Commentary / Japan

When the fog lifts, a changed landscape will be revealed

After Brexit and after the COVID-19 crisis, as the fog of uncertainty clears and the dust settles, there on the new international landscape, as viewed from the island of Great Britain, we shall see two markedly new and different features.

One of these will be labeled “Japan” and the other will be marked “Commonwealth network.”

Why these two? Take Japan first. This will feature because as the United Kingdom develops a new pattern of alliances and bilateral links it will look to its natural friends in Asia (by far the fastest growing and most successful post-COVID-19 region) to build a new international position.

To those who say “well, why not China?” the answer is that we are heading for an age of middle powers, not superpowers.

The two giant economies, China and the United States, are going to be so preoccupied rivaling each other that they will fit uneasily into the fascinating global network pattern of nations now emerging.

Neither giant will make comfortable companions, although both will have to be carefully and gingerly handled. Their constant bickering and squabbling belong to a past era of international conduct — more deserving of the epithet “childrenpower” than superpower behavior.

It is the medium-size economies and societies of the world that are going to find themselves naturally pulled together by the ever-busy networking processes that carry on connecting night and day at every level, governmental and (even more) nongovernmental and commercial, and through every thread of civil society.

Britain will urgently need to gain a stronger foothold in Asia — where the greatest market growth and innovation (both technical and social) are going to occur over the coming decades, and Japan makes the obvious link point.

Unfortunately the penny has not quite dropped in the higher reaches of British diplomacy, although it soon will.

Too many foreign policy experts in London are still musing over the old “special relationship” with the United States, without understanding that in the network age an entirely new kind of relationship has to be forged — still friendly but very different from the old trans-Atlantic dependency and protection with which former British governments were used to living.

U.S. President Donald Trump himself is merely a reflection of this changed world, which has been brought about over the last three or four decades by the far more impelling and enduring powers of technology and the altered web of world power and influence.

As for the other new feature with which British diplomatic expertise has got to come to terms, the Commonwealth network of 54 nations, this is part of the same transformed pattern.

Deep and instinctive understanding in Britain of the enormous Commonwealth potential has, of course, been there all along, but for the past 40 years it has been submerged by the fashionable view of the European Union as Britain’s immediate, next-door, salvation.

Continental Europe remains a wonderfully diverse, and dynamic neighborhood, with which Britain now has to build a new variety of links — both bilateral and multilateral — in line with the potential of modern connectivity.

But its very character precludes the kind of standardized bloc-building about which the founders of European unity dreamed back in the 20th century.

A new, much cleverer and more flexible pattern throughout Europe must now be created, as many of the more far-seeing European leaders and commentators are now arguing as well.

For a seagoing and trading nation like Britain it is in the great new markets of Asia, east and central, Africa, north and south, and most of Latin America, where business must be done and new links established.

By luck rather than good judgement, the British have inherited this vast and exceptional new global network of common affinities to which the digital age has given a kind of blood transfusion.

At the moment, it is indeed hard to peer ahead beyond the virus crisis, and the bewildering statistics and opinions which swirl round it, into this changed world of opportunities. But if there is any doubt in British minds about the Japanese linkage then a quiet exercise visit to one of London’s great parks, Battersea, might help.

One exercise visit per day, along with a trip to the shops for food or to the pharmacy, is fully permitted by current lockdown regulations. So is travel for “essential workers,” although deciding who is essential, when every worker depends on a long chain of other workers in almost every field — for example, to travel, to eat, to operate — is a near impossible task.

But at least in the peace of the park the visitor can reflect while he or she gazes at the superb Japanese Buddhist peace pagoda temple, right beside the Thames, or strolls (or jogs) along the avenues of white cherry blossoms, recently in breath-taking display.

Thousands more cherry trees from Japan are being planted in parks and public places around Britain. Perhaps the trees, being a little taller, at least when fully grown, than humans, can see a little further ahead than people through the present clouds.

If so, they will be revealing a changed landscape ahead, both at home and across the world. And it is a landscape that is going to offer some most interesting and fruitful alliances.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant.

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