On his first trip to China since taking office, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel found himself in the middle of a spat that would not have been out of place in Mean Girls, a movie about social cliques in high school.
For the first time, China is set to host the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) a meeting every two years of countries that border the Pacific Ocean. The WPNS, as it is known in naval circles, counts among its members the US, Australia, Chile, Canada and a number of Asian countries, including China and Japan.
Often at such meetings, the host country organizes an international fleet review, at which the visiting countries can parade their ships and show off some fancy hardware. It can be an eye-popping display of warships, destroyers and guided-missile cruisers. In 2008, when South Korea hosted the symposium, the US sent the aircraft carrier George Washington, the guided-missile cruiser Cowpens and the destroyer John McCain to take part.
Illustration: Mountain People
For this year’s fleet review, China, which is hosting the event in Qingdao, invited all the countries in the symposium to take part — except Japan.
“It is so totally high school,” a senior US defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “We were like, ‘Really? You’re going to do that?’”
So on the eve of Hagel’s trip, which includes a scheduled visit to Qingdao, Pentagon officials announced that if Japan could not take part in the review, then neither would the US. The US is to attend the meeting, the Pentagon said, but no US ships will sail in the fleet review.
“As of this moment, there is no intent to send a US ship to participate,” a Pentagon official said in a carefully worded statement. “WPNS is an important multilateral venue that promotes collaboration among navies in an inclusive, cooperative and constructive forum.”
The US has been navigating disputes between Japan and China for decades, but in recent months, things seem to be coming to a boil.
Late last year, China set off a trans-Pacific uproar after it declared that an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) gave it the right to identify and possibly take military action against aircraft near the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) in Taiwan. Japan controls and administers the islands, but both Taiwan and China claim them.
Japan refused to recognize China’s claim, and the US has been defying China’s ADIZ move ever since by sending military planes into the zone unannounced.
In February, US Navy Captain James Fanell, director of intelligence and information operations with the US Pacific Fleet, said China was training its forces to be capable of carrying out a “short, sharp” war with Japan in the East China Sea. Other US officials noted with increasing concern the buildup of China’s military and what they called a lack of transparency among its leaders.
Into all this arrived Hagel, first in Qingdao, the headquarters of one of China’s three naval fleets. Hagel visited the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s aircraft carrier, the first foreign visitor that China has allowed aboard, a US defense official said. Qingdao is the place the Chinese showed to Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, two years ago.
Now China has shown the US its aircraft carrier, which is a step beyond the tour Panetta received in 2012. However, one thing has not changed; as was the case with the Panetta trip: Reporters traveling with Hagel will not be permitted on the tour and will go instead to a local brewery.
During a news conference on Sunday last week with Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera, Hagel sounded exasperated with China.
“I will be talking with the Chinese about its respect for their neighbors,” he said, as he chided China and urged the country to use its “great power” in a responsible way.
“You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and the sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation, whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific or in large nations in Europe,” he said.
Pentagon officials said Hagel had no official plans to raise the fleet review issue during his talks with officials in China, but they allowed that the issue might come up anyway.
Japan’s occupation of China during World War II is part of the reason Beijing does not like the idea of Japanese ships’ taking part in the fleet review, Asia experts said. However, the experts also expressed alarm over China’s worldwide public relations campaign to increase criticism of Japan. Dozens of Chinese ambassadors have criticized Japan in letters written to global newspapers; in one, China’s ambassador to Britain compared Japan to the evil Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter fame.
The shunning of Japan’s fleet, analysts said, is just the latest in the anti-Japan campaign under way in China.
In Tokyo, the US decision to shun the fleet review in solidarity with Japan was greeted warmly, as analysts said it could help to allay growing concerns by Japan about whether the US had the stomach to stand with Tokyo to face China’s rising military might.
“This is a very positive step toward addressing Japanese concerns,” said Narushige Michishita, director of security and international studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Japan. “The decision is being seen here as a signal from the US that its deterrence still has credibility.”
However, “this sort of tit-for-tat shows how the US is being drawn into the escalating row over history that China and Japan have been engaging in,” said Andrew Oros, a specialist on East Asia and an associate professor of political science at Washington College in Maryland. “It may seem irrelevant, but it exposes how surface-level issues illustrate serious underlying problems between the two largest economies in Asia, and the second and third-largest economies in the world.”
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