Friday, October 29, 2010

Fighting Back

Every Japanese house has its genkan or entryway. There was no mistaking where one sheds his outdoor shoes and slips into something more comfortable before entering the house. For three decades Japan has had as its primary aviation genkan a less than world-class airport serving a world-class city and located way out in the countryside.

Visitors from Asia, Europe and America landing at Narita knew that after stumbling bleary-eyed off the aircraft following, say, a ten hour transPacific flight that they would have to cram their bodies back into another bucket for a two hour bus or train ride into the city center – the only real choices as a taxi ride would bankrupt an Arab prince.

While the airport authority feuded – ultimately unsuccessfully - with local landowners for permission to build even a second, parallel runway, while Tokyo’s traditional genkan, Haneda stuck stubbornly to domestic flights. Meanwhile, other, sleeker Asian portals, especially South Korea’s Incheon stole Japan’s coveted role as aviation hub for East Asia.

That is changing with this month’s opening of a fourth runway at Haneda and the inauguration of a spanking new terminal designed to serve the airport’s new crop of international flights. The airport will add 13 international flights, linking such cities as Bangkok, New York, Paris and Honolulu, to the 48 domestic flights it now serves.

The genesis of this division of labor, Narita serving international and Haneda domestic flights, can be traced back to the 1970s, when the government of Japan, anticipating that the main aviation portal, then known as Tokyo International Airport, would become saturated, proposed building a new international airport in the countryside north of Tokyo.

It proved a serious miscalculation. The government did not anticipate the tenacity with which local farmers would cling to their ancestral rice fields. Something like open warfare existed between the government and the farmers, supported by Japanese students, then more radical than their counterparts of today.

Well into the 1990s it was not unusual to see reels of barbed wire spread round the airport and riot police lolling around their buses anticipating violent demonstrations. Tokyo managed to build a second parallel runway in time to handle traffic for the 2002 World Cup, share by Japan and South Korea. And this month it was extended to make it long enough to handle wide-bodied jets, permitting more “slots” at the overworked airport. Meanwhile, work began on a fourth runway at Haneda. As it was built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, there were no farmers or any other local property owners to stand in the way.

Recently, the U.S, Transportation Department gave its approval for three U.S. carriers to fly directly to Haneda, the first American airlines to use the portal since the 1970s. Delta Air Lines will connect with Los Angeles and Detroit, American Airlines will fly between New York and Tokyo and Hawaiian Airlines will make its first schedule flights to Japan. Air Asia X, the long haul arm of Malaysia’s Air Asia, the regional’s largest budget carrier, will begin flights to Haneda in December.

Annual takeoff and landings at Haneda are expected to gradually increase to about 407,000 from roughly 303,000 at present, once the new runway opens October 31. Of these, 27,000 have been allocated to domestic flights, 30,000 for international flights and 47,000 to be allocated later. Together with new slots at Narita, the expansion projects should increase landing and takeoff opportunities more than 200,000.

Haneda will be a particular boon to business travelers as it is located near the downtown, which is only about a twenty-minute monorail ride away, compared with distant Narita Airport, which involves either a two-hour bus ride or an hour train ride. (Rather than standing pat in the face of new competition, Narita is opening another, faster rail line to downtown.)

The former Liberal Democratic Party government stubbornly clung to the outdated division of labor between domestic Haneda and international Narita, even as it okayed charter flights from Haneda to nearby markets such as Seoul or Shanghai. That changed under the new government elected last year.

The new Lands, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism Minister, Seiji Maehara, strongly supported turning Haneda-Narita into a new Asian hub. Since after his promotion to foreign minister, he was replaced as transport minister by his parliamentary deputy, it can be assumed that Tokyo will press on with this policy and with the rationalization of Japan’s airport network.

Internal competition between redundant airports has hampered Japan’s efforts to turn one of them into a real hub. A prime example is in western Japan, where the new Kansai International Airport sits cheek-by-jowl with Osaka and Kobe airports. The government would like to close one but such a move meets resistance from local authorities.

Another aviation policy driver is the Open Skies agreement with the U.S., the first negotiated by Japan. It was approved last December and went into effect this month when Haneda’s fourth runway opens. The agreement allows for new routes without having to negotiate government-to-government or strict reciprocity.

Turning the two into a single hub will not be easy, as they are far apart with limited land transportation between them. South Korea’s Incheon currently serves 140 international destinations, or more than the two Tokyo-area airports combined. There are other hurdles to cross including Japan’s exorbitant landing fees. Those at Incheon are about one-sixth those of Japan’s international airports.

Another imponderable is the fate of Japan Airlines, which has been under the supervision of the state-backed Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corporation of Japan since its filing for creditor protection in January. In the wake of the bankruptcy filing, the ETIC dumped the old management and brought in Kazuo Inamori, formerly was innovative chairman of Kyocera Company, to run the disabled company.

The airline has announced repeated layoffs, cut back on unprofitable domestic and some international routes, sold off non-core businesses, such as hotels and sought ways to trim legacy costs associated with generous pensions and is trying to bring down its jet fuel costs by 30 percent over three years, but it is still losing a reported JPY 20 billion a month.

