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Tokyo needs to get over the G8

by Robert Dujarric

The financial meltdown of 2008 has accelerated the decay of the Group of Eight. One of the ideas circulating is to discontinue the group and replace it with the G20. Within the G20, there would be a G4 made up of the biggest players — Japan, the United States, China and the European Union.

Nothing has been settled, but the Hatoyama administration appears hostile to the demise of the G8. Since Japan — unlike Canada, Russia, and the individual European states — would make it into the elite G4, Tokyo’s reluctance looks surprising.

Major international challenges, such as economic crises and the environment, cannot be discussed at the G8 table. Any attempt to deal with them without China, India, key oil exporters, a few other countries, and several international financial and trade institutions is pointless. The same applies to some security threats, such as piracy.

Moreover, in most cases the G8′s membership is too small; in some it is too large. Moscow’s leadership, still mourning the death of the Soviet empire, is hostile to the U.S. and its allies. Talking about diplomatic and military matters that concern Japan, the U.S., Canada, and the EU with Russian officials makes no sense.

There is not an ideal way of organizing global governance, but a G20/G4 scheme complemented by a NATO-centric forum is the best way to proceed.

The G20 is not perfect. Among other defects, it suffers from European over-representation. At the Pittsburgh summit, six European leaders (from Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands) managed to attend, in addition to the president of the European Council (Sweden) and the chairman of the Commission.

Still, the G20 does represent a fairly good selection given the political constraints involved in setting it up. Establishing a G4 with Japan, the U.S., China and Europe would provide a less unwieldy environment that would be particularly well-suited to international monetary affairs for which the G20 membership is too large.

The G20 can address security concerns such as North Korea and maritime piracy, where there is some sort of global consensus. It cannot, however, handle issues where such agreement is lacking, nor those where discussions turn to sensitive defense topics.

To tackle these matters, NATO offers the best solution. It already includes the U.S., Canada and most of Europe. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to NATO headquarters opened the door to possible Japan-NATO cooperation. Adding Australia and South Korea to establish a NATO-plus-3 Group would bring together countries with compatible interests and ideologies. Since this would be neither a formal alliance nor involved in military operations, it would not run counter to Japan’s allergy to collective defense.

Japan’s attachment to the G8 is a relic of the Meiji Restoration. The new imperial government took to heart Yukichi Fukuzawa’s famous maxim “leave Asia, join Europe.” Japan prided itself on its unique status as a non-Western state enjoying a partnership of equals with the greatest European power of the day (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902), a strong army and navy and an efficient bureaucracy. Therefore, the G8 has special value in Japanese eyes for the simple — and very emotional — reason that neither China nor any other country without European roots is a member.

But the G8 serves no purpose today. Japan has a big stake in global governance. It is in Tokyo’s own interest to move away from a framework from the 1970s that is now irrelevant and dysfunctional.

Robert Dujarric heads the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus, Tokyo. (robertdujarric@gmail.com)