By Kavi Chongkittavorn, Editorial writer for The Nation newspaper and Chairman of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance
What is the prospect for Japan, a declining economic power supported by the U.S., also a declining superpower? The most frequently heard answer is: Please ask China! For the time being, the Senkaku incident was a wakeup call for Japan as it has shattered its confidence resulting from economic development since 1965. Like rubbing salt into the wound, the incident took place a few weeks after China overtook Japan as the world’s No. 2 economic power in mid-August. For the country that once used to provide huge amount of aid to China, China’s rapid ascension has caused a huge psychological blow to Japan.
Indeed, it was pretty depressing to be in Japan at this moment. Stay at a hotel in front of the Imperial Palace, one continues to hear loud speakers belonging to ultra-right-wing groups blasting and calling Japan to arm. Views from the Japanese academy, journalists and common people, however, were not militant but, nonetheless, they share similar grim views of their country’s future.
It must be the first time after post-World War II that the Japanese people have ever exposed to this kind of collective vulnerability and hopelessness. Talk to them long enough, they would tell you that they have low expectation in their government to manage the economy or protect national sovereignty. Suddenly so it seem, the Nihonjin have lost the can-do spirit of the past that has made the Land of Rising Sun great.
Only the government officials think better days are ahead of them. But they admitted many new initiatives need to be taken before Japan’s pre-eminent status could be restored, be it in politics or economic. Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara minced no word during the interview last week in his office that after the spate with China, Japan must further strengthen the Japan-U.S. security alliance and its relations with ASEAN.
He reiterated that the bilateral security pact is a public goods that has served as a bedrock for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan has yet to elaborate the plan to strength the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Maehara, who is known for tough views against China, described Beijing’s reactions during the fishing boat collision early September as “eccentric.” The foreign minister suggested that Japan would cooperate with the international community, through multilateral diplomacy, in encouraging China to behave as a responsible international stakeholder.
When the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power last year, ties with the U.S. were strained over the future of the U.S. base in Okinawa. The much heralded plan to set up an East Asian community also fell by the wayside. One policy remains related to the elimination of nuclear weapons and counter terrorism.
In the past weeks, the Japanese officials and DPJ politicians have emphasized that Japan follows international norms and standards as well as participating in activities that improve the global wellbeing. After Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese human rights activist, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the theme related to human rights, democracy, openness and freedom of expression have also become more prominent in their comments.
Apart from Maehara, Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku also urged China to respect fundamental human rights and improve its record. Japan would also welcome Liu’s release. It remains to be seen whether Japan would remain consistent on this sensitive theme in its diplomatic annals.
According to a senior Japanese foreign ministry official, Japan’s new foreign policy roadmap towards ASEAN, which will be announced at the East Asia Summit in Hanoi later this month, will further support the ASEAN centrality, promote equal and effective Japan-ASEAN partnership in all cooperation including their transparency. Japan also supports the ASEAN effort to solve the South China Sea disputes in peaceful way.
In more ways than one, the Senkaku affairs have increased values of Japan’s allies and friends. It helps the country to dwell deeper into its national psyche and how to use its soft power.
For instance, while China continues to be the prime destination of their investment, Japanese companies are now more cautious and likely to invest in other countries at the same time. The so-called China plus one approach aims at increasing Japan’s leverage and distributing risks resulting from over-dependency on China and unpredictable ties with Japan. China’s temporary ban on the export of rare earth metals to Japan shocked the socks off the Japanese high-tech business community.
In the latest survey by JETRO (Japan External Trade Relations Organization), Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are named the top three ASEAN countries as desirable destination the Japanese companies’ investment and expansion bases for production. More investments are expected to flow into ASEAN from now on.
During the interview, Maehara was quick to commit Japan’s full support to the ASEAN Connectivity master plan, which will be adopted at the upcoming summit. The plan, which will need over US$10 billion worth of capital, aims to connect all necessary infrastructures including bridges, roads and railways as well as IT and people-to-people contacts.
It remains to be seen how Japan-ASEAN relations will now evolve in coming years. China’s response over the fishing boat incident could be a blessing in disguise if it helps to refocus Beijing’s attention to settle the South China Sea disputes with ASEAN. The China-ASEAN joint cooperation in the overlapping areas has yet to begin as both sides could not agree on the guidelines for their cooperation.
As far as ASEAN is concerned, one thing is clear: Japan will no longer take ASEAN for granted. For the past two decades, ASEAN tried unsuccessfully to attract Japan’s economic engagement and investment which was heavily concentrated on China. With the current state of Japan-China relations, ASEAN has to be prudent and think strategically. If need be, ASEAN can also become an honest broker. After all, ASEAN served as the fulcrum for China, Japan and Korea to build up their trust since 1997 which eventually led to their trilateral summit meeting in 2003.
This article was originally published the China Post and can be found here.