January 26th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: The magic of Middle Earth

Editorial: Argentina - from role model to basket case

Al Qaeda network must be destroyed

Policy not structure the problem for National Party

Industry policy behind Celtic Tiger's success

Straws in the Wind: Great Helmsmen: past and present / A tale of two branches

Anti-war protests leave Melbourne cold

Media: When the Left calls for time-out

Letter: Exports and imports

Letter: Alcohol abuse

Trade: APEC’s demise paves the way for China’s free trade pact

United States: Year of the Right?

Japan: a nation in search of a role

History: Roosevelt’s timeless wisdom

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Japan: a nation in search of a role

by Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, January 26, 2002

China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation and negotiation of a free trade agreement with ASEAN risks leaving Japan out in the cold, says Sharif Shuja.

President Bush’s view is that Japan, not China, should be the focus of American security politics in the Asia-Pacific and that Japan was all too often ignored during the Clinton years.

The Bush Administration sees Japan as an increasingly important global partner in peacekeeping, in promoting democracy, in protecting the environment, and in addressing major challenges in Northeast Asia. Japan, on the other hand, is reluctant to lead, and its neighbours reluctant, for historical reasons, to accept its leadership.

Although Japan may increasingly identify with Asia, it still has to make a case for Asian leadership, and the first basis for claiming it is Japan’s economic strength in East Asia. China is the closest economic rival Japan faces in Asia, but China is dependent on Japanese official development assistance. Thus, the economic relationship is asymmetrical.


The second basis for Japanese leadership rests on its efforts to resolve regional conflicts in Asia. This includes peace building in the Korean Peninsula and normalising diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Finally, there is Japan’s role as a political mediator between East Asia and the West in which Japan’s major contribution will be to promote better relations between them. But, in practice, Japan’s policy emphasis on economic development in Asia contrasts with Western priorities such as economic liberalisation, human rights and democratisation.

The contrast appears to be subtle but important for some governments in East Asia which believe that Western liberalism, including democratisation and human rights, detracts from their economic growth and political stability. Japan could help insulate them against Western pressures. In fact, this seems to be a role into which Japan is falling. It has repeatedly stated that its post-Cold War partnership with the West would be based on the promotion of common values, including democracy and human rights; but in its main theatre of diplomacy, it has not acted to promote these things.

The United States and Japan see each other as economic rivals in China. Asia is becoming a more important market for Japan in reducing its economic dependence on the North American market. Therefore, US-Japanese economic rivalry for the Chinese market is likely to intensify and contribute tensions in the US-Japanese relations.

Currently, American relations with Japan and China are under stress. While conflict in Sino-American relations sterns from the US’s unwillingness to accept the Chinese regime’s political values, and the United States is also wary of China as a future economic powerhouse that might threaten America’s economic interests, the conflict in US-Japanese economic relations is derived from Japan’s rapidly growing economic power.

A growing assertiveness in Japan’s China policy reflects its desire to shift away from dependence on the West, but the Tokyo-Beijing relations will be confined by Tokyo’s need to maintain its close alliance with Washington for the future.

The reasons for Japan’s firm adherence to its American alliance are easy enough to see. Despite irritations over trade, and the presence of American troops, especially those in Okinawa, Japan is strategically more dependent on the US than it was during the Cold War, and that dependence is likely to grow rather than diminish during the next two or three decades.

The road ahead

Relations between the big powers vary over time. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the world will not return to the 19th Century when there was a balance of power in Europe.

President Bush believes in a strong defence, including a National Missile Defence (NMD) and is against intervention abroad except when "based on a strict definition of vital national interest". Some of National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice’s new ideas, for instance, pulling America’s troops out of the Balkans, seem ill-considered.

The NMD is a project for defence of the United States from "rogue nations". Condoleeza Rice worries that "fundamentalist Islam would try to undo the whole American-dominated international system based on markets and democracy". If nuclear attack by a rogue state were a real danger, it would be logical to develop a broad international response. Yet the scheme has been promoted to its allies in strictly American terms.

