Thursday, November 27, 2014

World War II haunts Japan's future

Understanding what Japan is thinking or what it intends to do is difficult, if not near impossible, at the best of times, let alone now. Yet, if I were Japanese and worried about Beijing's rise, I would enact a simple policy of encirclement to recover Japan's primacy in Asia.

To draw the Koreans to my side, I would build a monument in the center of Tokyo to Korean patriots of the anti-Japanese resistance - to assuage any ill-feeling about the past and concentrate the countries' attention on the potentials of the future together.

To attract Russia, I would give up any claim on the Kurili Islands, which are held by Moscow anyway. I would give the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands up to Taiwan - this would draw Taiwan closer to Tokyo and make it more distant from Beijing. Better political ties with Taiwan because of a Senkaku deal could bring about greater maritime cooperation.

I could sign a cooperation agreement with South Korea about security related to North Korea and China. A deal with Russia could be made on developing resources in Siberia, and then a Russian-Japanese consortium could sell and use those resources to bargain with China.

Japan is not doing any of this. In fact, Japanese politicians cannot do any of this because this goes against their view of history - principally Japan's sense of injustice over the "unresolved" end to World War II.

Tokyo admits it was defeated by the Americans, but not by Russia, China, or Korea. This sense of not being defeated in Asia is an important element of the Japanese character that weighs on any future Japanese role on the continent.

For its part, the US itself is blocking Japan from moving on because it is concerned what the country could become in Asia if it was not shackled by its past. Taken together, this proves that Japan and United States are not really hostile to China, or at least not as hostile as I would be if I were Japanese.

However, Japan's present problems with China, Russia, and Korea underline that it has no sense of the burden of its history on its future role in Asia, though thiis a huge question mark hanging over Tokyo.

After the end of World War II, Japan was the US platform in Asia. This is no longer the case, as America has also other important partners on the continent, and, although Tokyo is still very significant, its weight is bound to be diluted within the bigger picture of a rising Asia.

In the past few years, Tokyo tried to be the anchor of an anti-Chinese triangle made of India, Vietnam, and Japan. However, this triangle never really took off because India and Vietnam, while diffident toward China, were also eager to sell themselves to the highest bidder. The new triangle has not simplified policies in Asia; it has in fact further complicated the political landscape in the region. The question then is also: can China help Japan find a new future for itself?

Stuck in its own self-denial over the results of World War II, Japan may be tempted towards all kinds of crazy acts. It should be in China's own interest to help Japan find a new destiny. This is extremely important as in the past week Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for snap elections to consolidate his political base, despite his Abenomics proving ineffective in re-launching the national economy. Japan is still a technological powerhouse and leader in Asia, and this could be of great importance for the future of the region.

Moreover, this is a country that has beautifully accommodated and brought together Western and Eastern culture in a way that could be a model for other Asian countries - including China itself. As China and Japan should know, the shape of China has changed. Over a century ago, Asia was de facto divided in two subcontinents, one centered on China and another on India, with two middle areas where the subcontinents came together mixing with one another, Southeast Asia and Central-North Asia.

The Cold War somehow continued this division, aligning different parts of the continent with different powers. However, since the 1990s, with development, economic changes, and technological advances in transportation, the regional and sub-regional divisions are no longer valid.

Therefore, can Japan be a role model for a technological and cultural bridge between the West and Asia? Can China look to Japan in this way, which was after all the way many Chinese looked at Japan in the 1920s and 1930s? This is a question for Abe and his successor but perhaps also for the Chinese leaders.

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing.

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