The new Japanese prime minister reiterated his “values diplomacy” recently, confirming his nation’s “pillar” ties with the US and reaching out to two countries in particular, Australia and India. “Freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights,” Shinzo Abe told the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun in a December 28th interview. “We will deepen ties with nations that share and uphold these values.”
Abe’s words are no aberration for Tokyo. In November 2006, Taro Aso, when he was foreign minister, proposed an “arc of freedom and prosperity” for Asia. Then, the concept went nowhere, as Asian diplomats were optimistic about engaging China. Now, however, a grand coalition of democracies is in fact slowly forming in the region, backed up by President Obama’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” to East Asia.
And it is not hard to see why free societies are turning to each other for support. China has stepped up its probing of neighbors from India in the south to South Korea in the north. Among Beijing’s targets is Japan. The flashpoint in East Asia at the moment is the string of Japanese-administered islets in the East China Sea. Japan calls them the Senkakus and China the Diaoyus.
Taipei also believes it has sovereignty over the outcroppings but has done little to enforce its historical claim. The Chinese, however, have engaged in a series of provocations, including territorial incursions. Beijing has routinely violated Japan’s sovereignty by sending its civilian vessels into the waters immediately around the islands.
Recently, China has intensified the pressure on Japan. On December 13th, a Y-12 patrol plane, flown by the State Oceanic Administration, violated Japanese airspace above the Senkakus, the first time a Chinese aircraft has ever done that. The US expressed “concern” and reminded Beijing of its treaty commitments to defend Japan, but to no avail. On December 22nd, another Chinese plane approached the islands and entered Japan’s air defense perimeter. On Saturday, Beijing sent still another plane near the Senkakus.
The pattern of China’s territorial intrusions in the region suggests Beijing is determined to test the resolve, and perhaps the defenses, of its neighbors. It also does little to calm those who believe China is set on an expansionist path. As a result, many now doubt that China can be effectively engaged or even appeased—much less integrated into the liberal international system. And diplomatic niceties are proving insufficient to deter China from its aggressive posture.
Japanese leaders understand, as President Ronald Reagan did, that the nature of a regime matters. Simply stated, the form of its political system prevents Beijing from evolving to better policies and serving as a reliable partner. Peace in the region will be maintained only if the great democracies work together, as both Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso have declared.