Even for a leader who has already chalked up many firsts, Barack Obama’s Hiroshima visit is a hugely audacious moment. One fraught with risks, too, as Republicans back home accuse the U.S. president of extending an apology for which most Americans aren’t ready.
That’s silly, of course. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government doesn’t want America’s contrition, as it might put the onus on Tokyo to atone for attacking Pearl Harbor and colonizing large swaths of Asia. Saying sorry for President Harry Truman’s decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 would also reverberate through the U.S. election progress. Hillary Clinton would face her own bombardment from Donald Trump’s party over perceived appeasement.
But the real risk Obama faces visiting the original Ground Zero is legitimizing Abe’s nationalistic agenda. The same goes for political machinations in Vietnam, where Obama made big news lifting Washington’s arms embargo, and Malaysia, where he continues to embrace a corruption-tainted leader.
Japan: Obama is absolutely right to visit Hiroshima, where the attack killed as many as 100,000 people instantly. I first went there in 1991 and have returned several times over the years with visiting family and friends.
It’s not a political statement on my part, just a strong belief that Americans should experience the place. The wreckage, aftermath photos and video testimonials enhance our mutual understanding of the devastation of that August day. The palpable sense of menace in the air most closely resembles what I’ve felt visiting Auschwitz in Poland, Dachau in Germany or Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in Cambodia. I’m not equating these historical events, just the wisdom of seeing each firsthand.
Just as Obama must be careful not to appear to apologize, he mustn’t strengthen Abe’s hand with right-wingers or feed into his revisionist take on wartime responsibility. One reason Japan’s economy is sputtering is Abe’s prioritizing undoing injustices fellow conservatives see in the postwar order over structural reform.
Even if Abenomics is flopping, Abe can bask in the glow of “reinterpreting” the U.S.-imposed Constitution that took away Tokyo’s offensive military capabilities. Abe’s chosen location for this week’s Group of Seven summit — the Ise-Shima area— also fits the modus operandi. It’s the site of one of the Shinto religion’s holiest shrines. Such symbols were used to whip up the aggressive imperialism that drove Japan to war, and Abe is a member of Shinto Seiji Renmei, the religion’s powerful political wing that wants it restored as the state faith.
Holding the G-7 summit near Shinto’s answer to the Vatican is fraught with political meaning for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. It has long relied on support from right-wingers gunning for Japan to play a more muscular role in Asia, a group that views Japan more as a World War II victim than aggressor. For them, the sight of Obama, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron posing for a planned photo on the 100-meter Uji Bridge, which American soldiers reached after Japan’s surrender, must have been sweet indeed.
If only Abe spent as much time orchestrating his economic upgrades as Obama’s itinerary, Japan might not be hurtling toward another recession. Obama must be careful not to give Abe’s ulterior motives an air of international respectability. His mandate is Japan’s economy, not stage-managing the past.
Vietnam: Obama’s decision to lift fully Washington’s embargo on lethal-weapons sales this week was aimed at removing, in his words, a “lingering vestige of the Cold War.” The move has realpolitik written all over it as China’s efforts to control the South China Sea push Hanoi in America’s direction. It’s perhaps the most symbolic investment yet in a “pivot to Asia” that’s been more slogan than reality. But risks abound, more domestically than regionally.
The Pentagon is all smiles as it probably gets access to key Vietnamese ports, much to China’s chagrin. The Communist Party led by Nguyen Phu Trong gets serious bragging rights among 90 million Vietnamese irked by Beijing’s land grabs and “fishing militia” boats trolling its waters. But Obama must be careful about siding with Vietnam’s government over the rights and aspirations of its people. There is indeed a human rights quid pro quo as part of this arms sales shift. It will be a tough balance to strike, though. Obama’s team must create and institutionalize a mechanism to make sure Hanoi eases up on jailing dissidents and silencing the media.
The same goes for addressing the Beijing-like corruption squandering the benefits of growth. Obama, and whichever administration succeeds his, must continue pushing Vietnam toward the market-oriented economy needed to create millions of good jobs. The nation’s ease-of-doing-business ranking trails Uzbekistan, El Salvador and China. It places behind Mozambique, Honduras and Togo in Transparency International’s corruption-perceptions index.
Earlier this year, Trong managed to extend his five-year reign, beating off younger and more reform-minded rivals. Washington must ensure it’s not strengthening Trong’s hand at the expense of democratizing one of Asia’s most promising economies.
Malaysia: Najib Razak is one of Obama’s best golfing buddies in Asia. He’s also as tainted a leader as you’ll find in a region teeming with corruption scandals. And if any of Asia’s current leaders are hurtling toward disgrace, it’s Malaysia’s prime minister. Try as he may to limit investigations into his 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund, dodge questions about the hundreds of millions of dollars found in his personal accounts and claim he’s restructuring an uncompetitive economy, the drip, drip, drip of bad news continues apace. Just this week, Singapore’s central bank, as part of a money-laundering probe into 1MDB, shuttered BSI Bank.
Najib has waged an all-out war against critics, clamping down on the media, detaining activists and threatening to bar Malaysians who criticize him from leaving the nation. He’s even played the God card in the Muslim-majority nation, fanning already tense racial divisions. And this is Obama’s go-to guy in Southeast Asia? Far from distancing himself from Najib’s increasingly repressive regime, Obama has cultivated the relationship, even going easy on mentioning the scandals swirling around Putrajaya.
Granted, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Malaysia is a party, is important to Obama but not vital enough to tacitly support a leader dragging his nation in a dangerous direction just to stay in office. Obama also wants to stay friends with as many moderate Muslim-majority nations America can these days. But Washington will pay a price in the long run for siding with a leader who deserves his own wing in Asia’s Hall of Shame over Malaysia’s 30 million people.
It’s grand that Obama is finally putting meat on the bones of his Asia pivot. At a time when Trump’s ugliness and isolationist rhetoric grabs the headlines, it’s heartening to see the U.S. reminding this region of its outward and forward-looking tendencies. Obama needs to be careful, though, not to get played in the process by leaders with ulterior motives.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com
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