Potential Parallels: Fait Accompli, Ukraine, and East Asia

Before the September 7, 2010 incident in which a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the East China Sea in the vicinity of the small group of islands the Japanese refer to as Senkaku, the Chinese refer to as Diaoyudao, and the Taiwanese refer to Diaoyutai, most scholars of East Asian international politics and security focused on only one major flash point area between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its neighbors. (The other major flash point which may have involved the PRC was the the Korean Peninsula, but it was usually seen as a less-pressing issue for Beijing, and Beijing’s involvement in any Korean crisis may not have been direct.) This flash point, considered by many to be the only real threat of a shooting war that could involve the United States and the PRC, was the status of Taiwan. Indeed, even as late as 2011, some scholars of international relations still made this assertion, arguing that to avoid conflict in East Asia the United States should reconsider the possibility of coming to the defense of Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked PRC attack. In effect, because the status of Taiwan was still erroneously viewed as the only hot spot in East Asia where Chinese and U.S. forces could face each other in a devastating conventional, and potentially nuclear, war, these scholars were arguing that to ensure long-term peace and stability in East Asia, the United States should unequivocally abandon Taiwan.

I have argued elsewhere that even before September 7, 2010, the status of Taiwan was not the only potentially explosive issue in East Asia that could have pitted the United States against the PRC in a shooting war. Along with the Korean Peninsula, where the forces of several nations may converge if the North attacks the South, the not-so-new “new” problems in East Asia have always been lurking below the surface merely obscured by or overlooked due to the “unresolved” status of Taiwan. The territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea remains, as does Japan’s dispute with Russia. China’s dispute with Japan continues to simmer, as does China’s dispute with six other nations, five of which are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in the South China Sea. China’s declaration of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) last November irked not only the Japanese but also the Koreans. And we should not forget issues of history and “national humiliation,” which although intangible make many of these disputes even less possible to resolve in any negotiated, non-zero-sum manner.

Some are concerned, now, that a shooting war in East Asia is right around the corner. (That such a hot war may only indirectly involve the status of Taiwan vindicates those in the minority who objected to assertions that the Chinese were really only concerned about Taiwan.) The position and resolve of the United States has come into question. It is no secret that the Japanese are enhancing their military capabilities in order to either further assist a relatively declining United States in crises and conflicts in the areas surrounding Japan or, as some have speculated, to independently defend Japanese territory and national interests should the United States refuse to enter a conflict on Japan’s side.

Meanwhile, over the past several days, many analysts and pundits have chimed in on the crisis between Ukraine and Russia, some even asserting that a U.S. non-response signals a lack of U.S. resolve and that the United States must reclaim its leadership role. A few have even begun discussing the messages a U.S. stand down sends to allies and security partners who have territorial disputes, even relating the situation in the Crimea to East Asia. From my perspective, such parallels are a bit of a stretch; the United States had no commitment to protect either the territorial integrity of Ukraine or the political status of the Crimea. But these parallels do send signals and create perceptions among allies and security partners regardless of whether the United States has a dog in the Ukrainian fight.

I, for one, do not think it particularly reasonable that a U.S. ally or security partner ought to question U.S. resolve simply because it did not send forces in an attempt to halt Russian activities in the Crimea. I do, however, think U.S. allies and security partners could reasonably question how the United States may respond in a form of crisis I see as far more likely in East Asia than, say, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) openly attacking Japanese Coast Guard or Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) ships in order to take administrative control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and enforce China’s version of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A more likely scenario, I think, is one that has already happened in the South China Sea—the 1995 Mischief Reef incident—that is, a Chinese fait accompli that will leave the United States and its allies and security partners at a loss over how to react in any form of concerted effort.

The Japanese have been working closely with the United States over the past several years to train special forces dedicated to retaking island territories. Although some have questioned the wisdom of assisting the Japanese in enhancing what are essentially offensive capabilities (albeit functioning in these cases in defense of Japanese administered territory) because no one can know the true intentions of the Japanese or ever be certain how the Japanese will use such forces in the future, it does not contradict Japanese domestic law or the stipulations in U.S.-Japan security agreements for Japan to possess forces necessary to defend Japanese territory. It also, from a more cynical perspective, is at least superficially less costly for the United States if the Japanese can respond to such potential crises on their own without having to directly involve U.S. forces.

However, there are numerous restrictions on the use of force by Japanese security personnel. For example, if the Chinese were to land forces on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Japanese forces were sent to evict them, unless some form of domestic law were enacted to allow the Japanese forces to use coercive force to remove the Chinese troops, the Japanese could not fight without first being attacked. (And special legislation to allow such use of force may cost precious time while the Chinese fortify their position and seek diplomatic recognition of their position internationally.) What is more, were the Japanese forces to fail in their operation or if the crisis were to escalate and the Japanese were to request U.S. allied assistance, Washington’s dilemma would be agonizing.

