A tremendous amount of ink has been spilled in the past week over Beijing's "surprise" about-face last month, when it denied the USS Kitty Hawk battle group entry into Hong Kong -- a snub made all the more unpalatable to Washington as it followed on the heels of a similar denial concerning two US minesweeping vessels. Furthermore, it now seems that last Thursday, a request that the USS Reuben James be allowed to make a New Year's stop in Hong Kong was also turned down by Beijing.
While, as some have argued, this series of denials may constitute the most serious US-China military crisis since the 2001 collision of a US E-P3 reconnaissance aircraft with a Chinese fighter, one thing that seems to have escaped the notice of the many pundits who have written on the subject is the fact that the regional context has undergone a striking transformation.
Beijing's seemingly "irrational" decision to snub the world's greatest superpower has very much to do with that new context.
Two recent events are symptomatic of that change. First, as was made clear last week by the anchoring of the Chinese destroyer Shenzhen in Tokyo -- the first such visit since World War II -- is the diplomatic rapprochement between Japan and China, two countries that since before the war and until very recently had at best eyed each other with great mistrust, if not outright hatred.
The seeming incapacity of a succession of Japanese prime ministers to "undo" the damage done to Japan's image in China from World War II onwards has compelled the past two leaders to make improving diplomatic ties with Beijing one of their priorities. Even the supposedly hardline Taro Aso, former minister of foreign affairs, watered down his rhetoric on China and there is every indication that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda intends to go beyond that.
Parallel to this rapprochement and certainly noticed by Beijing has been the fraying relationship between Japan and the US. The principal reason behind this -- despite efforts by Aso and Fukuda to avoid such an outcome -- has been Japan ending its naval assistance to US-led operations in Afghanistan on Nov. 1.
As much the result of domestic political wrangling as a symptom that Japanese are finally reevaluating the role, long constrained by a US-imposed Constitution, their country should play internationally, the deadlock has not been well received in Washington, which continues to expect the staunchest of support from its allies worldwide, especially those for whose security it still plays a crucial role.
Therein lies the new regional context, one where Japan and the US, longtime allies, are on the brink of reaching a new low on the military and diplomatic front. This has provided Beijing with a golden opportunity to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington at a time when the US is locked down in the Middle East, facing military overstretch and being pressured in both Japan and South Korea to lighten its military presence, and when the North Korean nuclear crisis is showing signs it could be resolved diplomatically.
But don't look for a new Asian romance just yet. Quick to use the World War II card when doing so serves its purposes, Beijing has not spontaneously chosen to forget Japan's past aggression, nor has it fundamentally altered its perception of Japan as a regional opponent, present or future. Cozying up to Tokyo, rather, is part of calculations based on a realistic, balance-of-power view of the world that seek to achieve what has long been a policy in Beijing -- to force the US out of East Asia.
In order to do so, it is even willing to provide the illusion, however temporarily, that it can be on friendly terms with its historical nemesis.
Compounding this strategy is the fact that an East Asia without the US would not result in a return to pre-World War II Asia, in which a militaristic Japan faced a divided and weak China. Rather, a contemporary East Asia minus the US would present us with a much stronger China -- a nuclear one at that -- and a Japan that is still greatly reliant on the US for its defense and will require years to be able to stand on its own militarily.
However "contradictory," irrational or childish Beijing's message may have been surrounding the Kitty Hawk incident, its decision to snub the US was anything but. It was, rather, a calculated effort taken by an increasingly confident China to divide and conquer, and taken straight out of the handbook on diplomatic realism.
Certainly, given its long domestic history of alliances made and unmade, China is not new to strategizing of this kind.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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