Cautious welcome for Japan's Asia drive

Posted in Japan | 26-Sep-09 | Author: Jian Junbo| Source: Asia Times

Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, left, shakes hands with China's President Hu Jintao before their bilateral meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York Monday, Sept. 21, 2009.

SHANGHAI - It seems Japan's foreign policy is at a turning point as Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) takes over as the nation's new prime minister. In accordance with the DPJ's platform in election campaigns, the new ruling party is likely to attach less importance to the United States-Japan relationship and seek a more independent role for Japan in international society; or, at least, the DPJ may want to reduce the dominance of the US in Japan's foreign policy.

Hatoyama this week met Chinese President Hu Jintao in New York on the sidelines of a United Nations conference to improve ties between the two countries. Hatoyama will also pay a state visit to China after the UN meeting. He is reportedly eager to discuss with Chinese leaders the formation of a so-called East Asian community, an idea that was highlighted in the DPJ's election platform as a key point of its foreign policy.

This is a break from the tradition in Japanese diplomacy in which a newly sworn-in Japanese prime minister first visits the US before going to other countries, such as China. This indicates the new Japanese government is preparing to adjust a foreign policy stance the country has adopted since the end of the Cold War.

One-and-a-half centuries after Japan renounced its Asian identity to "join" Europe or the West, it seems now it wants to return to Asia. Here, a brief historical review may help to better understand the DPJ's policy.

In the 1850s, when Japan was still a vassal of the Qing Dynasty in China, Japan was threatened and even invaded by Western imperialists and colonists who imposed unequal treaties on it. For example, in 1853, a US fleet invaded Japan and made it a semi-colonized county after signing an unequal bilateral trade treaty.

During that period, the Qing imperial government could not prevent Japan from being exploited and oppressed by Western imperialists and colonists, since China was unable to protect itself when encountering similar attacks from the West. To remove foreign imperialists and become stronger, Japan started far-reaching, top-down social and political reform.

This was the Meiji Restoration, which was generally based on the thoughts of modern Japanese enlightenment philosophers, especially Fukuzawa Ykichi, who was among the first to advocate the idea of Japan departing from East Asia to join the West or Europe. The Meiji Restoration, which started in 1868, strengthened the power of the Japanese emperor and some noble families but also in effect paved the way for Japan to take the road towards modernization, economically, militarily and socially.

It is regretful that Japan's modernization was accompanied with militarist expansion and the invasion of Korea and China. In the 1890s, Japan made Korea its colony and it snatched China's island of Taiwan after defeating China in 1895.

Japanese expansion into Asia didn't stop until the end of the World War II in 1945, when US troops landed in the archipelago country and ultimately occupied it. Afterwards, Japan started reforms based totally on Uncle Sam's will; namely, its political and economic system was quickly transformed to be a part of the US-led capitalist world.

Shortly after the Cold War broke out, and then the Korean War in the early 1950s. Japan bonded with the US and the Western camp, its economic rise benefiting much from its close ties with the West and especially from the demands of the US military/industrial complex. At the end of the Cold War, typically as a member of the Group of Eight (G-8), Japan was regarded as a Western state by foreigners, as well as by itself.

That is, the radical reform started in the latter half of the 19th century made Japan an "outstanding student" in learning Western modern technology and ideas, beating other Asia countries in the competition. This augmented its desire and boosted its confidence in getting away from Asia and joining the club of the West. And it succeeded.

Now, as a member of the G-8, Japan is more a part of the West than of Asia - politically, diplomatically, economically and psychologically, despite its geological location.

However, after the end of the Cold War some 20 years ago, a few Japanese political elites began advocating a Japanese comeback in Asia, while preserving its Western identity. What made the Japanese elites feel this way?

First, after Japan accepted the Plaza Accord in 1985 - in which the US forced the drastic revaluation of the Japanese yen to make Japanese imports more expensive to American consumers and reduce its trade deficit with Tokyo. And then the Washington Consensus in the 1990s, a term coined by US economist John Williamson in 1989, centered around privatizing state-owned enterprises, reducing state deficits and taxes and liberalizing interest rates, Japan's economy unfortunately came to a standstill or even recession that lasted for almost two decades.

