After the Tsunami, How Japan Can Lead

Masaru Tamamoto – Far Eastern Economic Review

When Tokyo offered $500 million to help tsunami victims, its biggest package of natural disaster aid ever, the reaction of Peng-Er Lam of the National University of Singapore was fairly typical: “Japan’s assistance will help to reclaim certain diplomatic clout it had lost to China when Tokyo has to play catch-up with Beijing over free trade agreements with Southeast Asia.”
However, while this may be a natural way to look at recent events, it actually obscures the real debate within Japan about how the country can become a normal nation and exercise leadership. On one side are the nationalists, who see military deployments such as the tsunami relief effort as opportunities to re-accustom both domestic and foreign constituencies to the idea of Japan using its power to advance its self interest. On the other side there are the pacifists, who have not thought clearly about how Japan can find its own independent voice in international politics without abandoning its constitution.
Missing is the idea of a new paradigm, in which Japan plays a valuable role by entering into a closer relationship with China and engendering a new notion of Asia, much as France and Germany did in Europe after World War II. Instead, there is a growing danger that what is today perceived as a competition for regional prestige over tsunami relief will escalate into a destabilizing battle for hegemony over the region.
It’s certainly true that China does not have the resources to match the Japanese effort. And Sino-Japanese competition for economic leadership in Southeast Asia is one facet of regional politics today. But the tendency to see East Asian politics as a whole in terms of Sino-Japanese competition is myopic. If policy makers in Beijing and Tokyo are driven by such empty competition, the future of East Asian peace and prosperity is in peril.
States possess comparative advantages that can be used toward the general good. Cash-rich Japan can play a meaningful role in the tsunami relief effort. But Japan is relatively powerless when it comes to solving the North Korean question, which is where China holds leverage and plays a critical role—for geographic and historical reasons, and as the primary provider of North Korean energy.
Meanwhile, ASEAN countries do not want to be beholden to the highest bidder. They are economically and politically small countries, with memories of imperial victimization, mindful of the havoc big powers can wreak. They have been astutely playing China and Japan against each other whenever possible, seeking maximum gains from both. For further balance, there is the United States, which is not about to allow either China or Japan to dominate. And now ASEAN is reaching for closer relations with the European Union.
The question for East Asia, therefore, is how to conceive of a world in which China and Japan both gain in power and stature, but the rise of one does not diminish the other.
The American Lens
The tendency to see East Asia in terms of Sino-Japanese rivalry is rather common and readily assumed. Where does it come from? There is the historical fact. During most of modern East Asia history, China and Japan were in conflict. Until 1945, China was the target of Japanese imperialism. After 1945, there was the Cold War divide. And there is the fact of strained diplomatic relations of late. The record of antagonism is real.
However, perceptions of this rivalry are magnified because they often come to us through an American lens. Rachel Swanger of rand talks of the binary nature of American policy toward Asia—if China is ascendant, Japan must be descendent. The current perception is that China’s economic rise has put it in a position to supplant Japan both economically and diplomatically.
It is hard to remember a moment when the United States treated China and Japan equally. In war and peace, the history of American East Asian policy has been about favoring one over the other. While the United States has had an ample number of Europeanists in academic and policy circles, Asianists have been rare. Instead, American policy experts have tended to become either China specialists or Japan specialists, and there has been a strong tendency for the China specialist to adopt a Chinese view of Japan, and vice versa.
More than the manner of American knowledge creation, there is the unwavering American East Asian foreign policy doctrine. Since the beginning of relations with East Asia in the mid-19th century, the United States has successfully foiled any one country’s ambition to dominate East Asia—whether the contender be Britain, Russia/Soviet Union, China or Japan. When war broke out between Russia and Japan in 1904 for regional supremacy, the United States sided with Japan, the perceived weaker power. It was soon after the surprise Japanese victory that the United States drew up its first war plan against Japan.
In other words, there is an ingrained habit of thinking that says it is in the American interest when the strongest East Asian country is descendant, and the weaker antagonist is ascendant. It is straightforward balance of power thinking. When in the 1980s, economically robust Japan tried to launch an East Asian Economic Community, the United States was quick to snuff it out. Now there is concern in America that dynamic and economically successful China may pose a threat to American national interest several decades hence. The cheer heard in America when Japan “showed up” China in the tsunami-relief effort fits the pattern.
Japan’s $500 Million Logic
Two days after the tsunami struck, on December 28, Japan announced a $30 million aid package, double the American offer. Japanese diplomats prided themselves on their quick action, mindful of past criticisms for slow decision-making. But just three days later, the United States raised its offer to $350 million and, more pertinent to Japanese calculations, China announced an offer of $63 million. Japan then upped its offer to $500 million.
