Japan is an EU Country Trapped in Asia


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The Council of Foreign Relations blog, Asia Unbound, is quite good. If you don’t read it, you probably should before you read my stuff. To be sure, CFR is establishment; indeed, it is the very definition of the foreign policy establishment in the US. So it is not exactly the font of challenging new ideas. But still, they are linked into power in way that lonely academic bloggers will never be. And this week’s bit on Japan really got me thinking about how Japan is basically stuck with the American alliance indefinitely, whether they like it or not.

Recall a year ago when the LDP got whipped in the election, that there was lots of talk about how Hatoyama was going to create distance between Japan and the US, how this was a new dawn in the relationship, how the Japanese left would be so much more prickly with the US than the old boys network of the LDP. I was fairly skeptical of this at the time, and I think the recent flap with China over the islands has done a lot to confirm that skepticism.

Japan really has nowhere else to go but the US. It is stuck with us, primarily because it is geographically fixed in a neighborhood where it has no friends. And this opens all sorts of room for the US to push and bully Japan, which leads to regular Japanese outbursts that Japan needs to be independent of the US. (For the most famous, read this.) In fact, Japan is like a post-modern EU country in the wrong place. It should be comfortably ensconced in a post-national intergovernmental framework like the EU, where it could promptly forget about history and defense spending, and worry about how to care for its rapidly aging population – like Germany is morphing into ‘Greater Switzerland.’ But it’s not. Instead, Japan is trapped in modernist-nationalist-historical Asia, surrounded by states that don’t trust it and who want a lot from it that it doesn’t really want to give (historical apologies, imports, engagement, development aid, territorial compromises).

Consider that Japan, like China or Russia, has no friends or allies (save the US), and lots of semi-hostile neighbors:

Russia: Neither side has much interest in the other. There is an island dispute that has blocked normalization for decades. And, of course, Russia has been an erratic partner for just about everyone, not just Japan, since the end of the Cold War. So there is nothing to gain there.

Korea: There is also an island dispute with South Korea, over which even North Korea (!) has supported the SK position. NK kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 70s, and this has remained a permanent fixture in Japanese politics. For the North, Japan is high-up on the hit list; the North has launched missiles over it. Relations with the South are possibly even worse. S Koreans are intensely japanophic. The island dispute (Dokdo) rouses extraordinary passions here. Finally, of course, both Koreas are furious with Japan over its invasion and colonization from 1910-1945 and feel that Japan has never properly apologized.  Given how much S Korea and Japan share – democracy, concern over China’s rise, a US alliance, fear of NK, Confucian-Buddhist culture – they should should be natural allies, but Koreans will tell you with a straight face that Japan wants to invade it again. So forget that.

China: Yet another island dispute plagues the relationship from the start. And like Korea, so does history. The Japanese were even harsher in China than they were in Korea. The Rape of Nanking was brutality on par with the Nazis, and the Japanese used biological warfare against the Chinese as well. As the CFR post linked above notes, anti-Japanese street protests are becoming a regular part of Chinese politics now. A Sino-Japanese reconciliation would require astonishing, Willy Brandt-style statesmanship that the immobilist Japanese political system is wholly incapable of delivering.

Southeast Asia/India: Things get a little easier here, if only because it is further afield. But the ASEAN states too suffered under Japan in WWII, and like China and Korea, don’t feel that Japan has engaged in the appropriate historical reckoning. Only India is a possible serious Asian ally of the future because of mutual concern for China and the lack of historical-territorial problems.

Bonus problem – Economic Decline: As if this unhappy neighborhood weren’t trouble enough, add in Japan’s bizarre economic malaise. When China, Korea and the Soviet Union/Russia were a mess a generation ago, Japan could strut in Asia, but now these competitors are closing the gap while Japan stagnates. That just makes all the frictions that much harder to manage. China is so big, it can afford to miff the neighbors, but Japan no longer has this luxury.

In short, a weakening Japan so infuriates it neighborhood, that the US is all its got left. Given Japan’s paucity of options, the US has lots of room to bully and push Japan. But it must ultimately give in, because it’s position in Asia alone would be terrible – isolated, suspected, friendless. So bad is Japan’s position, that the US could effectively bring down the Hatoyama administration over something as minor as Futenma.

This is not meant to be an endorsement of US wedge politics against Japan. But it should certainly explain why its 20-year old complaint about US dominance has led to nothing, just like Gaulle’s petulant withdrawal from NATO ended in ignominy when the French finally gave up on ‘expectionalism’ and rejoined last year. It’s nice to be two oceans away from the competitions of Eurasia…

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6 thoughts on “Japan is an EU Country Trapped in Asia

  1. Well, then, there’s a silver lining to global warming: rising sea levels will swamp these pathetic little conflict islands and several lingering international disputes will go poof.

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