Monday, April 9, 2012

Japan’s foreign policy and avoiding the unthinkable

Building a stable international order in Asia and the Pacific, in which a major international conflict remains unthinkable, requires a number of elements.
Understandably much of the focus on thinking about avoiding the unthinkable, to date, has been on the how to manage the rise of China’s power and its impact on America.

That is the focus of Hugh White’s idea of an Asian ‘concert of powers’ and how it might be built around an understanding that accommodates China’s rise and rightful expectation of treatment as an equal.

The US-China relationship, of course, is central. But how would Japan react to US-China accommodation and how will Japan’s foreign policy posture adjust to the transition of Asian power?

America’s alliance relations in the Pacific have provided reassurance to Japan in the management of its historically troubled relationship with China. But America’s security arrangements with Japan have also provided reassurance to China against many that Chinese fear might be the possible resurrection of Japanese adventurism.

In this week’s lead essay Yoshihide Soeya explains that the thrust of Japanese foreign policy after the Cold War, despite perceptions in China and elsewhere to the contrary, has not been towards ‘normalisation’ of military power. Chinese analysts appear to be convinced, he says, that the US–Japan alliance is encouraging Tokyo’s thirst for defensive build-up and enhanced military capabilities. ‘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’. ‘For the Japanese’, Soeya argues, ‘… 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 an anachronistic emphasis on traditional security issues. This clearly frustrates Soeya, as a leading and effective advocate of Japan’s role as a ‘middle’ power — not a ‘great’ power — in world affairs. ‘China’s preoccupation with these traditional values stands out in particular’, he laments, ‘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’.

China and Japan are now in fact neighbouring economic giants, who still have a number of unresolved historical issues to deal with as well as a natural rivalry for regional and global influence, despite all of which have built a huge economic partnership. The rivalry and historical baggage, therefore, is no longer the only or perhaps the dominant element in the China–Japan relationship. More important now is their huge economic relationship — already the third-largest bilateral economic relationship in the world.

Japan, like much of the rest of East Asia, is confronted by a tension between its political and its economic security. Japan is in a tough position. It is anxious about China’s rise, and wary of the possibility of closer US-China cooperation as some think that means Japan loses strategic leverage vis-à-vis the US. The US and China are Japan’s two biggest trading partners, and a stable relationship between them is important to Japan’s future. But Japan’s stake in the Chinese and East Asian economy is also growing larger. Japanese firms — once manufacturing powerhouses confined largely to Japan itself — now produce over 45 per cent of their electronics output and 33 per cent of all their manufacturing output offshore, a very large portion of that in China. Like most international brands, Sony, Panasonic and the Japanese big name brand products are put together in China and elsewhere in Asia, and products made in China frequently come with a Japanese name.

The huge China-Japan relationship is not a narrowly bilateral relationship. It underpins regional growth and prosperity and plays a driving role in the East Asian economic integration and the regional production networks that have created it. The bilateral relationship is nested in a complex set of strong links (led by trade and investment) throughout the region.

So a ‘normal’ Japan, Soeya rightly concludes, will remain liberal-internationalist. This course reflects two fundamental factors: Japan’s core national (economic and political) interests and the dominant values within its civil society. Japan’s national interests in this in the decades ahead ‘will not be achieved without enmeshing its national strategy with the emergence of a stable, prosperous and civilised Asia’. Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

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