At this point, there was scant information on the extent of the devastation and what sorts of relief and reconstruction efforts were needed. What was the logic behind the $500 million figure?
First, the sum was to be a quarter of the world’s total pledge. Policy makers had in mind Japan’s current bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
As a matter of prestige, Japan’s offer had to be bigger than the American one, because it was an Asian disaster. And this time there was no danger of offending the United States, for the increase was prompted in part by Washington—and Washington was about to launch a military rescue and relief operation on a scale no other country could match.
Also, the Japanese government decided that its contribution would be an order of magnitude greater than the Chinese, that it would seize the moment to impress the countries of the region that Japan is the dependable power in Asia. There was an element of childish rivalry at work, admitted one official. Japanese policy makers were convinced that the money would positively transform their country’s image in the region and lead to a pay-off in better relations.
However, the Thai government declined the Japanese offer of $20 million, saying that the money should be sent to countries with greater need. Indonesia declared on January 12, before Japanese troops could even arrive, that all foreign troops should leave within three months.
Japan organized its largest foreign military deployment since 1945, comprising approximately 1,000 troops, five helicopters, a couple of cargo planes and three ships. Tokyo is in the process of formalizing rescue and relief operations abroad as one of the military’s primary duties. Portraying the military as a relief organization is an established trope at home. The tsunami disaster was a chance to sell the same idea abroad.
Japanese Defense Minister Yoshinori Ohno stole a march on his troops by touring Southeast Asia. In Singapore, he stressed that the safety of the Malacca Strait is vital for Japan so dependent on oil shipments from the Middle East. His Singapore counterpart coolly responded that keeping the Strait safe is the task for adjacent countries. The Malaysian defense minister simply denied that there is a Chinese military threat when the Japanese tried to make the case. On the way home, Mr. Ohno stopped in Seoul, only to be told that the Japanese military should concentrate on territorial defense. It turned out that $500 million was not as fungible as Japanese policy makers had hoped. While there are linkages, international relations is increasingly functionally differentiated. Just as a trade dispute over bananas is really about bananas, humanitarian aid is just that, humanitarian aid.
With the promise of the largest immediate cash donation of any country, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attended the January 6 Jakarta conference of major aid donors and relief organizations. There, Mr. Koizumi and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao could barely manage a few pleasantries as they walked past each other. Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations have been so strained of late that for over three years now their heads of state have not been able to visit each other’s capitals. A couple of days after the Jakarta conference, Beijing, citing inadequate preparation, indefinitely postponed a meeting of senior members of the Chinese and Japanese ruling parties. The cancellation and the brief scene in Jakarta were indicative of the prevailing climate of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, unsurprising and not news.
Cultivated Ignorance
At the moment, Japan does not have a workable formula to maintain the security relationship with the United States and foster cordial relations with China. A more ambitious Japan seeks to gain a permanent seat in a reformed United Nations Security Council, but the credibility of such a bid is diminished by Tokyo’s strained relationship with neighboring China, a permanent seat holder. A Chinese argument against inviting Japan to the Security Council is not entirely without merit: Why should the Council allocate a second American vote? Japan holds a fat checkbook, but it is not clear what sort of political ideas and values it wants to promote. This is a reflection of the way status- conscious Japanese society functions— form precedes and often substitutes for substance.
Since its utter defeat in World War II, Japan has not thought seriously about international politics, except for the relationship with the United States. U.S. military protection and Japanese willful subordination to American political leadership have allowed Japan to live in a state of cultivated ignorance about the harshness of international politics. Now the Japanese political class wants to shed such ignorance and begin to engage more fully in international politics. But Japan is simply out of practice.
This Japan is concerned about re-establishing statehood. Today’s dominant political and intellectual voices deem that Japan had ceased to be a state after World War II. The argument is simple: Recovery of statehood means reacquiring the right to use force as an instrument of state policy. In a sense, the rise of such thinking is understandable. After all, Japan is maneuvering between the United States and China, two countries that are extremely sensitive about sovereign statehood, and whose policies are driven by the equation of sovereignty and national security.
The Japanese quest for statehood means the ability to engage in collective security policy with the United States— Japanese soldiers fighting alongside American GIs. Already, there are 600 Japanese ground troops in Iraq as part of the “coalition of the willing”—although these soldiers stay put inside their isolated fortress, since their primary mission is to be there and not get killed. This is the first time since 1945 that Japanese soldiers have ventured into a war zone.
The Japanese government correctly fears that Japanese casualties will turn public opinion against its plan to recover statehood. The Iraq expedition is a violation—a de facto revision—of the pacifist constitution, authored and imposed by the American army of occupation some 60 years ago.
