Can Japan's march towards nationalism be contained?

Mark Valencia says America's hand in the creation of a modern Japan is coming back to haunt it at a time when China's rise is stirring rivalries and upsetting the post-war order

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 2:52am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 2:52am

In Mary Shelly's classic tale, Frankenstein, an idealistic scientist creates an unnatural creature who then longs to be accepted by humankind. But it is rejected and, in its frustration, wreaks havoc on the neighbourhood, eventually turning on the scientist's friends, family and ultimately its creator. Does this fable have any relevance for US-Japan relations from the post-war period to the present?

The US essentially created modern Japan by defeating and forcing the "unconditional surrender" of imperial Japan and then fundamentally changing its political system. It reduced Japan's emperor to a figurehead and imposed on the country a peace constitution and its political values, maintaining a strong influence on Tokyo's foreign and defence policies ever since.

Some would argue Japan is still not a fully independent nation because it does not have the right to freely exercise the full range of powers a state possesses under international law. Under Article 9 of the imposed constitution, the "Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes". It also bars collective defence efforts and otherwise limits Japan's military actions and capabilities.

But the East Asian political environment is now in flux. The tectonic plates of the global international political system are shifting and the US and China are on opposite sides of the divide - and perhaps history. The US is yesterday's and today's sole superpower, but its credibility, legitimacy and ability to impose its will are fast eroding. It is squandering blood and treasure as it tries in vain to sustain its global dominance.

China's leaders believe their nation represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. Indeed, leaders believe it is China's destiny to regain its prominence if not pre-eminence in the region, and perhaps eventually the world.

What does all this mean for Japan and the future of the US-Japan alliance? Japan is America's major ally in Asia and is also situated cheek by jowl with China. The two even have territorial and maritime jurisdictional disputes in the East China Sea. Japan is thus caught up in the struggle between the US and China for supremacy.

President Xi Jinping proposed to US President Barack Obama at their June 2013 Sunnylands summit that the two countries construct a "new model of major country relations". According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama agreed to build such a relationship based on two critical elements: practical co-operation and the constructive management of differences.

But this "play nice" pledge is already being challenged, particularly by the growing animosity between China and US ally Japan, as manifested in actions and propaganda regarding their disputes in the East China Sea. This seemingly obscure squabble over some uninhabited islands is actually a nexus of traditional war-triggering flash points.

The disputes involve territory, sovereignty, jurisdiction, important resources, and - ever more dangerous - national identity and pride that drives domestic nationalism in both countries. This limits leaders' choices and influences the tone and tenor of official statements, which in turn reinvigorate nationalism in an ugly cycle that can lead to war.

The US seems to be trying to control the situation - especially its ally Japan. But some cynical analysts have suggested that the US may be purposely trying to use Japan to thwart China's "rise" by draining it of its confidence and treasure while its military is still relatively technologically weak. This strategy would, in an ideal outcome for the US, also weaken Japan and prevent it from turning on the US or its friends.

But even if this Machiavellian ploy were attempted, could the US prevent Japan from becoming a "liability" to itself and the region? Does the US really want Japan to become "independent" to the point of revising its US-imposed peace constitution?

Even the remote possibility that Japan may develop a more robust and independent military and foreign policy alarms those nations that suffered unspeakable excesses and horrors at the hands of the imperialist Japanese military - China, both Koreas, Taiwan, Southeast Asian countries - and many Japanese themselves. In their view, this cannot and will not be allowed to happen again. Indeed, China would almost certainly take "pre-emptive preventive measures" to protect itself from a repeat of Japanese aggression, even or especially if it perceived it as a US-controlled Frankenstein-like monster.

The US thus clearly faces a dilemma in that it is obligated by the alliance treaty to come to Japan's assistance if areas under its administrative control are "attacked". So if the US were trying to use Japan to constrain China, or even hoping or allowing it to do so, it would have to really fine-tune its relations with Japan and its influence on it.

However, the bigger question is whether Japan's slide towards nationalism and militarism, albeit through a democratic process, can be controlled and reversed. Or will it - like Frankenstein's monster - reach a tipping point, spin out of control, prey on its neighbours and eventually turn on its creator?

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Hainan