Pacific FTAs advance amid Sino-Japanese tensions

It was pretty surreal to hear Leon Panetta warning of an actual war between China and Japan, arriving in Tokyo just as the two Asian powers are facing off over contested islands in the East China Sea. What made it so incongruous is that despite the obvious lingering enmities from World War II (which for China really started in 1937, or maybe even 1931), in the current world conflict that we call World War 4, warfare is explicitly portrayed even by Pentagon planners as an instrument of globalization—bringing the light of "free markets" and "integration" to benighted regions of the globe that continue to resist their lures. Warfare is now "asymmetrical," posing a single superpower and its allies against "terrorists" and insurgents, or at the very most against "rogue states." The old paradigm of war between rival capitalist powers has seemed pretty irrelevant for the past generation. In the Cold War with the Russians, the superpowers manipulated proxy forces while the US aimed for strategic encirclement of the rival power. In the New Cold War with China that is now emerging, the US again seeks strategic encirclement, and while there aren't any proxy wars being waged (no contemporary equivalent of Vietnam or Angola or Nicaragua), Japanese and South Koreans should beware of their governments being entangled in Washington's containment strategy—as Panetta's own comments acknowledge, games of brinkmanship can get out of control. And, as we noted, even as he made his warning, he was in Japan to inaugurate a new anti-missile radar system, ostensibly designed to defend against North Korea, but certain to be perceived in Beijing as a part of the encirclement strategy…

A clear contrast to the old Cold War, however, is that China, unlike the Soviet Union, is just as committed to the globalization project as Washington. So there is both a centrifugal and a centripetal tendency at work here. In the prior, a contest between Washington and Beijing for control of oil as the ticket to global primacy—whether in Africa, where the Darfur conflict nearly borders on a US-China proxy war, or the East China Sea, where hydrocarbon deposits make the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands strategic. In the latter, an interdependency in which the US needs access to cheap Chinese labor, and China needs access to the US market, in order for both to stave off economic collapse—a slightly more civilized version of the Mutually Assured Destruction of the last Cold War. So while the centrifugal tendency may be propelling the planet towards World War 5, the centripetal tendency is likely to keep pulling affairs back from the brink.

It is worth noting that the last time the centripetal tendency held sway was four years ago when Beijing and Tokyo worked out a deal (now scuttled) to jointly exploit the hydrocarbons in the East China Sea. At this same moment, both China and Japan were engaged in mutual repression of protesters (and even seemed to be cooperating in the endeavor) in order to present orderly state-organized spectacles to the world—the Beijing Olympics and the Hokkaido G-8 Summit.

Both tendencies can be clearly observed in the new Free Trade Agreements that are advancing in the Asia-Pacific region, even amid the heightened tensions. Clyde Prestowitz asked in Foreign Policy Sept. 17, "Will trade keep the peace in Asia?"

Japan, South Korea, and China are talking about negotiating a three way free trade agreement while also agreeing to join in the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership free trade deal now being negotiated between the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Australia, China, Japan, Korea, India, and New Zealand.

So far at least, all the supply chain cooperation and economic talks have not seemed to deter or dampen a rising furor over the disputed islands. The situation is particularly awkward for the United States because it is committed by its security treaties with Korea and Japan to defend both countries in the event of conflict. Thus, in the case of the Dokdo/Takeshima islands [another dispute now heating up], the problem for Washington would be to decide whether to defend Korea or Japan… In the case of the Senkakus, the United States has not interest of its own in them [sic] and certainly no wish to go to war with China over them. But it is in effect being driven by the mayor of Tokyo [Shintaro Ishihara] (famously the co-author along with Sony co-founder Akio Morita of the book, The Japan that Can Say NO) into a position that could easily lead to a U.S.-China face off.

We aren't sure we share Prestowitz's analysis as to whether Japan is really the tail wagging the dog here. Japan's daily Asahi Shimbun made note the next day of the ongoing economic integration, military tensions notwithstanding:

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and six other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, have agreed to start negotiations for a regional pact to promote freer trade and investment. The pact is called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The 16 countries, which also include China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, are collectively called ASEAN+6.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has already put two other prospective regional trade agreements on his agenda—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, led by the United States, and a free trade agreement (FTA) among Japan, China and South Korea. Noda has pledged to pursue these three multilateral trade deals among Asia-Pacific nations simultaneously.

