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Hard Japan versus comfortable Japan

Posted By on February 26, 2018 @ 06:00

Japan faces a choice. Will it decide on a hard or a comfortable future? Decisions—political, strategic and social—don’t come much bigger. What Japan’s leaders and people pick will say much about our times and the Asian century.

Japan can take the hard road and contend with China, or Japan can concede and settle for comfortable accommodation.

Not long ago, this big choice was a topic for academic speculation and low-level diplomatic musing. The discussion was more about demography than Asian power politics. No more. In the age of Trump, Abe and Xi, the issues come into sharp and pressing focus.

In a review essay for Inside Story on who rules Asia and who will write the future rules, I’ve suggested opposed visions of Japan’s future: Strong Japan versus Comfortable Japan.

Marking the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration/Revolution this year is a reminder of how Japan has twice in that time shown the ability to make huge shifts in its governance and society to respond to external challenges. Strong Japan or Comfortable Japan can both arise from today’s facts.

Strong Japan foresees a Tokyo that refuses to bend to Beijing as Japan reclaims its rights as a ‘normal nation’, building its military strength as Americas key Asian ally and leading Asia in both balancing against and engaging China. This is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision for Japan.

Strong Japan is expressed in the unusual role Abe has taken in leading Asia’s response to Donald Trump, saving the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Trump dumped the trade treaty. It’s expressed in Abe’s reshaping of Japan’s constitution, and in the fresh effort to create a quadrilateral alliance of democracies linking Japan, the US, India and Australia.

The alternate Comfortable Japan sees Abe as an atypical political outlier, not the leadership model that will be followed by future prime ministers. In this version, Japan matches the decline of its population by declining gently to middle power status.

Comfortable Japan embraces the peace of its pacifist strain, no longer wanting to serve as the US’s unsinkable aircraft carrier. The US–Japan alliance fades away, dismissed as the strange joining of two nations with vastly different histories and values. Putting aside its old nightmares about being betrayed or abandoned by a US turn to China, Japan would drift out of the US orbit. Tokyo could quietly decide that the cost of resisting Beijing is too high.

Comfortable Japan would accommodate a Sinocentric future. For the Japanese, this would be portrayed as Japan turning back to Asia. In China, the Communist Party would proclaim triumph in the history war and start to turn down the heat.

Hugh White’s Quarterly EssayWithout America’ argues that Comfortable Japan will beat Strong Japan, feeding his conclusion that China is going to win and America is going to leave. White writes that the benefits of the alliance to Japan are falling as US support in a crisis becomes less certain. He thinks there’ll come a point when Tokyo concludes that America can’t be relied upon any longer:
Japan is the key to East Asia’s emerging order as China’s power grows and America’s wanes. Japan’s alliance with America has been the keystone of America’s strategic position in Asia. While the alliance lasts America will remain a major regional power, and when it ends America’s role in Asia will end with it ... For America, the costs of the alliance are growing, while the benefits are not. China’s rise makes it both a more valuable economic partner and a more formidable military adversary, and so the costs to America of protecting Japan against China go up both economically and strategically.

After the US and China, Japan will be central to the contest between Pax Americana and a new Sinocentric order. The Australian journalist Richard McGregor offers a masterful account of how we arrived at this point in his book Asia’s reckoning, charting the complex 50‑year dance between China, Japan and the US: ‘The three countries have developed a profound interdependence alongside strategic rivalries, profound distrust and historical resentment.’

The history McGregor offers has plenty of evidence to support either the Strong Japan or the Comfortable Japan prediction. The choice becomes starker if Donald Trump cuts a deal with China or merely decides that the Japan alliance isn’t worth the effort. McGregor considers the Trump effect in the ANU’s latest East Asia Forum Quarterly and offers this conclusion about Japan’s options:
Japan knows that China is not going away. One day, the United States might. China is keen to emphasise to every nation in Asia a single truth: China’s presence is a geopolitical reality in Asia. By contrast, the US presence is a geopolitical choice, and it is one that China intends to make more and more costly. The institutional ties between the United States and Japan remain strong and deep. For the moment, Abe’s artful diplomacy and flattery of Trump has restored an equilibrium in top-level relations as well. But if Tokyo continues to feel threatened and loses faith in the United States, the next step is going nuclear—a policy that is now discussed openly in Japan. That will be the definitive sign that Pax Americana in Asia is over, and it could come sooner than anyone thinks.

More than at any time in the last 70 years, Japan must ponder the costs and benefits of the US alliance/relationship—and what a less America-centred future looks like. Tokyo faces a sharper, nuclear-tinged and darker version of Canberra’s nightmare.

When Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull met at the White House on Friday, any discussion of Asia policy would have been—that word again—Sinocentric. Yet any attempt at Asia prognostication must grapple with deeply different versions of what Japan might or might not do.

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[1] who rules Asia and who will write the future rules: http://insidestory.org.au/asias-rise-the-rules-and-the-rulers/

[2] Without America: https://www.quarterlyessay.com.au/essay/2017/11/without-america

[3] Asia’s reckoning: https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Asia_s_Reckoning.html?id=3fotDwAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y

[4] East Asia Forum Quarterly: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/?nltr=Nzc7MjUzMzM7aHR0cDovL3ByZXNzLWZpbGVzLmFudS5lZHUuYXUvZG93bmxvYWRzL3ByZXNzL240MTIxL3BkZi9ib29rLnBkZj9yZWZlcmVyPTQxMjE7OzVlYzI4NjgzMzg4NDEyMDZkNmZhODMzNDUzNTA3OWIw