Japan fumbles on false dilemmas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2008, 12:00am

A gloom is settling over Tokyo. A recent visit revealed deep and deepening frustration and anxiety as Japanese contemplate strategic options. Decision-makers in Tokyo have framed their choices in overly simple terms that do not reflect the range of possibilities in foreign and security policy. Worse, Japanese behaviour today may limit future choices. While the roots of Japan's insecurity will endure, Japanese can take steps to ease anxieties, create more options and raise the comfort level.

Political developments in Tokyo and Washington are the primary source of anxiety. The Democratic Party of Japan's (DPJ) victory in Upper House elections in July plunged Japan into uncharted territory. The DPJ appears determined to force a general election, fighting the government on every issue. This has resulted in virtual political paralysis.

While some recalibration of priorities after the departures of prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe was expected, the unblinking focus on domestic politics - the phrase 'navel gazing' was used in several conversations - has irritated even friends of the alliance. It is distracting decision makers and draining the energy from Japanese institutions. To take one example: two countries did not send a head of state or cabinet-level delegation to the recent Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland: Sudan and Japan. Not surprisingly, no one is expecting anyone to make the tough domestic political decisions that are needed to continue the transformation of the US-Japan security alliance.

Japanese are equally nervous about political developments in the United States. Tokyo instinctively distrusts Democrats, who are thought to be soft on security, captive to economic interests and ready to bash Japan. Memories of Bill Clinton's 1998 trip to China are quick to surface: his failure to stop in Tokyo sparked the term 'Japan passing'. I heard frequent references to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent Foreign Affairs article - calling US-China ties the most important bilateral relationship - and much angst about what her victory might mean for Japan.

This first false dichotomy - Republicans are good for the US-Japan relationship, Democrats are bad - is based on a mistaken assumption that Japan and China are competing for American attention. Tokyo fears Washington and Beijing will make common cause to deal with shared problems and issues; that China, with its size, resources (including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council) and confidence, has assets Japan cannot match; and that the US will become frustrated with Japanese inaction. For many Japanese, Beijing's role in the six-party talks and the evolution of US policy towards North Korea confirm the fragile alignment of US and Japanese interests and are a sign of things to come.

Japan has responded by clinging tighter to the US and searching for ways to differentiate Tokyo from Beijing. The call for 'values-based diplomacy' - which aligns Japan with Washington, Australia, India and Europe - is the most visible manifestation of this effort. This policy echoes those embraced at the outset of the Meiji Restoration in 1867, when strategists pondered whether to look to Asia or the west. Japan turned its back on Asia, swiftly modernised and returned to Asia with a vengeance.

While talk of an 'East Asian Community' would seem to resurrect that dichotomy, the choice today is a false one. Japan need not pick one or the other. Japan is a member of both communities: Asian by geography, but western by virtue of its post-war political and social evolution. Given its global interests - economic and political - Japan cannot be a purely 'Asian' country. The key in this choice is in balancing concerns.

That is a constant and difficult process. Policymakers must be vigilant, scanning the horizon for challenges that they must then be prepared to confront. A reactive diplomacy will not serve Japan well.

While adjustments will continue, Japan can devise a framework to guide strategic thinking. First, Japan should recognise that its choice is not Asia or the west. It is an integral part of both communities and must engage both. Failure to identify with Asia, or to participate fully in the development of Asian institutions, will marginalise Tokyo within the region. Tokyo will not 'speak for' one or the other - as has sometimes been suggested - but can provide insight into how each is seen by the other.

Second, Japan should seek a better and more stable relationship with China. They are the region's two biggest countries: positive relations would make almost anything possible. At a minimum, they are the foundation of an Asian community. This process appears to be under way, but is fragile and must be nurtured.

Third, Tokyo should adopt an inclusive outlook and not feel threatened by improved relations between Washington and Beijing. Just as a positive Japan-China relationship will not threaten Tokyo's ties to Washington, improved US-China relations need not undermine the US-Japan alliance. The key is ensuring that the US sees the value of an alliance with Japan; one asset will be an improved Japan-China relationship. Japan should also reach out to South Korea to ensure that Seoul doesn't feel left out of regional deliberations.

Fourth, and easiest of all, Japan should court more Democrats in the US (or at least stop bad-mouthing them). The bilateral security alliance endures because of its bipartisan support. Dismissing Democrats' views and bemoaning what a Democratic administration would do to the alliance alienates friends and allies.

These suggestions may seem simple, but they demand a radical change in how Japan sees itself and its place in the world. Japan must see itself as an actor shaping international politics, rather than a country merely reacting to external developments. That does not mean adopting a great-power mentality; it does require thinking more clearly about Japanese national interests and acting to protect them. This transformation will not be easy, but the stakes could not be higher.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS

Japan should recognise that its choice is not Asia or the west. It is an integral part of both