The Japanese think the dust up in the Senkaku/Daioyus is all about them. After arresting a drunken Chinese trawler captain fishing in disputed territorial waters of the East China Sea, delaying his release, and mumbling something about legal procedures, Tokyo caught the wrath of Beijing. An alcohol fueled mishap quickly escalated into a test of international diplomacy.
Meetings were canceled, words exchanged, and critical trade curtailed. The U.S. restated its commitment to defend Japan’s administered territories and the Secretary of State called the South China Sea a “national interest.” Southeast Asians recoiled at China’s aggressive territorial expansion through historical “fact” in face of Japan’s de facto possession.
Most interesting was the September 21st “unannounced” embargo of rare earth elements (REE) not just to Japan, but also to Europe and the U.S. Withholding REEs to Japan would have been effective enough as the Japanese process and refine most of REEs used worldwide in hi-tech products. The U.S. military is said to be 100% dependent on Chinese REEs, and by implication Japan. Widening the “non” embargo on October 18th to the other major industrialized powers was simply punctuation.
In a word, China’s actions did not just affect Japan. And the target of Beijing’s ire also may not have been simply Tokyo. The Chinese fisherman’s encounter with the Japanese Coast Guard created a pretext for probing the boundaries of American commitment to Asia. Whether the lesson was one to be learned among the factions in Beijing or Washington remains unclear.
Thus, it is not surprising that the “non” embargo ended just prior to U.S. Secretary of State Clinton’s ministerial with Japan's Foreign Minister Maehara in Honolulu, and in advance of her "surprise" meeting with China's State Councilor Dai Bingguo on Hainan Island.
More to the point, Japan may not be solely responsible for ’triggering China’s shrill reaction. On September 19th, 12 days after trawler captain was jailed, Vice President Joe Biden said the most unusual of things. He locked U.S. China policy to Japan’s. Although, what he said should not have been taken as a statement of policy, its context and the rhetoric leading up to his statement could suggest that it was.
The Vice President, as a favor to his longtime friend Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) was the keynote speaker at the U.S.-Japan Council’s inaugural conference, Shaping the Future of US-Japan Relations. Inouye’s wife heads the organization and the Senator is on the board of councilors. The Council is to cultivate and activate Japanese Americans to be supportive of Japan and Japanese policies. Formed during the Aso Administration, it is unclear if the Council is closer to the conservative LDP or the more moderate DPJ.
It is the result of thinking in Tokyo that Japan had no natural constituency in the U.S. as did other ethnic groups like the Jews, Indians, Koreans, or Armenians. The effective rallying of the Korean community to support the 2007 Comfort Women Resolution in the House of Representatives had alarmed conservative Tokyo and the Foreign Ministry.
In July 2008, the Japanese Embassy held a meeting with think tank, academic, and arts experts on Japan to discuss how to widen understanding (read support) of Japan. The meeting was to discuss how to inject money into cultivating the grassroots of the American public. CSIS’ Mike Green, UVa’s Len Schoppa, USJF’s George Packard, CFR’s Shelia Smith, Japanese-American Museum head Irene Hirano (Inouye’s new wife), and approximately 16 others attended this invitation-only planning meeting.
In 2007, the Senator had taken the very unusual step of writing members of the House advising them not to support the Comfort Women resolution, H Res 121. Many congressmen were taken aback by the Senator’s heavy hand and that his letter was nearly word-for-word from Japanese Embassy lobbying documents.
The U.S.-Japan Council was to expand among Japanese Americans the Senator’s efforts to explain Japan. Thus, to many who follow things Japanese, especially the Chinese, the Vice President's appearance at the Council inaugural conference, also attended by U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, was an endorsement. Further, it was a venue for a pro-Japan policy pronouncement after months of haranguing the new Japanese government.
The connection to Japanese-American activism was probably lost on the Vice President, but he did pick up on the fact that the meeting was a cheering section for Japan, and the alliance. He was clearly bored, yet a bit swept up with the moment. The crowd was sparse and conversation seemed pretty routine. And like many in Washington, Biden often tries to adapt to his audience to please them and say what they want to hear.
Thus, Mr Biden leaped off message, ignored his prepared text, and rambled on about the wonderfulness of the alliance.
He gushed on that Japan is the “lynchpin” of an effective US strategy in Asia. "There is an emerging relationship that we have to get right between the United States and China... frankly, I don't know how that relationship can be made right other than going through Tokyo," Biden said. "I don't know how it works without our partner in that part of the world," he added.
U.S. China policy goes through Tokyo!? Really?
Eyebrows likely arched to the ceiling in Beijing.
In Washington, the White House gritted its teeth, never issued the actual text of the speech (a video is available, see above), and on background a senior administration official tried damage control:
In his remarks to an annual meeting of the U.S.-Japan Council, the Vice President reaffirmed a long-held tenet of American foreign policy: that the U.S.-Japan alliance is a linchpin of the security, stability and prosperity in Asia. This alliance has fostered a regional environment in which the United States can effectively build a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China.But back in Beijing, the itch to test the premise that U.S. China policy runs through Tokyo must have been strong. More to the point, they reasoned; if Japan is to deliver messages to China for the U.S. then Japan can deliver messages to the U.S. for China. Pinch Tokyo and Washington will feel the pain.
With pending American military exercises in the Yellow Sea, U.S. statements that the South China Sea is a “strategic interest,” and American reaffirmation that the Security Treaty covered the Senkakus, Beijing was ready to believe the Vice President’s happy talk at face value. The day before the Vice President’s speech, Tokyo had unexpectedly (even to the White House) extended the detention of the trawler captain.
Beijing responded by threatening Japan with "strong counter-measures."
The strongest has been the embargo on REEs. It got everyone’s attention.
As Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell as oft said the U.S. has “a strategic interest in how these issues are dealt.”
Indeed, we do.