Thursday, 29 January 2015

Will ISIS Push Japan to Abandon Pacifism?

The kidnapping of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa by ISIS has added fuel to Japanese debates about the country's international involvement and constitutional limitations on the use of force. In recent years the Abe government has been engaged in efforts to loosen the restrictions in Japan's post-war pacifist constitution. Tokyo wishes to operate as a normal state, namely one which has the same range of defense options as other major powers. Specifically Prime Minister Abe wishes to pass legislation that will allow Japanese troops to be deployed in combat situation overseas in the name of collective defense (coming to the aid of Japan's allies). The recent hostage taking has added another dimension to the debate.

Supporters of PM Abe argue that if Japan had more latitude to deploy its troops, it could prevent or at least quickly respond to future kidnappings. Opponents of the government counter that Japan's efforts at greater international involvement (aiding U.S. ventures) are to blame for the ISIS hostage crisis. A more activist Japan courts greater danger by becoming involved in far-off conflicts; so say Abe's critics. This position was voiced by around 100 protesters who gathered outside the prime minister's residence demanding the government do more to secure the release of Goto following Yukawa's murder

Kenji Goto (L) and Haruna Yukawa
Image Credit: AAP

The claim that Japan's activism in the region spurred ISIS to target Japanese civilians is not without merit. As part of his ongoing international campaign to increase Japan's international profile, Abe has visited some fifty countries, including states in the Middle East. During a visit to Cairo Abe explicitly cited ISIS as a threat, while announcing $200 million in humanitarian aid in support of the anti-ISIS coalition. A few days later ISIS ransomed Goto and Yukawa for this exact amount, citing Abe's pledge as the reason for the ransom's price. The short amount of time between pledge of support and ransom request has some wondering whether Abe's words ignited the crisis. Some in Japan are convinced this is the case;

“Abe’s comments obviously provoked them,” says Masato Iizuka, an Islamic Studies professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. “Going out of your way to call a group of people terrorists and challenging them is bound to have consequences, and I think the risks, the impact it could potentially have on Japanese nationals overseas were underestimated."

While Abe's words do not exist in a vacuum, it would be overly critical to blame the Prime Minister for the actions of ISIS. Both hostages had been captured months ago, by a unscrupulous organization. ISIS captures people with a specific intent, ransom or death; Abe's words would not have greatly changed ISIS' plans for Goto and Yukawa. In response to such criticism, chief government spokesperson Yoshihide Suga stated that “it is not at all appropriate to link this atrocious and contemptible act of terrorism with the Prime Minister's visit [to Cairo]” Indeed at times people like Goto and Yukawa are in the wrong place at the wrong time; such as the ten Japanese workers killed (among others) in the ill-fated 2013 Algerian hostage crisis.

In the wake of ISIS' actions, Japanese public opinion is split on whether Japan should press forward with alterations to the constitution or become more isolationist. It is important to note that Japan has faced several hostage situations in the past. Those worried about recent events further spurring Japan's abandonment of pacifism need to take past events into consideration. The hostage-pacifism dilemma is not a new one for Japan. It is also important to note that Japan's reactions to these crises have been neither consistently hawkish nor pacifist. Those looking for signs of a militant trend will find inconsistencies. 

PM Abe talks to reporters about the hostage crisis
Image Credit: AP / Kyodo News

Japan like most countries is faced by threats from non-state actors. Non-state actors fall into a legal gray area in international law, problematizing any response. Here Japan faces the same problem as any other state. Nor does a commitment to pacifism remove threats against Japan. In 1977 Japan paid $6 million to free passengers on a plane hijacked by the terrorists from the Japanese Red Army. In 1996 the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru was stormed by militants from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Many dozens of Japanese hostages were taken, with the MRTA explicitly citing Japan's foreign assistance as the reason it was targeted.

Unlike in 1977 the Japanese government, after initially seeking a peaceful resolution, eventually conceded to an armed rescue attempt carried out by Peruvian commandos. The Lima incident shows that even the provision of economic aid (MRTA argued it was contributing to inequality in the country) can threaten Japanese citizens overseas. This point is important because a key argument against Japan normalizing its defense situation is that non-military involvement is safer and less controversial. As the Goto-Yukawa and Lima incidents show this is not necessarily the case.

