Cautious welcome for Japan's Asia drive
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - It seems Japan's foreign policy is at a turning point as Yukio
Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) takes over as the nation's new
prime minister. In accordance with the DPJ's platform in election campaigns,
the new ruling party is likely to attach less importance to the United
States-Japan relationship and seek a more independent role for Japan in
international society; or, at least, the DPJ may want to reduce the dominance
of the US in Japan's foreign policy.
Hatoyama this week met Chinese President Hu Jintao in New York on the sidelines
of a United Nations conference to improve ties between the two countries.
Hatoyama will also pay a state visit to China after the UN meeting. He is
reportedly eager to discuss with Chinese leaders the formation of a so-called
Asian community, an idea that was highlighted in the DPJ's election platform as
a key point of its foreign policy.
This is a break from the tradition in Japanese diplomacy in which a newly
sworn-in Japanese prime minister first visits the US before going to other
countries, such as China. This indicates the new Japanese government is
preparing to adjust a foreign policy stance the country has adopted since the
end of the Cold War.
One-and-a-half centuries after Japan renounced its Asian identity to "join"
Europe or the West, it seems now it wants to return to Asia. Here, a brief
historical review may help to better understand the DPJ's policy.
In the 1850s, when Japan was still a vassal of the Qing Dynasty in China, Japan
was threatened and even invaded by Western imperialists and colonists who
imposed unequal treaties on it. For example, in 1853, a US fleet invaded Japan
and made it a semi-colonized county after signing an unequal bilateral trade
During that period, the Qing imperial government could not prevent Japan from
being exploited and oppressed by Western imperialists and colonists, since
China was unable to protect itself when encountering similar attacks from the
West. To remove foreign imperialists and become stronger, Japan started
far-reaching, top-down social and political reform.
This was the Meiji Restoration, which was generally based on the thoughts of
modern Japanese enlightenment philosophers, especially Fukuzawa Ykichi, who was
among the first to advocate the idea of Japan departing from East Asia to join
the West or Europe. The Meiji Restoration, which started in 1868, strengthened
the power of the Japanese emperor and some noble families but also in effect
paved the way for Japan to take the road towards modernization, economically,
militarily and socially.
It is regretful that Japan's modernization was accompanied with militarist
expansion and the invasion of Korea and China. In the 1890s, Japan made Korea
its colony and it snatched China's island of Taiwan after defeating China in
Japanese expansion into Asia didn't stop until the end of the World War II in
1945, when US troops landed in the archipelago country and ultimately occupied
it. Afterwards, Japan started reforms based totally on Uncle Sam's will;
namely, its political and economic system was quickly transformed to be a part
of the US-led capitalist world.
Shortly after the Cold War broke out, and then the Korean War in the early
1950s. Japan bonded with the US and the Western camp, its economic rise
benefiting much from its close ties with the West and especially from the
demands of the US military/industrial complex. At the end of the Cold War,
typically as a member of the Group of Eight (G-8), Japan was regarded as a
Western state by foreigners, as well as by itself.
That is, the radical reform started in the latter half of the 19th century made
Japan an "outstanding student" in learning Western modern technology and ideas,
beating other Asia countries in the competition. This augmented its desire and
boosted its confidence in getting away from Asia and joining the club of the
West. And it succeeded.
Now, as a member of the G-8, Japan is more a part of the West than of Asia -
politically, diplomatically, economically and psychologically, despite its
However, after the end of the Cold War some 20 years ago, a few Japanese
political elites began advocating a Japanese comeback in Asia, while preserving
its Western identity. What made the Japanese elites feel this way?
First, after Japan accepted the Plaza Accord in 1985 - in which the US forced
the drastic revaluation of the Japanese yen to make Japanese imports more
expensive to American consumers and reduce its trade deficit with Tokyo. And
then the Washington Consensus in the 1990s, a term coined by US economist John
Williamson in 1989, centered around privatizing state-owned enterprises,
reducing state deficits and taxes and liberalizing interest rates, Japan's
economy unfortunately came to a standstill or even recession that lasted for
almost two decades.
This economic recession (or slowdown) proved a hotbed of growth for Japanese
nationalism, with demands for a more independent status when dealing with the
US and other foreign countries. This public feeling, combined with some
politicians' ambition, was expressed even in the 1980s before the end of the
Cold War. (Former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone proclaimed that
Japan had started on a new path to become a "political power" in the world.)
