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Japan Diary

August 2, 2008

What does Japan expect from a new president of the USA?

2008, 8.03
Akio Kawato

The US presidential candidates will soon be formally nominated. They must already be drafting their new policies. I hope that the candidates will pay due attention to relations with Japan, as it is one of the largest “stakeholders” in Asia. Asia today has become home to some of the most important economic partners for the USA.

Japan as a large stakeholder
Japan has the world’s second largest GDP. Among foreign governments Japan is the largest or second largest investor in US treasury bills and bonds. Contrary to conventional understanding, Japan today can legally send its troops abroad (though without heavy artilleries) for UN PKO activities. Its performance in official economic assistance and reduction of carbon dioxide is remarkable. On top of all these Japan is now a showcase of democracy and freedom in Asia. As its culture strongly reflects these positive traits, it has acquired wide support among younger generations in many countries.

Drift of the Japan-US relationship?
The postwar Japanese development owes greatly to the “Pax Americana,” in which security and markets were provided by the US. True, Americans often complained that Japan was a “free rider” of the security alliance and the Japanese resented that the US government was too pushy. Nevertheless, the alliance was very firm, because they badly needed each other. Toward the 1980s they even formed an economic symbiosis, mutually stimulating each other’s economies; the US imported a lot from Japan and Japan financed the US budget, purchasing a large quantity of treasury bonds.
Now the rise of China has made this scheme look more relative――please remember, though, that a large portion of Chinese exports to the US are in fact goods produced in Japanese-owned factories in China. The US has started to depend upon China’s help in solving regional problems (i.e. denuclearization of North Korea and dialogue with the Myanmar government).

This makes the Japanese feel that they are being sidelined. Their disappointment turns into resentment when they learn that the US has struck a deal with North Korea without appropriate attention to Japan’s position: complete dismantling of nuclear missiles and solution of the “abduction” issue. Whenever negative news arises in this regard, Japan’s periodicals are full of anti-American captions.

Will, then, the Japanese become as emotional as those Koreans who stood against imports of American beef? Will Japan and South Korea ultimately side with China, forming a great Confucian Empire and imposing Confucian global standards on the rest of the world? Can you imagine!

What is happening now in Asia?
Maybe I have gone too far. But isn’t it safe to say that we are now witnessing a situation in Asia, similar to the time when the US suddenly and decisively overtook the strength of England, France and Germany after World War I? -------We do not know for sure yet, because the Chinese economy is still fragile. It is overly dependent on export and construction. It still lacks the capacity for sustainable development largely because of excessive bureaucracy.

However, if you recall Brzeziński’s book “The Fragile Blossom: Crisis and Change in Japan,” my apprehension about China may be unfounded, because Japan became a strong flower after the publication of the book.

So, if China becomes a really big entity, what will happen to Asia? We will have two centers of power: the US and China. If they are in a cold war, then the position of in-between countries like Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN nations (I would not mention Taiwan here) may well be unequivocally pro-American. But the US and China are economically much more dependent on each other than the US and the Soviet Union used to be and the US and Russia are now today. Therefore, the intermediate countries have to maintain good relations with both America and China. They are economically dependent almost equally on the two big powers as well.

Then some may say, “Look, Japan is in an ideal position. Things in Asia can be decided by whose side Japan will take, the US or China. ” However, a balancing act between two big powers is always tantamount to a lethal danger for a smaller country. If the two strike a deal between themselves, they can impose their decisions on others and any “balancer” will be put in its own place.

Japan wants to avoid such a sad outcome. Japan is the only country in East Asia which for more than one thousand years did not subordinate itself to the Chinese emperors. Today it has achieved a free society, (very free to the degree of absence of morality) which would not be compatible with the authoritarian Chinese society. Politically, economically and even culturally Japan today is more associated with the US.

Perhaps Japan may have another option: a full-fledged rearmament. But this is easy to talk about and hard to realize. Sure, many Japanese would support this valiant solution, but only a few would opt for becoming soldiers. They want civil servants to defend Japan, because they pay taxes for it. And without nuclear armament Japan’s defense would not be perfect, anyway. But nuclearization of Japan is difficult not only in view of the international legal bindings but also because of technical complexities.

America’s presence in Asia is necessary for the US itself
America’s current dependence on trade with Asia is larger than that with Europe. In the coming years new profits will come mainly from Asia. Asia is vital for the American economy.

But America is vital for Asia, too. The US has been supporting free trade in the world, and providing Asia with its huge market. The American armed forces in the Pacific have been acting as a guarantor of the status quo in Asia. Their bases in Japan are still playing an irreplaceable role in this regard.

Now in view of the surge of China, Asia needs a new formula to maintain the status quo, incorporating China into the arrangement. For this we already have such forums like APEC, ARF, the East Asia Summit meeting and the Six-Party Talks for denuclearization of North Korea. But they are still far from being a full-fledged collective forum for discussing security issues. India may be able to play the role of a balancer vis-à-vis China, but its vast society does not allow its government to have a consistent strategy.

As things stand now, there is no all-encompassing solution to address the new situation in Asia. We have to be satisfied with incremental changes in the current regime. The alliance between Japan and the US should be maintained. It is easy to dissolve it, but once dissolved we will not be able to reinstate it no matter how badly we may need it again. Please recall what happened after Japan and England abrogated their alliance in 1923.

However, the Japan-US alliance should be constantly revitalized with necessary changes. The Japanese government should keep trying to convince the people to support more active participation in UN peacekeeping operations. Perhaps it is now time to conclude a free trade agreement between Japan and the US insofar as America and South Korea have already done it.

Erosion of the ties between Japan and the US would be harmful not only to Japan but also to the US and Asia as a whole. It is the Japan-US alliance which provides Asia with a framework for free trade and maintenance of the status quo. It is a common asset upon which to build a future structure for all of Asia. Real changes can be made only with solid parts.


Author: Hal | August 8, 2008 12:37 PM

Dear Mr. Kawato,

What do you make of this? Is there alarm in Japan?

Is this -- like Ruckstos / Weimar / National Socialism in Germany -- part of Russian nationalists' grand design to reestablish itself as a world power?

Russia takes control of Turkmen (world?) gas
By M K Bhadrakumar , ASIA TIMES

Author: kawato | August 8, 2008 12:39 PM

Dear Hal

Thank you for sending me an interesting article. This mostly affects Europe. Japan is not interested in Caspian gas. So far Japan is content with the supply from Sakhalin, Indonesia, Australia and so on. Let Russia and Turkmenistan and other similar countries engage in the nineteenth-century type zero-some game.

However, it is true that we are all getting into a jungle-like world---no law, no rule, only naked power. The US resorts to power, too, but it is usually properly dressed.

Akio Kawato

Author: Hal | August 8, 2008 12:41 PM

Dear Kawato-san,

I see this. But what about rising Russian nationalism and its potential mischief? Is it simply the case that China has become so much of a preoccupation for Japan, that Russia has moved to the periphery of its radar screen?

On a completely different topic, where do the Foreign Ministry / LDP's sympathies lie on the upcoming US presidential election? Historically, they've seemed to be quite content with Republicans in office. What's the elite as opposed to popular view of Obama?

My concern is that widespread, latent racism is a real threat to Obama's election prospects, despite all the advantages that a Democratic candidate could expect to reap in the midst of an unpopular war, a tanking economy, and with a Republican incumbent president in office who is more like a paraplegic duck than a lame one.


Author: Keynotes | June 26, 2013 9:56 AM

Great post, This will not be like this in the near future

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