Peruvian commandos shoot at MRTA forces inside embassy
Image Credit:

Not only government responses but also Japanese media coverage and public opinion have differed starkly from one hostage crisis to another. These differences further add to the argument that Japan's reactions cannot be viewed in isolation. In 2004 three Japanese hostages (two humanitarian workers and a photo-journalist) were released and returned home from Iraq. Upon arrival they did not receive a warm welcome, being derided as “misguided do-gooders.” The Japanese media and public criticized them for stupidly venturing into a war zone and causing problems for the government. The hostages' families appeared publicly and apologized to the nation for the inconvenience. Japanese legislators even announced they would bill each of the hostages $6000 for expenses incurred while freeing them. The three eventually went into hiding to avoid the public outrage.

Conversely in 2005, Akihito Saito a Japanese defense contractor, was killed by militants in Iraq. Saito - a former Japanese soldier and twenty year veteran of the French Foreign Legion - was praised as a national hero. Saito was held up as a professional protecting Japan abroad. Media analyst Takesato Watanabe commented on the inconsistency stating that;

Akihiko Saito
Image Credit: Wikipedia

"The three Japanese nationals who were abducted [in 2004] were there for humanitarian reasons, but they were against the war and the policies of the Japanese government and that is why they were attacked so severely. Yet Mr Saito is just there for the money and he is portrayed as a kind of action hero, like a character straight out of a video game"

This difference seems to support the thesis that Japan exploits hostage situations to promote militarism. Indeed, during the tenure of PM Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) Japan pursued a more assertive and pro-military agenda. It seems reasonable to assume that since Abe is more hawkish than Koizumi, he too would follow the same reasoning in a hostage situation. The Japanese public however, are taking a different stance than in 2004/05. Like Saito, Yukawa was killed, yet Goto enjoys greater sympathy amongst the public despite their similar plights. Whereas some feel that both men put themselves in harm's way; Goto is viewed more favorably because he went to Iraq as a freelance journalist, whereas Yukawa was a self-described military consultant and soldier of fortune

Hostage taking prompts reactionary thinking and calls for more security in any country, not just Japan. Whereas the potential exists for government to use such events to push for security related changes, Japan has not consistently done so. Koizumi and Abe do represent a more assertive trend in Japanese politics, yet given Japan's varied responses to hostage situations, such instances cannot be said to be important drivers of militarist sentiment. Nor does Abe need to resort to fear-mongering over ISIS. Both the government and the public harbour ample concern over the rise of China and an ever unpredictable North Korea to undermine the country's commitment to pacifism.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Kach(in) 22: Myanmar's Opening and Beijing's Headache on the Sino-Burmese Border

In recent years there has been a shift in Myanmar, as the regime has begun to transition from isolated junta to one which is increasingly embracing democracy. This shift in outlook is reflected by the creation in 2005 of a new capital Naypyidaw: 320km from the old British colonial capital of Yangon (Rangoon). For decades prior Myanmar had been viewed as an insular military dictatorship, akin to fellow hermit kingdom North Korea sans nuclear weapons and eccentric dynasties. If the country – a product of the partition of British Raj – enjoyed any presence in the collective consciousness of the West, it was in the form of Aung San Suu Kyi; Nobel prize winning democracy advocate and political prisoner.

Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, in a move which appears to reflect a loosening of military control in the country. This shift in Burmese politics and society has opened up the country to the West, resulting in the removal of sanctions and normalization of relations. Consequently the largely untapped natural resources and sizable population of Myanmar are seen as enticing opportunities for investment. Washington is increasingly interested in the country, with Myanmar potentially becoming a regional ally and trading partner of the United States. Other nations such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore are also seeking to invest in the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Image Credit: Time

This opening to the wider world and relaxation of junta rule has shifted the balance of power within the country. Prior to these developments the Burmese junta could only count China among its supporters. For decades the Chinese government maintained a working relationship with Myanmar, viewing the country as part of its sphere of influence. Myanmar and China share an extensive border; with the Burmese provinces of Kachin and Shan next to the large Chinese province of Yunnan. Due to the isolation of the Burmese government, China enjoyed sole access to the country, benefiting from trade in natural resources while largely adopting a laissez-faire approach to the Burmese socio-political situation.