Maehara made it clear soon after taking office that he considered JAL too big, or more accurately, too important to fail, although he has occasionally questioned Japan’s need for two mega-carriers and hinted that it might like to combine JAL’s and All Nippon Airways’s international routes. It remains to be seen how it will divide the four ne daily slots for Japanese flights to the U.S. from Haneda. ANA is lobbying for all four, arguing that it is unfair to have to compete with an airline under state-backed rehabilitation.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Sink the Senkakus!

If the leaders of Japan and China could act on their private feelings, they would probably both pool their money and buy a 20 megaton thermonuclear bomb from the Russians and use it to blow the Senkaku islands of the East China Sea to smithereens.

Since this is not going to happen, one can only surmise that this disputed territory of three rocky, uninhabited and essentially useless islands will continue to be a festering sore in relations between Japan and China, one that has the potential to drag the United States, as Japan’s ally, unwillingly into the dispute.

The Senkakus were the focus of a major diplomatic imbroglio between Japan and China that flared up a month ago and is now slowly subsiding. The Japanese, who control access to the islets and their territorial waters, detained the crew of a Chinese fishing boat which had rammed two of their coast guard cutters.

The Chinese crew was quickly released, but the Japanese kept the captain under arrest for two weeks and seemed intent on indicting him for interfering with the duties of public officials until Beijing went ballistic. It arrested four Japanese for allegedly taking photographs in a restricted military area which looked suspiciously like taking hostages in a rapidly enlarging exercise in diplomatic shock and awe.

Japan backed down and released the skipper, Zhan Qixiong, (to a hero’s welcome t home), while the Chinese released three of the four detained Japanese (it was not clear why it retained the fourth). Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who had planned to skip a meeting of Asians and Europeans, changed his mind so he could have a few words with China’s premier Wen Jiabao.

While the current crisis has cooled considerably, “it has the potential to cause more trouble,” says Phil Deans, professor of political science at Temple University. That has more to do with emotion than any coldly calculated interest in the supposed wealth of oil and gas under the nearby seabed. In Deans’ opinion they don’t amount to much.

Rather, the issue is extremely vulnerable to exploitation by what Deans calls rogue elements on both sides. He is referring to nationalists from either Japan or China who sneak past the Japanese coast guard patrols and plant themselves on the islands defying any attempts to evict them and rapidly turning their mere presence on the islands into a major crisis.

I remember a similar expedition to the Senkakus (or Daioyu as the Chinese call them) from Hong Kong in the months just before 1997 handover of sovereignty to China. One local politician named David Chan became an instant martyr/hero when he drowned after jumping into the waters off of the islands.

When two other demonstrators managed to land on the island and raise the banners of China and Taiwan side-by-side, the picture took up the whole front page of the (English language) South China Morning Post under the headline MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

A leading local Chinese-language paper Ming Pao rhapsodized: “The imperishable noble spirit of the Chinese remain on the Daioyu forever.” One would think that it was the greatest landing since the invasion of Normandy. And this was in supposedly nonpolitical Hong Kong!

Deng Xiaoping, architect of modern China, who had cautioned against letting things “left over from history” interfere with China’s economic development and modernization, was still alive then. But he has been dead now for 13 years, and Chinese leaders are increasingly less patient about leaving alone things “left over from history” than they used to be.

Any new confrontation, whether by Chinese or even Japanese sneaking onto the island and raising flags, would likely mobilize China’s armies of ultra-nationalist Internet warriors and bloggers accusing their government of selling out to the Japanese if it didn’t take strong measures. Beijing takes these messages seriously.

China’s rulers are undoubtedly aware of another lesson left over from history. The May 4 Movement of 1919 began as a student movement denouncing Beijing’s supine acceptance of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, which awarded former German concessions in China to the Japanese. It helped to bring down the empire.

The potential for various “incidents” to escalate into major confrontations over these islands is mind-boggling. On any given day there are literally hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels working the waters near the Senkaku. What if all of them suddenly converged into the territorial waters at once, overwhelming the two or three Japanese coast guard cutters usually on patrol?

Reaction in Japan to the decision to release Zhan was muted. Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s approval ratings fell, and a couple thousand nationalists demonstrated against the step down. But underneath an attitude of smoldering resentment against China is spreading. Wrote Yoichi Funabashi, editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper: “Japan and China now stand on ground zero, and the landscape is a bleak, vast nothingness.”

Could the U.S, be drawn into a confrontation, or worse, war, with China over this parochial dispute? The new foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, fresh from a trip to New York where he conferred with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claimed she assured him that the Senkakus fall under the security treaty which obliges the US to defend Japan if attacked.

The American view, however, is more ambiguous than Maehara might like to portray. Article 5 of the security treaty does oblige the US to defend “territories under the administration of Japan.” However, whether Washington officially views the uninhabited and disputed island as being “under Japanese administration” is an open question.

Generally, Washington has tried to maintain a strict neutrality in these maritime disputes in East Asia between friends and allies or even between allies, as is the case of the Dokto, another bleak group of islands in the Sea of Japan claimed by Japan and the Koreas. It is a neutrality that may be sorely tested in the future.