And this, I think, is the real lesson for East Asian countries regarding the crisis in Ukraine (as well as the Mischief Reef incident of 1995): they cannot be certain as to the U.S. response in the event of a violence-free fait accompli. Japan cannot be certain that the United States would unequivocally back its claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands were the PLA not to seize the islands in a blatantly offensive attack that involved shooting and killing but, rather, take advantage of some weakness in Japanese surveillance, a weather condition, or some other distraction to land troops on the islands and declare that part of China’s “national humiliation” had been wiped away. The United States, it should be mentioned, recognizes merely Japan’s “administration” of the islands; there is no way of telling how the United States would view a “peaceful” change in “administration.” And even if there were shooting and killing involved in the Chinese capture of the islands, unless U.S. servicemen were directly in harm’s way, there would be no guarantee that the United States would ultimately intervene on Japan’s side.

As far-fetched as this may appear to some, the fear of abandonment is a constant variable that derives from all three levels of analysis in international politics—the systemic and structural, the internal makeup of states, and the human. The fear may be greater or lesser at any particular time, but it is always present in alliance politics. What is more, this fear of abandonment may actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as some U.S. analysts and policymakers have recently expressed concern over enhancements in Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) capabilities. SDF enhancements worry not only China and South Korea, thus making U.S. efforts to avoid spirals of suspicions and negative sentiments. Such enhancements also bring certain aspects of the U.S. policy of extended deterrence into question, given that extended deterrence consists of both nuclear and conventional elements. Japanese enhancements due to concerns regarding U.S. resolve and commitments fuel suspicions in Washington that the Japanese are seeking an independent foreign policy potentially inimical to U.S. interests and strategy. Moreover, if were Japan to develop a more robust SDF capable of independent action and defense of Japanese territory without U.S. support, some in Washington may misconstrue this development to mean that either the Japanese were seeking to cause trouble for the United States (for example, by seeking autonomous objectives or needlessly causing tension with Japan’s neighbors) or signaling to Washington that its commitment to Japan were no longer necessary. Fears of abandonment can, thus, spiral and snowball.

Moreover, Chinese diplomatic strategies and tactics may involve attempts to intensify such perceptions among leaders in both Tokyo and Washington. Going through Washington to constrain Tokyo serves essentially the same objective as going through Washington to constrain Taipei; such strategies create frictions between Washington and the other two capitals, respectively, at virtually no cost to Beijing. Indeed, as the historical record shows, Beijing’s use of Washington to “restrain” Taipei led to greater understanding and cooperation between the PRC and the United States at the cost of creating mutual ill will between Taipei and Washington. It would take very little to simply transplant this strategy to the U.S.-Japan relationship even though U.S.-Japan security relations are (at least formally) better institutionalized. Indeed, it may already be happening with regard to Tokyo. Whether Washington takes the bait again or not is a matter of trust between alliance partners as well as political forces in both capitals (in this case, Tokyo and Washington). Although the U.S.-Japan relationship is currently (formally) much stronger than that between Washington and Taipei, there is no reason to assume that this state of affairs will continue indefinitely. There is already a chorus of calls for Washington to seek closer ties with Beijing potentially at Tokyo’s expense. Moreover, the logic of triangular diplomacy implies that the party that has better relations with both of the other two parties than the other two parties have between themselves is the party in a better strategic position than the party that chooses the side of one party at the expense of the other. This logic operates against the U.S.-Japan alliance (although it is not necessary that leaders in Tokyo or Washington follow it).

The effects of these factors could certainly work towards any of a number of potential conclusions. One scenario, to be explored here, is that the Chinese seize control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by taking advantage of some distraction or shortcoming and not by force per se—that is, via fait accompli. The Japanese seek U.S. diplomatic or even, for whatever reason, military support to evict the Chinese forces from the islands. The U.S. dithers and ultimately makes measured statements about both sides showing mutual restraint. It may condemn the Chinese actions but has no dog in the actual fight and, therefore, does nothing beyond talking tough. Tokyo takes the U.S. response to signify a changing U.S. strategic posture towards Japan, China, and all of East Asia and the Asia-Pacific. As far as Japan is concerned, it has either already been abandoned or is on the road to being forsaken by its ally and protectorate. The Japanese, regardless of the political and economic consequences, begin a determined rearmament program not necessarily because they seek to revise the “status quo” or take offensive military actions against their neighbors but because they fear the worst—that is, de facto diplomatic and strategic isolation. The Chinese, sensing Washington’s shift, and the South Koreans pressure Washington to restrain Japanese rearmament. Washington, seeking to console its ally and justify its actions, offers to reinforce its commitment to Japan’s defense. This time the Japanese are ambivalent, politely paying lip service to American offers but in reality already convinced that self-help is the only way to protect Japanese interests and security. The Chinese, observing the continuing Japanese buildup and sensing the opportune moment has come, as well as the South Koreans put further pressure on Washington. Lobbying in the U.S. Congress takes place. The U.S. president is pressured by interest groups to take the Chinese side because, of course, U.S. economic and security interests are better served, they reason, by closer ties with China—even at Japan’s expense.

