondered if Japan might become the “Britain of the Far East” by playing a larger role in foreign affairs, more supportive of the liberal rules-based system, and more in line with American global security strategy. Britain would have responsibility for the Western hemisphere, while Japan covered the Asia-Pacific. However, as the past decade has seen an emboldened and increasingly capable Japan attempting define a role for itself in global security, the same period has seen a UK seemingly less able or less willing to shoulder its responsibility. A combination of post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan war-weariness saw Parliament usurp Prime Minister Cameron’s attempt to intervene in Syria in 2013, while Brexit and the slight chance of a second Scottish referendum have created political chaos in Westminster, raising the possibility that Britain may be too consumed by internal affairs to take part in foreign policy for the next three to four years.

Of course, the machinery of government will go on, but Britain’s loss of focus occurs at a time critical to the liberal international order. On one flank, China pushes hard to gain de facto control of one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes, and in doing so establishes a baseline for its attitude toward international law and smaller powers. On the other, Russia continues to mobilize itself domestically with nationalism and anti-Westernism, in a seeming attempt to recover its Cold War–era buffer zone of satellite states. Though Theresa May as the new Prime Minister has shown some resolve – with regards to Trident – the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling passed by virtually unnoticed in Whitehall, immersed as they were in the formation of the new Cabinet, the Turkish Coup, and the terror attack in Nice.

Despite the UK’s apparent drift, Tokyo and London are optimal allies for the United States. Based off of the continents to which they belong, they have never quite fit into those continents, culturally or politically, showing instead a preference for naval power. Both are comparatively economically powerful within their regions, technologically advanced and governed by liberal democratic systems, sharing similar values to the United States. Because of those values, both have been traditionally strong financial supporters of the United Nations, as well as pillars of the slew of financial international government organizations that collectively made up Bretton Woods. That American policymakers occasionally compared them is not surprising.

The most famous instance of this analogy was within the influential 2000 Armitage-Nye Report, which by suggesting the parallel gave Tokyo an attractive and recognizable template to emulate. Despite skepticism that Japan would ever shift its defensive posture from the easy-riding Yoshida Doctrine, toward collective self-defense or contributing forces to conflicts outside the Asia-Pacific, Tokyo has taken a long slew of incremental steps in both directions and developed new security ties with Australia, India and even the United Kingdom. While some would argue that these steps are still extremely limited, the fact remains that Prime Minister Abe’s “proactive contribution to peace” is a long way from former Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi’s insistence that Japan only had a “pretense of a foreign policy.”

As the United Kingdom reels from the June 23 Brexit referendum and struggles protracted Brexit negotiations and the possibility of a second Scottish referendum, it would appear that Japan is indeed becoming the “Britain of the East,” while Britain seems to be turning into a (Yoshida-era) “Japan of the West.” For it is quite clear that protracted negotiations required for exiting the European market, combined with the hasty search for new foreign trade agreements with economic powers such as the United States, India, China and Japan, will take up much of the energies of Whitehall’s mandarins. While this should only take five years or so, it will nevertheless force a loss of focus for Britain’s elites on its security contribution in the world. The possibility of Scottish independence would only add to the misery, stripping it of many of its best capabilities at precisely the time when NATO, Europe and the world need them most.

It is possible that as a result of these repeated blows, Britain will seek to recover the “splendid isolation” of Lord Salisbury, sans empire, and sans splendor, focusing instead on trade and keeping aloof of continental goings-on. Or it might also seek to leverage its financial sector as a leverage between the old hegemon—the United States—and the world’s newest superpower, China. The third possibility, about which I have written previously, is that Britain could double down on its role as a pillar of the liberal international order. It has already demonstrated that Brexit will not stand in the way of its commitments to eastern Europe by committing to the stationing of troops there.

Coming a full circle, it seems that there is much that Japan and the United Kingdom might do together to add value to their capabilities at this time of uncertainty and change. There is already talk within London’s corridors of the desirability of an FTA with Japan, though this will doubtless take time to negotiate. The two are currently engaged in early defense-industrial cooperative development, and have been widening strategic and foreign policy discussions in the defense minister–foreign minister talks (2+2). The possibility for greater U.S.-UK-Japan trilateral cooperation opens up all sorts of possibilities within the intelligence, cyber and space sectors. Regardless of Brexit or continued incrementalism within Japan, both London and Tokyo have a large range of institutional and industrial assets at their fingertips. Both are also seeking closer ties with New Delhi at the moment, a further area of potential cooperation.

