Pacific Century

By Swenson-Wright, John | The World Today, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Pacific Century


Swenson-Wright, John, The World Today


The Japanese economy is in trouble, its political world leaderless. The United States, Tokyo's main strategic and trading partner, is promoting new policies for the region: China is seen as a strategic competitor, peace between the Koreas is now on the back burner. Can Japan deflect the inevitable tensions with Its own regional vision?

THE COLLISION BETWEEN A US nuclear submarine and the Japanese fishing vessel, Ehime Mani, in February and the loss of nine out of the ship's thirty-five passengers and crew, has provoked a storm of press coverage in Japan - much of it critical of the United States. Senior Japanese officials have expressed concern and there has been widespread public discontent If the pattern of earlier crises, such as the rape of a twelve year-old Okinawan school girl by US marines in 1995 is followed, then a rift, or at least weakening of relations between Washington and Tokyo is likely.

Coupled with the leadership crisis over the departure of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and the government's apparently persistent inability to address economic short-comings, one could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is, at best, a `reactive state; vulnerable to being thrown of course by short-term crises, hopelessly ill-suited to the challenge oflong-term strategic planning and unable to think constructively about future priorities.

While there is no mistaking the challenge that Japan faces on the economic front, this pessimistic outlook is arguably less valid where the country's foreign and security policies are concerned. Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly from the mid 1990s, Japan has increasingly, although gradually, come to realise the need for a more realist-style of diplomacy. Successive governments have moved from the pattern - dominant since the 1960s - of prioritising economic interests, towards a more expansive and traditional style of foreign policy in which political and security considerations increasingly are centre-stage. In the process there has been a weakening of the traditional constraints on the use of military force, that prevented Japan from translating its past economic clout into political influence.

CRITICAL CATALYST

The critical catalyst for change was, arguably, the Gulf War of 1991 which exposed the decision-making deficiencies of the Japanese government. The 1992 Peace Co-operation Bill enabled Japan's Self Defense Forces to participate in a broader range of UN peacekeeping, albeit under very stringent conditions.

At the same time, the unexpected temporary loss of power by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1993 heralded a major shift in political allegiances. This realignment of forces was symbolised by the emergence of new rightof-centre parties rather than an overall decline in support for the conservative camp. Most significantly, the Japan Socialist Party was prompted to abandon its traditional opposition to the security relationship with the US and to accept the constitutional legitimacy of the Emperor and the Self-Defense Forces. This was critically important in breaking the ideological log-jam that had constrained foreign and security options for much of the post-1945 period. Although the LDP regained power in 1998, subsequent administrations have continued to move towards open, well-defined and coherent security initiatives.

They have been under pressure to reexamine aspects of Japan's bilateral relations - most notably with the United States, China and the two Koreas. Policymakers frequently now approach security from a broad perspective including environmental, migration and energy considerations. A striking feature of this has been the tendency of the bilateral and multilateral aspects of security policy to develop simultaneously.

MATURE PARTNERSHIP

Washington's new Republican administration and the return of familiar faces, including a number of prominent and knowledgeable Japan hands, has been broadly welcomed in Japan.

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