Sunday, September 19, 2010

Islands of the Sun

The USS Hawaii, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, arrived earlier this month at Yokosuka near here, home port of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, one more asset in America’s naval buildup in Northeast Asia, which can be viewed as a direct result of Chinese assertions of hegemony over the East China and South China Seas.

In July three Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines surfaced more or less simultaneously at Pusan, South Korea, Subic Bay in the Philippines and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The three are converted Trident missile submarines, having been stripped of their intercontinental ballistic missiles and stuffed with Tomahawk cruise missiles - 140 per sub – armed with conventional warheads.

The Hawaii is part of new class of attack submarines that are configured to operate in shallow, near-shore waters. As the submarine’s captain was happy to tell the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper on arrival, the sub has the ability to maintain a “persistent presence off shallow waters.”

Why would it be important to operate in shallow, near-shore waters? Take out an atlas and trace the string of islands that stretch for more than a thousand kilometers from the southern tip of Kyushu through Okinawa nearly as far as Taiwan. All are Japanese, although the southern-most is disputed by China.

There is a gap in this island chain between Okinawa and the Japanese island of Miyako known as the Miyako Channel. It is wide enough to provide an avenue of international waters through the island chain and, is the principal gateway through which the Chinese navy can pass through on its way to open sea.

The Miyako Channel is becoming one of the most sensitive maritime flashpoints in the world, along with the Malacca Strait, the Strait of Hormuz or the Taiwan Strait. It may be even more sensitive than the Taiwan Strait, as the U.S. and other navies avoid passing through it unless they are trying to be deliberately provocative.

On the other hand, the Miyako Strait is where the U.S., Chinese and Japanese navies grind together. Last April, a Chinese navy flotilla passed through the channel on the way to open sea. It was shadowed by Japanese destroyers, which in turn, were buzzed by Chinese helicopters, prompting Tokyo to make a formal protest about the harassment of its ships.

Japan is awakening to the fact that their extreme southern flank is basically undefended and open to invasion. For years most of Japan’s ground forces were deployed in the northern island of Hokkaido to guard against a Russian invasion. Gradually, Tokyo has been redeploying its troops to the west and south.

This may accelerate as Beijing is becoming more aggressive in asserting its hegemony over nearby waters, not just traditionally recognized territorial waters but the entire South China, East China and Yellow Seas. The Chinese strongly objected to the presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea in joint U.S. and South Korean naval exercises.

Washington and Seoul moved the maneuvers to the Sea of Japan opposite the east coast of South Korea in deference to Beijing, but the ship may enter the Yellow Sea soon for another series of exercises with the South Korean navy.

Currently, China and Japan are embroiled in a growing diplomatic dispute over the southern-most of these islands, which are called the Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese. The two countries dispute ownership. The islands are uninhabited but controlled by the Japanese, whose Coast Guard vessels regularly shoo away intruders.

In a recent incident, The Coast Guard boarded and arrested the crew of one Chinese fishing ship, which it claimed had deliberately rammed their vessels. Tokyo released the crew but still detains the captain. Beijing has protested loudly, postponed meetings aimed at sharing natural gas resources in the East China Sea and cancelled planned diplomatic meetings.

The dispute caught Tokyo at an awkward time as Japan was in the middle of an internal party election to confirm Prime Minister Naoto Kan in office. It will fall into the lap of newly named foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who replaced Katsuya Okada after he was elevated to be the Secretary General of the Democratic Party.

Japan recently extended its ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), where by aircraft entering must identify themselves, further south almost to Taiwan. The government is considering stationing token forces on Miyako and possibly other islands. “Defending strong points in the Sakishima chain (southern-most islands) is very important,” said Defense Minister Toshima Kitazawa.

In December the Japanese self defense forces will hold their first ever maneuvers simulating recapture remote islands from an occupier. The Japanese navy, in turn, is already well-equipped with amphibious assault ships to bring troops to the battlefield if necessary.

There has even been some discussion of creating a Japanese “Marine Corps”, although not as an elite independent service as it is in the U.S. The defense ministry would designate a regiment or even a division for special training in Marine Corps-like activities, such as amphibious assaults.

These developments put the presence of the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa in a new light. Who is better equipped or trained to recapture isolated islands? Former premier Yukio Hatoyama came to recognize the deterrent value of the Marines on Okinawa, although too late to save his job.

His successor as prime minister says his government will honor the agreement with Washington to close the Futenma Marine Air station and build a new air base for the Marines at another less crowded location on the island. It is still likely to continue to run into political opposition from the island.

