Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Future of Japan's Relations with the US and China Et Cetera Et Cetera… Glad You Asked…

LH is teaching a class on East Asia in the US. She has asked these questions of several people here, but I know of at least two people beyond her list who actually read this blog whose knowledge and understanding of these issues are far superior to mine, and several others whom I consider to be, at a minimum, my peers. And of course there must be others who I am not aware of. So I decided to post this draft on my blog, since I am sure that LH will very much appreciate any comments you may have.

LH asks: What you think about the future of Japan's relations with the US and China. Do you see a rivalry developing between China and Japan? What kind of foreign policy do you see developing with the new PM?

Me: I know all the answers to your questions. Unfortunately, God has told me that if I tell anyone, He will immediately strike me down with one of his trademark lightning bolts. And He told me in no uncertain terms where I would find myself when I came to. So I'll stay away from the crystal ball and confine myself to talking around the matter by outlining what I think are some (hopefully a very large proportion) of the most salient conditions that should be the basis of scenarios for the future.

First of all, I often hear questions similar to these about Japan and its relations with its two largest neighbors. I believe that this is mainly because of China's recent and remarkable economic, military and diplomatic ascendancy. Moreover, though an increasingly influential civil society has grown up within the confines of one-party rule, there are still enough political legacies in the Chinese regime from a more totalitarian era to cause people to see China in an inherently ominous light. Add to all this the impact from the sheer size of China in every dimension, and no wonder there is talk of the Chinese threat. But I have never seen things that way since I began thinking about this matter and I still do not.

The starting point of my argument is that the current regimes in Japan, the US and China share a fundamental interest in sustaining and enhancing a market-oriented global system. In the world we now live in, this makes Japan, the US and China status quo states with a strong interest in global and regional stability. The enormous geopolitical footprints of the US and China in East Asia, the asymmetries in their bilateral economic relationship, and fundamental differences in their approaches to governance, as well as Japanese fears of the Chinese ascendancy sometimes obscure this reality, but the issues speak for themselves.

Let's look at the main regional issues:

The Korean Peninsula. None of the regimes in the three states want North Korea to have a nuclear weapons program. The reasons for that are not necessarily consonant. That is, for the main part, the Japan regime does not want North Korea to have it because it is the most natural target for the nuclear weapons, the US regime because it fears nuclear proliferation, and the Chinese regime because of the arms race that a successful North Korean program might touch off. Thus, there are inevitable differences in the scope and extent of measures each state is willing to resort to in order to contain and roll back the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Still, the three states have enough in common that they can cooperate within the framework of the Six-Party Talks. Also significant is the fact that, because of economic and security concerns, none of the three regimes seek a precipitous regime change there but would prefer a more graduated process of integration into the regional and global economic and security systems. This also happens to coincide with the interest of the South Korean regime.

Taiwan. Here again, the desires of the three regimes roughly coincide. All three regimes accept Chinese claims of sovereignty over the island but want the future course of the course of action to be determined peacefully. The US position is somewhat constrained by the Taiwan Relations Act, but, if Taiwan unilaterally declares independence, China will challenge this by force, and it is doubtful that the US would come to its rescue barring catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Japan has a role of sorts by way of the US military presence on its territory and the strategic ambiguity maintained over "areas surrounding Japan", but it is a subsidiary and passive one. In any case, the common interest of the three regimes lies in maintaining the status quo.

Looking beyond the regional stage, the most compelling issue is energy. Here again, the three regimes share a common objective that is often obscured by arguments about competition for oil and gas, as well as over human rights concerns in resource-rich states with poor and worse governance. China is sometimes accused, mainly by the US regime (most prominently by powerful members of the legislative wing) of propping up undesirable regimes - some of them downright repugnant - in order to obtain access to their energy (and other) resources, most evident in Sudan and Myanmar (or Burma, if you will). In fact, we are all net importer heavyweights and, as such, need to keep global supply steadily expanding and easily accessible. From an energy security perspective, any investment that increases supply is welcome. Besides, leaving aside for now the broader question of who is doing what business that enables which undesirable regimes to maintain itself by collecting and distributing economic rent on which scarce natural resources, China satisfies most of its oil and gas requirements the old fashioned way, that is, by paying what the market demands. This will be even more so, as they come to rely more and more on foreign sources to satiate an ever-expanding domestic demand. Some people in Japan and elsewhere see this as a threat in itself. But all sources of demand, not just the increments, for oil and gas compete against each other. The growth of Chinese (as well as Indian) demand is certainly an important factor to enter in our calculations, but to call it a threat merely obscures the way to the proper response, which is conserving energy and bringing additional and new energy sources to the market.