Despite this stance, Chinese traders and businesses have for years engaged in both legal and illicit commerce with the inhabitants of Kachin province. The Kachin ethnic group constitutes the majority of the province's population and has been embroiled in conflict with the central Burmese government for over fifty years. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have profited from selling jade (trade in jade alone between China and Myanmar totaled $8 billion in 2011) and teak to Chinese buyers, thus funding their conflict with the ruling junta.

Furthermore, while China has long had significant infrastructure, mining and hydrocarbon investments in Myanmar, gone are the days in which the Burmese government rubber-stamps Beijing's projects. The changing times were exemplified by the decision of Burmese President Thein Sein – following local protests (the KIO itself wants local control over natural resources and devolved powers) – to suspend construction of the $3.6 billion, Chinese backed Myitsone dam.

Image Credit: The Economist

Myanmar's opening to the West will see a diversification of foreign investment in the country, eroding China's monopoly. Whereas Beijing can tolerate some American market share in Myanmar's economy, the Chinese government is gravely concerned that Myanmar's internal ethnic conflict in Kachin will become internationalized, leading to American troops on China's southeastern border. China is already concerned with American encirclement in East Asia: the thought of an American military presence in Myanmar is utterly abhorrent for Beijing.

Myanmar's swift opening has caught China off guard and Beijing is rushing to increase its engagement with Naypyidaw, fearing American encroachment into the region. These fears were confirmed in November 2014 when President Obama visited Myanmar. The United States government has long had connections with the pro-democracy movement and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular. Beijing fears that it will lose influence as the political winds change and its junta partners realign to remain politically viable. Notably, Myanmar has already expressed a willingness to act as an arbiter for Sino-ASEAN territorial disputes in the South China Sea; a suggestion totally counter to China's own emphasis on non-interference and bilateral dialogue. Third party arbitration is also the favoured course of the United States. This confidence on the part of Naypyidaw is indicative of a government courted by several powers and no longer beholden to China.

President Obama meets with Burmese President Thein Sein
Image Credit: BBC

For years Beijing has placed all its bets on the central government, while tolerating if not prolonging the KIA's struggle through nebulous trading. Moreover Beijing long delegated responsibility over the Kachin issue to provincial officials in Yunnan. This relaxed attitude was fostered by the fact that fighting between the KIA and government was sporadic. However in 2011 tensions flared, resulting in the cessation of a 17 year long ceasefire. Unfortunately for China all of its chickens are now coming home to roost, as the rise in violence (potential disruption of hydrocarbon flow and humanitarian crisis) coincides with Myanmar's opening (loss of influence in Napypidaw, potential American inroads).

Increased fighting between December 2012 and January 2013 saw artillery shells land on Chinese territory and an influx of thousands of refugees. Currently some 8000 persons inhabit the Je Yang refugee camp, right across the border from Yunnan. These refugees engage in trade with Yunnan merchants, relying heavily on imports from China, and utilizing Chinese communication networks (Myanmar's military blocks Burmese signals in the region). Furthermore China's minority Jingpo population on the Yunnan-Kachin border is in all but name the same ethnic group as Myanmar's Kachins. Beijing naturally fears ethnic sympathies prompting cross-border movement of KIA supporters, weapons and conflict spillover.

KIA Fighters near the Chinese Border
Image Credit: The Irrawaddy

Qin Liwen, former analyst for MERICS explains China's dilemma in Kachin, stating that: 
“On the one hand it's good for China to have special connections with the Kachin so [China has] some kind of “chess on the board [sic]” when they talk to Myanmar central government. But if they get too supportive the Kachin people will of course make trouble. So it's always a very subtle game to balance it all.”
This longstanding trading relationship with the KIO/KIA has resulted in several hundred Chinese traders and workers becoming trapped by the fighting in Kachin. In response China has increased the presence of Chinese troops (PLA) on the border. Furthermore in 2013 Beijing arranged a bilateral (KIA-junta) dialogue with China as the negotiator. China has also created a new government position – Special Envoy on Asian Affairs – headed by Wang Yingfan, to deal with Myanmar. Following the increase in violence Beijing has also sent Vice Foreign Minister Min Fu Ying and PLA general Qi Jianguo to Myanmar for negotiations and security consultations. Furthermore in a move to counter Obama's rapprochement towards Myanmar, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also visited Myanmar in November 2014.

This article was originally written for Sharnoff's Global Views