As we look toward the remainder of this summer, we see a China that is highly likely to build up its military assets in the South China Sea, ignoring the recent finding of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Simultaneously, we might see calls from within the EU to drop the arms embargo on China from states that have vested industrial interests in doing so. Britain’s absence from the EU’s top tables could have a destabilizing effect on Asia’s already precarious balance of power. Perhaps London and Tokyo might craft a bilateral diplomatic venture within Brussels and the capitals of Europe in that eventuality.

There is something to be said about the UK losing its sheen precisely as Japan begins to step up to the plate as a contributor to global security, but for those who believe the UK is out for the count, should consider London’s pluckiness and the deep support among its population and foreign policy elites for many of the liberal values that undergird the international system. It also has a long history of maritime operations, intelligence and expeditionary warfare that make it a superb partner for Japan. The fact that both work closely with American forces and seek interoperability with NATO allies creates an even deeper synergy for bilateral cooperation. At a time of uncertainty and change, one can never have too many friends.

What Kind of Foreign Policy and Security Posture should a Post-Brexit Britain Adopt?

RUSI Commentary, July 4th, 2016

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Although British foreign policy is likely to encounter a variety of hardships after the withdrawal from the EU, some of the options still offer interesting opportunities which should not diminish the country’s international standing and contribution.

The decision to leave the EU is now behind us. Ahead lie months, perhaps even years of wrangling – with the EU, with Scotland, and all the unpleasantness that both will entail. However, once the storm dies down – and eventually it will – Britons are going to have to decide what kind of power we want to be. We will have to try and answer what kind of role we want to have, and what capacities that role will require. We will have to imagine a Britain without Scotland, and attempt to construct a role that is commensurate with the scaled-down ambitions and capabilities. Thus,  Britain might look forward to three possible future postures. These are – in shorthand – Little Britain, Middleman, and Best Friends Forever.

The first posture involves a Britain that sees the world as an increasingly less friendly place, beginning a long gradual withdrawal from global affairs as a result. It might continue to be a formal ally of the United States, and perhaps even remain in NATO, but will only play the bare minimum role required to maintain those relationships, passing through crises as obliquely as possible. To all intents and purposes, the UK of this future will look like Cold War-era Japan, formally allied with the US, but offloading its responsibilities, a free rider on the efforts and resources of others. Instead of contributing to global security, it will allow its narrower interests to determine its actions, a parochial mercantilism taking pride of place in Whitehall. It will be Lord Salisbury’s ‘splendid isolation’ without the Empire and, perhaps, without the splendour. This would be the ‘peaceful shire’ Britain, with London leaving foreign policy to others, sipping tea and playing cricket on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

The second posture might be called Middleman, and has some similarities with the first option in that mercantilism, writ large, begins to dominate Britain’s foreign policy calculations. Shorn of the size and confidence afforded it by membership to the EU, Britain will approach new developing markets with gusto and abandon. Seeing values as ‘unaffordable’, this Britain will swiftly jettison any pretence of shoring up the global liberal values system, seeing the modern international system as one large test of survival of the fittest. The Osborne Doctrine, so named for the Chancellor’s warm China engagement policies, will be accelerated and see London attempting to carve out a middleman role for itself between the old hegemon – the US – and the emerging one – -China. Counting on the UK’s certainty that only the City of London, with its knowledge and history of currency trading, can help Beijing internationalise the Chinese currency as a global currency Britain will dance between the various centres of power, attempting to play banker to the great powers. It could become Switzerland-Plus, attempting to exert power behind the scenes, without favourites or friends.

Finally, there is the Best Friends Forever scenario, which would see Britain bounce off the painful divorce with the EU with a renewed sense of purpose and identity as an upholder of Western liberalism. In this future, the UK will still have to run to new markets, such as India, China and others, but it will balance mercantilism with a strong emphasis on values and allies, doubling down on its NATO commitments in Eastern Europe and re-fortifying ties with Washington. This would see it re-engaging with old allies like Australia, and strengthening nascent security ties with democracies such as Japan India. Security diversity would become a part of British security posture and as with today, London would seek to bring together coalitions and groups of like-minded states whenever crises struck. This will see Britain becoming the ultimate middle power in security diplomacy and shoring up the rules-based system through strong support of Western allies and of regulatory norms relating to space and cybersecurity.