Congress condemns the Japanese arms buildup as provocative and the beginning of a new arms race in Asia; it won’t stand for it. The Chinese and Koreans applaud. The president also sees the threat and implores the Japanese to “show restraint,” not recognizing how it rings hollow in the ears of Japanese who have shown restraint for decades but have still seen their country, in their eyes, significantly weakened. Again, the leadership in Tokyo politely recognizes the concern but feels it has no choice, given the current situation, but to take more drastic measures. It asserts that its response is meant to secure the safety of the Japanese nation, people, and national interests and that its response is purely defensive in nature. Unfortunately, none of Japan’s neighbors nor its now drifting ally see things in the same light. Congress condemns the Japanese behavior, arguing that Japan cannot be trusted because it says one thing (politely agrees to strengthen the alliance) and does another (enhances its independent and offensive capabilities). Activist groups sensitive to history apply pressure. Finally, the question is raised: if the Japanese “won’t cooperate,” if they are “constantly deceptive,” if they are looking to “entrap the United States in their petty conflicts,” and if they are already “capable of defending themselves independently”—if they are, in short, “not behaving as a friend, little less an ally”—then what is the point of the U.S. honoring any of its commitments to defend Japan (forgetting that the United States had already breached that commitment, in the eyes of the Japanese, long ago)? The reader can, I’m sure, take this scenario to its logical conclusion.

The only conceivably worse scenario would be a shooting war instead of a fait accompli would be a shooting war that escalated to or past the brink of nuclear confrontation. How Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo, not to mention other states in the region, would behave in this worst-of-all-worst-case scenario is beyond the scope of this article, but the point is that the only thing worse than the fait accompli is a hot war is indicative of the severity of the fait accompli scenario outlined above.

What does all of this have to do with the Crimea? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps quite a bit. It depends to a greater extent on how allies and security partners view the U.S. response than it does to the U.S. sense of its response. The U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine as the U.S. not having a dog in the fight is certainly justifiable—to the point of being self-congratulatory. But it may also prove self-deprecatory.

The Chinese may draw the lesson that the West (here meaning essentially the United States) has no way of responding to a fait accompli beyond a few tough words here and a bit of muscle flexing there. The Chinese may be emboldened to attempt such an undertaking should the opportunity present itself again (remember Mischief Reef). This may be the wrong conclusion for the powers that be in Beijing to draw, as Ukraine is not Japan, the Philippines, or even Singapore or Taiwan, but Beijing’s leaders may draw this conclusion nonetheless. They would not be the first (even in Beijing) to believe the West (read here the United States) is a “paper tiger.”

The Japanese may view the crisis in Ukraine as another sign that the United States is no longer willing or able (or both) to stand up to potential aggressors. They may not take this view, of course, but to view the situation this way would not run counter to several lines of discourse in Japan that the United States cannot be trusted and either cannot or will not (again, the end result here is the same) come to Japan’s aid.

Other allies may, or may not, draw similar conclusions. The dilemma for non-allied security partners may be even greater. It is impossible to know exactly how this all is being perceived now—or how it will be perceived in the future under different circumstances.

It should be noted here in closing that the United States was under no obligation to protect Ukraine.* I honestly take no personal position on this issue and, as I focus on East Asian affairs, to delve into what precisely occurred in Ukraine is a bit beyond my professional comfort zone (even though I have kept a relatively close eye on news feeds). My main concern is with the perceptions the U.S. position on this issue may create for states in East Asia, a region which has a plethora of ongoing territorial and historical disputes. The Crimea and East Asia are admittedly different places in different regions with different cultures, different peoples, and specific contextual and situational variables that may not apply to East Asia or may apply in different ways. I dispute none of this. However, these potential differences do not preclude the very real possibility that lessons, whether justifiably applicable or not, may be drawn by East Asian leaders that affect how they perceive their countries’ situations in their own particular historical and strategic contexts.

In short, one may argue that for U.S. allies and security partners in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific to draw such parallels and conclusions is unreasonable. Then again, politics—and particularly international politics—can hardly be considered the art of the reasonable.

*Note [Edited at 6:26 a.m. on Thursday, March 13, 2014]: This appears a bit of a gaffe on my part. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 does appear to be a legally binding U.S., U.K., and Russian agreement to respect and defend the sovereignty of Ukraine. However, in line with my overall argument, some have stated that just because it is legally binding does not mean the parties involved (especially the United States and the United Kingdom) will in fact intervene. At any rate, a memorandum of this sort is not a security institution (alliance), and the facts on the ground appear to indicate that regardless of any legal agreement, binding or nonbinding, the United States and United Kingdom will not intervene militarily.