Unrising Sun – Japan as the Austro-Hungarian Empire


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Perhaps the biggest Asian security news of the summer is the high-profile marker of the shifting tectonic plates out here – China’s surpassing of Japan as the world’s second largest economy. You know your society is in real trouble when being displaced like this is termed a “relief” by a fellow citizen on the New York Times op-ed page. Is anyone in Japan really relieved that China has pushed it aside this way? China’s meteoric growth is nerve-racking enough, but who wants to live in a society that wants to be eclipsed? To boot, how should Japan’s allies/partners on the China question (US, Korea, India) respond to a society that is “shrugging” over its decline?

So this made me think of the fin-de-siecle Austro-Hungarian empire. Maybe there is something romantic in the twilight pessimism of fading greatness coupled with high culture? I remember Poindexter asked in Revenge of the Nerds, ‘would you rather live in a society during its rise or its decline?,’  and maybe there is something lush, overripe, decadent, boozy, and deliciously self-conscious about watching one’s own tragedy (think about the character of Hayward from Of Human Bondage). Contrast this with the regular hysteria that greets the bout of American declinism that besets the US every generation. Americans go into neurotic fits, and start talking about moonshots, new frontiers, mornings in America, new foundations (Obama), etc. By contrast, Kingston wisely asks after yet another dreadful summer for Japan, can anyone govern it anymore? Increasingly you don’t need to be a Japan expert to think the answer is not really…

The sociological questions for Japan broached by this are beyond my skills, but the international consequences can’t be good. This slow eclipse of liberal, democratic, modern Japan can’t make Asia anymore secure. It will only bait China more, scare Korea more toward a separate regional deal with China, and pull the US deeper into Northeast Asia at a time when we desperately need to constrain defense spending and commitments. India, for all its ‘emerging’ potential, still can’t really compete with China as Japan might. In effect, this cedes regional order building to China: Japan won’t try, the US can’t afford to it, and India is still to0 immature to contest it. Normally we think of rising challengers battling leaders to primacy – Wilhelmine Germany v. Britain, the USSR v. the US. But in Asia at least, China is taking the game as much by the failures of the rest as by its own abilities. Note also, that as China takes over Asian leadership by default, it becomes impossible to test its real intentions.  Much of the debate over China is whether or not it is prepared to use to force in the future to get its way. Increasingly, it looks like we won’t know because the democracies are simply abdicating the game to it.

So I’ll ask the same question Kingston does, what needs to happen to get Japan back in the game? Have they really just dropped out to become the Switzerland of Asia?

12 thoughts on “Unrising Sun – Japan as the Austro-Hungarian Empire

  1. “Have they really just dropped out to become the Switzerland of Asia?” – I don’t think they have. Just read along these entries: http://japansw.wordpress.com/.

    I’d say there is one thing we should learn from history (and theory): States are scared by rising powers. They might accommodate them for a while, but at one point, China will be (is?) a (actual or not) threat to anyone in the region. I think this is what we can see in Southeast Asia. After the discovery of the Hainan Island military base, everyone was going crazy, and that Hillary Clinton was allowed to say in the framework of an ASEAN meeting that the US would, on ASEAN’s side, protect public international law regarding the Spratly and Paracel Islands is at least remarkable.

    I expect South Korea, India, and Japan to (formally or, much more likely, informally) ally at one time. It has happened before that such states whose relations have not been the best before suddenly became allies. But I really don’t see Japan just saying: Well, what the heck, who cares? Yes, they do not have the second biggest economy anymore – but the third biggest. To big, I’d say, to become non-interested. The game is not lost by now. (Especially, of course, correcting for variables such as, most importantly, inhabitants).

    If China does not display some Sovjet-like behavior (“occupation, occupation, occupation”), I’d expect it to become the regional hegemon with a lot of near-by enemies. I don’t think anymore that this will ultimately of suddenly lead into conflict, but the international potential for conflict sure is rising. Which brings us back to the beginning. One of the entries on the mentioned blog shows that Japan just established a Marine.

    Check my stuff at http://blirg.wordpress.com

    Thanks for your interesting posts!

  2. Is there any reason to suspect that China and India in the long run wil NOT be the number 1 and 2 economies in the world? They have 1/3 of the word population amongst them. How are you gonna stop that from happening?

    What I read on this post and related articles is all given in by fear. And as I once have read: “Fear is a bad advisor”. Do you really think China is gonna annex Korea, Japan and even India? They couldn’t handle it and it would ruin them. Why do we always assume that if someone is bigger (and stronger) they automatically must be a bully?

    China’s growth is a result of western economy searching for cheap labor and products. As a result wages are increasing rapidly and before long many companies will realize that outsourcing their production to China and India is no longer cheaper than doing it in their own backyard, and even importing Chinese goods might prove too expensive.

    Therefore I think it is China who should be afraid of it’s own success. I believe they are still a long way from becoming a knowledge-society and it can’t afford to lose the export.

    I know nothing of Japan to contribute to the subject. I can only try to compare a development I notice in North-Western Europe: We are too rich and have more than is good for us. Yet we complain more than anyone else. Japan is known here for it’s disciplined culture, and maybe it’s wealth is gnawing at it’s fundamentals?

    • Well this is the big discussion in East Asia IR – what China be like when it gets even bigger? No one really knows. They may turn out to be nice, but even the US, a liberal hegemon, is perceived as an imperialist in lots of places, like Latin America and the Middle East. Maybe China is different, but history suggests rising powers develop new ‘appetites,’ like resources in Africa, and new ‘national interests,’ like the South China Sea. Everyone is watching.
      As for Japan, its domestic culture is not really my area. I can only look at its external behavior, where it seems that it would rather miff the Koreans and Chinese over history, than get along with them and try to be a more normal power in Asia. And the NYT op-ed was rather disconcerting, in that it suggested an indifference to slipping. Hence my concluding question.

  3. Erik, I heard your same argument growing up in Europe in the 1980’s to 1990’s vis a vis the USSR and the US. This is getting old.

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