Asia will welcome a more outgoing Japan
MONDAY, OCTOBER 2, 2006
As a nuclear-armed China grows in strength and benign U.S. hegemony is slowly eroded by resource constraints and the Middle East mire, Japan can bring a better power balance to Northeast Asia.
Abe's arrival should also be a reminder that amid all the hype about China, Japan's economy is still bigger. And after a decade of immersion in domestic economic problems, Japan is now in a position to make better use of its economic muscle.
Abe's twin emphasis in his inaugural speech on patriotism and relations with Asia neighbors may at first glance seem contradictory. Are Asians not supposed to fear a nationalistic, outward-looking Japan? Is this not the country that has inadequately atoned for its imperialist excesses, whose former prime minister made a point of honoring the war criminals memorialized at the Yasukuni Shrine, and whose textbooks gloss over its atrocities?
If we're going to talk about history, however, we have to be wary of China's propaganda and the West's willingness to forget its imperialist past. The nationalist heroes of much of Asia had worked for or with imperial Japan, like Sukarno and Suharto in Indonesia, Aung San in Burma, Park Chung Hee in South Korea.
As for the "Class A" war criminals of Yasukuni, the term referred not to the magnitude of the crimes, but to "crimes against peace," a broad term aimed mainly at political figures. Actual "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" (such as the Nanjing massacre) were in other categories.
The one judge at the postwar Tokyo tribunal from a noncombatant nation, Radhabinod Pal from India, argued in his dissenting opinion that Japan was innocent. He wrote, "If Japan is judged, the Allies should also be judged equally." (The Dutch judge also voted against most of the Class A convictions.)
That said, Abe would be wise not to go to Yasukuni. The visits have been blown up into such an issue by China that they have frozen discourse on other topics and occasioned an outpouring of popular nationalist feelings in China. In turn, as a recent Pew survey showed, there has been a marked deterioration over the past four years in the Japanese public's perception of China.
These political stresses are in the economic interests of neither country. The growth of Chinese demand has been crucial in reviving Japan's economy, where domestic demand remains weak. But equally, investment by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan remains the key to China's export growth. China owes much to the continued increase in global market shares by East Asian companies that use China for assembly.
What Japan needs is not a more nationalistic foreign policy but a more activist one. That is easier said than done. A desire not to be seen slavishly following Washington is hard to mesh with the overriding need to maintain a close strategic partnership with the United States in the face of China's rise. And obvious shared interests with South Korea over how to deal with North Korea, and with Russia over resources and the Northeast Asian power balance, are impeded by the baggage of history.
But Japan holds more cards than one might think. Despite the rush to develop relations with China, most Asian countries would be quietly happy to see Japan's conventional forces grow in power and reach - and would prefer Japanese investment in their factories to China's buying up resources and real estate. No central bank seriously believes that the yuan will become an international currency in the near future, supplanting the yen as Asia's major unit. And even Seoul is beginning to recognize that in future it is more likely to have problems over history with China (which claims it as its own) than with Japan.
In short, there are opportunities galore for Abe to exploit the fund of goodwill for Japan that exists in Asia. But it does require a strategy that appears outward-looking and generous - and the avoidance of atavistic, self-pitying attitudes and exceptionalist notions so common to Japan's traditional right wing.
Japan can say no to the United States and China, but first it must say yes more loudly to Asia.