Is the threat of China seizing any of these islands by force realistic? One could equally say how realistic was it to expect the Russians to invade Hokkaido? Militaries plan for contingencies, and who is to say that in the future some Chinese leaders decide that “historical documents” dating back to the Ming Dynasty “prove” that these islands are really Chinese territory and occupy them?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Almost exactly one year after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took office following its historic blowout general election victory, Japanese, a few of them anyway, will vote on September 14 to decide who will be Japan’s next prime minister – and the future direction of the party as well.

The venue will be the election to the president of the party by DPJ members of the Diet (parliament), DPJ prefectural legislators and those of the public who are card-carrying members of the party. The person elected president automatically will assume the post of prime minister.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan won the presidency against one no-hoper last June in a special party election held in the wake of former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama’s resignation. Now he is being challenged Ichiro Ozawa, the party’s backroom powerhouse and a man who would have been prime minister save for a political funding scandal (he is still under investigation).

The country is presented with a battle of titans, perhaps the most watched and interesting intra-party election ever held in Japan. The outcome of the voting could give the dispirited government party a fresh start or possibly set in motion the party’s unraveling and another round of realignment and revolving door premiers.

Some view the race as a simple power grab by a kingmaker who may never have another chance to become king, party and public be damned. Perhaps so, but it is also true that the two contenders have pretty clearly defined opinions on the future direction of the DPJ government, whose term of office is still has three years to run.

Ozawa argues that the party went astray by abandoning or modifying most of its campaign promises, incorporated in the election manifesto (platform) of last year such as full funding of child care. That’s why it lost the election to the House of Councillors last July, he argues. He promises to put the emphasis on the manifesto’s proposals, while delaying any debate on increasing taxes to pay for them.

Kan, for his part, has made it clear that he intends to revise many of the party’s proposals involving social spending that are difficult to fulfill given the national financial realities. He wants to initiate a debate on raising the consumption (sales) tax, now set at 5 percent, to 10 percent.

Ozawa has a point. After getting off to a pretty good start, the new government soon went astray by concentrating on extraneous issues. The key issue for former premier Hatoyama was a promise, one that he failed to keep, to reopen and revise the agreement with Washington to realign American forces on Okinawa.

This was the political equivalent of an own goal. Japan and the U.S. had studied the issue for fifteen years before an agreement was reached. With good reason, Washington considered it a done deal. It was mentioned only in passing during the election. Why Hatoyama reopened this issue, raised hopes on the southern island only to have them dashed, is inexplicable.

After he resigned and turned reins of government over to Kan, the new prime minister hastily brought up the notion of raising the consumption tax from 5 to possibly 10 percent, another issue that was never debated in the 2009 election. Why anyone would propose such a thing with a national election just weeks away was almost equally unexplainable in pure political terms.

It’s not to say these are not important issues. With more than half of the national budget covered by borrowing, the issue of fiscal responsibility is pressing. For his part, Hatoyama might be praised for trying to find a better solution to the bases question to assuage Okinawan concerns. But in politics one doesn’t get many points for trying, and both issues were handled very clumsily.

If it is a mystery why Hatoyama let himself to be side tracked by the Futenma Marine air base issue, it is equally mystifying why Kan was seduced so easily by the clarion call of fiscal responsibility. After all, there is not much in this politician’s long background, starting as a social activist, that points to this new-born concern about fiscal conservatism.

It should be remembered, though, that Kan moved directly to the top job after serving as Minister of Finance, and it is probable that he came under strong influence of the finance ministry mandarins and their concerns. It was also a time when the meltdown of the Greek economy was fresh in people’s minds..

Kan came to his new role with direct and immediate experience in running an important government department. Despite his long career in politics, Ozawa actually has very little administrative experience outside of internal party administration. He hasn’t held a cabinet post for 25 years, when he was Minister of Home Affairs under Yasuhiro Nakasone. You could say Ozawa knows everything about electioneering but little about governing

Ozawa is a brilliant political technician, a maker and breaker of political parties. More than any one individual, he was responsible for the DPJ historic win, and he still commands loyalty among many of the freshmen Diet members whom he personally recruited. That’s why he and Kan are basically running neck-in-neck in the party poll, at least among Diet members.

To the public at large, however, opinion is much less closely divided. Various opinion polls suggest that 70-80 percent of the public oppose Ozawa’s challenge and his becoming the third prime minister of Japan inside one year. He is still seen mainly as a politician of the old school, a man who learned his politics at the knee of Mr. Money Politics himself, Kakuei Tanaka.