Notwithstanding the Japanese pitch to sell the military as an international rescue force, soldiers are essentially warriors, and the time will come when they fall in battle. A Japan of cultivated ignorance, where patriotism has been suspended, does not have a way to honor their deaths, which leads to Prime Minister Koizumi’s obsession with reviving the cult of Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine in central Tokyo. At Yasukuni, the spirits of all fallen Japanese soldiers since the founding of modern Japan in the mid-19th century are enshrined, including those executed as class-A war criminals by the allied powers following World War II. And Yasukuni has famously become the point of contention between China and Japan—a symbol of deteriorating relations.
Prime Minister Koizumi, who ordered the troops to Iraq, has been adamant about Yasukuni. He contends that it is a sovereign issue, an internal matter, and not a legitimate concern of China or any other country—an ironic echo of the argument China makes on many delicate questions. Mr. Koizumi remains deaf to suggestions that a new cenotaph representing a new Japan ought to be constructed. His brand of nationalism, couched in terms of tradition, seeks to re-establish continuity in Japanese statehood that was hobbled by military defeat and decades of cultivated ignorance. The nationalistic blind obscures the simple fact that national security is a relational matter. Would it be too much to ask of a statesman how antagonizing a neighbor contributes to national interest and security?
The business community is clearly not pleased with the government’s handling of China. While the overall economy remains deflationary, corporate profits have begun to surge, thanks in large part to Chinese demand. During the recent years of icy Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, paradoxically, China has replaced the United States as Japan’s largest trading partner. Keidanren, the largest association of Japanese corporations, has counseled caution to the prime minister.
Remilitarization of Politics
After two devastating wars, France and Germany together imagined an idea of Europe. Demilitarization and denationalization of politics are two central notions of the European Union. Sovereignty is no longer the primary concern; they have become “post-modern” states with open borders and a unified currency. So much has changed in Europe’s mindset that there are European writers who even refer to the World Wars I and II as European civil wars.
Demilitarization and denationalization of politics fit the Japan of cultivated ignorance—a pacifist constitution, strict limitation of its military to territorial defense, prohibition on the export of arms, and other self-imposed restraints on sovereign rights recognized by international law. The end of the Cold War could have been the opening for Japan to start spreading such values in Asia, if only the immediate post-Cold War talk in America of a “peace dividend” had lasted. But the subsequent series of events—the first Iraq war, the break-up of Yugoslavia, 9/11, Afghanistan and the second Iraq war—has shifted the United States from internationalism to unilateralism. It is becoming a self-conscious hyper-power, knowing only to trust its own prowess, ever vigilant of its sovereignty. The America of the Patriot Act would dictate to the world, if you are not with us, then you are against us.
Japan certainly was not about to turn against the United States. There is no realistic option for Japan today but to adhere to the U.S.-Japan security treaty. Over the decades, the security treaty has become Japan’s highest source of authority, standing above the constitution—the functional equivalent and successor to the pre-1945 emperor, “sacred and inviolate.” The Koizumi style of nationalism is only possible with American encouragement.
During the Cold War, in essence, Japan provided its territory as an American military base, and the United States guaranteed Japan’s security, while Japan incurred no military obligation. With the first war against Iraq, coming immediately after the end of the Cold War, the United States began to demand of Japan a greater security role. Japan provided $13 billion to the allied war effort to oust Iraq from Kuwait. Then the Japanese government wrote a new law permitting its soldiers to venture abroad as blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers, and they went to Cambodia, Somalia, Mozambique and the Golan Heights. Now Japanese soldiers are in Iraq without United Nations cover. And Washington has begun to talk of transforming the U.S.-Japan security treaty into a platform for Japan to join the United States in the war against global terrorism.
China has made clear that the United States should stick to the original intent of the security treaty—to use the Japanese archipelago as a forward military base and to check the remilitarization of Japan. China is wary of the new American intention to use a remilitarized Japan to foil future Chinese military ambitions and, concretely and presently, to deter China from making a military move toward Taiwan.
It is quite reasonable that Japan, the second wealthiest country in the world, should contribute to global security. By far the most important contribution Japan can make toward international peace is the establishment of a solid and peaceful relationship with China.
China is in the midst of groping to define its place in the world, learning the rules, and testing possibilities and limits—for instance at the World Trade Organization. For now, Japanese militarization—in the name of collective security, humanitarian relief or sovereign right—dangerously erodes Sino-Japanese relations. On the thorny question of Taiwan, the American posture and presence in Asia based on the U.S.-Japan security treaty is operationally sufficient. If the present American arrangement is not capable of deterring China from making a move toward Taiwan, it is hard to imagine how a more forward and active Japanese participation can do any better. Moreover, it is clear that a Japan seeking an enhanced military role makes China more intransigent on Taiwan. The specter of a militarily active Japan fuels China’s vision of recovering past greatness, the very element of Chinese pride the world would like to see tamed.
