JEAN-PIERRE LEHMANN. As China and US get closer, Japan is left in not so splendid isolation in Asia Pacific

May 24, 2017

Tokyo needs to make peace with its neighbours, especially those that were its former victim.

I spent last March and April at Hong Kong University teaching my course on globalisation and Asia. This coincided with a number of events and developments in this fast moving and “VUCA” – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – world, including the Mar-a-Lago summit that was much discussed in class. As I pointed out to the students (roughly half of whom are from China), the good news is that Donald Trump does not seem to be keeping his campaign promises! The contrast between the Sinophobic offensive campaign rhetoric and recent developments in the evolution of the China-US relationship – “the most important bilateral relationship, bar none”, as we are often reminded – border on the hallucinatory.

The atmosphere in Mar-a-Lago was more than just cordial, sweetened by Ivanka Trump’s children Arabella and Joseph reciting poetry and singing a traditional folk song in Mandarin for Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan. This was an unexpected scenario!

That was on 9th April. On May 11, hardly a month later, media headlines report the White House hailing a concluded US-China trade deal, according to which the Chinese will open their market in a dozen areas, including credit cards, natural gas and beef. In this spirit of cooperation, Washington has announced it will send a senior delegation to the Belt and Road Initiative summit on 14/15 May, which until then it had been intent on boycotting. There are noises about China engaging in the Trump Rebuild America Infrastructure Plan, while in turn the US may become a member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Thus far from engaging in trade war, as many (including this author) had predicted, the US and China appear to be making trade love! Of course, in a VUCA world, everything is possible and this could be the proverbial calm before the storm. For now, things are certainly interesting and encouraging.

The sunshine extends beyond trade. In campaign rhetoric, in his inaugural speech, and in a number of caustic remarks (and tweets!) since then, Trump intoned that his most poisonous bone of contention with China was North Korea. To that end, he sought to engage his Asia-Pacific allies South Korea and Japan and impose on the former the US Army “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)”, anti-ballistic missile system. This was bitterly opposed by Beijing, which saw it as a means to spy on China. In the meantime, another twist in the Asia-Pacific narrative occurred with the impeachment of the hawkish Korean President Park Geun-hye and the election of the far more dovish Moon Jae-in who has announced he is sending a senior delegation to Beijing to seek a peaceful resolution of the THAAD dispute.

Japan lost in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical fog

It is too early to down the cup of Báijiǔ and shout “Gānbēi”, things could still go terribly wrong, but the tale does illustrate once again a point I have been frequently stressing, including in this column: Japan is completely out of sync with what is happening in the world generally and in its Asia-Pacific neighbourhood especially.

The Japanese narrative of the period from roughly 1895 to 1995 is one of outstanding success. From feudal Asian backward isolation, Japan, alone among non-Western nations, became both a major industrial and military imperial power. It lost World War II, but this seemed to be a temporary hiatus in its rise, with less than two decades after devastating defeat astonishing the world with its “economic miracle” – marking the first time, to my knowledge, that the terms “economic” and “miracle” were made contiguous!

Throughout this century of brilliant – even if at times extremely bloody – ascent, Japan never had any Asian allies: only Asian colonies! It had three successive Western allies: Imperial Britain from 1902 to 1922 (during which time it colonised Korea); Nazi Germany 1938-1945 (during which it waged implacable war on China and most of Southeast Asia, with tens of millions of deaths, including civilians); the US since 1952 during which it has been able to perform the economic miracle while riding on American security coat-tails.

Its defeat in World War II notwithstanding it was able to retain its leadership position in Asia by virtue of having been transformed from the US’ most hated enemy to its most pampered protégé. Japanese “foreign” policy, especially vis-à-vis Asia, was decided in Washington, not in Tokyo. Though denied an active military role by virtue of its US-imposed “peace constitution”, it supported the US in the Korean and Indochinese (Vietnam and Laos) wars by providing logistic support, as well as R&R (rest and recuperation) facilities for American soldiers and repair and maintenance facilities for combat ships and planes.

Tokyo also followed to the letter US instructions in refusing to recognise Beijing as the legitimate government of China, opting instead for the renegade government of Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei. It was only after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Mao in 1972 – taking Tokyo totally by surprise – that then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka sheepishly hastened to Beijing in his footsteps.

In the 1980s, as the Japanese economy soared and the American economy plummeted and the relationship was market by quite acute “trade friction” (bōeki masatsu), when the Japanese economy was seen as overtaking the US economy, there was a certain xenophobic resentment of the US, illustrated by publications such as “The Japan that Can Say ‘No’” by the late co-founder of Sony, Akio Morita, and former governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara and by the coinage of the term kenbei – contempt for America.

The Abe-Trump Romance

Since 1995 – year of the Great Hanshin earthquake – things have been going downhill for Japan: the economy has stagnated in a deflationary spiral, there was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), and in 2010 China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s. For the previous 100 years – 1895 was the year Japan defeated China in the first Sino-Japanese war – Japan had dominated China, a country for which many Japanese felt contempt. It is for that reason, among others, that Japan never felt compelled to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, all the crimes against humanity it perpetrated in China. Former Tokyo Governor Ishihara, to cite only one example among many, stated the Nanjing massacre never occurred!

Since coming to office in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzô Abe, notwithstanding his nationalism, has been fawningly obsequious vis-à-vis Washington and especially with Donald Trump and used it as a rampart to constrain China. He enthusiastically supported TPP in what was seen in Tokyo as fundamentally a US-Japan led bilateral deal to ostracise China. He followed the American lead in being the only major Western or Asian economy not to become member of AIIB. He paid an official visit to Pearl Harbor, nice, but not necessary – Pearl Harbor was not a crime against humanity – while still refusing to visit Nanjing. It will not be represented at the BR summit. When Donald Trump was elected, he was the first head of state to come to pay tribute – in the form of a gold putter – and bask in the balmy breeze of Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s bombastically cacophonic anti-Chinese tirades was undoubtedly sweet music to his ears.

Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, but strongly, the winds have changed. As the Xi-Trump romance seems to blossom, including through bilateral trade deals, participation in the BR summit, probable membership of AIIB, Tokyo stands out pathetically as the jilted lover left holding the empty can.

It’s an interesting spectacle to watch, but also quite distressing and in many ways alarming. The winds may change again and blow in Tokyo’s direction. But in whatever direction it blows, it is an ill wind that bodes potential danger.

As a Frenchman born in 1945, my generation – in contrast to my father’s (World War II) and to my grandfather’s (World War I) – has lived in serene peace. There are a variety of factors that have determined this situation, but only one really matters: Germany has made peace with and unconditionally expressed apologies to its former victims. There will be no solid durable peace in Asia-Pacific until and unless Japan makes peace and unconditionally apologises to its former victims, China and Korea especially. It would be splendid indeed if the current winds could make Tokyo wake up and face this reality. The peace and prosperity of future Asian generations depend on it.

Jean- Pierre Lehmann is visiting professor at Hong Kong University. This article was first published in the Straits Times on May16 2017


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