And it encouraged the Japanese to strive to become a so-called "normal state"
in the international community.
Given this, it's not difficult to understand the Japanese desire to become
independent from the US and more active in international affairs as a sovereign
Second, after the end of the Cold War, Asia gradually became a region that the
international community could not ignore when dealing with important
transnational issues. In particular, with the rise of newly industrialized
countries and regions such as Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea and
China, the East Asia from which Japan originally wanted escape is now important
for its economic restoration and development.
For example, China is now Japan's biggest economic partner and the Chinese
economy is significant for Japan's economic revival. East and Southeast Asia
are attractive to Japan, and it will lose its influence in these promising
regions if it does not re-engage them.
Third, in recent years, the US has been busy with its "war against terror" and
it can no longer worry too much about Japan's concerns, especially "threats"
from North Korea. Because of the failure of the six-party talks on North
Korea's nuclear program, Japan is increasingly worried about threats to its
territorial and civic security from North Korea, a nuclear state.
Meanwhile, Japan is also worried about China's steady expansion of its military
capability, although its concerns are hardly based on substantial facts. When
its powerful ally - the US - ignores its concerns, Japan has to resort to its
In sum, in the post-Cold War era, with the change in geopolitical politics and
international economic conditions in East Asia and with the relative decline of
US power, Japan is more and more anxious to boost its international status and
national interests in East Asia.
If the US is unable to meet Japan's demands for its national security and
interests, it needs greater independence, which means it will loosen links with
the US and focus more on Asian affairs and its relations with China, the two
Koreas and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
But Japan's bid to rejoin Asia is not a simple matter; there will be
First, the US will be vigilant about Japan's concept of an East Asian community
- a strategy commonly considered as Japan's main reason to rejoin East Asia.
The US will not let Japan break away from the US orbit, as the US-Japan
alliance was a foundation of the US maintaining its international dominance in
the post-Cold War era.
Japan and South Korea are two pillars of US hegemony in East Asia. Not only can
such an alliance be a deterrent to China, and provide support for Taiwan
psychologically and militarily, it can also restrict Japan from becoming an
independent political and military power that could challenge US dominance in
In this regard, new Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said he would try
his best to strengthen the bilateral relationship when he met US Assistant
Secretary of State Kurt Campbell last week. This also reflects Japan's
difficulty and confusion in balancing two identities - Asian and Western.
Second, China will be suspicious of Japan's demands for more independence.
China benefits from the US-Japan alliance because this keeps in place Japan's
pacifist constitution and prevents Japan's military from rising. If Japan seeks
more independence in rejoining East Asia, it will change the geopolitical
politics and disrupt the balance of power in East Asia.
Historically, the China-centric tributary system that functioned before the
1850s was the dominant transnational system in East Asia in which only one
country was the leader - the others were vassals. This historical influence
still exists. It implies that an independent Japan will compete with China for
the leadership or dominance of East Asia.
The DPJ's policy to build an East Asian community might make people think of
the militarist "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" slogan which was
popular in the 1930s and 1940s during Japan's dominance in Asia - to some
degree it was the worst copy of the tributary system. No one can be sure the
DPJ's strategy is not to build a "neo-tributary system" with Japan at the
center. Japan tried to do that after the Ming Dynasty, though it failed.
Accordingly, Japan cannot succeed in rejoining Asia unless it can allay the
suspicions of both the US and China. And first, some practical aspects have to
be addressed before it can rejoin Asia.
The first issue relates to the US. The US will not want Tokyo to undermine this
alliance, and anyway, the disruption of this alliance cannot happen overnight.
So the pragmatic approach for Japan is to slowly change the overall
Japan can still assist the US in areas such as anti-terrorism and
non-traditional security. At the same time, if the US-led alliance cannot
provide a comprehensive defensive umbrella, Japan can resort to a mechanism
similar to a collective security regime for its defense - this would also help
ease China's suspicions over its intentions for greater independence.
This mechanism, in place of the six-party talks, could include all the
countries involved, including the two Koreas, China, the US and Russia,
although this will not be easy. Finally, Japan's historical disputes with the
Chinese and Koreans will have to be resolved before it can rejoin Asia.
Clearly, a Japan that cannot face its history will not be accepted by its
neighbors as a legitimate member of East Asia, either in a political or
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.