By Eric Walberg
Watching the most recent Hollywood blockbuster, The Martian, I was struck by the political subtext. The great pioneer of outer space was the Soviet Union, and in those days, Hollywood followed the spirit of detente and cooperation in space with such uplifting films as Space Odyssey 2010 and the tv series Star Trek. Now the hostile Cold War has returned, and Hollywood mirrors this in what is otherwise a rather ordinary adventure film. The startling plot device is to point to China as the new partner in space, leaving the Russians pointedly out of the equation. Just imagining a Hollywood nod to Russia–the pioneer of outer space exploration and good will–is impossible given the crisis in international relations today.
Hollywood is a barometer for changing political weather conditions. Of course, the Muslim terrorist is the usual trope. This new embrace of China will make The Martian a hit in Beijing. At a time when world trade relations are in deep trouble, and we are on high alert to the possibility of a hot war breaking out, we can see this sea change in US foreign relations, where China is now the implied US friend in the world and Russia the enemy. This is a moment for India to ponder where she stands.
In the past, the Soviet Union was India’s reliable partner, and suffered US hostility for her peaceful, nonaligned policy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, India adjusted, maintaining good relations with Russia and at the same time striving for good relations with the world hegemon. But the world hegemon has its own interests, and so far, India is not a priority. Because of the mess the US created in Afghanistan, Pakistan takes precedence over India diplomatically, and now China is catching up, with its formidable economic might and lack of a world hegemonic agenda making it attractive.
Its regional ambitions are of some concern, including for India, which makes the surprisingly high profile of Japan under Trump cause for some serious thought. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already visited the US–and Trump–three times. After meeting with Trump at his residence at Trump Tower, Abe stated: “Alliances cannot function without trust. I am now confident that president-elect Trump is a trustworthy leader.”
In December 2016, Prime Minister Abe joined President Barack Obama in a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, where he characterized the US-Japan alliance as an “alliance of hope”. On Abe’s third visit, in February 2017, he stated that “the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific is the strong Japan-US alliance,” and that he and President Trump “will work together to further strengthen our alliance.” During Abe’s February 2017 visit to the White House, he extended a formal invitation to President Trump and Vice President Pence to visit Japan.
‘Threats’ to Japan
Why this flurry of interest in Japan? During Abe’s third visit, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile, which western media pointed out landed in waters near Japan, leading western analysts to whip up fear that North Korea might drop a bomb on Japan. About three weeks later, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles, three of which landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. It could be pointed out that North Korea has every right to test its weapons, that it doesn’t really have much choice about where to test them, nor is it party to Japan’s ‘exclusive economic zone’ on the high seas. More important, it has never threatened to launch war with Japan or anyone else.
This is the scarecrow threat to Japan, which is convenient for US warmongering. The other supposed challenges in the region involves China’s long standing claims on Senkaku Islands (known in Chinese as Diaoyu) in the East China Sea, and Russia’s possession of certain Kuril Islands, which it was awarded at the end of WWII and which Japan insists are hers.
Both North Korea and Russia have legitimate claims for respect from their neighbours. Both are seen as hostile aggressors in the western media, though neither has any expansionist plans. Both North Korea and Russia are treated as enemies for purely US geopolitical reasons, China also is in need of containment. That makes Japan the best option for any alliance to keep US rivals in line. At the same time, the US smile directed at China suggests that there is room for accommodation of China, faced as the US is with more stubborn rivals like Russia and North Korea, as the least bad of the lot, and given its power, thus better as an ally than a foe.
This complicated America pas de trois is fascinating to watch, but for India, is unsettling. So far, there is little interest in the US in making India a stronger player in the world or even the region. It is not strategically important for the ‘great game’ players. But that is really much better for India in the long run. Being a close ally of the US is fraught with problems. As pointed out in “India-US Bilateral Trade Treaty: The Time is Now” (The Diplomatist April 2017), the US is a thorny partner at best.
Though US politicians grumble about China as a geopolitical threat, the first stop of US presidents is Beijing. Before his day in New Delhi in 2010, Obama made a 4-day visit to China in 2009, calling Beijing the key to “peace, stability and development in south Asia”. Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the US in April 2017, and Trump accepted his invitation to pay a state visit to China later this year. So far India is not included in this budding friendship. The reality of world geopolitics means that China is more important to the US than India, as a potential ally against Russia, and as a creditor.
Japan next nuclear power?
The US effectively still occupies Japan, with 50,000 US troops, free access for its navy, and Japan’s payment of $2 billion a year for the privilege of this ‘security’ arrangement. India can be grateful that it has never been so intimately tied to the US. Better safe, than sorry. The trick is to avoid offending the beast, and quietly pursue good relations with all countries, including Iran, Russia, and even North Korea. Friends are less likely to cause problems than enemies.
Commander of US Pacific Command Harry Harris listed Japan first among five US allies in the Asia Pacific, and added that Japan’s 2015 defense legislation, which authorized limited collective self-defense, would “significantly increase Japan’s ability to contribute to peace and security.” The US-Japan alliance forms the foundation for the “rebalance to Asia” strategy first announced during the Obama administration.
While there are currently no known plans in Japan to produce nuclear weapons, it has been argued Japan has the technology, raw materials, and the capital to produce nuclear weapons within one year if necessary, and many analysts consider it a de facto nuclear state. In 2011, former Minister of Defense Shigeru Ishiba explicitly backed the idea of Japan maintaining the capability of nuclear latency: “I don’t think Japan needs to possess nuclear weapons, but it’s important to maintain our commercial reactors because it would allow us to produce a nuclear warhead in a short amount of time … It’s a tacit nuclear deterrent.”
In 2016, during the election campaign, Trump told a town hall meeting chaired by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, that it was time to reconsider the policy of not allowing Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons. He told Mike Wallace in June 2016 Japan would in fact be “better off if they defend themselves from North Korea, including with nukes.”
Trump was elected based on his promise to strengthen the US economy. China and the United States are Japan’s top export markets, each over $100 billion in recent years. So it makes sense to make friends with both, even though they both are difficult for Japan to swallow. International politics make strange bedfellows. This new unlikely triumvirate ruling the world is a chilling spectacle, not only for India.
Trump’s other major electoral promise was to pursue a more isolationist, peaceful foreign policy. On both counts so far, the results have been disappointing, even alarming.
This is a crucial moment for India. It must play a mature role to counter US warmongering, based on its tradition of promoting world peace. While India does not object to the US pursuing friendly cooperation with its neighbours China and Pakistan, it must not be at the expense of India. Neither is flirting with the creation of another nuclear armed state in anyone’s interests. Both India and Pakistan ruffled US feathers with their nuclear arms, but the idea of letting Japan join the ‘club’, presumably to threaten North Korea and to keep China ‘in check’, is irresponsible.
The fact that India is left out of all this is not something to bemoan. Just as Russia is slighted even in Hollywood, India too is left out in the cold. Bilateral trade treaties, yes, but, given the craven nature of the current ‘great game’, it is much better in terms of genuine security to be self-reliant, and friendly to all nations, than to be making military alliances where there is no need. It was this penchant for cynical alliances that precipitated WWI. Alliances demand an enemy, and then demand action against that perceived enemy. India is better off sticking with the UN, with the only peaceful alliance going.