China, Japan and US Responses to Putin

2014-04-28 by Harald Malmgren

The hesitant, cautious, incremental responses of US policy towards Russia with regard to developments in Syria, Iran, and now Ukraine, and further Russian threats to Transniestria and other Russian “neighbors” is generating rethinking in Asian capitals.

Notably, China’s PLA is ramping up its aggressive rhetoric about the Senkakus and other islands in the “chain of pearls.”

From the China perspective, Putin has repeatedly been successful in pressing Obama back from his initial positions, testing US tolerance to more geographically aggressive Russian policies.

The PLA is said to be urging that China take this opportunity to “test” US responses to Chinese probes in the China Sea, for example a lightning seizure of the Senkakus.

According to a PLA source, the Economic Times of India reported thatA military conflict between China and Japan is becoming highly likely over disputed islands after Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense zone over the East China Sea.
According to a PLA source, the Economic Times of India reported thatA military conflict between China and Japan is becoming highly likely over disputed islands after Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense zone over the East China Sea.

It was therefore logical for Japan to ask for a public reassurance that the US-Japan security arrangements encompassed territory such as the Senkakus.

President Obama did confirm that the contested islands were protected by US-Japan accords, but there remains much concern about whether the US would respond fast enough and forcefully enough if China were to act suddenly and without warning, and announce afterwards that this did not mean opening a longer conflict but was only a one-time event.

The PLA’s interest in the islands is related to its weakness in electronic surveillance in the China Seas area. China does not have adequate satellite or AWACS equivalent capability so it continues to rely on straight-line radar, which cannot provide sufficient detection beyond the horizon.

The PLA would very much like to acquire surveillance sites on the other side of the China Sea to allow coverage of its newly announced ADIZ.

This would also assert pressure on US naval forces to redeploy further out from Chinese territory and in a less effective position relative to defense of Taiwan.

In this context, it can be expected that the PLA will probe for any opportunity for an arguably justifiable clash with Japan’s SDF.

The new Chinese leadership has completed reconfiguration of party, Politburo, and Standing Committee composition. Reconfiguration of the power structure of state security has begun with detention of state security chief Zhou Yangkong and his family and network of subordinates.

Reconfiguration of the PLA power structure may have begun, but has not yet resulted in major changes in the PLA leadership.

The PLA has much autonomy, particularly in areas it determines to be “tactical.”

There seems to be considerable risk that a violent, short, sharp conflict with the Japanese SDF could happen if an “opportunity” presents itself, and if the PLA would define action as a “test” of possible US response.

In an earlier piece, Malmgren discussed the cross-cutting linkages from Ukraine to the Pacific.

Having watched US hesitation and indecisive, tentative responses to Putin, there should be little doubt that China’s PLA apparent itchiness to have armed conflict with one or more of its neighbors may soon be scratched.

Limited, but violent engagement with Philippines, Vietnam, or even Japan is increasingly likely.

Moreover, as the Chinese economy slides into a period of financial market turbulence and slowdown, it may become necessary to offset domestic economic discomfort with a surge of nationalist sentiment against perceived foreign “threats”.  In such a context, it would not be surprising to have a limited conflict take place between PLA and Japanese SDF ships or aircraft.  It should also not be surprising if China simply forcefully were to establish control over the Spratlys, Senkakus, and other disputed islands in the China Sea.

In this bigger perspective, the Crimean independence event likely signals an inflection point in Russia’s relations with the West, and may signal an opening for an inflection point in China’s relations not only with its neighbors but with Taiwan and ultimately with the US.  

Washington thinking has primarily been focused on the immediate tactics of responding to Putin.  The idea that terminating Russia’s role in the G8 and reestablishing the G7 would hurt Putin’s feelings seems farfetched in this context.  Washington’s declared intention to “isolate” Russia and hurt its standing in global power circles also seems flawed, especially since Putin probably thinks he has finally found means for altering Russia’s position from a center of centrifugal forces to a core of centripetal forces.

From the perspective of Russia’s place in the world economy, Putin’s ambitions will likely be blunted by forces of globalization of markets, including resumed turbulence as the US, Europe and China all pass through an historic period of financial restructuring and economic stabilization.

Russia’s economy is highly vulnerable to external demand for its resources and the fundamental, inherited weakness of its economy.  The concept of the new BRIC powers was always a flawed idea. Russia is no more a great economic power than Brazil or India.

As for China, it may be entering a period of being humbled by domestic economic failures as its export engine inevitably falters.  An internal power struggle may be the consequence of unanticipated financial or economic management failures.

Command economies are inevitably vulnerable to highly concentrated negative economic and political surprises.