Japan finding unlikely allies in repelling Beijing's campaign of 'cartographical aggression'
MANILA — Japan is probing the possibilities of a most improbable alliance in a corner of Southeast Asia that once lay at the heart of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
The term “co-prosperity” was a euphemism for Imperial Japan’s policy of prospering off impoverished people from Burma through the French Indochinese states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and on to the Philippines, Indonesia and the South Pacific.
None suffered so much as the Filipinos after Japanese forces trapped the Americans on the Bataan peninsula in early 1942, ruled the American colony with increasing severity and then went on a rampage of murder and mayhem after Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned with a re-conquering army in 1945.
After all that, would anyone believe Japanese and Filipino officials are talking ever so circumspectly about cooperating against the threat posed by China in the South China Sea?
Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, at the behest of the newly ensconced rightist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, chose Manila as his first stopover on a swing through tour that will also include stops in Brunei, Singapore and Australia.
An old journalistic colleague from my Vietnam days, Amando Doronilla, whom I first met in Phnom Penh after U.S. troops crossed the border from Vietnam in May 1970, has analyzed the swings of the pendulum for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“Like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam bear the brunt of China’s pressure in asserting its claims on territories in the East China Sea and West Philippine Sea,” Doro writes. “The disputes have caused tensions in the region that have raised fears these could ignite dangerous flash points, leading to war.”
Doro’s piece appeared as Beijing opened a campaign of cartographical aggression. A new Chinese map now depicts 130 islands and islets in the South China Sea and the East China Sea in the same color ink as mainland China.
These islands are now, cartographically speaking, Chinese. Oh yes, the map also shows the South China Sea and Taiwan, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s “Nationalist” Chinese fled before Mao Zedong’s Red Army in 1949, as Chinese territory too.
In this atmosphere, Doro perceives a “tectonic shift in defense realignment in the Asia-Pacific region” in which a new alliance “is anchored on the security architecture linking the United States, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.” All are “one-time enemies, not only in World War II but also up until the Vietnam War ….” If armed conflict still seems unlikely, how does one explain the Japanese decision to add two more patrol boats to the small fleet that’s on 24-hour duty guarding the waters around the Senkaku Islands, that is, the Diaoyu in Chinese?
This island cluster, inhabited not by people but by goats and a unique species of mole, are closer to Taiwan than to either mainland China or Japan, but the Japanese hold them and are not about to give them up.
In May, I visited Ishigaki, the island town whose mayor technically lords it over the Senkakus as well. The mayor rarely gets to visit the islands, normally off limits to everyone, but the captain of a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat described for me the frustrations in keeping Chinese boats outside the 20-kilometer limit of Japanese rule around the islands. The Chinese regularly cross the line, retreating under blasts from water cannon and threats from loudspeakers.
The standoff worsened in September when Japan decided to buy them from members of a family that had owned them for more than a century. The original Japanese entrepreneur, seeing no one there, had set up a fish-processing plant, long since abandoned, more than a century ago.
Might the Japanese send patrol boats into the South China Sea? Anything seems possible. “The meetings between Kishida and Filipino officials went beyond platitudes and rhetoric,” writes Doro. “They agreed, among other things, to enhance the military hardware of the Philippines to resist aggressive actions by China ….”
The standoff has tremendous significance for South Korea. Japan’s ambassador here, Koro Bessho, is trying hard to mend fences. “It is really important for the two leaders — Madame Park Geun-Hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — to try to iron out our relationship,” Bessho told a gathering of the Asia Society in Seoul. “The government of Japan is squarely facing historical facts and expresses feelings of deep remorse.”
Don’t expect Japan right away to give up its specious claims to Dokdo, to agree to compensate the surviving “comfort women” or to rewrite Pacific War textbooks, but the fact is the Japanese need South Korea. That reality puts the South in a strong bargaining position — not only with Japan but with China and China’s protectorate, North Korea.