A few months ago it looked like East Asia might be the place where the crumbling global order of the past quarter-century, centered on U.S. power and values, would face a decisive crisis. Chinese boats, planes and oil rigs were pressing into territories claimed by Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines; there was anti-Japanese fervor in the Chinese media and disturbing nationalist gestures from the most hawkish Japanese government in years.
Instead, it was Vladimir Putin who launched a frontal military assault to stop the spread of Western influence and institutions to Ukraine, and the Islamic State that forced President Obama to reverse the U.S. retreat from foreign military commitments. In Asia — to which Obama promised to shift U.S. attention and security resources — tensions are, somewhat surprisingly, inching downward.
Senior Japanese officials here say Chinese naval incursions around the disputed Senkaku islands, the most likely trigger point for a crisis, have dropped in recent months. A Chinese oil rig that had appeared in waters claimed by Vietnam was withdrawn. Nationalist propaganda has paused, envoys are quietly shuttling among capitals, and diplomats are thinking that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may finally meet in November, breaking a long freeze in high-level contacts.
That Asia remains peaceful, if far from tranquil, is in part the result of some effective diplomacy by Obama, who made it clear that the United States wouldn’t hesitate to help Japan defend the tiny, uninhabited islands China was probing. The White House also pressed Abe to curb his provocative displays of nationalism. Mainly, however, the non-crisis here reflects the difference between Xi’s China and other would-be disrupters of the global status quo, such as Putin.
Unable to modernize Russia’s economy or satisfy its middle class, Putin has made a risky bet that nationalist adventurism will sustain his regime. Xi, in contrast, appears to be settling into comfortable control over a country whose economic and military strength is still rapidly expanding. Beijing’s assault on the post-Cold War order can be more patient and subtle.
That, of course, is its own problem. Without exception, Japanese officials and analysts I spoke to here over a week believe China has not moderated its ambition to replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia. But it aims to avoid the sort of crisis — and Western pushback — Russia has provoked by moving in small increments, interspersed with tactical retreats when necessary. The result, over time, could be as momentous as a war. “Some people call it the creeping invasion,” said Akio Takahara, a China expert at Tokyo University.
Japanese officials believe the recent easing of Beijing’s pressure on the Senkakus is the result of several factors besides Obama’s defense commitment, including a steep drop in Japanese business investment in China that Beijing wants to reverse, and some quiet outreach. Unofficial envoys have assured Xi that Abe will not repeat his visit to a Tokyo war memorial where World War II leaders are enshrined — the trigger for passionate Chinese protests earlier this year.
No one here, however, believes that Japan, the United States and their other Asian allies have formulated a workable strategy for responding to China’s ambitions. In nearly two years in office, Abe — the strongest Japanese leader in a decade — has modestly increased defense spending, tried to build closer security ties with states ranging from India to the Philippines and Australia, and announced a reinterpretation of Japan’s postwar constitution to allow its armed forces to engage in “collective self-defense” with allies.
Japanese defense spending, however, is less than a third of China’s, and is growing less than half as fast. Other Asian nations remain wary of security cooperation, and Japan’s relations with South Korea are at a low point. Though viewed with alarm by some neighbors, the constitutional change amounts to a small tweak. It will allow Japanese forces to protect a U.S. ship that is defending Japan, something not currently legal, but not to join multilateral military operations, much less launch offensive attacks.
Meanwhile, as the Japanese see it, Obama’s promised shift to Asia has been lost somewhere between eastern Ukraine and western Iraq. “The equipment is still coming,” said one senior official of the U.S. ships and planes being redeployed to the Pacific. “But the attention focus is not there, and that makes it hard for us.”
Abe himself has been losing momentum. The constitutional change was unpopular domestically, and it may take a year or more to pass the enabling legislation through parliament. The government’s ambitious attempt to revive the Japanese economy is faltering; growth dropped sharply after a consumption tax was raised in the spring.
Japanese officials like to point out that no one is dying in Asia’s power struggles, though there have been some near misses in encounters between Chinese and American and Japanese warplanes. But the region is not quiet because the democracies are succeeding. It is because that is what China, for now, has chosen.
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