Sunday, April 8, 2012

China, and Japan’s foreign policy posture

Many thought after the end of the Cold War that the time of traditional balance-of-power games was over.

Japan, too, attempted to re-establish its international presence by responding to the new trend of multilateral cooperation, and sought to help build a new international order in Asia and the world.

To this end, Tokyo expended great effort trying to settle historical disputes with its neighbours, such as through prime ministerial statements, summit meetings and joint communiqués, participation in the ASEAN process, parliamentary resolutions and the establishment of the Asian Women’s Fund.

But the memory of these serious attempts to deal with the history question eventually faded away after Japan’s immediate neighbours rejected them as ‘cosmetic’. Instead, a sense of trauma — more than a sense of fatigue — remains among those who worked on these efforts so conscientiously in the 1990s. This has now led to the emergence of a social and political atmosphere in Japan where conservative and inward-looking views regarding Japan’s history and its diplomatic agenda have gradually gained ground in domestic debates and politics.

The harsh clash between Japan’s right-leaning conservatism and its left-leaning liberalism was, of course, nothing new in post-war Japanese society and politics — where the liberal left generally maintained the upper hand. But this domestic cleavage has become more pronounced over the past two decades. In particular, disputes with China and South Korea, over issues such as their shared history and competing territorial claims, have continued to provide fuel for Japanese conservative arguments.

This conservative trend seems to have convinced many observers, quite wrongly, that the rise of conservatism has encouraged Japan’s ‘normalisation’ of security policy since the end of the Cold War. But this perception has created a deep gap between the actual reality of important changes to Japanese foreign policy and how they are understood externally. For instance, the dispatch of Japan’s Self Defense Forces to Cambodia in the mid-1990s — as part of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia peacekeeping operation — was nothing more than the embodiment of a liberal-internationalism already explicit in Japanese post-Cold War thinking. But many external observers perceived this as a critical step toward ‘normalisation’ that began a reversion to a more ‘normal’ conservative inclination for power politics.

Many Chinese analysts also appear to be convinced that the US–Japan alliance is encouraging Tokyo’s thirst for enhanced military capabilities. In the Japanese calculation, however, the logic is exactly the opposite: Tokyo needs its alliance with the US because its own defence setup would not mean much unless tightly institutionalised in the alliance. Actually, Japan’s defence spending has been decreasing during the last two decades, and relying on the US-Japan alliance, based on an exclusively defence-oriented defence policy, is still the fundamental premise of Japan’s approach to security.

The aggravation of territorial disputes in recent years — and the rise of conservative views on this subject — reveals a much broader problem with the prevailing understanding of what constitutes a ‘normal’ Japan. Contrary to popular belief, Japan has followed the most benign territorial policies of all its neighbours for a long time. This is obvious if one compares the policies and behaviour of each country concerned over the last half century. For the Japanese, this is not surprising because traditional security issues, including national sovereignty and territoriality, have long ceased to be central features of Japan’s diplomatic agenda.

This sharp disconnect between the reality of Japanese policies and its neighbours’ suspicions regarding the liberal and internationalist nature of Japanese diplomacy has complicated security developments in East Asia. It has led policy makers in the region to fall back on a somewhat anachronistic emphasis on traditional security issues, most notably territorial disputes. China’s preoccupation with these traditional values stands out in particular, as its national leaders and the majority of the population appear unanimous in believing that territorial issues constitute core national interests. Equally anachronistic arguments on national defence and territorial disputes are on the rise in Japanese debates as well. This reactionary phenomenon in Japan does complicate its decision-making process and foreign policy, but is in no way an indication of a new strategic consensus.

One of the most difficult aspects of the new Asian Century, therefore, will be this mix of lingering traditional security issues and the long-term evolution of an international order premised on post-modern, liberal and internationalist values. Australia and Japan are natural partners in tackling these difficult issues, especially at this time of complex transition: while they are both allies of the US, they also have a deep sense of post-modern liberal-internationalism strongly rooted within their respective civil societies. But a proper understanding of what constitutes a ‘normal’ Japan will be critically important to this relationship, not only for the sake of bilateral cooperation, but in order to eventually free the Asian Century from an ungrounded and unnecessary confusion associated with this very question.

A ‘normal’ Japan in the coming Asian Century will remain liberal-internationalist.

This natural and inevitable course of evolution reflects two fundamental factors: Japan’s core national interests and the dominant values within its civil society. Japan’s national interests in this new century — the creation of a culturally rich and mature society — will not be achieved without enmeshing its national strategy with the emergence of a stable, prosperous and civilised Asia.

Although Japan’s identity is complex, the diplomatic strategy of a ‘normal’ middle power is essentially internationalist; its mission is to contribute to the creation of a liberal international order. This is why Japan and Australia are natural partners in region-building efforts in the Asia Pacific, a cohesion already experienced during the creation of APEC in the 1980s. This historical cooperation should be repeated in the coming Asian Century.

By Yoshihide Soeya Director at the Institute of East Asian Studies, Keio University.
This post is part of the series on the Asian Century which feeds into the Australian Government White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. East Asia Forum

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