Japan’s Pivot Away from the West Leads Back to China
Chinese demonstrate against Japan over disputed islands
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The Fiscal Times
June 9, 2014

Japan-watchers have asked since the “bubble” of the late-1980s, “What are the Japanese going to do?” Now Shinzo Abe, the bluntly nationalist prime minister, is making this clear, prompting a new question: “How will Americans and Japan’s neighbors handle what the Japanese are going to do?”

China forces the question, as it does much else at the western end of the Pacific. Its economy overtook Japan’s in 2010 and will soon overtake America’s. Its assertive moves in the seas around it, have the region sitting up and watching—as is Washington, and very closely.

Related: Abe’s Japan Reform Plan Draft Leaves Unanswered Questions

The talk now is of a resurgent Japan. Abe just announced plans to reinterpret Japan’s peace constitution to allow for military activity beyond defense of Japan’s borders. He stands fast in asserting sovereignty over islands Beijing also claims. His “Abenomics” experiment, making money so cheap corporations, consumers, and investors can scarcely avoid spending it, is intended to jolt the economy back to life after two decades in a coma. It is daring, and it is working. On Monday, Japan reported first-quarter growth at an annualized rate of 6.7 percent, the best quarterly performance since Q3 2011.

Abe’s premiership is complex, but there is a strong argument that China effectively holds the cue cards.

“Japan is clearly trying to play a regional role and revive its economy,” says David Pilling, Asia editor at the Financial Times. “But ‘resurgent Japan’ sets up the wrong idea. What you have is a resurgent China, and Japan reacting to it. China was the backdrop to Abe’s re-election two years ago. He was made in Beijing.”

Pilling has just published Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, which, for my money, is the Japan book of his generation. In it, he identifies the deep sources of Japan’s long national angst as to its place in Asia. The book suggests Japan is just as committed as China is to achieving a new postwar settlement—and asserting itself as a Pacific power in a reshaped regional constellation.

Related: Japan, Worried about China, Strengthens Ties with Nato

I have long viewed Japan and China as the Germany and France of East Asia, and until these two powers are reconciled, insecurity and anxiety will prevail across the region. Renovating the post-1945 order, much as Washington resists, is the only starting point holding any promise of success.   

But this sets us up for a nice raft of worrisome potential outcomes, if Pilling’s thesis is correct (and I think it is). The best reply to this observation is simple: Maintaining stability at all costs can sometimes be detrimental. Few significant historical advances have been achieved without risk.

“We’ve had a strong China and a weak Japan, and then a strong Japan and a weak China,” Pilling observes. “But we’ve never had a strong China and a strong Japan. I’m not predicting war, but it’s not a happy situation, and I can’t see it going away soon.”

Armed conflict indeed seems far-fetched. There are too many intelligent minds in Beijing and Tokyo, and the extent of economic interdependence between the two powers can be counted an insurance policy against any kind of hot war. But a long-running smolder as China and Japan improvise their way toward peaceful resolution: Yes, it is the region’s most likely fate.  

Two questions here:

• Can Japan succeed as a counterweight to the rise of China? The war record lingers in some nations. The Japanese have a long history of condescending to their neighbors. As they modernized in the late-19th century, the working thesis was called Datsu-A, Nu-O—“departing Asia, joining the West.” The Koreans, Chinese, and the rest were too backward to be bothered with.

Related: U.S. Warns China Against Aggression As Allies Seek Cooperation

• How can a settlement, Franco-German style, be achieved? Can a Japanese premier and a Chinese president mend a century’s wounds, as Helmut Schmidt and Giscard d’Estaing did in 1980, making possible the E.U. we have before us? The problem: It has become unthinkable in the past year or so.  

Pessimism can be overdone on both counts. In South Korea, the idea of Japan as an aggressive nation has taken on a life of its own, true. But in China, where animosities are shrillest, the culture of victimhood is cynically manipulated—turned on and off like water from a faucet.  

Other nations have already put the past in its proper place—forgetting none of it but taking it off center stage. Across Southeast Asia, ill-feeling among populations is surprisingly faint and Japanese popular culture much favored. The Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia— all have had huge Japanese investment since the 1980s; Manila and Hanoi are now on record welcoming a greater Japanese security presence.

Abe is playing the card. He is keenly attentive to Japan’s “soft power.” Last year he visited all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. At a regional defense dialogue in Singapore 10 days ago, Abe’s theme was, approximately, “If the Americans won’t defend you, we will.” Tokyo is now selling the Philippines patrol boats on very favorable terms and talking to Hanoi about a similar deal.

Related: China’s Bold Power Play Pushes Asia to the Brink

Acceptance of Japan is perfectly plausible, providing China finds the political will, and Beijing and Tokyo are able to reach their hands across the water.

Emphatically they can. During Abe’s first premiership, a brief run in 2006-7, his clear intent was to pull off a Nixon-in-China gambit—a man of proven nationalist credentials breaking the ice with Communist Beijing. State visits were becoming routine; talks on condominium development of the disputed islands’ resources were advancing; a Japanese naval vessel called at a Chinese port. “No guarantees,” a retired Japanese ambassador said in Tokyo at the time, “but the trajectory is right.”

To say the trajectory is wrong now is to put the point too mildly. But we ought not to forget the recent history. What once was quite close can be re-approached.

Abe’s nationalist streak is noxious. But he appears intent on resolving the long national neurosis as to whether Japan is Asian or somehow of the West. If Japan is to “join Asia” at last, so much the better. A Sino-Japanese settlement will have the staying power of a solution originating within the Asian dynamic and without reference to outside forces coming in on one side and opposed to the other. Washington’s task is to accommodate this historic shift.

“I predict things will get more uncomfortable before they get more comfortable,” Pilling said the other day from Hong Kong. So do I, but the second part of the thought is a fairly certain bet to follow the first.

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A correspondent, editor and critic for more than 30 years, mostly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, Patrick Smith has also lectured in journalism and media studies. He is the author of five books.