note: I am ignoring climate change as an issue here in great part because I am of two minds on that and consequently do not have a good idea on how to treat that matter within this context. More generally, it is difficult to talk about global externalities in bilateral and plurilateral contexts.

There is potential for real conflict in international trade. Such conflicts are not due to an inherent conflict between states under the WTO, free-trade regime, but are caused by domestic conflicts between the larger but diffused gains as the whole and the cumulatively smaller but individually more painful losses to specific interests. But understanding by policymakers of the common interest is keeping states from spinning into the damaging realms of extensive protectionism that swept the world in the inter-War years in the 20th Century. That is true of all three states concerned here.

note: An increasingly likely failure of the Doha Round does not mean that international trade will collapse. It merely signals that the free-trade system remains where it stands for the time being. All things considered, that is not such a bad place to be.

Having said all this, it is in the nature of the beast to compete. That is why we root for the home team, haggle over seating arrangements, and what have you. Politicians and pundits will pay heed to how the two states match up as measured by the nebulous concept of 'influence' over, say, ASEAN; and the Japanese authorities will chafe as their Chinese counterparts conspire to deny Japan a permanent seat at the UN Security Council's table. However, unless Japan is willing to surrender its sovereignty to the UN (and in effect to the Security Council), this disparity is almost as trivial to the Japanese national well being as the relative performance of our respective national teams at the next FIFA World Cup. The public, of course, understands this. That is why such matters never become the focus of our national debate come election time.

As for what the Fukuda administration will do by way of foreign policy, I can be brief. In a nutshell: continuity. This is not a prophecy; it is an observation. For it is remarkable the extent to which the need for popular consent ultimately winds up confining every Japanese administration within the perimeters of the Yoshida Doctrine. Now let's stretch it out a little.

Note that Prime Minister Abe's already modest ambitions for constitutional reform was drastically scaled down by the time the Diet got around to passing the procedural act (neglected for 60 years!). And his predecessor Prime Minister Koizumi was often mistakenly portrayed as a conservative revisionist or worse because of a misunderstanding over his visits to Yasukuni Shrine. But virtually all Japanese administrations since the Nakasone administration have continued efforts to find more uses for our military in a multilateral context; and enhance, where possible, mutual defense relationships of a modest nature. And, in more recent years, without increasing military budget expenditures. There is no reason to believe that the Fukuda administration will waver.

On international trade, Japan has been reduced (with an inaudible sigh of relief) to the sidelines of the Doha Round as the negotiations have apparently reached an insurmountable impasse mainly over agricultural products. In the meantime, Japan, like so many other states, seek to cultivate bilateral agreements - some erroneously assume in competition with China - with its Asia-Pacific neighbors and further abroad. There is no reason to believe that this situation will change either.

note: Popular consent also drives our policy on abductees, as well as the reshaping of the contours of US Forces in Japan. Here also can be seen how the need for popular consent enforces a form of continuity.

All this makes the Fukuda administration, indeed any Japanese administration, decidedly unthreatening to China, and at a minimum not seriously detrimental to US interests. Thus, the future of the relationships… but I fear that I am already inviting the wrath of the Almighty.

I notice that I have written mainly about China. Is this a sign of personal complacency over our relationship with the US?

It is important to note that China will be facing demographic pressures similar to Japan's in a couple of decades. Can China grow quickly enough to become rich before it becomes poor?

Japan is blessed with plenty of fresh clean water and fertile volcanic and sedimentary soil. Its archipelagic geography stretching from the subtropics to the northern edge of the temperate zone endow it with an outsized exclusive economic zone. China is less well-endowed; it is less resilient in the face of environmental challenges.

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