This economic recession (or slowdown) proved a hotbed of growth for Japanese nationalism, with demands for a more independent status when dealing with the US and other foreign countries. This public feeling, combined with some politicians' ambition, was expressed even in the 1980s before the end of the Cold War. (Former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone proclaimed that Japan had started on a new path to become a "political power" in the world.) And it encouraged the Japanese to strive to become a so-called "normal state" in the international community.
Given this, it's not difficult to understand the Japanese desire to become independent from the US and more active in international affairs as a sovereign state.

Second, after the end of the Cold War, Asia gradually became a region that the international community could not ignore when dealing with important transnational issues. In particular, with the rise of newly industrialized countries and regions such as Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea and China, the East Asia from which Japan originally wanted escape is now important for its economic restoration and development.

For example, China is now Japan's biggest economic partner and the Chinese economy is significant for Japan's economic revival. East and Southeast Asia are attractive to Japan, and it will lose its influence in these promising regions if it does not re-engage them.

Third, in recent years, the US has been busy with its "war against terror" and it can no longer worry too much about Japan's concerns, especially "threats" from North Korea. Because of the failure of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, Japan is increasingly worried about threats to its territorial and civic security from North Korea, a nuclear state.

Meanwhile, Japan is also worried about China's steady expansion of its military capability, although its concerns are hardly based on substantial facts. When its powerful ally - the US - ignores its concerns, Japan has to resort to its own measures.

In sum, in the post-Cold War era, with the change in geopolitical politics and international economic conditions in East Asia and with the relative decline of US power, Japan is more and more anxious to boost its international status and national interests in East Asia.

If the US is unable to meet Japan's demands for its national security and interests, it needs greater independence, which means it will loosen links with the US and focus more on Asian affairs and its relations with China, the two Koreas and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

But Japan's bid to rejoin Asia is not a simple matter; there will be difficulties.

First, the US will be vigilant about Japan's concept of an East Asian community - a strategy commonly considered as Japan's main reason to rejoin East Asia. The US will not let Japan break away from the US orbit, as the US-Japan alliance was a foundation of the US maintaining its international dominance in the post-Cold War era.

Japan and South Korea are two pillars of US hegemony in East Asia. Not only can such an alliance be a deterrent to China, and provide support for Taiwan psychologically and militarily, it can also restrict Japan from becoming an independent political and military power that could challenge US dominance in the region.

In this regard, new Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said he would try his best to strengthen the bilateral relationship when he met US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell last week. This also reflects Japan's difficulty and confusion in balancing two identities - Asian and Western.

Second, China will be suspicious of Japan's demands for more independence. China benefits from the US-Japan alliance because this keeps in place Japan's pacifist constitution and prevents Japan's military from rising. If Japan seeks more independence in rejoining East Asia, it will change the geopolitical politics and disrupt the balance of power in East Asia.

Historically, the China-centric tributary system that functioned before the 1850s was the dominant transnational system in East Asia in which only one country was the leader - the others were vassals. This historical influence still exists. It implies that an independent Japan will compete with China for the leadership or dominance of East Asia.

The DPJ's policy to build an East Asian community might make people think of the militarist "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" slogan which was popular in the 1930s and 1940s during Japan's dominance in Asia - to some degree it was the worst copy of the tributary system. No one can be sure the DPJ's strategy is not to build a "neo-tributary system" with Japan at the center. Japan tried to do that after the Ming Dynasty, though it failed.

Accordingly, Japan cannot succeed in rejoining Asia unless it can allay the suspicions of both the US and China. And first, some practical aspects have to be addressed before it can rejoin Asia.

The first issue relates to the US. The US will not want Tokyo to undermine this alliance, and anyway, the disruption of this alliance cannot happen overnight. So the pragmatic approach for Japan is to slowly change the overall relationship.

Japan can still assist the US in areas such as anti-terrorism and non-traditional security. At the same time, if the US-led alliance cannot provide a comprehensive defensive umbrella, Japan can resort to a mechanism similar to a collective security regime for its defense - this would also help ease China's suspicions over its intentions for greater independence.

This mechanism, in place of the six-party talks, could include all the countries involved, including the two Koreas, China, the US and Russia, although this will not be easy. Finally, Japan's historical disputes with the Chinese and Koreans will have to be resolved before it can rejoin Asia. Clearly, a Japan that cannot face its history will not be accepted by its neighbors as a legitimate member of East Asia, either in a political or psychological sense.

Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.