How viable are any of these three scenarios? Of course, as with reality, the future UK will exhibit aspects of all three at various times, and under different prime ministers. However, if any leader were to take Britain down the path of the first two, it would be great loss to the international liberal system. In many ways, the third option offers the most interesting and exciting possibilities under current circumstances. For those who worry about the US’s willingness to welcome the UK back into the fold, one might note that President Obama has already moved to reaffirm the importance of the special relationship in the wake of Brexit. Once away from the EU model, Britain – and its allies – might find new opportunities. The ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing arrangement has long been a pillar of global security for the Anglosphere. Policy elites in the UK might push to revitalise the Five Eyes at the political level, moving it beyond its shadowy corridors to a more strategic forum level. Five Eyes summits and working groups at the agency and ministerial level could become a viable vehicle for the UK and its closest allies to uphold the liberal order and at least tackle the growing Sino-Russian sense of revanchism. Modelled on the ad hoc minilateralism and trilateralism currently seen in the Asia Pacific, a Five Eyes arrangement could even consider one-day creating a pathway to closer association for long-standing liberal allies like Japan, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

While some kinks may need to be ironed out in the special relationship with the United States, Britain’s urban educated elites have more in common with American liberalism than they realise. Whether or not he can acknowledge it, Jeremy Corbyn is more likely to find his soulmate in a Bernie Sanders rather than in a Vladimir Putin. And his followers are more likely to find their beliefs in social diversity, social justice and human rights reflected in the US’s own progressive society than in a Russia that outlaws homosexuality or a China that imprisons human rights lawyers.

The UK should remember its interests, but also note that these need not be purely commercial. Values and old alliances are a part of British identity. Although the UK faces doubtless hardship ,it could also be on the cusp of exciting opportunities and possibilities.


How the US Views China’s Rise

An Extract from P.62 of an LSE IDEAS Publication, May 18, 2016

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No other power excites debate about emerging powers among American policymakers and academics quite like China. Its incredible economic growth and military modernisation has increasingly defined American foreign policy in the post-Iraq space, promoting an increasing preoccupation with Asian and maritime security. It has raised both day-to-day policy challenges, as well as deeper theoretical challenges on the peaceful rise of powers in history. This debate has often pitted those within the realist tradition against neoliberal institutionalists.

The history of China in American policy has an interesting arc. Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, Sino-American ties underwent a deep freeze. Despite this, the George H.W. Bush presidency (1989-1993) encouraged the resumption of high-level political ties and vetoed attempts by Congress to link the political relationship to progress in human rights. There was a belief that economic liberalisation would lead to political liberalisation. Until that time, American policy would hedge against two outcomes: a friendly, liberal China and a strong, challenging China.

This binary reveals itself in the varying articles about China in the early 1990s. Was Asia ripe for rivalry?’ Aaron Friedberg’s pessimistic 1993 International Security article thought so. Others, like David Shambaugh, wondered if the US should enact an engagement policy or containment policy. Some like Patrick Cronin, Kenneth Lieberthal, and James Shinn have argued for various forms of engagement, which deeply coloured Clinton policy on China. Others like Arthur Waldron, Gideon Rachman, and Gerald Seagal recommended ‘constrainment’ or varying forms of containment. This debate spilled over into the policy community, in what became known as the ‘Red Team/Blue Team’ debates. ‘Blue Team’ members included congressional sta ers, journalists, and policy academics who were hawkish on China, while ‘Red Team’ members preferred engagement and accommodation. Blue Teamers painted the 1996 campaign finance controversy (in which the Chinese government attempted to influence US domestic politics through donations to political campaigns) as a sign of growing Chinese influence in Washington. In Congress, they publicised accounts of Chinese defence-related espionage – as described in the 1999 Cox Report – and sought to show how growing Chinese military capabilities would make it a threat one day, requiring from 2000 annual reports from the Defense Department and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The 1995-6 Taiwan Crisis and 1999 Belgrade bombing seemed to raise China’s threat profile, though trade was delinked from security issues.

