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Treading with care in North Asia
Publication Date : 27-02-2013
Two issues that featured in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's discussions in Washington last week were of compelling interest to Asia. How he presented to President Barack Obama his view of the territorial dispute with China and how his host reacted was to indicate whether the disputants had more room for manoeuvre than appeared.
Linked to this was how strongly the two men made of the Japan-US security relationship and its relevance to the current situation. It goes without saying that China's leaders were all ears. The verdict? As expected, they objected to Abe's remarks, but played it pretty cool.
Abe has a reputation as a hawk in his China handling and a supplicant before American omnipotence. The labelling is a bit of a caricature. Nevertheless, the benign outcome of the visit was a relief. Domestic considerations certainly figured for Abe as his government faces upper chamber elections he must win, but he came off with his reputation bolstered as a practical- minded leader. Beijing would be pleased at the implicit tending being made ahead of his meeting with Chinese President-designate Xi Jinping, which could take place in the coming months.
Of the Senkaku-Diaoyu dispute, the declaration that Japan's resolve to defend its interests should not be under- estimated was a pro forma statement. The significant portion of Abe's remarks in talks with Obama was that Japan would not act rashly to defend its claim and that it was open to improving ties with China. As the US appeared to have endorsed Japan's charges against China of radar-locking of military craft after classified data was shared, his rational approach was commendable. Consistent signals from the US that it is reluctant to be drawn by treaty obligation into a confrontation on Japan's side should not be misconstrued by the contending parties.
In the case of the Japan-US security alliance, China would take as inevitable the reaffirmation of its bedrock status after the drift that occurred when the US-leaning Liberal Democratic Party was out of office. Obama made much of it being the "central foundation" of the region's security.
Beijing obviously has its strategic calculus worked out. That Japan has to take cognizance of US thinking that nothing untoward be done that could upset North Asia's security balance is an imperative that will be noted with satisfaction in Asian capitals. This is so even granting that Japan's plans to raise military spending could be unsettling. Beijing need not fret unduly about developments, so long as US-initiated arrangements in Asia are not drawn overtly as a reinforcing of America's Pacific pivot that demonstrably has China in its sights.