Japan – the indispensable power in East Asia

Author: Peter Van Ness, ANU

In East Asia, ‘the times they are a-changing,’ and the pundits are full of speculation about what the new ‘architecture’ for the region will look like. After the Democratic Party of Japan’s historic electoral defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party in August, the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has the opportunity to take the country in new directions, but it is unclear whether it will have the vision and determination to prevail. America, the world’s only superpower, is in serious trouble, and meanwhile China is on the rise. The focus is on how relations between United States and China will work out, and a discussion of new forms of multilateralism. Often ignored in these discussions, however, is the key role of Japan. Japan is too rich and too powerful to be left out. Whatever the future of East Asia, Japan will have to be a founding participant. In my view, Japan is an indispensable power in the region.

The Japanese are worried about the rise of China, but they worry even more about how to manage their relations with their post-World War II security guarantor, the U.S. Ever since the end of the Allied occupation of Japan in 1952, Japan has relied on the U.S. to guarantee its security. But now, American hegemony in East Asia has become problematic. The disastrous policies of President George W. Bush’s eight years in office have left the U.S. weakened militarily, economically, and morally. Over-stretched militarily in two unwinnable wars, staggered by a global financial crisis largely of its own making, and humiliated in its claim to be a moral example to the world by incontrovertible evidence of torture, America under Barack Obama must try to find new ways to lead in what looks to be a post-hegemonic world — while Japan watches anxiously.

Japan’s leaders worry about what those new ways might be. Conservatives in Japan would much prefer to maintain the status quo, but there is no longer a status quo to depend on. Hilary Clinton in her initial trip as Secretary of State visited Japan first, but it is clear that she and President Obama seek to build their East Asian policy in cooperation with China. There is no way that Washington can hope to deal effectively with the global financial crisis, climate change, Iran, and North Korea without Beijing’s cooperation. Like all countries in East Asia, Japan has to consider how to position itself within this process of fundamental power transition.

Japan will have to play a major part in any new design for East Asia. If Japan is ignored, it can readily sabotage the new arrangements. For example, there cannot be a successful East Asian Community without Japan’s participation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) doesn’t want to find itself vulnerable in an ‘ASEAN +1’ arrangement just with China, but insists on an ‘ASEAN +3’ (with China, South Korea and Japan).

Similarly, the Six-Party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programs cannot succeed without significant financial incentives offered to Pyongyang, for which Japan is expected to make the major contribution. Alternatively, if the region were to turn away from cooperation toward a confrontation between the two major powers, the U.S. and China, in some version of a new cold war, Japan would be the mainstay of the American strategic position in East Asia. The U.S. could not hope to confront China successfully in the region without Japan’s full support. Finally, if Japan’s interests are ignored, it could go nuclear and destroy any future hope for multilateral cooperation in the region.

Let me explain.

The Uniqueness of Japan

Pressures have been growing for years, both within and outside of the country, for Japan to adopt the international role of a so-called ‘normal nation,’ turning its formidable economic might into political and military influence, and even deciding to go nuclear, if necessary, to assert its position in the global power hierarchy. But Japan is not a normal nation. It is unique in many important ways, a fact that provides significant opportunities to play an importantly different kind of role in international affairs.

How is Japan unique?

Just prior to the modern period, Japan was purposefully isolated from outside influences by its Tokugawa leaders for 250 years — a period during which a characteristic Japanese cultural distinctiveness was shaped.

Admiral Matthew C. Perry’s ‘black ships’ broke down the Tokugawa barriers to commerce with the West in the middle of the 19th century, and Japan subsequently became the first non-Western country to industrialise successfully.

Turning that industrial power into military might, Meiji Japan became the only non-Western imperialist power in the modern period, for a time competing successfully with Russian, British, German, and American imperial interests in East Asia.

Defeated in World War II, Japan was the only country in history to be attacked with nuclear weapons, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Japanese Constitution, which was adopted under the occupation by the Allied powers, includes the unique provision in Article 9 that states ‘the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.’

Successfully re-industrialised after World War II, Japan has served as an economic model for other developing Asian countries, joined the influential Group of 7 (G7) industrial countries as the only non-Western member, and became the second largest economy in the world.

Finally, during the 65 years since 1945, Japan has lived in peace with its neighbors, was the world’s number one bilateral foreign aid donor, and has made major contributions to United Nations institutions and international peace-keeping operations.

Yet successive Japanese governments have made little use of Japan’s distinctive history to fashion the kind of unique international role that Japan might play. Instead, in strategic deliberations like the Six-Party talks on North Korea, Japan was often seen as simply providing another vote for the United States – a ‘yes man’ to George W. Bush, or a country in denial about the atrocities of its imperial past with a prime minister insistent on insulting his Asian neighbors by repeatedly visiting the Yasukuni Shrine or denying that so-called ‘comfort women’ were coerced into sexual slavery during the war.

However, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was obviously a man capable of the kind of decisive action that is needed. Sometimes people forget that he risked not just one but two unprecedented trips to Pyongyang to try to work out problems with Kim Jong-il. And which other post-World War II Japanese prime minister would have dared to attack conservatives in his own party by putting ‘assassin’ candidates up for election against them in their own constituencies? Koizumi’s margin of victory in the September 2005 election gave him a special opportunity, both to overrule the Upper House should they oppose his reform plans and to take significant initiatives in foreign policy, but the opportunity to improve relations with Asia was largely squandered by his insistence on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

When Japan attempts to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, some United Nations member-states must ask themselves: how has Japan earned consideration for a permanent seat? What is special about Japan when compared with all the other countries that would like to achieve such an elevated strategic status? What benefit might the rest of the world gain by supporting Japan’s hopes for a permanent seat on the Security Council? I think that Prime Minister Hatoyama and his colleagues in the ruling coalition should have to answer these questions. Japan showed the way to economic prosperity in Asia in the past. Can Japan help to lead Asia toward greater strategic stability and security in the future?

This is an extract of a feature essay published here by Global Asia.

Peter Van Ness is a visiting fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the ANU, and coordinator of the PeaceBuilder project on linking historical reconciliation and security cooperation in Northeast Asia.