The incoming G.W. Bush administration in 2001 was deeply sceptical of China, seemingly justifiably after their first crisis; the P-3 Incident off of Hainan Island (in which their was a mid-air collision between a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese Navy fighter jet). The administration’s attitude softened in its second term as Robert Zoellick attempted a charm offensive from the State Department, initiating the ‘responsible stakeholder’ approach.

In the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the Obama administration seemed to follow the Zoellick approach, with James Steinberg emphasizing the management of tensions as China underwent what Chinese President Xi Jinping called ‘the great revival of the Chinese nation.’ However, there was a growing perception in Washington and regional capitals that Chinese ‘assertiveness’ had risen in the face of accommodation, which led to a backlash in the second term.

The Rebalance to Asia, or ‘Pivot’, rolled out in 2011 is intended to invigorate American leadership in the region and while it is not aimed at China, there is no doubt that China’s rise plays a part in its conception. It’s built around the three pillars of economic, security, and political engagement, and have seen a large uptick in activities between the US and its allies, between the US and China, and between the US and ASEAN member-states.

American writing on China has increased immensely, commiserate with its standing as the world’s next largest economy and military power. Writers have tended to come from two groups: China-watchers and IR scholars/security experts. China watchers like Iain Alastair Johnston, Harry Harding, David Lampton, David Shambaugh, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael Pillsbury have tended to adopt culturally nuanced approaches to policy, basing their analyses on cultural, linguistic, and network familiarity within China. Their tone varies widelybetweenShambaugh’s,‘TheTangled Titans: the United States and China’, and Pillsbury’s warning, ‘One Hundred Year Marathon’. Others ponder the efficacy of American policymaking, like Harry Harding’s ‘Has US China Policy Failed? Those who have a more general IR background focus on the US-China relationship or rising power debates. This includes a wide range of academics and practitioners, including Henry Kissinger, Henry Paulson, James Steinberg and Evan Medeiros, who advocate a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Others like Aaron Friedberg, John Mearsheimer, Ashley Tellis, Robert Kaplan and Peter Dutton predict or seek to explain growing tensions and competition.

Over the past decade, much of the debate has been on whether the engagement policy vis-à- vis China has been successful in the long-term. Harry Harding’s Washington Quarterly piece, ‘Has US China Policy Failed?’, traces the reasons for American disappointment in China, looking at Washington’s hopes for political liberalisation inside China as well as the expectation that Beijing would become an active supporter of the international system. The fact that under Xi Jingpin, political control has been tightened over the media, over universities, and NGOs has played into this disappointment. As for a global role, China’s willingness to create regional organisations like Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the AIIB are seen as challenging to American interests, while its maritime disputes with American allies Japan and the Philippines are dramatically increasing regional insecurity.

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Should Obama Apologise in Hiroshima?

The National Interest, May 16, 2016

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Now that President Obama has announced his intention to visit Hiroshima later this month, many have debated whether he will proffer regret or apologize for the dropping of two nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in late 1945. Should he apologize? Given his past speeches in Cairo, Obama has been criticized by some conservative media in the US as America’s “apologist-in-chief”, prompting the White House and Ben Rhodes to declare that the visit is to be “forward-looking” and it will “highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. Despite this, the current debate on Obama’s visit raises all sorts of questions about modern understandings of history, and apology-politics in general. To what extent should state leaders apologize for historic crimes committed before them? Should the United States apologize for its misdeeds? Should it apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular?

Certainly, of the two, Japan has a long history of making apologies. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has grappled with the historical legacy of Japan’s conduct during the Second World War and his own vision for Japan. He has been more successful at proffering regret to the United States and Australia, but less successful with South Korea and China. His speech to the Australian Parliament in July 2014 expressed “sincere condolences”. His speech to US Joint Houses of Congress in April 2015 expressed “deep repentance” and “eternal condolences”. In both speeches, Abe seemed to acknowledge Japanese responsibility for instigating the war, though his language was constrained by the domestic political realities of his conservative supporters in Tokyo. Prior to these speeches, his views on the Kono Statement, and affiliation with Japanese historical revisionists like Toshio Tamogami raised the possibility that Abe agreed with such accounts. Chinese observers – for geopolitical rather than academic reasons – attempted to shape an isolating narrative around Japan because of these debates, but were stymied by Abe’s nuanced approach from 2014 onwards.

