Responding to the Crisis in Japan: A Defining Moment for the Asia Pacific

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

U.S. Navy MH-53 helicopters land aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46) on March 12 in the Sea of Japan. U.S. Navy photograph in the public domain.

The heartbreaking tragedy that has befallen Japan will not keep that resilient and strong nation down for long. However, the three-headed monster of a massive earthquake, life-sucking tsunami, and nuclear uncertainty has hit our stoic allies hard. Japan recovered in record-breaking time from earlier disasters, including the costly earthquake at Kobe in 1995 that racked up costs of more than $110 billion. Unfortunately, Japan today is not the same Japan as then.

Although it remains the world’s third-largest economy, top investor, and one of the top three trading partners of most other Asia-Pacific countries, Japan has relatively weak political leadership, unprecedented levels of debt, and a yen that has rocketed to levels not seen since World War II. The World Bank estimates that the cost of recovery for these disasters will exceed $235 billion and estimates now stand at over 25,00 lives perished.  The country faces an enormous challenge and the United States and other nations have signaled their commitment to support a friend in need.

There is no good time for a disaster to strike, but Japan has been hit at a particularly crucial moment in the development of new power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region.  New security and trade architectures are being developed—notably the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN plus China, Japan, and Korea) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  Japan’s role as the foundational U.S. treaty ally in Northeast Asia has underpinned regional security for many decades.

The question is how losing the “Japan wheel” on the cart of Asian dynamism—even if temporarily—will affect the direction of regionalism and the power dynamics between key countries such as China and the United States.

The recent focus on architecture means that countries are working together to establish new rules that will allow rising powers like China and India to join the neighborhood in a peaceful manner that emphasizes balanced growth, transparency, and commitment to multilateralism.

To succeed in that mission, there must be a highly focused nexus of like-minded countries providing leadership and investing in capacity building for developing and smaller nations.  Japan has been a leader in this effort along with the United States, Australia, and others.

Assume that Japan will need to focus its resources once earmarked for foreign direct investment and development assistance to rebuilding at home. Other countries will need to step up to the plate in a very substantial way to fill the gap—and that means those countries will have to be thinking strategically and implementing efficiently.

This is a message that the U.S. Congress, for one, must heed with urgency and commitment—stepping away from cutting foreign aid in Asia, moving ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the top of the agenda, and teaming with the private sector and other nations to invest massively to speed Japan’s complete recovery.

Supporting recovery in Japan and New Zealand (whose dual earthquakes in Christchurch will cost that country an estimated 6 percent of its gross domestic product) should now move to the top of the agenda for the ASEAN Summit and the EAS in Jakarta as well as the APEC meeting in Honolulu.

China also faces a defining moment. It can join and help to lead the recovery process in Japan, embracing a regional leadership role and demonstrating its understanding of the importance of a strong and balanced community of nations in Asia.  On the other hand, it could proceed with its aggressive stance on regional disputes with a newly weakened Japan and press its clear advantage.  The former course would reassure China’s neighbors and chart a course for strong regional cooperation in Asia for decades to come.  The latter could result in increasing China-U.S. tensions as well as strengthening the antibodies that China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea and Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands has awakened among its neighbors.

Nature has unleashed unimaginable terror on our friends in Japan and at the same time tabled the most profound question for the actors who will shape the future of Asia.

Responding strategically and decisively to the crisis in Japan is one of the most important opportunities of the early twenty-first century for the United States, China, and other Asia-Pacific countries. The stakes are historically high.


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