After China’s declaration of its new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), it becomes clearer that East Asia’s power balance is in a gradual transition to a new order, and Beijing is promoting “a new model of major power relationships” with the US, aiming to undermine Japan’s current position as a cornerstone of East Asia’s peace and prosperity under the US-Japan alliance. Ironically, at such a pivotal moment, the Japanese government is giving Beijing and Seoul a helping hand, strengthening the two neighbors’ leverage, while also creating a headache for Japan’s closest ally, the US.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s visit last December to the controversial Yasukuni shrine which commemorates not only those who died at war but also war criminals drastically undermined Japan’s strategic position. It not only vindicated Korean President Park Geun Hye’s decision of not talking with the “hawkish” Abe, but it also gave Beijing a perfect justification to criticize Japan’s credibility.
In the past two months, op-ed ‘turf wars’ started off by China erupted between the Chinese and Japanese Ambassadors in London and Washington. In the UK, the Ambassadors called each other’s country the “Voldemort” of the region. A mutual blame game also took place in the Washington Post. Furthermore, reacting to China’s assertion, Abe stated at the Davos conference that the current tensions between the countries were similar to the rivalry between the British and the Germans before the First World War, a popular analogy for historians but probably not a wise statement as a head of state.
The way Japan is currently playing the game, predictably out of desperation in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness, is undermining its own strategic position. By pointing fingers at China, Tokyo has allowed its neighbors to further exploit Japan’s vulnerability against “historic issues” by inadvertently giving them leverage. Given Japan’s strategic significance as a major US ally, Japan’s actions could trouble Washington’s calculations in the turbulent region.
America’s clear opposition on China’s ADIZ, expressed by John Kerry during the Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida’s visit to Washington in February, was a welcome statement for Tokyo, demonstrating the strength of the alliance. It would be in Japan’s interest to behave in a way that promotes its strategic position with prudence, flexibility and visionary ideas to manage China’s assertions instead of inadvertently doing Beijing a favor. The charm of diplomacy should lie in the art of creating a future, not in encouraging others to exploit one’s own misdoing in the past.