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China Looms as Main Concern in Meeting Between Obama, Japan’s Abe

February 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
When Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President Obama, China's economy and geopolitical concerns were the main topics of discussion. To examine the flare-up between Japan and China, Margaret Warner talks to Mike Mochizuki, author of "The New Strategic Triangle: The U.S.-Japan Alliance and the Rise of China."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. and Japanese leaders met today at the White House. One major topic was how to deal with an increasingly assertive China.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, just two months in office, this visit to Washington was an early opportunity to emphasize Japan’s alliance with the United States.

And at the White House today, he heard welcome words from President Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The U.S.-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security and so much of what we do in the Pacific region.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. has a robust trading relationship with Japan and some 50,000 troops stationed there since the end of World War II. And now both nations face the challenge of dealing with a rising China, and its new leader, Xi Jinping.

But U.S. officials are growing concerned about the rising tensions between China and Japan. The most recent flare-up has come in the East China Sea over control of some small uninhabited islands known as the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. They lie near critical shipping lanes, fishing grounds and gas deposits.

Ships from both countries patrol the waters there and Japan recently scrambled fighter jets when Chinese planes entered airspace nearby. The dispute has stirred public passions, too. Large protests in China last fall targeted Japanese embassies and businesses.

In a Washington Post interview before this trip, Abe said China’s communist rulers are using the dispute to shore up domestic support. He warned they will — quote — “not be able to change the rules or take away somebody’s territorial water or territory by coercion or intimidation.”

In Beijing today, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected those comments.

HONG LEI, Spokesman, Chinese Foreign Ministry: China conducts normal maritime activities according to our domestic and international law. There is nothing to object to on that. Japan must have a hidden agenda by hyping up a China threat, misleading international opinion, and purposely creating regional tension.

MARGARET WARNER: At the White House, Abe sounded a somewhat more restrained note, speaking through a translator.

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE, Japan: I also explained that we have always been dealing with this issue, the Senkaku issue, in a calm manner. We will continue to do so and we have always done so.

MARGARET WARNER: The two leaders also agreed to stand together against North Korea’s nuclear provocations and to pursue even closer economic cooperation, which Abe needs as he tries to revive a long-stagnant economy.

And to explore this flare-up between Japan and China and the stakes for the United States, we turn to Mike Mochizuki, associate dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. His upcoming book is “The New Strategic Triangle: The U.S.-Japan Alliance and the Rise of China.”

And welcome back to the program.

MIKE MOCHIZUKI, George Washington University: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: So, first of all, how serious is this escalation of tensions between China and Japan, these two neighbors?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Well, it is serious. But it’s not like the two sides are on the verge of having some kind of shooting war over these uninhabited islands.

But every week, there’s been a ratcheting up of the tensions. China has been escalating its patrols near these disputed islands, and the Japanese are resisting. And so the real danger is that there will be some unintentional accident, a collision, that then could lead to a loss of life, and then that could really feel a nationalistic backlash in China and really lead to tensions. And then this could draw in the United States into an unwanted conflict.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying that it could happen then through a miscalculation, rather than deliberate intent on the part of either country?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Yes, through miscalculation or accident.

I mean, it’s very unfortunate that now you have fighter jets coming close, and then also almost on a daily basis there are face-offs between the Japan coast guard and various marine surveillance vessels from China. Now, so far, it’s good that the Chinese navy and the Japanese navy are really far apart.

But even recently, there have been reports that a Chinese naval ship had locked in a fire — a control radar, and this was seen as a very aggressive act by the Japanese.

MARGARET WARNER: So what is driving this?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Well …

MARGARET WARNER: At its root?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Right.

Well, I think there are a couple of things. One is the power transition that’s going on in the region. Japan used to be the most powerful economy in the region. But China has grown. A lot of it is due to the help that Japan has given it. But now China feels that its day has returned.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, it surpassed Japan just in economic heft.

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: That’s right. And it is now building up a military capability, which is still inferior to that of Japan and definitely inferior to that of the United States.

But they feel now that China can’t be pushed around, and they want to assert themselves. And so when their territory interests are being challenged, then they push very hard. The other reason is …

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry, but were you talking about Japan there or China?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: China.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about Japan?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Well, then Japan feels that it is on the defensive, that if it doesn’t show kind of firmness and resolve, then it invites further intimidation and bullying on the part of China.

So, even though the intrinsic interests of these islands may be marginal, by giving in to Chinese intimidation, they feel then that that kind of rewards that bullying on the part of China.

MARGARET WARNER: There is, of course, these unresolved nationalistic feelings, conflict dating back to World War II. Are the lead — how deep is that in the societies, or are the leaders, is the leadership in each country fanning that? And, if so, why?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Well, I think in the past, there might have been some of that on the part of the Chinese leadership, using the so-called history card against the Japanese.

But I think that that has shifted, and now that the Chinese leadership are in a sense prisoners of the nationalism that they mobilized.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s get to the U.S., because you mentioned the danger that the U.S. could get drawn into it.

What are the stakes for the United States, first of all, and how likely is it that the U.S., given its security guarantee to Japan, could get, in fact, drawn in if they had a military conflict?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: All right.

Well, I think the big stake is that there’s enough problems in relations between the United States and China that this adds one more issue. But there is a real danger because we have a security commitment to Japan that, if there is a conflict, then we would have to get involved. And so, you know, we have a very difficult, delicate balancing act. And I think so far, we’re playing it just right.

MARGARET WARNER: What has the administration done to try to calm things?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Right.

Well, first of all, it has backed Japan. And so this is a way of deterring China. But the other is that it sent high officials and ex-officials to China and Japan to say, we have an interest in de-escalation. We want to support further communication between Japan and China, but we refrain from playing a mediating role between these two countries.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, much to watch. Thank you very much.

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Thank you.