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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
December 18, 2003

Japan Must Play Leading Role in Forming Asian Economic Community

Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, University of Tokyo)


Two doctrines of Japan's diplomatic policy

Japan resembles the United Kingdom more than the people of either country like to admit. To both of them, it seems that throughout history, for both Japan and the UK, woes afflicting them would often originate on the neighboring continent, whereas serious issues have rarely emerged when the countries are managed as maritime states where politics and economies are managed under the notion of free trade. It is better, therefore, if a certain distance from the continent is kept, and friendly and stable relations could be formed with the countries in the continent. The notion of viewing the Dover Channel or the Tsushima Strait as a breakwater rather than a bridge to the continents symbolizes such a thought. Just as for the UK, the key for Japan is to what extent it can sustain good relationships with the countries on the continent, while maintaining its fundamental doctrine as a maritime state.

Two recent events, a schism among Western allies over the Iraq War and the reestablishment of "ASEAN-plus-Three (Japan, China, and South Korea)", have provided valuable opportunities for Japan to consider its policy between the balance of maritime and continental doctrines.

Let us suppose here that the "marine doctrine" is a policy to opt for free trade on a global scale, and that the "continental doctrine" is a policy to place more importance on economic ties with neighboring countries. I will argue that Japan must pursue a fine balance between the two policy doctrines alternatives.


Balancing Maritime and Continental doctrines

To begin, Japan's position in the world after WWII needs to be redefined in such a context.

In the early 1960s, Japan's Prime Minister Ikeda was greeted with a sarcastic comment as being a "transistor salesman" by French President Charles de Gaulle. Despite the fact that Japan was still at the stage of attempting to crawl out of the poverty the war had left, it was a very critical comment of Japan's policy by the French President. Japan was considered to be enjoying a "free ride" on the international framework with utmost priority placed in making money, having no concern for the responsibility of carrying a share of the burden to maintain that framework.

It was indeed a tough request for Japan at the time, as it was finally in 1960 when Japan sorted out the domestic policy dispute of whether to adopt a pro or anti-American attitude and began to rev up for the coming years of high economic growth. In the 1970s, upon experiencing the oil crisis and the Middle East War, Japan cast off its "free ride" policy and redefined itself as "a supporter of the international framework led by the US." This led Japan to play successful roles through the events of the 1980s such as the second phase of the Cold War and the Plaza Accord 1985. This policy was enhanced to its peak when Prime Minister Nakasone described Japan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier", vividly expressing its position as an ally of the US with regard to security as well as economy.

The end of the Cold War annihilated the "East block", which made the concept of wars between major countries obsolete and brought conflicts in the Third World to the fore. Peacekeeping and economic reconstruction became important issues enhanced with considerations for the safety of people, and supersets to these such as peace building, wealth creation, and democratization emerged as top priority agendas.

Then in the 1990s a view took shape in which countries such as Japan and Germany, dubbed "global civil states", would play a large role toward the future, but that notion was washed out by the 9-11 attack. That was when military power appeared at the forefront as a means to achieve policy goals.

The Western allies split between those who supported international law and were critical of use of military powers, and those who subscribed to universal law (that bolsters freedom, human rights, and democracy) and justified the use of force. Despite the fact that Japan (being prohibited to use military powers by its Constitution) would inherently be in a disadvantageous position if use of force by anyone should escalate, it allowed military campaigns to be executed to the extent that such campaigns would be led by the US as an ally. It was thought that rather than to make an issue with the US, it would be more practical for Japan to accept US policy in general and to provide proper advice from inside along the way to influence US strategies to move closer to Japan's.

This policy decision, in effect, was a turning point in Japan's diplomacy, by bringing the concept of "justice" to policy planning.

Thus Japan's diplomatic policy after WWII began with the decision over "pro or anti-America", which had evolved to become a "free ride", then became "a supporter of the international framework lead by the US" which later added a "global civilian power" facelift, and finally became what may be called a "justice oriented civilian power."


Changing the policy with more emphasis on Asia required

Japan's policies with regard to the two key elements of Japan's diplomacy, the "maritime" and "continental" doctrines, vis-ŗ-vis the Iraq War and the diplomacy with Asian neighbors is reviewed below.

Through policy measures adopted for the Iraq War, Japan steered its course closer to the "maritime" current by supporting the US-UK alliance, which was consequently in disagreement with France, Germany and Russia, who take the "continental" route. While the executed under a new resolution by the UN, it was deemed necessary to rely on the military power of the US to be protected from mass-destruction weapons of "rogue nations" scattered around the globe. The thinking was that advice would only be effective if Japan could be in the same tent with the allies. But aligning with the US and UK has exposed Japan to new kinds of risks.

An interesting phenomenon was observed at the APEC meeting held this fall in Bangkok. While most South-East Asian countries have subscribed to the "maritime" doctrine, when China (with its own agenda of promoting reform and liberalization) approached those countries they began to behave as though they had just adopted the "continental" approach. It was "Asia in Japanís embrace" in the 1980s, which shifted to "Asia lured by the China marker."

China is not only planning to conclude FTAs with South Korea and ASEAN. China, along with India, has expressed immediate support for "The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC)" proposed by ASEAN. This was indeed a seductive move by those "continental" countries.

Those promoting "continental" policies in Japan have failed twice recently, once in the establishment of the "East Asia Economic Caucus", and then in the creation of an "Asian Monetary Fund." In each of the failed attempts, strengthening of the "maritime" group was observed as an aftermath. Thus it was a commendable policy decision, albeit a bit tardy, to express support for TAC as it would bring back the pendulum swung too far to the "maritime" side, especially considering the empirical fact that Japan has much heavier commitment than it thinks in East Asia. Regional FTAs and a regional common currency accord should be further and vigorously pursued.


Concerted efforts required in cultural issues as well

If a community is sought to be established in the region, such factors as profits, philosophy, and rules must converge to a certain degree. Large countries such as Japan and China (and India) have weak recognition of Asian regionalism, whereas in South Korea and ASEAN it is becoming stronger. By adopting a strategy similar to that of Europe, where a notion of "Good European" was actively promoted to enhance regional identity, governments of Asian countries should advance a concerted effort to infiltrate the idea of Asian regionalism.

With regard to profits, despite the currency crisis of 1997-98, or as a consequence of it, regional ties have been strengthened in both quality and quantity. It must be noted that Japan's ties with East Asia are significantly stronger than, and qualitatively different from, that between the UK and the European Continent. Policies to overly advocate the demands of small segments of the domestic economy, such as rice or pork, and thus turning its back against Asia and the rest of the world, must desist. Japan should take initiatives aggressively in WTO and APEC to promote free trade.

Philosophy includes freedom, democracy, and free markets. Possibilities must be sought to alter the policies that could weaken the regional ties. The policies of China, North Korea and Myanmar need to be altered for the sake of the whole region, and efforts to convince them must be exerted by other Asian countries through bi-and multi-lateral negotiations.

It is evident that Asian countries have begun to play the same game governed by a certain set of rules. Active FTA negotiations are signs of this trend.

In order to heighten this subdued wave of common mentality toward an Asia Community, Japan must tread a fine balance between the "maritime" and "continental" doctrines. To secure this policy objective, a minister in charge at the rank of deputy prime minister should be assigned. By thus announcing the high priority Japan places on the issue both domestically and globally, Japan could enhance its capabilities to realize its core diplomatic objective.


(The original Japanese article appeared in the December 4, 2003 issue of Nihon Keizai Shimbun.)

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