Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

This week we launched a debate on Japan-China relations. Seven contributions so far, which you can read at one handy location. It's a popular thread, so thanks to all who have visited The Interpreter to have a read. The debate was kicked of by Robert Ayson on the US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, held in Bali on the sidelines of APEC:

It's highly unsurprising that China has reacted negatively to the statement coming out of the recent Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) in Bali. Venturing where foreign policy angels should fear to tread, Australia (via Julie Bishop) and the US (via John Kerry) had earlier joined an obviously thrilled Japan in opposing 'any coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo in the East China Sea.'

This unnecessarily provocative piece of security diplomacy made me wonder whether I was right in thinking that earlier TSD statements had been mild and unexciting by comparison. A quick review tells me that my recollection was accurate.

Malcolm Cook responded, arguing that Japan really is worried about the (military) rise of China:

Having been to Tokyo twice in the last two weeks for interviews and workshops on Japan-China-Korea relations and Japan-Australia relations, my answer to Sam’s query (Is Japan Alarmed by China's Rise?) is YES.

Japan is alarmed, and so it should be.

Any country facing a neighbour that has a defence budget increasing at the speed of China’s, has a growing nuclear weapons program focused on short and medium-range missile delivery, is providing steadfast backing for a nuclear-armed rogue state that threatens you, is becoming more assertive in territories that both states claim, and has a leadership team that refuses bilateral summitry should be worried.

The troubled history of modern Japan and China, the size and trajectory differences between them and their very different political systems simply add to Tokyo's worries.

Lowy Institute intern Will Hobart then argued that while Japan is worried about China, it struggles to channel that concern into a meaningful effort to alter the constitution to allow more military spending:

Public support for constitutional change is yet to align with the all-time low in sentiment towards China since polling commenced in 2005. In this year's poll just over 90% of Japanese respondents had either an 'unfavourable' or 'relatively unfavourable' impression of China, up from 84.5% in 2012 (equally, 92.8% of Chinese respondents had an unfavourable impression of Japan, up from 64.5%; majorities on both sides cited the territorial dispute as the main reason for their impression).

The challenge for Abe and Japanese politicians that come after him will be bridging the gap between zero-sum concern over an assertive China and taking the plunge into constitutional reform. If Abe is successful in championing economic recovery and achieves sustained popular support, he may also be able to mobilise Japanese society into supporting reform to the constitution to respond to a rising China.

But the story of Japanese military ‘normalisation’ didn’t start with Abe, and given the still insufficient levels of support needed for constitutional change, it is unlikely to end with him either.

ANU Professor of Modern Japanese Political History Rikki Kersten added some analysis of Japanese and Chinese domestic politics to the mix, stating that 'the China threat has salience as something that directly assaults 'Japaneseness':

While Japan is characterised in Chinese rhetoric as congenitally expansionist and militaristic, Japanese opinion regards China as simply ‘anti-Japanese’ in a very essentialist way. Merely being Japanese earns the hatred of China, or so the argument goes. It is more about the defence of identity than it is about the defence of the homeland.

This is reinforced by the outpouring of publications in Japan about the sinister nature of China’s rise, amplified in the special displays in every Japanese bookshop on this question.

In historical terms, the representation of Japan as a threat to China is distorted and redundant. Japan’s history of aggression against China is invoked as if the past 60 years of Japanese contributions as a peaceful, responsible member of the postwar world have not happened at all. Of course, Prime Minister Abe’s nay-saying of Japanese war guilt and his denial of atrocities invites scepticism about Japan’s present motivations. But Abe is not representative of public feeling when it comes to war guilt and apology. Japanese public opinion has embraced proactive pacifism, not revisionism.

Finally, on Friday Georgetown University's Christopher Johnston offered a provocative piece on China's lack of a grand strategy:

Like Japan at the turn of the last century, China has committed to national renewal. After the ruinous internal fixations of the Mao era, Deng Xiaoping reintroduced China to the international economy.

Yet China has under-invested in the instruments of sound foreign policy. It has some good schools of international relations, but no great ones. The Chinese Foreign Ministry suffers from an anaemic grasp of history. Beijing's think tank industry and public debate also remain stifled by state control (with notable exceptions).

Even Xi Jinping's concept of a 'Chinese Dream' might have been purloined from Thomas Friedman, who publicly articulated the idea twelve months ago. Last May Xi Jinping tasked his favourite think tank to figure out what his Chinese Dream might look like — the report is still pending.

In the meantime, it is easy for outsiders to mistake military capability development for national strategy. This is dangerous. Chinese military expansion is more a consequence of double-digit growth in spending, courtesy of that nation's extraordinary economic trajectory. Like any professional military, the PLA is predisposed to evolve in purpose and sophistication. It defines military objectives and adapts to likely competitors on land, sea, air and space. Unfortunately, in the absence of effective statecraft, military objectives can all too easily become national policy. This was the fate that befell imperial Japan.