As it is, the pursuit of NMD may cause damage, unless it is accompanied by skilful diplomacy. The risk is that, though it is intended to protect America from rogue countries such as North Korea or Iraq, it will antagonise China, whose relatively few nuclear missiles would be rendered impotent were an anti-missile shield ever to work.

The mere threat of deployment could therefore encourage China to build more missiles, setting off an arms race in Asia. It would also upset arms control treaties with Russia and strain relations with America’s European allies.

At present, Mr Bush seems to believe that "America should look after itself and leave others to deal with the scourges that do not affect it directly. Even genocide would not merit intervention if it took place in nations outside American strategic interest."

Yet few events, even in distant places, have no impact on America, and many grow more dangerous if neglected. America cannot deal with them all on its own; its allies should certainly play their part. But the necessary action, wherever it comes from, demands ever-greater ingenuity and thought, especially as new threats, including cyberwar, biological war, economic instability, cults and disease emerge.

Changed role

The difficulty for those who must deal with such threats is that the world has changed, yet the instruments for dealing with them have stayed much the same. They range from diplomatic parley through economic sanctions to military support, to armed attack, and armed attack should be a last resort.

While President Clinton managed to break down many barriers among several of the principal regional actors, there still remains a great deal of suspicion and misunderstanding about the US role and its intentions in both Northeast Asia and the Middle East that Washington should be cognisant of, as it formulates a US security strategy for East Asia. The Bush White House has to try to formulate a policy capable of exploring security approaches better suited to manipulate the "postmodern" form of regional conflict.

As the sole superpower of this century, the United States presumes that it is exercising global leadership. But this leadership could turn to partnership (though not on an equal footing) as the Bush Administration confronts the reality of the international situation. There are internal limits to America’s exercise of global hegemony.

A good way to understand Americans’ uncertainties as they confront their new world role is to examine the US economy.

The economic prospects of the United States are unpredictable. Although the American economy appears at the moment beyond challenge, with a commanding position in world business and in international financial institutions, a longer term view gives concern. US GDP accounted for 30 per cent of the world’s GDP in 2000, an increase from 24 per cent in 1990.

The US was the first country to carry out an adjustment of its industrial structure to stress the development of science and technology, allowing it to maintain the leading position in the communications and information industries. The United States will retain its advantageous position for the next 20 or 30 years. However, its internal weaknesses are overshadowed by its striking superficial strength.

The US economy is not as strong as it looks. There are at least four shortcomings in the US economy.

One is that Americans have a low savings rate and net savings have vanished.

The second is that the US economy depends on foreign financing, i.e., it relies on the support of imported capital, with net imported capital amounting to $400 billion per year.

The third is that private debt continues to mount, and tax cutting demands defy a still formidable public debt.

The fourth is that the United States still has 30 to 40 million poor people whose basic necessities of life are not guaranteed even though the country always boasts of its wealth.

These trends are not marks of a superpower. If the US economy declines, confidence in the world economy will be broken, and the world situation will be affected too.

Concluding remarks

  • Stability will depend very much on the evolution of markets and pluralism in China, on the triangular relations between China, Japan and the United States
  • The US will shape Japanese foreign policy to a large extent. Japan will continue to depend on the US-Japanese military alliance for its security.
    In the absence of a domestic political consensus for a new foreign policy, and in the face of the reluctance of Japan’s neighbours to accept a more active independent Japanese security role, the alliance with the United States will very likely remain the best security strategy for Japan provided that the US continues its engagement in Asia.
  • The US should now intensify efforts to draw Japan into a global partnership. Such partnership would be central to the kind of collective leadership that the United States should be trying to promote in this 21st Century.

A new balance of interests and influence will need to be fashioned between the United States, Japan and China.

The future basis of the triangular relationship between these countries should not be dependent upon strategic cooperation, but rather the extent of each country’s dependence in an integrated market.

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