Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.09.21

What a Japanese diplomat learned from 9/11 ~The terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, diverted Washington's attention away from China~

the japan times on September 11, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. Middle East

Even 20 years later, people still ask me where I was on Sept. 11, 2001.

After serving as director for Japan-U.S. security treaty affairs in Tokyo, I had been stationed at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing since October 2000 as an Arabic language officer. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my Beijing apartment with my wife watching CNN’s live coverage of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

I was shocked, but hardly taken by surprise.

At the time, a sense of inexplicable concern was building up in the Middle East, although I could not predict what would happen next. Nearly a year before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, militants bombed the USS Cole, an American naval destroyer, in Yemen. In 1998, the United States fired cruise missiles at suspected terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. Four years earlier when I visited the Afghan city of Kandahar to contact Taliban officials as a diplomat, I saw a large house that Osama bin Laden would eventually move into.

Before 9/11, al-Qaida’s name was still not familiar to much of the public, but the organization was certainly under the watch of defense and intelligence agencies.

Three-dimensional strategic thinking

Middle East hands focused on the volatile regional situation. Meanwhile, Japan-U.S. security experts were busy working on the day-to-day management of the alliance. Japanese diplomats in Beijing sought to improve bilateral relations with China.

Back then, I thought these were three different areas to be dealt with separately.

It was in Beijing on Sept. 11, 2001, however, when those memories and experiences of mine finally merged into one. Those unique events or incidents I was involved in were in fact closely interrelated with each other.

As a Japanese foreign service officer dealing with the United States, China and the Middle East, the events that followed 9/11 was my real introduction to strategic thinking.

The world is often a never-ending zero-sum game. What the United States does in the Middle East can divert its attention from East Asia. The Middle East and East Asia were becoming “Middle East Asia,” or one theater of operation.

Lessons for U.S.-China relations

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States upended the world, China was beginning its meteoric rise in the late 1990s. Businesses from around the world curried favor with China to gain a foothold in the largest market in the world. It was the age when economics trumped values such as democracy and human rights.

Washington, under the administration of President Bill Clinton, appeared to turn its attention away from Japan, which the United States had a host of issues with — ranging from trade to issues related to military bases — to China. Unlike the rock-solid relationship the two democratic allies enjoy now, back then U.S.-Japan relations were tenuous at times.

Things seemed to change when U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001 declared that China is a “strategic competitor.” Bilateral relations with China took a hit due to a Chinese military aircraft’s collision with a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in April 2001, as well as the United States mistakenly bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, along with Washington signing off on a large-scale arms export to Taiwan.

Finally, it seemed that the U.S. came to realize the fundamental challenges posed by Beijing, and that its China policy would finally change in Japan’s favor. That proved to be a false expectation.

After Sept. 11, Bush agreed to a “constructive relationship” with China at the APEC summit at Shanghai in October.

Washington and Beijing seemed to have shared interests — while the United States was to fight a war on terror in the Middle East, China was to crack down on the Uyghurs in its Xinjiang autonomous region. It was a strategic victory for Beijing, at the cost of U.S. allies and friends in East Asia as the U.S. took its focus away from China.

Engagement with China

In addition to this historic misjudgment, the West also made a big mistake in allowing China to accede to the World Trade Organization. Many at that time believed that they could change Beijing’s behavior through economic means — that if China was brought into the global economy, it would later pursue further liberalization. Unfortunately, that proved to be wishful thinking.

Proponents of engagement with Beijing hoped that making China rich would lead to the birth of a civil society in China that would ultimately make Beijing a democracy. The result was the opposite of what they had dreamt of. Rather, it further strengthened the authoritarian regime.

Twenty years later, Washington seems to have finally comprehended this unpleasant reality. While the Americans have fought multiple wars in the Middle East over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army hardly drew the ire of Washington for its behavior in East Asia.

Lessons from the Middle East

That said, as early as in 2001, few including myself believed that China could catch up with the United States.

As in the Aesop fable, while Beijing was the tortoise, Washington was the hare, wasting its precious time and resources in the Middle East.

It was in January 2004 when I was posted in Baghdad for the second time and saw the civil war in Iraq with my own eyes. Coming directly from Beijing to the Iraqi capital, I was convinced that we were losing a war, not against the Islamic State group, but against China — without even fighting.

Most Americans in Iraq at that time, whether civilian or military, seemed to have no idea what their war in Iraq meant to the rest of the world. The only U.S. personnel who were concerned about the rise of China might have been Okinawa-based U.S. Marines deployed to Iraq.

Lessons for Japan

What a waste of time and resources, I told myself, but nobody spoke out. My tour in Iraq ended in July 2004 and, 12 months later, I left the Foreign Ministry. I had neither resentment nor regret. As a foreign policy professional, I wanted to have time to reflect on my time in the foreign service.

The Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, in which 24 Japanese lives were lost among the 2,996 victims, was a game changer for Japan, too.

What was impossible during the Gulf War in 1991 became acceptable after Sept. 11. Within a matter of months, Japan sent escort and supply vessels of the Maritime Self-Defense Force to the Indian Ocean.

In 2004, Japan dispatched Ground Self-Defense Forces to the city of Samawah in southern Iraq. It was the first GSDF unit deployment overseas since 1945. The events of Sept. 11 were eye-opening for the Japanese public who had been obsessed with what I call the “post-World War II Utopian Pacifism” for five decades.

U.S. national security priority

Although the United States lost 13 military personnel in an attack by Taliban insurgents on Aug. 26, President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of last month was strategically rational. It symbolizes the shift in the U.S. national security priority from the war on terror to the Indo-Pacific region and the strategic challenges presented by China.

The withdrawal has been advocated and recommended by several American strategic thinkers for years. It was a wise move on the part of the Biden administration and a blessing for the U.S. allies and friends in the Indo-Pacific region.

If there is any side effect in this decision, it would be the miscalculation by U.S. decision-makers to get back to the region in response to future terrorist attacks against American interests. That said, the lessons from the war in Afghanistan over the past two decades are crystal clear.

Terrorist attacks against America may damage the lives and interests of U.S. citizens, but it will not change and dominate the rule-based international order the West benefits most from. Instead, failure to compete with China now would only allow Beijing to change the international order in their favor.

It is almost impossible to eliminate elements of terrorism in the Middle East forever. Even if the United States again tried to do this through military intervention in the region, as history shows, it would be destined to fail. The West may have to continue the whack-a-mole game probably for the decades to come.

That’s why it is strategically reasonable for the United States to lower the level of, if not stop and eliminate, its presence and intervention in the Middle East, and concentrate its energy and resources on competing and deterring the potential threat from China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 opened a new chapter for global security policies in the 21st century. It also revealed the weakness of Japan’s postwar pacifism and urged Tokyo to transform its defense policy gradually but steadily into a more realistic one that recognizes the challenges posed by China.

Fortunately, the administrations of Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga have achieved policy change over the past nine years. It is ironic that in the week of the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, Japan resumes its process to choose the next prime minister.

A general election of Japan’s Lower House is expected by the end of November, and the next two months will decide in which direction the post-Abe/Suga Japan will be headed.

Japanese voters are capricious, but hardly unsophisticated. Will they continue to be realistic and remember the legacy of Sept. 11, or will they wish to fundamentally change the political landscape? Will the current policies continue under the next leadership?

All of that remains to be seen. Regardless, the lessons of the strategic misjudgments that followed Sept. 11 should not be forgotten.