Thursday, August 19, 2010

Taiwan caught in the middle as US, Japan to hold exercise near Diaoyutais

The Yomiuri Shimbun today reported that Japan and the US were planning to hold joint naval exercise near the disputed Diaoyutai (釣魚台, Senkaku in Japanese) Islands later this year. Citing unnamed sources, the paper said the US Seventh Fleet would participate in a scenario involving Japan recapturing an unnamed remote southwestern island from an enemy.

Japanese fighter and patrol aircraft, as well as 250 paratroopers from cargo planes guarded by F-15 fighters, will also be involved in the drill in Oita Prefecture, near Okinawa.

This announcement, though the Japanese defense ministry has yet to confirm it, points to a shift in US posture in the Asia Pacific. Not only does it come on the heels of a US Department of Defense report on the Chinese military threat, but the exercise will be held in an area close to a chain of islands contested by Japan, China and Taiwan, and away from the traditional exercises to Japan’s east, in the Pacific Ocean.

This is a shift inasmuch as it reinvigorates the US-Japanese security alliance after nearly a decade of neglect. The timing of the announcement, soon after a series of exercises with the South Korean navy in the Sea of Japan, points to US re-engagement with its traditional allies in the region. It also clearly places China, whose naval ambitions appear to be expanding, as the main enemy, and will most assuredly exacerbate fears in Beijing that it is being “boxed in.”

Where things become less clear-cut, however, is Taiwan’s position in the equation. There is no doubt that the US’ reaffirming who it would side with during conflict over the Diaoyutais is based on hard political calculations and that Taiwan, which has a claim of its own over the islands, is an afterthought in Washington. We can expect that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, along with the lunatic, China-funded Chinese Diaoyutai Defense Association, will go through the motions and express nationalist anger at this latest development, but at the end of the day, the US has little time for them: The principals are Japan and China.

In a way, this could be construed as a sign that Washington has abandoned Taiwan to the Chinese camp — something that would not have happened under the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) or Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) administrations, which could even have sought (albeit with little chance of success) to participate in the exercise. There is a very real risk, depending on how Taipei responds to the situation, that the exercise will push Taipei further into Beijing’s sphere of influence. Whereas the line used to be drawn in Taiwan, we may be experiencing the consolidation of a fallback that is now clearly defined in the area near the Diaoyutais and Okinawa. This could be a way for Japan and the US of ceding territory to strengthen their rear, part of a strategic readjustment that began with Japan’s redrawing in June of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) from Yonaguni Island westwards, about 500km out at sea from Okinawa and 110km from Taiwan.

At this writing, Taipei had yet to respond to the announcement.

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