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Abe’s “New Japanese” and Their Grandfathers — From the Shangri La Dialogue

Jun 06 , 2014

Singapore – A few days ago, President Obama sought to define for America a new foreign policy doctrine.  In his much anticipated West Point Military Academy commencement speech, he set a bar for American military intervention abroad that is the highest in recent memory – when America’s interests are directly threatened.  Perhaps the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are beginning to sink in and be structurally reflected in American foreign policy.  Perhaps the demands of the American people for a “pivot” to Ohio, rather than the far-flung oceans of Asia, are finally being heard.

Many worry that a self-reflective and retrenching America is leaving a void in the world’s balance of power.   But hold your breath, here is Shinzo Abe coming to the rescue.

Over the weekend, the Republic of Singapore rolled out the red carpet for the Japanese Prime Minister at this year’s Shangri La Dialogue.  In his keynote address, as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, the founder of the city state, Lee Kuan Yew looked on, Mr. Abe proposed a ground breaking new concept: The New Japanese.  This new breed of international and peace-loving contemporary Japanese are to confidently step forward and safeguard the world order, at least in Asia.

There was only one theme to Mr. Abe’s speech and it can be summarized as follows:  China is the enemy (without naming it, of course).  Japan is the new steward of peace and stability in Asia on the basis of rule of law.  Japan will support whichever countries decide to oppose China.  Here he did name some, Vietnam and the Philippines.  Japan will back them politically, economically, and, yes, militarily.  Japanese naval hardware is to be made available to China’s adversaries.

Mr. Abe rightly pointed out that Asia has been synonymous to growth.   In the past few decades, perhaps no region has benefited more from the current global order than here.  Asia’s prosperity is nothing short of a miracle of the modern era.

This amazing achievement has been built on two pillars.  First, the global economic and security architecture designed, built, and sustained by the United States has served as the guarantor of regional peace upon which economic development has depended.  And a post World War II legally pacifist Japan is a key component of that architecture.  Second, China, the largest nation in Asia, has been the single most important engine of growth that has served as a locomotive in good times and the growth of last resort in bad times.

At the moment, the twin pillar foundation of the Asian miracle is in trouble.   The United States is suffering from an acute case of imperial overreach.  Its military involvements around the world have drained its resources.  Its leadership of the globalization project has caused deep and structural imbalances in its own economy.  Its social contract, the bedrock of American success for a century and a half, is seriously threatened.  America has now found that the costs of sustaining the global order far exceed the benefits.   Mr. Obama’s West Point speech says as much.   Rhetorical statements by American officials aside, the real question facing America is not how to pivot to where, it is how to rebalance back home.

At the same time, China’s dramatic ascent in all aspects of its national power has surprised even the most optimistic observers.  The World Bank estimates that China will take the helm of the largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity this year.  No one can reasonably expect China not to seek to advance and protect its interests in the region.

So we have a situation in which an incumbent hegemon is retrenching and a fast rising new power is making its presence felt.  And there are no established rules to manage this process.

Mr. Abe’s proposal?   Outsource it all to us – the New Japanese!

At the moment, perhaps in their desire to reduce their hard commitments to the region but not let China take their place as the new hegemon, the Americans seem to be enthusiastically entertaining the proposition.  Defense Secretary Hagel backed Japan unreservedly in his speech the next day.

But it is a bad idea.

Thucydides once wrote, people go to war for three reasons: honor, fear, and interests.   Peace is obviously in everyone’s interests.  But it only constitutes a third in Thucydides’ formula.  In seeking to single out China as the enemy and thereby putting one of the twin pillars of Asian success in binary opposition to a regional alliance to be led by Japan, Mr. Abe and his American backers are playing with fire.

Japan, with declining demographics and a stagnant economy, is in fear of a powerful China.  That fear would be magnified by such an alliance of convenience.  China, whose people have endured immeasurable sufferings in the hands of the Japanese through multiple generations, would have its national honor challenged and its reactions would be amplified.

The common narrative presented by many is that China is a challenger of the status quo.  That is of course true to some extent, as the status quo cannot go on forever with qualitative changes to America’s interests and China’s position.   But Japan’s revisionist approach to both history and the present poses a real threat to the prospects of an evolution of the status quo that could lead to a peaceful outcome.

In so aggressively seeking to reemerge as a military power Japan is dangerously removing a key legal underpinning of the entire post World War II regional architecture.  China, and many other Asian nations, will not consent to that revision.

Mr. Abe’s claim to want to lead an Asia based on rule of law in resolving any and all disputes is flatly disingenuous.  The entire world knows and sees the dangerous territorial disputes that are being played out between China and Japan on the Diaoyu Islands (called Senkaku by Japan).  Yet, Japan vehemently denies even the existence of dispute.  When asked by a member of the audience after his speech about the dispute, Mr. Abe re-confirmed Japan’s position: there is no dispute.  And of course, when one refuses to recognize dispute, rule of law becomes irrelevant.

Furthermore, Japan’s enormous historic baggage and its steadfast refusal to live up to it make it impossible for it to effectively play Foxconn to the American Apple in Asian security.   Merely two generations ago, Japan invaded China, Korea, and many South East Asian countries and massacred their peoples.   In Nanjing alone, the Japanese Imperial Army slaughtered tens of thousands of men, women, and children in a matter of days.

Before the Americans sign their outsourcing contract with Tokyo, they would be well advised to listen carefully to Mr. Abe’s Shangri La speech.  In his concluding remarks, he said that the New Japanese are really no different from their parents and grandparents in seeking to contribute to the world.  For every Chinese and every Korean, it begs the question:  Just who were those grandfathers Mr. Abe was so proudly referring to?

Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai.

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