We've been hearing a lot of late about the TPP (also rendered TPPA when the word "Agreement" is tagged on, somewhat redundantly). Reflecting the fundamental contradiction, Beijing has thus far not been invited to this particular party—and reacts by alternately portraying the TPP as an American conspiracy "to constrain China's rise" (Vancouver Sun, June 25) or seeking to join it (TV3, New Zealand, June 10).  

New Zealand's Green Party warns: "TPPA provisions could hinder access to safe, affordable medicines, weaken local content rules for media, stifle high-tech innovation, and even restrict the ability of future governments to legislate for the good of public health and the environment." The DC-based Public Citizen warns that the TPP will "offshore millions of American jobs, free the banksters from oversight, ban Buy America policies needed to create green jobs and rebuild our economy, decrease access to medicine, flood the US with unsafe food and products, and empower corporations to attack our environmental and health safeguards." We can hardly wait.

We are heartened that the South Korean farmers, workers and fishermen, who have taken a militant stance against FTAs, are now also standing up to US militarization of their land. Two weeks ago, when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) opened its World Conservation Congress on South Korea's Jeju Island, they were met by protests against plans for a US military base near the village of Gangjeong, which is just one kilometer from a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Five anti-base activists climbed a massive concrete caisson in Hwasoon Port, some 20 miles from Gangjeong village, and hung protest banners. The Samsung corporation is making the caissons there and shipping them to Gangjeong to build the piers of the naval base. The protesters released a statement saying, "Given that it is clear that the Jeju Naval base to be built in Gangjeong Village will be a military outpost of the United States, we cannot stand for our Gangjeong village, our Jeju Island to be in the middle of a conflict between an expanding China and the United States containment efforts. We know that the destruction of Gangjeong Village and Jeju, the Peace Island, will become the suffering of all our people." (Environment News Service, Sept. 6)

Very good. We recall yet again the old anarchist slogan—"Neither your war nor your peace!"

  1. Shadow of Mukden…
    Woah. Even as we recalled that for China World War II really began when the Japanese seized Manchuria in 1931, we failed to note until we read it in The Economist that the current escalation has coincided with the 81st anniversary of the critical affair that sparked that seizure—the Sept. 18 “Mukden Incident,” in which Japanese provocateur agents staged a terrorist attack on the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway near the city of that name (today Shenyang, Liaoning province). This is even admitted by the Japanese today, as we have noted. In China it is often known as the Liutiaohu Incident, for the actual location of the attack, or simply 9-18. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, noted the official commemoration of the incident in Shenyang, and also added: “The commemoration this year comes amid continued anti-Japan protests over the Diaoyu disputes.”

    This provides an eerie parallel to the escalation in tensions between the US and the Islamic world since the Cairo and Benghazi violence of Sept. 11. We have sometimes been accused of paranoia for pointing out how certain dates seem to keep echoing in history, such as St. Vitus’ Day (June 28) in the Balkans, or Hitler’s birthday (April 20) for Nazi nostalgists and related sickos worldwide. But we aren’t arguing that there is anything supernatural at work here—merely that those with nationalist political agendas are astute enough to exploit historical memory. (And we note that the criticisms have come exclusively from readers in the US, a country where nobody seems to remember anything that happened more than 15 minutes ago.) As Ralph Ellison wrote, “Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet handy.”

    Meanwhile, the amazing photo accompanying the above-cited Economist piece really illustrates the bizarre contradictions of the current juncture. A phalanx of camo-clad Chinese riot police hold back a crowd of nationalist protesters holding aloft Chinese flags and portraits of Mao. The piece is tellingly entitled “Protests real and fake: Of useful idiots and true believers,” and grapples with the question of to what degree the anti-Japan rallies are encouraged by the Chinese state. The writer reports that asking the protesters if they were “put up to it” is a “risky thing to do.” We’ll bet.