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Foreign Policy

A Halt to Reconciliation in East Asia

May 12 , 2015

Unveiling the revised U.S.-Japan defense guidelines and delivering a speech to the U.S. congress were counted as two major tasks of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s latest trip to the U.S. These two tasks are directly related to the top priorities in Japan’s domestic political agenda, namely the security legislative amendments and Abe’s war-anniversary statement, and thus closely relevant to the ongoing process of reconciliation in East Asia.

Consequently, the interaction between Japan and the U.S. over the issues not only attracts Japanese people’s attention, but also concerns international society, especially Japan’s neighboring countries. This trip encourages Japan to play a more assertive role in both regional and global security arena, but fails to urge Japan to take serious responsibility for its colonial oppression and aggression to Asian neighbors before and during WWⅡ. A U.S.-Japan alliance transformed in this way would not serve the peace and prosperity in East Asia, but rather block the process of reconciliation in the region.

The revision of the defense guidelines is a product of political calculation. It is reported that, according to a former official of the Noda administration who was involved in the negotiation process, the initiative to revise the guidelines first came from the Japan side on the occasion of ‘nationalization’ of the disputed Diaoyu Islands in 2012. Japan’s aim was obvious, that is to involve the U.S. in the early stage in case any military conflicts would take place between Japan and China over the islands.

In dealing with the territorial dispute with China, the Noda administration chose to resort to military deterrence instead of diplomacy, and attempted to change the status quo unilaterally. This obviously violated the political consensus reached between top leaders of the two countries on shelving the disputes when normalization was achieved in 1972. This consensus is part of the basis for the normalization and for reconciliation.

The Abe administration inherited the military-deterrence approach and went even further in seeking the U.S. endorsement. The ‘gray zone’ part of the new guidelines and President Obama’s reiterated commitment in favor of Japanese claims during Abe’s visit seemed satisfying to Tokyo. In exchange for the U.S. commitment, under the name of ‘global’ alliance, Japan lifted its ban on exercising collective self-defense, which means more shared overseas duties within the alliance. Meanwhile, as a symbol of closer cooperation, Abe gave his assurance to the U.S. president that the relocation of an air base within Okinawa prefecture is a done deal.

Military presence in Japan is vital to the U.S. rebalancing strategy, and an active partner who can share more burdens is also favorable to U.S. national interests. These benefits might outweigh its commitment to control Japan’s military expansion.

However, the consequences of the deal between the U.S. and Japan are inevitable. Having the strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance as leverage, a more assertive Japan would harden its position and continue avoiding negotiations on territorial disputes with China. Since a peaceful solution through diplomatic talks becomes more difficult, taking the strong nationalist sentiment on both sides into account, tensions surrounding the disputed islands could have more chances to escalate.

Regarding the history issue, Abe expressed in his speech ‘deep remorse’ to the American audience, and made a gesture of reconciliation with the U.S. by paying a visit to U.S. WWII memorial. This was in sharp contrast to his words and actions toward the neighboring countries. Abe refused to repeat phrases used in the Murayama Statement such as ‘heartfelt apology’ to Asian people affected by Japan’s ‘colonial rule and aggression’. Without articulating ‘colonial rule’ and ’aggression’, ‘deep remorse’ could be explained as only regretting the mistake of taking the U.S. as enemy, or regretting being defeated instead of launching the war. As to the comfort women issue, Abe did not address it in his speech to the U.S. congress. Instead, he described comfort women as victims of ‘human trafficking’ in a prior speech.

Correct perception on history is critical for Japan to achieve reconciliation with its neighbors. As the leader of the Japanese government, it is Abe’s responsibility to make clear the government’s position on the history issue. International pressure, especially pressure from the U.S., could be effective in this regard. Abe’s speech to the U.S. congress would have been a chance for Japan to send positive message for improving relations with China and South Korea, and move forward to reconciliation. It is disappointing that both the U.S. and Japan failed to do the right thing.

Although nearly 70 years have passed since the end of WWⅡ, repeated confrontations about territory and history between Japan and its neighbors keep reminding us that reconciliation in East Asia has yet to be achieved. Such reconciliation is essential for long-term peace and prosperity in this region, which also serves Washington’s overall interests as the dominant power in this region. The U.S. could and should do more to facilitate the reconciliation process, if only it is willing.

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