What of the United States? As the leading hegemon, victor in the Second World War, and victor in the Cold War, should it apologize for actions it has carried out in the past? Many would agree with Walter Benjamin that “History is written by the victors.” However, this is less and less true in the modern world as liberal norms values affect expectations of state behavior in international politics. One only has to consider the whole range of “critical studies” in Western universities to see that in some states, at least, history has become a deeply contested area, continuously open to debate and self-criticism. Though open to abuse, this is ultimately a positive thing, enabling societies to move past historic grievances. Furthermore, is it really true that only winners write history? Turkey after the First World War, (vis a vis Ataturk, and the Armenians). Though North Korea lost the Korean War, it still teaches that it was the South who started the Korean War. Russia after the end of the Cold War continues to teach its own version of history. These are but a small sample of states that maintain and protect – often using legal means – their own historically regressive narratives.

What is the American relationship with its own past? As has been implied by the above examples, the domestic nature of the regime often determines the state’s attitude to history, though sadly some liberal states have flirted with state control of textbooks. The United States is a liberal democratic power with a strong set of ideals and values, which it ascribes to in its foreign policy behavior. It does not always live up to its own standards, but very often civil society, American academics and journalists will swiftly point this out in the public arena. Like Japan, the United States has apologized for its past. Few foreigners will know that the US has apologized to native Americans and Hawaiians a number of times for historical grievances.  While it has not yet dealt with the US-Philippine War, it has attempted to redress the stripping of benefits from Filipino soldiers, who served on the American side in the Second World War. Clearly, Americans increasingly believe that it should face its history head-on apologize for past grievances. What of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Should the United States apologize for those specific acts? Here the answer – like Abe’s speech to Congress – should be more nuanced.

Japan is one of the US’ closest allies. It has played an extremely positive role in international society since the end of the Second World War and is a strong supporter of the liberal international order and its attendance infrastructure. It is also deeply important partner in American security strategy for the region. However, things have not always been thus. President Obama could take a pragmatic line with his Japanese audience in Hiroshima and remind them of the ethical, strategic, and geopolitical reasons for dropping the nuclear weapons. The classical argument – from the American side – is that the US was fighting a ‘just war’ against Japanese aggression. A stronger ethical argument was that the bombings actually saved lives. The idea that Operation Downfall (the planned invasion of Japan) would cost millions of casualties is bolstered by the large numbers of casualties involved in the invasion of Okinawa (150,000 casualties in three months). It is also bolstered by the fact that the bombings were the crucial element in Japan’s Emperor Hirohito’s push for peace. Obama might have argued that both targets were hubs of military industry. He might also have argued that a costly invasion of Japan might have led to Soviet involvement, and ultimately the Cold War partitioning of Japan into two halves. Given Korea’s continued dismemberment, it is impossible to gloss over the human suffering that such an event would have cost Japan in the long run.

However, the most important function of any apology is the implicit promise that one will not repeat the offensive behavior. Without this commitment, apologies are meaningless. Prime Minister Abe’s speeches in both Australia and the United States both held that implied commitment. Japan– he stated – valued “freedom and democracy”. It held “human rights and the rule of law dear” as “a member of the Western world” and would never again “fall back onto force or coercion.” Japan – he said clearly – had changed. President Obama’s decision to speak on nuclear non-proliferation is thus a masterful stroke of symbolism. It expresses regret, without having to face the apology debate head-on. It is, within itself, a form of apology. It is a nuanced, thoughtful approach to the whole historical debate that permeates Asia Pacific narratives of the Second World War and speaks to the sense of pain that Japanese still feel on the bombings, without putting forward the pragmatic arguments above. Though these remain valid on the American side, using them is unlikely to serve a healing function. There is a danger that his visit panders to some elements within Japan who see the bombings as symbols of Japan’s victimization. Such narratives derive from revisionists, who tend to overstate Japanese suffering and underplay American, Chinese and allied suffering. However, if handled correctly, President Obama’s presence in Hiroshima, his message of peace, and nuclear non-proliferation will provide their own balm to the wider nation of Japan and its very real sense of suffering. If one considers the needs of the US-Japan Alliance for what promises to be a rocky regional future, such a conversation – between allies – is vital to the long-term strength and integrity of that commitment. What could be more American than a face-to-face attempt at closure between two old friends?


