Why Japan should focus on making friends and money, not interfering in Taiwan
- Asia needs a progressive geo-economic evolution led by a friendlier, outward-looking Japan, not further remilitarisation
- Japan does best and offers neighbours its best when it keeps its military on a leash while unleashing its impressive entrepreneurial powers
There are always concerns about Japan, with its background of brilliant accomplishments and unforgettable aggression. Now that Japan is in the foreground again with the cheerless Olympics, who can be sure what is next?
By the 1980s, there were times when it seemed as if Japan could afford to buy almost anything anywhere. Across the East China Sea, not many Chinese seemed to have any money to buy much besides bags of rice.
Even though Japan’s economy is still the world’s third-largest, the sense of stasis is unsettling. Note the polished, centralised direction from Beijing and entrepreneurial decentralisation as China roars into the 21st century. In the economic regard, might Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party deserve less respect than China’s Communist Party?
The central government in Tokyo and the nation’s business and entrepreneurial community are Japanese to the core, but the renowned secular consensus no longer offers magnetic appeal. And so at almost every opportunity, the business community is finding ways to polish its act and regionalise, leaving the central government in the dust.
Perhaps no scholar has analysed this extraordinary bifurcation more cogently than Professor Saori Katada of the University of Southern California. “Japanese foreign economic policy is moving into uncharted territory,” she writes in Japan’s New Regional Reality. “The distance between the Japanese government and big business has widened significantly since the mid-1990s ... The government machinery is struggling to keep up.”
Japanese thinking about architecture of regional economic deals could stand out. In China, President Xi Jinping’s regime continues to draw space away from prominent entrepreneurial leviathans. Meanwhile, in the United States, the White House seeks to call to account those parts of the nation’s business sector it deems insufficiently acting in the public interest.
But in Tokyo, informed people are asking whether the state’s interventionist role and its ideology have lived beyond their usefulness. For Japan, the willingness to accept and even seek out global standards of institution building and rule-setting might be said to reflect a final rejection of past provincialism and a new referencing of the global cosmopolitan playbook.
Could China someday also sign on to a liberal economic coalition? The safe prediction, of course, is that China under Xi feels it can say no to anything that has a Western or un-Chinese feel. Perhaps that will remain the case.
But intense contacts with the outside world to keep a gigantic economy buoyant can have their own unintended, internal effect. Surely over time, outside voices have already affected Japan in ways its forefathers never could have foreseen. Perhaps China will one day become more like Japan.
In my hopeful Pacific scenario, Japan evolves an Asian “third way” that adds to peace and security. Its deep culture with an astronomical literacy rate reads the tea leaves of the future by dynamically evolving rather than recoiling.
Yet, this is optimistic at a juncture in history when optimism is not rampant in Japan.
Only a fool underestimates the Japanese, but it’s a fool’s errand to bait Beijing. Japan does best and offers neighbours its best when it keeps its military on a leash while unleashing its impressive entrepreneurial powers. I hope it sees that clearly.
Professor Tom Plate is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies and vice-president of the Pacific Century Institute