Whoever wins the election may not feel it is such a great prize. He will face serious realities: an economy that is sputtering, a currency that is climbing through the roof, a divided Diet as a result of last July’s election to the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament. The winner is going to need all of the healing and uniting powers he can muster.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Who's Afraid of Shariah Law?

To hear some tell it, dark forces are loose in the land of the free determined to impose Islamic Shariah law on an unwilling Christian nation, complete with mandates for women to wear head scarves, stoning of adulterers and public whipping for those who drink alcohol.

Just how this might be accomplished in the United States with a Muslim population less than 1 percent of the total is never made clear. It would be even more ridiculous if people realized how difficult it is to impose Shariah even in Muslim-majority countries especially if they are democratic.

It is worth remembering that there are more than two dozen countries in the world where a majority of the people are Muslims. Only a few of them could be described as Islamic states, defined as one that declares itself to be, such as the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” or one that enforces the strict criminal code known as hudud spelled out in the Koran.
By that definition there are probably only four Islamic states: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan. Two other non-Islamic states, Nigeria and Malaysia, have enacted strict Shariah ordinances in some of their subdivisions. My expertise is in Asia not the Middle East, so I’ll discuss Indonesia and Malaysia in more detail.
Indonesia, though boasting the world’s largest Muslim population, is not an Islamic state. The guiding principle of Indonesia is pancasila which refers to belief in one supreme God, humanism, national unity, democracy and justice. As a philosophy, pancasila is really nothing more than a collection of platitudes, but it has been useful unifying creed.

When Indonesia gained independence in 1948, its founders insisted on a culturally neutral identity rather than defining Indonesia by any one religion. In this way the minority religions and their practitioners are officially on an equal plane with the Muslim majority, not second-class, barely tolerated citizens as in other Islamic states.

The central government has allowed Shariah, to be enacted and enforced in only one province, Aceh, best known to the world at large as the site of the devastating tsunami on late 2004. Aceh is noted as being exceptionally pious and for years mounted an insurgency against the central government in Jakarta. It was allowed to adopt some Shariah as part of the settlement that ended two decades of violence.

But even so, Aceh is not allowed to enforce strict hudud laws, only “traditional Acehnese Islamic practices and values,” such as wearing a headscarf, which most of the women there would probably do anyway. Jakarta keeps a strong grip on the criminal code, so it would be difficult for any subdivision to become an Islamic state unless the whole country became one.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia adopted their constitutions at Independence, which was a time when colonialism and communism were the burning issues, not Islamic fundamentalism. One wonders what kinds of pressures these countries might be under if they had to write them today.

But it is worth noting that as recently as 2002, the People’s Consultative Assembly, the body that at the time had the power to amend Indonesia’s constitution, voted down attempts to enshrine Islam in the preamble. Over the years Muslim groups have sought to establish an Islamic state but the mainstream community has always rejected it.

For the past dozen years Malaysian politics has been roiled by efforts to enact hudud laws in some of the country’s states. Malaysia is a federal union of fourteen states in peninsular Malaya and on the island of Borneo. Only about 60 percent o the population is Muslim, the rest Hindu, Christian or, in the case of Borneo, animist.

The Parti Islam SeMalaysia (better known by its initials PAS) is dedicated to creating an Islamic state in Malaysia through democratic means. PAS has never won more than a handful of seats in the federal parliament, but it controls the state of Kelantan on the east coast and for a while it governed the neighboring state of Terangganu.

In 1993 the Kelantan state assembly enacted the “State Syariah (Shariah) Criminal Bill” The pure hudud code covers such offenses as drinking alcohol, illicit intercourse, theft, blasphemy and apostasy (renouncing Islam) and applies it to all Muslims. The penalties are whipping, amputation of limbs and death (by stoning for adultery).

No one has ever been prosecuted under Kelantan’s hudud code. Malaysia’s constitution makes the criminal code is a federal matter, and the police, answerable to Kuala Lumpur, decline to enforce the code. However, as nobody is prosecuted, there have been no convictions to bring before the Supreme Court. So the issue has never been tested.

Malaysia’s constitution makes religious affairs a matter for individual states, and most have enacted laws and established religious courts to judge personal matters such as marriage and inheritance for Muslims. Some states enforce restrictions on public drinking by Malays too.

But except for Kelantan alcohol is generally available everywhere. Chinese restaurants dish out pork next to Malay restaurants observing halal. Ethnic Chinese women in miniskirts share the pavement with Malay women wearing headscarves. Women are highly emancipated and occupy important posts. Nobody would ever confuse Kuala Lumpur with Riyadh.