The ‘China’ Role of the US-Japan Trilaterals

The National Interest, December 6, 2015

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Asia’s immense economic growth over recent decades has come in tandem with a large increase in insecurity and military spending. Partly in response, the region has seen a quiet revolution in U.S. Asia-Pacific policy as the ‘hub and spokes’ system has been integrated across U.S. ally partners and external powers. The United States and Japan, for example, have developed a number of on-going trilateral security arrangements with states in Asia, including Australia, India and South Korea. All partner countries regularly deny that these groupings are formal alliances, and lacking formal defence commitments in the third dyad (Japan-Australia, Japan-India, Japan-ROK), they are more precisely forms of alignment, not dissimilar to the Triple Entente of pre-1914.

Not only are trilaterals more ad hoc and flexible than alliances, but they are driven by a complex range of factors. They are partly driven by a strand of neoliberal optimism from the late 1990s, as well as by a more realist strand of pessimism found in the early 2000s. The most mature of these groupings, the US-Japan-Australia trilateral Strategic dialogue (TSD) has focused on “human security” activities, such as peacekeeping, capacity-building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This side of their nature stems from their neoliberal optimism that they can be the building blocks of an integrated security community in Asia, and are part of an inclusive approach to former Cold War adversities, like Vietnam and China. To allied partners like Japan and Australia, the activities are important for “anchoring” the United States to the region, and have allowed both alliances a certain amount of legitimacy by providing “public goods,” while carefully avoiding a security dilemma with China.

On the other hand, the trilaterals also have a hard balancing element: the US-Japan-Australia TSD has included defence-industrial cooperation, the institutionalization of intelligence-sharing and growing military interoperability. With this double logic, they are a classic hedging strategy, as envisioned by political scientist Evan Medeiros. They encourage engagement, integrating regional militaries towards common objectives, as well as provide a form of insurance if Chinese revanchism begins to threaten regional stability. This hedging element is not incidental, but has evolved over time, to match rising Chinese assertiveness and the needs (and concerns) of the trilateral partner states.

The trilaterals are not—as China might think—a means of containment. Rather, they act like a restraining woven paper cup, loosely form-fitting. As one expands one’s hand in the basket, the material naturally tightens around it.

In many ways, it is the ultimate moral high ground, since the cup only tightens in reaction to expansion. In this way, as China continues to expand its power projection capabilities and attempts to expand its territoriality into the East and South China Seas, the trilaterals will continue to tighten around it and create the exact reaction that Deng Xiaoping once hoped to avoid.

The revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines are one aspect of that weaving, as are growing Japan-Philippines and Japan-Vietnam capacity-building behaviors in maritime security.

In some ways, this process is neatly described by the security dilemma in Thomas Christensen’s International Security essays. However, there is one material difference. The United States and its allies have helped China rise by investing trillions of dollars over the past three decades and by promoting Chinese inclusion in almost every important regional and global fora. No one could argue that the alliance partners have not done all they can to make China welcome and included in regional politics. Unlike Christensen’s neutral analysis, the increasing constrainment of China is driven by China’s own behaviour in much the way that occurred with pre-1914 Germany. Again, this is an important moral difference and highlights the reactive and defensive nature of the trilaterals.

Post-Bismarckian German foreign policy was unpredictable, expansionist and supported by a growth in nationalism and militarist culture. Similarly, Chinese revanchism is driven by a narrative of exclusion and regaining its “rightful place in the sun.” No one power—not even the United States—has the power to contain Chinese expansionism. However, an interlocking web of alliances around this struggling behemoth can deter it from unwise adventurism and act as a constraining influence. What happens next, of course, depends on China and its ultimate ambitions. States must understanding that in seeking to constrain China, they are not themselves acting dangerously or – as Hugh White might contend – recklessly. They are doing what they must to defend a rules-based order during a time of structural instability. The real recklessness would be in to appease the rolling ambitions of a newly-risen power, rather than seeking to shape and constrain them.

Jeremy S. Maxie

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