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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
December 1, 2003

Japan Must Promote Policies to Cope with the Transforming World and East Asia

Takashi SHIRAISHI (Professor, Kyoto University)

The world order, with the United States at its center, is undergoing change since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and East Asia is transforming since the financial crisis of 1997-98. What kind of role should Japan play in these two domains?

The Pendulum of American Politics

The following are the main points to be considered to assess the transition taking place in the world:

(1) How the new world order led by the United States has changed since the end of the Cold War, and especially after 9-11.
(2) What kind of transformation is occurring in the regional order of East Asia--which covers the areas from Japan and Korea to China, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, and onto Southeast Asia--after the financial crisis of 1997-98.
(3) What role Japan should play facing the new situation in the world and East Asia.

With these points in mind, I would like to put forth some issues concerning Japan's role in the global and regional context.

To begin, there are a few important points regarding the transition of the world order. The first is the political trend in the United States. Arguably, at the core of the present world order is the U.S., and the direction of the drifting is in the long run affected largely by U.S. politics. The military predominance of the United States has, due partly to the advance of technology, increased to overpower other nations in the post cold-war era. But military force is not the only factor to secure world order, and there are two distinctive views within the U.S. regarding the role it should play. One is an approach based on "realism" to seek security through balance of power, and the other is based on "liberalism", which aims to establish an open economic structure through international cooperation. U.S. diplomacy used to swing to-and-fro between these two approaches for a long time. But after 9-11 the American people have come to possess substantial fears regarding their own safety, and in this quasi-wartime mentality U.S. politics have rapidly shifted towards bolstering the deployment of force. As the shock of the 9-11 attack gradually wears off, however, their outlook is expected to calm down. Then it is possible for another shift to take place in U.S. politics, depending on the cost they must bear for the post-war reconstruction and peacekeeping in Iraq vis--vis the state of the U.S. economy.

The second important point is that the transformation of the relationship between the U.S. and its allies is under way, which has become evident through the war in Iraq. After WWII the U.S. set itself two strategic tasks: to make the world a place safe to conduct capitalism and to maintain U.S. prevalence in the world of capitalism. Confinement of the Soviet Union and deterrence through global power balance were brought forth by democracy and the market economy. Structures were formed such as NATO, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the IMF and the World Bank, with the developed capitalist states and the United States at the center. But the problem was maintaining consistency between these two strategic tasks. These two tasks worked along very well in the Cold War era. It was evident that Japan and Western Europe needed the protection of the U.S. against the threat of the Soviet Union. So it was agreed that the U.S. would provide Japan and Western European countries with security, and in return these countries would accept the world order initialized by the U.S. and become its junior partners. This was the deal.

With the end of the Cold War, the need for such an alliance vanished. The allies of the U.S. thus had to convince their people why they still had to be junior partners of the U.S. even though the threat of the East no longer existed. On the other hand, the U.S., with its overwhelming military dominance, became eager for more latitude in actions and did not want to be restricted by its allies. Faced with the change of circumstances, a reorganization of alliances should have been initiated by the U.S. during the 1990s. But this did not occur because of the first Gulf War and the commotion in Yugoslavia, which rather supported the maintenance of the alliances. It was the recent war in Iraq that finally destroyed this relationship between the U.S. and Western Europe. But it did not and would not likely affect the Japan-U.S. alliance. This is because the reconstruction of a new alliance between Japan and the U.S. could be considered to have already been completed, through implementation of new systems such as the Japan-U.S. guideline, national emergency legislation and special measures laws to cope with the situation in Iraq. It is important to note, however, that issues such as collective security and the permanentization of these emergency legislations are still pending.

