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Politics & Law

A gaffe-prone Japan is a danger to peace in Asia; China concerned


Shinzo Abe Cartoon

Shinzo Abe Cartoon

The Abe government’s disastrous public diplomacy risks alienating not just China but also the US.

Japan’s public diplomacy hovers between the ludicrous and the sinister. In recent months, the country has specialised in foreign policy gaffes that seem designed to give maximum offence to its Asian neighbours while causing maximum embarrassment to its western allies.

Last week provided another example. Japan unveiled the largest naval vessel it has built since the second world war. The ship is nominally a destroyer – but it is an aircraft carrier in all but name. Beefing up the Japanese navy is arguably a legitimate response to China’s arms build-up. But, at a time of rising tensions in Asian seas, Japan should tread carefully. So what genius decided to call this new ship “Izumo” – the same name as a Japanese warship that took part in the invasion of China in the 1930s?

China was quick to charge Japan with deliberate provocation. Such an accusation would be easier to brush aside if the naming of the Izumo was an isolated incident. But just a few days earlier Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister, was caught suggesting that the Nazis might provide a suitable model for efforts to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution. “We should proceed quietly,” Mr Aso mused. “One day people realised that the Weimar constitution had changed into the Nazi constitution. No one had noticed. Why don’t we learn from that approach?” The unsurprising outcry that greeted these remarks forced an official spokesman to issue a clarification: “The Abe administration does not perceive Nazi Germany in a positive light.”

Just a couple of months earlier, it was Shinzo Abe who committed an offensive gaffe. The Japanese prime minister was photographed giving a thumbs-up from the cockpit of a trainer-jet with the number 731 painted prominently on the side. But 731 was the number of a unit of the Japanese imperial army, notorious for carrying out biological and chemical experiments on humans. I was in South Korea at the time the photo appeared in May – and almost every Korean I spoke to was convinced that it was a deliberate provocation. At the time I dismissed that view as paranoia. But now I am not quite so sure. Since then, Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s new president, has pointedly paid a state visit to Beijing before visiting Tokyo – breaking with a precedent set by her four predecessors.

The Japanese government’s attitude to its wartime past will be further tested this Thursday: August 15 is when conservative politicians often visit the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo to pay tribute to Japan’s war dead. The shrine contains the remains of 14 convicted war criminals, so these visits invariably cause great offence elsewhere in Asia. This year it appears that Mr Abe and his most senior cabinet colleagues will resist the temptation to visit Yasukuni, although many junior members of the government are likely to go.

But relative restraint on Yasukuni cannot undo all the damage that has already been caused. Japan’s western friends are alarmed. One longtime resident of Tokyo, with good contacts in the government, calls this “Japan’s most nationalistic government since 1945”. He adds that some of those in Mr Abe’s circle give the impression that “the only thing wrong with the second world war was that Japan lost”. This kind of thinking risks alienating not just China, but also the US – upon whose protection Japan relies. Indeed, senior American officials now seem just as concerned by Japanese nationalism as by the Chinese variety. In a recent article, Kurt Campbell – who was US assistant secretary of state for Asia in President Barack Obama’s first term – expressed worry about the risk of war in the Pacific, and noted that “both Tokyo and Beijing are determined to … play to nationalist domestic sentiments”.

The Abe government’s disastrous public diplomacy must be a nightmare for the country’s many able diplomats, as they seek to protect Japanese interests in an increasingly dangerous region. It is particularly regrettable because some of Mr Abe’s ideas for reviving his nation point in the right direction. “Abenomics” is a risky but long overdue initiative to tackle Japanese deflation. There is even a decent argument for revising Japan’s post­-war constitution to allow the country to do more for its own defence.

As Chinese power grows, it is increasingly anomalous for Japan – the world’s third-largest economy – to be so utterly dependent on the US for its security. The current arrangement places strains on both Japan and America. It makes Japan neurotic and resentful about the extent of its reliance on the US. And it makes the Americans anxious that a government in Tokyo could drag them into a war with China.

A better-balanced arrangement would see a loosening of America’s security guarantee to Japan so that minor territorial disputes in the East China Sea could no longer pose a risk of provoking a world war. In return, Japan could be allowed – and even encouraged – to build up its own military forces.

Any such shift in the strategic balance in Asia would be bound to cause palpitations from Beijing to Seoul, and beyond. As a result, it would have to be handled with the utmost diplomatic skill and delicacy. Instead, we have ministers in Tokyo who specialise in unconstructive ambiguity about Japan’s imperial past and bizarre gaffes about Nazis and torture squads. It would almost be funny, if it were not so serious . and so dangerous.

Author: Gideon Rachman
 
Source: A gaffe-prone Japan is a danger to peace in Asia  (ft.com) 
 

 

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About Political Atheist

Living in South East Asia (Vietnam & Cambodia). At the ending/starting point of the more than 1000 year old SIlk Road.

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