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Examining U.S. interests in calming tensions between China and Japan

December 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: So, what is behind the recent escalation, and what’s at stake for the region and the U.S.?

I’m joined by Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during President Obama’s first term. He now has his own consulting firm. And Susan Shirk, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for China policy in the Clinton administration, she’s now a professor of China and Pacific relations at the University of California.

I think it would serve us well to repeat some of the words of Joe Biden today, Kurt Campbell, where he said that China’s action — quote — “has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculations.”

How serious is this?

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KURT CAMPBELL, former State Department official: It is pretty serious, unfortunately.

If you had to choose two countries that you wouldn’t want a crisis to occur between their two militaries, it would probably be China and Japan. Japan has not fired a shot in anger in over 70 years. China has, I think, still an unknown relationship between the party and the military in times of crisis.

What we have is higher operational tempos of fishing vessels and other vessels and airplanes around these uninhabited rocks, really in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific, with both countries determined not to back down.

I think the situation is relatively fraught, and this new air defense zone that China has just demarcated really captures an enormous amount of civilian overflight. And, remember, this is the cockpit of the global economy here. And to raise risks and uncertainty about civilian airliners, this is a lot like the dynamic that led to KAL 007 in 1983, the tragic, unfortunate and deeply preventable crisis that took place between South Korea and Russia.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Shirk, the vice president says the U.S. has an interest in lowering tensions in that region. What are the U.S.’ interests and how can they go about lowering those tensions?

SUSAN SHIRK, University of California: Well, I think Obama administration has done an excellent job of sending very clear signals about its interests in maintaining stability in the region, and standing by its ally Japan.

Both the secretary of state and the secretary of defense made official statements, something that doesn’t happen all that often, and, of course, we did send the B-52s through as well. And the U.S. presence and our forceful response to China’s unilateral actions, I think, has prevented a much worse kind of crisis, because, if we had not been there, then perhaps the Japanese would have felt they had to react more strongly, the Chinese would have reacted to that, and things could have spun out of control.

GWEN IFILL: But this has been bubbling for a while.

I want to continue with you for a moment, Susan Shirk. And yet now we have this action. Was it purposefully provocative on China’s part?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, actually, I am kind of puzzled about the timing.

We certainly believe that Xi Jinping must have personally approved it, but coming so shortly on the heels of the announcement of China’s reform blueprint that just a few weeks ago we were discussing, which got pretty good reviews internationally, and now everyone is discussing China’s assertive, even aggressive, actions.

Now, of course, this air defense notification zone is perfectly legal, and China has every right to do it. But if they had done it in consultation with their neighbors, if it were really aimed at safety, instead of strengthening its claim to these islands, then things would have been, of course, much, much better.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Kurt Campbell about that.

Why do you think…

KURT CAMPBELL: Yes, I am actually with Susan on this.

I’m mystified about the timing and the approach. Remember, Chinese strategy really is to narrow this between China and Japan, to try to ease the Americans out of it, and certainly not to regionalize the dynamic.

But by doing it the way they have, they have undermined one of the great achievements of the last several years, which is an improvement in China-South Korean relations, which we support. And it has also brought the United States very clearly into play.

And so my sense — and it is also on the — it takes place right on the eve of Vice President Biden’s visit. So I think this wasn’t well-executed. I don’t think it was well-conceptualized. And I don’t think it has furthered Chinese foreign policy or national security.

GWEN IFILL: And so what we have seen happen, Kurt Campbell, is U.S., Japan, South Korea has continued military fights over that airspace, that defended airspace. Was this — what are the chance this becomes a diplomatic standoff and escalates from that to a military standoff involving any of those — those…

(CROSSTALK)

KURT CAMPBELL: Yes. Look, I…

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: … players?

KURT CAMPBELL: What has gone on between Japan and China has now gone on for over a year.

And we have had — this is like a case of the mumps. You know, it comes and goes. These territorial issues are nothing new in Asia, but this particular cycle has been longer and more intense. I think the most likely thing is not a diplomatic crisis which then turns into a military crisis, but a lone actor, a guy on a fishing boat or a plane captain, that basically exceeds what, you know, hopefully are cautious rules of engagements, and there is a collision or a crash or a local crisis, which then has an intense, short duration, but in that particular area, which will really cause a crisis in relations between China and Japan.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Shirk, what is the U.S. stance on the sovereignty of these islands, these rocks in the middle of the sea?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, we take a neutral position. We don’t side either with Japan or China on the sovereignty claim.

GWEN IFILL: Why not?

SUSAN SHIRK: But — why not? Well, that is our position. We are neutral on those sovereignty claims, just as we are neutral on the claims in the South China Sea.

We don’t have a position. But we do have a treaty commitment to Japan, which extends to areas under Japan’s effective control, which means the Senkaku, Diaoyu islands. So this is a position that certainly in China is not accepted. It doesn’t make much sense to them, but that is what our position is, and we stand by it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you finally whether you think that, given what has happened, the fact that there have been planes which have done flyovers, with no incident, no reaction, that — what are the chances, especially with Vice President Biden visiting there tomorrow, that the Chinese will back off?

KURT CAMPBELL: I don’t think they can formally or publicly back off.

I think what they are likely to do is either tailor their operational dimension to very narrow circumstances. They may just stop talking about it for a while, or they may decide to change the subject. I don’t think it is likely that they will continue with launching fighter aircraft against uncertain civilian overflight. I just think that is so contrary to their strategic interests.

Ultimately, I think the U.S. role here is to privately go in to Japan, to South Korea and to China and say, look, you have got to put some of these issues behind you and work more constructively on future, larger issues, and not what are really tertiary issues.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Shirk, how about — what do you think? Will China back off, or does the U.S. have a role?

SUSAN SHIRK: No, I don’t think China will back off and I don’t think — I mean, although that would be our preference.

I think what we should do is to press both sides to consult on emergency communication measures in order to prevent accidents. And we should also ask China what its intentions are in the South China Sea, because, in that announcement it made on the air defense notification zone, it said it intended to announce further zones in certain areas, which could mean that where we are heading up on a similar crisis in the South China Sea.

And this is really very dangerous, because, right now, the nationalist public in China is pressing the government and saying, are you just a paper tiger? You have made this threat, and you are not acting upon it. And that is one thing I am quite concerned about.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Shirk, Kurt Campbell, thank you both very much.

KURT CAMPBELL: Thank you.

SUSAN SHIRK: Thank you.