The third point is "peripheral" issues with regard to world order. After WWII many new independent countries were born. The number of sovereign states nearly tripled from only 69 in 1950 to 192 in 2002. But among these states, not many have succeeded in establishing a genuine state with a reliable governing body, growing economy, and integration of their people. Eastern Asia being an exception, attempts to build solid states in central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa brought disastrous consequences. Quite a number of these countries still do not even qualify to be called a state, in effect becoming "failed" countries. This problem has resurfaced after 9-11 in a certain pattern: if "uncivilized people", together with Arab terrorists were to form rogue nations, the "war for world peace" would be justified to conquer these evil forces.

But as there is a limit to the powers even the most powerful empires can possess, in the real world every country has some form of "uncivilized people" at its perimeters. The war against terrorism that started out as a secret operation against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has developed into the war in Iraq, and now Syria, North Korea and Iran are already being considered as the next targets. But this expansion of the front will most certainly lead to the issue of imperial overreach, in which a state becomes impoverished in its efforts to enforce its powers beyond its limits. In this context, it is important now to define what exactly is the purpose of the war against terrorism. Also, the issue of failed nations must be debated separately from that of the war against terrorism. The problem regarding failed nations is the governments' inability to provide its people with the justice that is most certainly expected from a decent state, resulting in people not being able to trust their government. Some would resort to Islamic fundamentalism, and others would attempt to establish a new government, supposedly of the people. This problem cannot be solved by fighting against terrorism.

Japan's Options and Latitude

Regionalism became the key sentiment covering Eastern Asia after overcoming the financial crisis of 1997-98. Actually, the states or people of this region had never shared a common political intention to create a regional community, nor did they possess an identity as one united people resulting in what might be called Asianism. Instead, the economic development led by Japan had bundled this region into one economic bloc in the late 1980s. Indeed, the basis of the unity in East Asia was not regionalism based on a common political goal or identity, but the force of the market economy mechanism.

But since the crisis, a shared sentiment to create a regional community seems to be emerging. This could be clearly recognized in the shift of Japan's involvement in East Asia that took place between 1997 and 1999. Before 1997, Japan's policy was based on globalism, not regionalism. But after the crisis, Japan proposed the establishment of the Asian Monetary Fund, took the lead in putting together the Chiang Mai Initiative, and entered into an economic partnership treaty with Singapore. In 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi proposed an economic partnership between Japan and ASEAN, recognizing that the economic revival of ASEAN would be beneficial for both Japan and ASEAN itself. There is also a basis of a shared identity being formed, due to the increasing volume of the middle class groups in this region.

The post WWII history of East Asia is in fact a history of the formation of the middle class. The middle class was born in 1920 in the United States, appeared in Japan in the high-growth period of the 1960s, then in Korea, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1970s and 80s, followed by Southeast Asia in the 1980s to 1990s. Today it is steadily growing in China. This development has brought forth a new and hybrid identity of the Asian people.

What kind of role then, is expected of Japan in the world and in East Asia? First, Japan does not have the option of opposing America's war against terrorism. But this does not necessarily mean that Japan must always support the war against terrorism. Iraq is a strategically important area, and it would be beneficial for Japan as well if democratization in Iraq were to succeed, with Iraq becoming a junior partner of the U.S. But it is not constructive for the U.S. to begin looking for what they consider to be uncivilized and uncooperative people everywhere in order to attack them, thus dragging itself into an imperial overreach situation. Japan should demand that the U.S. define the purpose and post-war conceptions of this war against terrorism.

Second, Japan must play a larger role in promoting economic cooperation in East Asia. Japan's external activity leeway differs depending on the region. Globally, Japan must act on its partnership with the U.S., and is in fact fulfilling its role as a junior partner of the U.S. But regionally there is much Japan can do on its own, such as reinforcing economic partnerships within East Asia. What restrains Japan's actions in this regard is Japan's domestic affairs. If economic partnerships proposed by our Prime Minister should become deadlocked by domestic opposition, Japan's leadership itself would be jeopardized. Political leadership is expected.

(The original Japanese article appeared in the December, 2003 issue of Chuokoron.)

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