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Japan Dreams Of A Chinese Energy Chokehold – Analysis

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By Robert Shines

“Diamond of Democracies” was a term used to refer to a would-be alliance between the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India and their collective efforts to counter the rise of China. However, Japan has patiently and carefully formulated its own bloc for this very same purpose.

Additionally, these plans were complemented by pre-Ukraine Crisis overtures toward Russia to resolve their Kuril Islands dispute.

Former Colonies Awaken

Echoing their mother country’s path to preeminence, both India and Australia are making strides in building formidable navies able to project power locally and deny access to potential enemies. India’s value to Japan is twofold. First, it is a huge Asian land power with a contemporary history of animosity with China, namely their 1962 border skirmish. It also serves to keep China’s attention divided in the event of a clash with Japan, much like China keeps India’s attention divided with its alliance with Pakistan.

Even more important, India is the one Asian state capable of projecting force into the Indian Ocean if necessary. While it doesn’t receive nearly as many headlines as the East or South China Seas nowadays, it must be remembered that resources flowing from Africa and the Middle East to Asia must cross the Indian Ocean first before they ever even get to the two seas. Lastly, the Indian Ocean is home to a significant amount of the world’s offshore oil production in its own right.

Similar to India, Japan is developing military ties with Australia as well. While technically only a middle power, Australia’s utility to Japan may even surpass that of India. This is because, in addition to its strategic location near the convergence of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, it exports a whole range of mineral resources to China. These resources are critical to China’s continued economic growth and have enabled China to become Australia’s top trading partner.

A Crowded Neighborhood

Japan has additionally been developing military and economic ties with various Southeastern Asian states, most notably Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. All three states have island disputes with China in the South China Sea, with the Philippines going as far as seeking an international legal ruling in support of its claim, while Malaysia is proximate to the Strait of Malacca, namesake of China’s “Malacca Dilemma.”

Of primary importance to Japan, however, is that all three countries surround China’s nine-dash line which, in turn, surrounds the bulk of the South China Sea’s natural resources. Taken together, India, Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia are in prominent maritime positions to deny China access to the resources it needs in order to survive. However, a certain northern land power would have made the chokehold complete.

Northern Capstone

While China may indeed have an ancient history of “using barbarians to fight barbarians”, most of these have come from the north, such as the Mongols and the Manchus. Similar to how ancient Rome feared invasion from the north due to Hannibal’s legendary Alps crossing, Japan was poised to leverage Russia to play on traditional Chinese unease with powerful northern neighbors. If not for the present Ukraine Crisis and the subsequent Western sanctions, Japan was on track to finally come to some sort of resolution with Russia over the disputed Kuril Islands. Japan’s desire was also evident in the degree of sanctions imposed on Russia, which were not as severe as those imposed by the U.S. and Europe.

Having Russia, a huge supplier to China of oil and natural gas, allied to Japan would have served Japan’s interests perfectly. It would have more completely enclosed China in a stranglehold from all sides, putting China in a more vulnerable position, its economy dependent on resource-flows through allies’ spheres of influence or, even better in Russia’s case, directly from the allies themselves. Lastly, even though China is making economic inroads into Central Asia, Russia retains an inordinate amount of influence there which may affect the foreign policy calculus of these states as well.

Summarily, this isn’t to say that Japan would like to have all of these countries engage in military hostilities with China on its behalf. Simply having these countries’ positions vis-a-vis China relatively ambiguous would have caused enough strategic uncertainty in China’s calculations to benefit Japan. This would have been compounded by the acknowledgement that the key to China’s continued economic growth, and by extension political stability, is continued access to desperately-needed resources. This is in keeping with Sun Tzu’s maxims of winning without fighting and letting the enemy destroy himself from within.

This article was published at Geopolitical Monitor.com

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