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Old fears

Shinzo Abe's plan for 'New Japanese' to lead Asia raises old fears

Eric Li says with America in retreat and China on the rise, Asia needs a new security order. But Shinzo Abe's proposal for the 'New Japanese' to lead offers only false promises and should be rejected

Shinzo Abe

US President Barack Obama recently sought to define a new foreign policy doctrine for America. In his much anticipated speech to graduates at the West Point military academy, he set a bar for US military intervention abroad that is the highest in recent memory - when America's interests are directly threatened. Perhaps the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are beginning to sink in and be reflected in American foreign policy. Perhaps the demands of the American people for a "pivot" to Ohio, rather than the far-flung oceans of Asia, are finally being heard.

Many worry that a self-reflective and downsizing America is leaving a void in the world's balance of power. But, wait, here is Shinzo Abe coming to the rescue.

Over the weekend, Singapore rolled out the red carpet for the Japanese prime minister at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue. In his keynote address, as Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong looked on, Abe proposed a ground-breaking new concept: the New Japanese. This breed of international and peace-loving contemporary Japanese are to confidently step forward and safeguard the world order, at least in Asia.

There was only one theme to Abe's speech: China is the enemy (without naming it, of course); Japan is the new steward of peace and stability in Asia based on rule of law; and Japan will support whichever countries decide to oppose China. Here he did name names - Vietnam and the Philippines. Japan will back them politically, economically and, yes, militarily.

Abe rightly pointed out that Asia has been synonymous with growth. In the past few decades, perhaps no region has benefited more from the current global order.

This amazing achievement has been built on two pillars. First, the global economic and security architecture designed, built and sustained by the US has served as the guarantor of regional peace, upon which economic development has depended. And a post-second-world-war, legally pacifist Japan is a key component of that architecture. Second, China, the largest nation in Asia, has been the single most important engine of growth through good and bad times.

At the moment, the twin-pillar foundation of the Asian miracle is in trouble. The US is suffering from an acute case of imperial overreach. Its military involvements around the world have drained its resources. Its leadership of the globalisation project has caused deep and structural imbalances in its own economy. Its social contract, the bedrock of American success for over a century, is seriously threatened.

America has now found that the costs of sustaining the global order far exceed the benefits. Obama's West Point speech says as much. Rhetorical statements by US officials aside, the real question facing America is not how to pivot to where, but how to rebalance at home.

At the same time, China's dramatic ascent in all aspects of its national power has surprised even the most optimistic observers. The World Bank estimates China will become the largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity this year. No one can reasonably expect China not to seek to advance and protect its interests in the region.

So we have a situation in which an incumbent hegemon is in retreat and a fast-rising new power is making its presence felt. And there are no established rules to manage this process.

Abe's proposal? Outsource it all to us - the New Japanese!

At the moment, perhaps in their desire to reduce their commitments to the region but not let China take their place as the new hegemon, the Americans seem to be enthusiastically entertaining the proposition. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel backed Japan unreservedly in his speech the next day. But it is a bad idea.

Thucydides once wrote that people go to war for three reasons: honour, fear and interests. Peace is obviously in everyone's interests. But it constitutes only a third of Thucydides' formula. In singling out China as the enemy and thereby putting one of the twin pillars of Asian success in binary opposition to a regional alliance to be led by Japan, Abe and his American backers are playing with fire.

Japan, with a declining population and a stagnant economy, fears a powerful China. That fear would be magnified by such an alliance of convenience. China, whose people have endured immeasurable suffering at the hands of the Japanese through multiple generations, would see a challenge to its national honour and its reactions would be amplified, too.

The popular narrative is that China is a challenger of the status quo. That is of course true to some extent, as the status quo cannot go on forever, with qualitative changes to America's interests and China's position. But Japan's revisionist approach to both history and the present poses a real threat to the prospects of an evolution of the status quo that could lead to a peaceful outcome.

In so aggressively seeking to re-emerge as a military power, Japan is dangerously removing a key legal underpinning of the entire post-second-world-war regional architecture. China, and many other Asian nations, will not consent to that revision.

Abe's claim to want to lead an Asia based on the rule of law in resolving any and all disputes is flatly disingenuous. The world sees the dangerous territorial disputes that are being played out between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkakus by Japan). Yet Japan vehemently denies even the existence of a dispute. And, of course, when one refuses to recognise a dispute, the rule of law becomes irrelevant. Furthermore, Japan's enormous historical baggage and its steadfast refusal to live up to it make it impossible for it to effectively play Foxconn to the American Apple in Asian security. Merely two generations ago, Japan invaded China, Korea and many Southeast Asian countries, and massacred their peoples. In Nanjing alone, the Japanese Imperial Army slaughtered tens of thousands of men, women and children in a matter of days.

Before the Americans sign their outsourcing contract with Tokyo, they would be well advised to listen carefully to Abe's Shangri-La speech. In his concluding remarks, he said that the New Japanese are really no different from their parents and grandparents in seeking to contribute to the world. For every Chinese and every Korean, it begs the question: just who were those grandfathers Abe was so proudly referring to?

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Old fears