In the 21st century, Japan should rise to the diplomatic challenge of developing strategies to create a new order in East Asia, where confusion still reigns after the end of the Cold War.

Although it has been the world’s largest provider of official development assistance for nine consecutive years, Japan has failed to play a diplomatic role commensurate with its economic prowess. It has avoided active participation in the United Nations peacekeeping operations, citing constitutional restraints. It must play a more active role in international affairs as globalization has increasing political, economic and social effects throughout the world. To that end, Japanese politicians must be willing to take risks and depart from old-fashioned ideas.

The security environment in Asia has changed dramatically in the decade since the end of the Cold War. China has emerged as a major regional power, while there are moves toward rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula, the last frontier of the Cold War. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has suffered a decline in its influence following the Asian currency crisis. The United States has strengthened its security alliances with Japan and Australia, and stepped up cooperation with Southeast Asian countries.

As globalization spreads, the digital divide between information-rich and information-poor countries is widening. Global pollution, international terrorism and organized crime are having serious effects on international relations.

In November, the 10 ASEAN member countries held their annual summit and hosted meetings with Japan, China and South Korea. The participants agreed to consider holding an East Asia summit, to establish a working committee on an East Asia free-trade zone, and to hold regular summits with Japan, China and South Korea.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, meanwhile, agreed with ASEAN officials to establish joint expert panels on free trade and economic cooperation. To balance the Chinese proposal, Thai Premier Chuan Leekpai proposed setting up an East Asia trading bloc, which would include Japan and South Korea.

Regular Japan-China-South Korea summits was proposed by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Chinese officials said the summits should discuss economic issues as well as Korean Peninsula problems. This represents a change in China’s stance toward summits. At the first summit, held in 1999 at the initiative of then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Zhu responded passively to a proposal to regularly discuss Korean Peninsula problems.

China’s policy shift reflects new prospects for Asia’s economic development. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s senior minister, said in an address in Sydney in November, “by 2040, the combined domestic product of China and Japan will exceed that of America. These developments will shift the economic center of gravity of the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

A diplomatic expert well-versed in Sino-Japanese relations attributes China’s positive stance to growing prospects for its entry into the World Trade Organization. He says China will inevitably become a very important presence for Japan and criticizes the Japanese government for failing to develop long-term strategies toward China.

Hisashi Owada, president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, says one objective of Japanese diplomacy is the creation of a stable security environment in East Asia. He also says it is Japan’s responsibility to see that China understands that Sino-Japanese cooperation is essential to a stable order in East Asia.

Japan and China, plagued by mutual hostility over Japan’s wartime aggression, have had difficulty establishing stable relations. This is compounded by the fact that Sino-Japanese relations are intertwined with Japan-U.S. and U.S.-China relations.

The U.S. Republican Party, in the platform for the 2000 presidential election, said that China is a “strategic competitor” rather than a “strategic partner” for the U.S. The document also said the incoming U.S. administration will not put China at the center of its policy toward Asia.

President-elect George W. Bush is expected to be a realist when it comes to China. Some Japanese experts are concerned that U.S.-China relations could be strained under the Bush administration, which is likely to support a national missile defense plan and to protect Taiwan against China.

The original Japan-U.S. Security Treaty was signed in 1951. Although it was revised in 1960, the pact retains the original objective of providing for Japanese land leases for use by U.S. forces to protect Japan’s security. The Japan-U.S. security system has served as the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy and security in the half-century since the end of World War II. The security system was strengthened by the 1996 Japan-U.S. joint declaration on security and the enactment of laws related to the new guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation.

However, should rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula make more progress, there will be growing demands in the U.S. Congress for a reduction in the 100,000 U.S. troops deployed in Asia and the Pacific, including Japan and South Korea. Anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea and protests against the U.S. military presence in Japan could grow.

Japanese officials would be neglecting their duty if they continued to take the Japan-U.S. security system for granted and failed to work out new security policies in response to the changing international situation.

A bipartisan group in the U.S., which included former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage, bluntly pointed out Japan’s security problems in a recent report. “Japan’s prohibition against collective self-defense is a constraint on alliance cooperation,” the document said. “Lifting this prohibition would allow for closer and more efficient security cooperation.” The report also said the course of U.S.-Japan relations “has wandered, losing its focus and coherence,” and added that it is time for “burden sharing to evolve into power-sharing.”

Collective defense is an issue that Japan cannot shun — not only in its relations with the U.S., but also when it comes to making contributions to world peace and security by joining U.N. peacekeeping forces. This raises serious questions about whether the Constitution should be revised.

Past Japanese governments — whether they were made up of only the Liberal Democratic Party, non-LDP parties, or LDP-led coalition partners — have avoided the sensitive issue of constitutional restraints on defense. Without promoting constitutional debate, Japan will never be able to rid itself of existing limitations on security and defense.

Gerald Curtis, professor at Columbia University and a Japanese affairs expert, says the central issue in the Japan-U.S. alliance is China, and adds that those who attach great importance to the alliance value “strategic dialogue.” In his opinion, U.S. officials will be frustrated if Japanese leaders are unable to conduct such a dialogue.

Owada, the Japanese diplomatic expert, says Japanese diplomacy will have a great impact on the world. Japan should not be afraid to take political risks to establish clear-cut diplomatic strategies with broad perspectives and deep insight concerning international politics and the economic situation.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.