From the vantage point of Japan, I am concerned about the climate of opinion in the political and intellectual classes propelling the remilitarization of Japanese politics. There is hardly any opposition. The exceptional defense of constitutional pacifism comes from a very strange mix of sources, the emperor and the socialist and communist parties, but the emperor’s voice carries no political weight, as stipulated by the very constitution he defends, and the leftist parties are of negligible significance in parliamentary politics. The dominant talk is rightist and nationalist, about writing a new constitution, becoming a normal state and sovereignty—ideas deemed taboo for so long after 1945. The rightist dominance is eerie because of the sudden silence of the constitutional defenders, whose voices had been mainstream for most of the post-1945 decades, even in the ruling Liberal-Democratic party that now spearheads the rightist turn. Consequently, there is no real debate and no sense of measure and balance.
The silence of the constitutional defenders is evidence that Japan had not been thinking seriously about international politics. They never articulated the shape of an active foreign and security policy based on pacifist principles. They had assumed a perpetual American shield against the harshness of international politics. In this sense, the rightist critique of constitutional defense as “pacifism in one country” is apt. But the newfangled rightists, too, come from the same unthinking mold. Too many rightists wishfully and bravely speak of constructing a more equal partnership in which Japan can begin to influence American grand strategy. Britain’s Tony Blair could readily attest to the delusion of such bravado.
An East Asian Identity?
Conferences on east Asian politics, security and economics abound. Almost always they include a discussion of Asian regionalism. Acronyms are tossed about—ASEAN, ASEAN+3, ARF, APEC, ASEM, EAC. Then speakers admit that the acronyms do not yet represent solid institutions, a set of binding rules, that the acronyms point to what are still for a for dealing with issues on an ad-hoc basis. It is not uncommon to hear officials and thinkers, straining to discover a basis for Asian unity, cite with great seriousness the fact that Asia shares a culture of using chopsticks.
There are no shared Asian values. There is neither Asian community nor Asian regionalism. Asia is just a geographic denomination. To the extent there is a community, it has no peculiarly Asian foundations. It is capitalism and bourgeois life that bind. Membership in the community hinges on the degree of middle class development and interaction within global capitalism. Laos and Myanmar, which do not even have functioning commercial laws, hardly qualify for membership.
Still, there are solid arguments for constructing regional institutions. The acronyms cited above are such initiatives and, interestingly, most of them originate in Southeast Asia. Superimposing what is happening in Asia onto Europe after 1945, it is as if the Benelux countries took the initiative to persuade France and West Germany to imagine a European community. China and Japan, Asia’s France and Germany, together ought to be taking the initiative in community building. Over the long run, China and Japan need each other to deal with critical problems.
Japan’s problem is its ageing population and low birth rate. Within a span of 30 years, between the years 2000 and 2030, the working population will decrease by 20%, given present trends. Men will begin to work longer years; more women will join the workforce, further reducing the birth rate.
But in the end, immigration of white- collar workers is the only solution. And it is China that can provide an adequate number of educated, Japanese-speaking workers—as residents, raising families. Much is made of the insularity of the Japanese, but suffice to note, about 5% of all marriages in Japan are already international, most of them to other Asians.
China’s problem is ensuring political stability—whether it can continue to create sufficient wealth, and whether the government has the ability and will to redistribute that wealth to ameliorate current vast income differences. China’s GDP may be large, but it is still a poor country in per capita terms. Economic cooperation with richer Japan would bring considerable benefits. Economic integration will enhance efficiency and productivity. One idea is to selectively integrate the richer pockets of China with Japan, creating special economic zones.
The goal is a China whose per capita income approximates Japan’s. In the process of achieving this goal, borders will become more porous and eventually open, between China and Japan as well as between most other countries in the region. Consequently, sovereignty will tend to lose meaning. Taiwan will become a non-issue. Japan and China will become equal for the first time and, in a sense, one and part of a larger global whole.
It is hard to imagine how an economically successful China so enmeshed in global capitalism will threaten the very system that made it rich and middle class. Bourgeois success tends to diminish military efficacy in international relations. In the long run, the Chinese threat to the United States, Japan and the world comes from an economically faltering China, not a prosperous, self-confident China.
This new paradigm will require a change in thinking in Beijing just as much as in Tokyo. But the first step should come from Japan. A disaster like the tsunami offered an opportunity to break the diplomatic ice and coordinate a response that utilized the two countries’ respective strengths. Instead, the Koizumi administration once again played into the idea of a competition for regional leadership. Japan sorely needs a national discussion on how to address a rising China if it is to end this self- defeating policy.
Mr. Tamamoto is a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute in New York and resides in Yokohama, Japan

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