Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first visit to the United States comes at a time of great uncertainty for both Japan and Asia. The North Korean nuclear crisis remains suspended between crisis and resolution. The free trade agreement between the United States and South Korea, still unratified, will have an unclear impact on the rest of East Asia.
But the real question mark for Japan is the role of China. “Now that we see the resurgence of Chinese power, it is time for us to think about the real position of Japan in Asia in a sober, modest, and responsible manner,” reflected Akio Kawato. A former ambassador to Uzbekistan and currently a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, Kawato was in Washington to present his views at the Asian Voices series of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
Japan continues to occupy a central position in Asia, Kawato said, not unlike that of Switzerland in Europe. It is small and surrounded by much larger countries. But it remains economically powerful. Today, Japan’s economy is still 2.5 times the size of China’s. Perhaps more startling, the Japanese economy continues to contribute 50 percent to the overall Asian GDP.
But, cautioned Kawato, Japan’s central position in Asia is precarious. In part, this precariousness is historical. When Admiral Perry brought his black ships to Japan in 1853, Japan was only a stepping stone. The real U.S. target was China. China continued to absorb U.S. interest through the end of World War II. Only the onset of the Cold War decisively improved Japan’s geopolitical position.
Because of the spike in hostility between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, and then the outbreak of the Korean War, Kawato explained, “the U.S. changed its policy from viewing Japan as third-rate to the ‘unsinkable carrier’ and the number one partner in Asia.”
Japan’s value during the Cold War was several-fold, Kawato continued. It was an ideal base for the U.S. military, it was close to key flashpoints such as Taiwan and the Korean peninsula, its economic might helped secure a broad pro-American belt of countries, and its diplomatic efforts furthered these goals through the creation of the Association of South-east Asian Nations and other initiatives.
This rise in value produced often inflated perceptions. “We came to believe in the myth of Japan as number one,” Kawato said. “Many journalists wrote at the time that the 21st century belongs to Japan, and some Japanese came to believe it.”
But Japan’s pride of place in Asia and in the affections of the U.S. changed in the aftermath of what Kawato calls “the second defeat of Japan.” In 1985, the finance ministers of five industrialised countries met at the Plaza Hotel in New York and hammered out an accord that lowered the value of the dollar and led to a precipitous rise in the value of the yen. Now much cheaper, American exports grew rapidly. To keep pace, the Japanese government attempted to pump money into the economy by increasing government expenditures and lowering interest rates. But, as Kawato pointed out, this temporary measure served only to postpone the day of reckoning. In doing so it created the infamous “bubble economy.”
The Japanese bubble burst in 1991. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy was on its way up. Foreign investment began to flow into China in earnest after 1993. China quickly became the top trading partner for most Asian countries and helped Asia become the number one trading region. On economic matters, Japan began to take a back seat to China.
This apparent reversion to the pre-Cold War historical pattern has created a certain sensitivity in Japan. “We are nervous because our economy has been suffering these last 15 years,” Kawato said. “Our international status went down during this economic depression while Chinese status has grown quite substantially. We had a significant defeat in the UN Security Council when we couldn’t become a permanent member. And many Japanese felt that we didn’t get enough support from the United States during the North Korea nuclear issue.”
These sensitivities have been partly addressed in the exchange of visits by Abe to China in October and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao to Japan this month. Kawato pointed to Wen’s message that China no longer considers Japan to be a warmonger. He also dismissed concerns that the two countries would soon clash over energy supplies, arguing that China still relies on cheap coal rather than oil.
But there is still an underlying concern over the triangle of relations among Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington. A new ambivalence has crept into Japan’s relations with the United States as it competes for influence with other Asian countries in what Kawato called the “I hate you if you don’t call me the first wife” syndrome.
“Japan is the first wife,” George Washington University professor of political science Henry Nau reassured the audience. “The U.S. may have an affair from time to time with other countries – like China – but Japan is the first wife in Asia.” However, Nau added, Japan is now seeking a more equal relationship with the United States, not unlike what Europeans powers have sought within their alliance structure. “That is the nature of alliances: to wrestle through these problems of abandonment and entrapment.”
Steve Clemons, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, agreed that the U.S.-Japan alliance is a linchpin of regional security. But he also linked Japanese ambivalence to a perceived attenuation of American power. He referred to a survey of young Japanese foreign ministry officials who all agreed that American power in Asia was in “structural decline.”
As Japan navigates between its feelings of ambivalence and loss of relative status, Kawato said, it should bear in mind that most of the countries in the region favor the status quo. This status quo resides in the U.S.-Japan military alliance, in the trading relations among countries in the region, and in the preference for a stable security environment to encourage economic expansion. Japan signaled this preference for the status quo by restoring economic relations with China shortly after the government suppressed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests – in the interest of “maintaining stability in China.” And China, in turn, is not eager to risk upsetting the status quo – and therefore its own economic expansion – by unifying Taiwan by armed means.
Prof. Richard Samuels from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s political science department took a different view. “By virtue of its sheer size and expansion, China is not a status quo power,” he remarked, adding that it would not, for instance, tolerate the status quo with Taiwan indefinitely.
Also militating against the status quo in the region, Kawato admitted, are historical enmities among the countries in the region and the populist governments now in place in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere.
To create a more stable and peaceful region, Japan needs to encourage all the centripedal forces through multilateral arrangements, Kawato recommended. These arrangements can help stop piracy in the Malacca Straits, create new financial instruments such as Asian bonds, and expand trade through the ASEAN plus three discussions.
“But these current multilateral arrangements are losing momentum,” Kawato said. “We need new impetus.” He suggested that this new impetus can be provided by an Asian version of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Helsinki process that brought together 35 European and North American countries to confirm borders, negotiate confidence-building measures, and begin to address human rights issues. “If we do a similar thing in Asia,” he concluded, “we can perhaps fix the status quo in Taiwan and on the Korean peninsula.”
Inter Press Service, April 27, 2007