Illustration: Stephen Case
Tom Plate
Tom Plate

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?

East Asia began its major transformation in the mid-1960s, when Japan’s wildly successful 1964 Tokyo Olympics proved an early marker of its emergence as an economic powerhouse. At that time, Mao Zedong’s China was still reeling from the Great Leap Forward that triggered one of the greatest recorded mass famines in history.

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.

Fast-forward to today’s Tokyo Olympics, eviscerated by a persistent pandemic into little more than an international TV event with Tokyo residents mostly off-camera in a new state of emergency. The nation’s economy is sagging under a mountain of debt, the product of inept government that since the 1990s seemed to lack what its business community once had in excess – ideas that worked.
Commuters at a train station in Tokyo on July 11. The fourth state of emergency for Tokyo took effect on July 12 and would last through August 22, despite the opening ceremony of Tokyo Olympics that’s scheduled to be held in less than two weeks. Photo: AP

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.”

Not unlike Beijing, Tokyo had preferred to conduct trade relations one-on-one with other countries. However, Japan’s private sector now seems more at home than ever with multinational constructs and regional arrangements.
This dynamic has the potential to convert Japan into a leading cosmopolitan economic actor. This was already in motion when the Trump administration unceremoniously dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Japanese filled the gap. Notably, China was not a TPP member and has no plans to be one; Japan’s zest offered quite the contrast with Washington’s petulance.
A man walks by an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo. Japan’s private sector now seems more at home than ever with multinational constructs and regional arrangements. Photo: AP

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.


China 2020 census records slowest population growth in decades

China 2020 census records slowest population growth in decades

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.

Its precarious but influential position between China and the US becomes not just an annoyance or threat, as far as Beijing is concerned, or just a reliable adjunct offset to China, as far as Washington is concerned. Rather, it provides the region with an invaluable, non-ideological psychology for coping with reality.

Yet, this is optimistic at a juncture in history when optimism is not rampant in Japan.

I accept that if you support Japan taking a more assertive role in any way, you run the risk of having people feel you suffer from serious memory loss. For example, offering to help the US defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese invasion is counterproductive policy for Tokyo. A progressive geo-economic evolution might be just what the region needs, but remilitarisation is not.

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