Another popular post this week looked at pro-nuclear environmentalism, by the Lowy Institute's Daniela Strube:

Yes, nuclear power is scary, and yes, big energy businesses are probably not the best environmentalists (or in fact necessarily able to manage the risks of nuclear power generation adequately – Tepco’s poor performance in the Fukushima incident is a clear case in point). But legitimate debate should not be turned into ideological warfare, as has happened in the case of nuclear power.

In fact, especially as citizens of the so-called advanced world, we have a responsibility to consider every option for combating climate change, including nuclear power. Our prosperity is built on dirty energy and we are now asking the developing world to refrain from using this path to development because we are worried about the climate. Instead of reducing fossil energy in favour of a perfectly viable low-carbon alternative such as nuclear, we would rather keep nuclear power plants out of our backyards and opt to wait for a renewables miracle while we keep polluting in the meantime. For us, this is indeed the more convenient option, but it seems slightly at odds with the goal of a better, fairer and greener world.

Nuclear diplomacy expert Martine Letts wrote on the same theme in the context of the new documentary Pandora's Promise:

The film shows the irony of pro-nuclear politicians, mostly on the right side of politics, who are not in favour of energy policies to help reduce carbon emissions, while those on the left who oppose nuclear power are, by their opposition, complicit in the rise and rise of carbon emissions.  Here lie the seeds of a bipartisan approach to a nuclear energy policy with extraordinary potential for the environment.

G20 Studies Centre Director Mike Callaghan continued to provide expert commentary on the US federal government shutdown, questioning whether rebuking statements from international financial institutions have an impact on US policy:

The latest bout of brinkmanship over the debt ceiling is part of the ongoing sclerosis in the US political system. This will continue and the resulting uncertainty will increase. It has imposed a cost to the US economy, the reputation and leadership claims of the US, the legitimacy of international institutions and to the stability of the global economy. Let us count the ways:

1. There are estimates that the political paralysis surrounding US fiscal policy has cost the US more than two million jobs and slowed annualised economic growth by 1 percentage point of gross domestic product since 2010. The current bout of concern over a US default has resulted in renewed calls for less reliance on the US dollar, with China’s official Xinhua News Agency saying that the time has come to start considering a de-Americanised world.

2. The status of the US dollar as the world’s international currency has given the US what has been termed an 'exorbitant privilege’, the ability to borrow more cheaply than it could otherwise. While there have been previous calls for the world to reduce its reliance on the US dollar, there have been few other options as a reserve currency. But this may quickly change if holders of US Treasuries start to worry about whether they will be paid. If countries increasingly seek to reduce their exposure to US Treasuries, even at the margin, this will put significant pressure on other currencies and add to capital volatility.

3. The debate over the debt ceiling prevented President Obama attending APEC meetings and brought into question the US commitment to Asia.

4. The US failure to ratify the quota and governance reforms in the IMF, which will increase the quota share and representation of emerging markets, is undermining the legitimacy of the Fund. A package of reform measures was agreed by the G20 in 2010, but implementation is held up because the Obama Administration cannot get the reforms through Congress. This is in turn holding back further reforms in IMF governance.

The result is that emerging markets are increasingly looking at alternative options for a safety net to respond to volatile capital flows. The BRICS have agreed to a $100 billion currency fund to help deal with capital volatility and an increasing number of bilateral swap arrangements are being settled. As the Indian central bank governor recently said, countries will avoid the IMF unless they are desperate. It is all adding to uncertainty.

 Finally, a thoughtful post by Dougal Robinson on the US-Israel relationship under Obama, which concludes that, despite the rhetoric, Obama has done more for Israel than any previous US president:

First, Israel received almost three-quarters of a billion dollars more military aid this year than in 2008 (p.26), the final year of Bush’s presidency. The pronounced rise in the annual military grant, from US$2.38 billion to US$3.10 billion, is no small matter considering that it has occurred while the US endured the worst economic and budgetary conditions in 70 years. Most of this money must be spent on sophisticated American-made defence products. So greater funding improves Israel’s military capability, especially against divided and internally focused Arab states.

Second, and in addition to this aid, Israel has acquired significant military hardware. The US has spent almost half a billion dollars on Iron Dome (see photo), a short-range missile defence system whose performance in the November 2012 conflict between Israel and Hamas was described as 'almost perfect' by Ehud Barak.

On President Obama’s watch, sophisticated missile defence systems such as Arrow 3 and David’s Sling are nearing completion, both of which will help Israel counter longer-range rockets and missiles from Hezbollah, Syria, and possibly Iran. Additionally, the US expedited sales of advanced weapons to Israel (including F-35 fighter aircraft, bunker busting munitions and refueling tankers) in last year’s US-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act (p.8).

Third, Obama’s rhetoric has become increasingly favourable to Israel over the course of his presidency. For example, Obama called for a settlement freeze in early 2009 and Israel obliged for ten months. But in August this year, when Prime Minister Netanyahu controversially announced a new settlement construction program on the eve of the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, there was no public condemnation from Obama or Secretary Kerry.

Photo by Flickr user vintaedept.