Peter Lee writes in The Asia Times on the dispute over the Senkaku Islands:
Judging from the Asahi article, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was not pleased that his term had begun with a major diplomatic dust-up courtesy of Maehara and his patron, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) secretary general Katsuya Okada.
Okada and Maehara are the two most powerful proponents of a strong US alliance within the traditionally leftist and non-aligned DPJ.
If Lee’s account is right, what we have here is an instance of an overzealous cabinet minister in an allied government creating a major incident out of a manageable, minor episode. What is more, we see that the minister was doing it to pull the U.S. into the dispute and solidify the U.S.-Japanese alliance by creating the false impression that Japan was responding to reckless Chinese actions. Of course, the alliance wouldn’t have needed nearly so much solidifying if Washington had forced the new DPJ government to abide by a wildly unpopular Okinawa basing agreement that brought down PM Hatoyama.
Beyond the recklessness of the Japanese foreign minister, Lee argues that it has been the administration’s increased focus on East Asia (“the return to Asia”) that has encouraged U.S. allies in the region to become more combative in their relations with China. That may or may not be the case, but it certainly sounds plausible that the perception of greater U.S. involvement in a region would encourage allies to take a harder line on territorial disputes with their neighbors. We have certainly seen how unflinching U.S. support can lead reckless leaders in allied countries to take more aggressive actions on the assumption that the U.S. will back them in a crisis. As it turned out in the case of Georgia, there was an unrealistic expectation of U.S. backing that came from taking Bush’s rhetoric too seriously, and it proved disastrous for Georgia. Fortunately, it seems that PM Kan has done enough to defuse the crisis for the moment.
Additionally, according to Lee, the entire claim that China declared the South China Sea to be a “core interest” may have been a significant exaggeration of China’s position or simply an invention of a position that the Chinese government has not taken. If that’s true, and China hasn’t claimed the South China Sea as a “core interest,” it is possible that the entire framing of recent Chinese actions has been completely wrong. That would make the alarmists warning about Chinese military ambitions even more woefully wrong than they already were, and it would make a big difference in assessing the reasonableness of U.S. guarantees to Southeast Asian nations that America will guard against a Chinese claim that China may not have made. Like delusional fears of Russian “expansionism” two years ago, the alarms about aggressive Chinese claims may be false ones that are being sounded to rationalize greater American involvement in regions where it is not needed.
I recommend reading all of Lee’s column. He is certainly making sense when he writes the following:
The fine lines between spin, self-delusion, and lazy disregard for geopolitical realities seem to be blurring, at least in the foreign affairs quadrant of the Western media.
That would be pretty much par for the course, but that’s no reason why the rest of us have to go along with it.