Japan Needs to Be a Global Player on Many Fronts If It Is to Protect Its People

The November 23 bombardment of Yeonpyeong by North Korea was followed by joint US–South Korean exercises in the Yellow Sea from November 28 to December 1 and Japan-US aerial and maritime exercises—the largest ever—for eight days from December 3 in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan.

Commenting on the growing military tension, Yoichi Funabashi notes that Japan needs to become a more active global player on many fronts if it is to truly protect its national interests. Funabashi was the Japan leader for a project that produced a joint statement by the Tokyo Foundation and the Center for a New American Security on the Japan-U.S. alliance titled “Renewing Old Promises and Exploring New Frontiers.”

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North Korea's shelling of South Korea's Daeyeonpyeongdo island on Nov. 23 suggests the regime crisis in Pyongyang is ominously taking shape in ways far different from the brinkmanship that the reclusive state had previously relied on to woo Washington.

There is another dimension to this latest provocation: Northeast Asia became a coherent entity as the Cold War dragged on following the 1953 cease-fire agreement to end the Korean War. But now the region's most fragile link, the Korean Peninsula, has begun to disintegrate.

A number of crises triggered by North Korea's behavior have occurred over the years. However, this latest turning point happened at a time when North Korea is striving to pass power to a third generation of the Kim dynasty and as the country has embarked on an uranium enrichment program that serves only to increase international jitters about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons capability.

The crisis has deepened because it comes amid drastic changes in international political trends that find the United States reeling from global economic upturns and downturns while China, seemingly oblivious to such problems, inexorably marches forward.

South Korea, the United States and Japan have urged China to apply even stronger pressure on North Korea. To contain North Korea, the United States dispatched the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea to take part in joint military exercises with South Korea.

Beijing tried to check the U.S. and South Korean move.

"We oppose having those exercises held within China's economic zone," said an official, warning that the exercises would only provoke North Korea.

The serious lapses in responses toward North Korea between the United States and South Korea, on the one hand, and China, on the other, or, for that matter among Japan, the United States and South Korea, on one side, and China, on the other, can be seen as signs of the struggles that could emerge over not only North Korea's nuclear weapons program and its regime, but also over the future of a unified Korean Peninsula as well as the regional order structure in Northeast Asia after unification of the Korean Peninsula.

These factors lead me to believe that a very different scenario is developing from the one we have known.

Viewed historically, the Korean Peninsula has continued to be the geopolitical Achilles' heel for Japan.

The major reason for the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War and the Manchurian Incident lies in the failure of Japan to appropriately respond to international political intrigue over the Korean Peninsula and the portion of northeastern China that now comprises the Yanbian region.

The United States and China have also stumbled in the past through their involvement in the Korean Peninsula.

Circumstances are again emerging so that the fate of a nation--whether both it and its people can be protected--will be determined by the merits as well as success and failure of its diplomacy and national security.

The lack of transparency during a transition period of power is not limited to North Korea.

China will also move to a new leadership structure with the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party to be established in 2012. While Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as president, there is the possibility that China will end up with a lame duck government over the next two years.

Although the Hu government had sought to create a "harmonious society," economic disparity and corruption have further spread within the shadows of China's rapid growth.

Transition Period

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama also appears to be losing momentum following the Democrats' disastrous defeat in November's midterm election.

With the unemployment rate approaching double-digit figures and due to fatigue from war, the American people have become more inward-looking.

On a recent visit to Japan, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley expressed concern that both Democrats and Republicans could lean toward protectionist tendencies while also bashing China.

There is the strong possibility that politics in Washington will be colored by partisan confrontation until the presidential election in 2012.

Domestic politics in South Korea and Russia could also be in for an unsettled period until presidential elections in 2012.

The international political environment surrounding Japan will enter an uncertain "troubled two years."

There is growing instability in global politics with the simultaneous and sudden emergence of China along with the decline of the United States.

The territorial issues that have arisen since last spring over maritime interests in the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea between China and various Asian nations are a reminder that the optimistic prediction that "the 21st century will be Asia's century" was premature.

Almost all Asian nations belong to a maritime civilization.

"Asia's century" will not emerge unless "maritime peace" can be created.

China appears to be no longer satisfied with pursuing the course of a "peaceful rise" that marked its rise from the early 1980s.

At the same time, it appears unable to find a new role and mission to replace that concept. The future of China's maritime strategy could influence the course that it takes.

There is also a greater lack of transparency in the relationship between the United States and China.

Morton Abramowitz, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, described the relationship as moving toward one of being "managing partners" rather than simply friend or foe.

Japan, the United States and China need to hold policy discussions to create a stable framework among the three nations.

Another challenge facing Japan is the power shift in international politics brought about by the spectacular performance of newly emerging economic powers.

These newly emerging economies create some 70 million new members of the middle class each year. At the same time, they also still have a huge sector mired in poverty.

In those nations, priority is placed on the eradication of poverty, social stability and the economic growth needed to achieve those aims.

The goals are very similar to the ones Japan faced after World War II when it also embarked on rapid economic growth. Economics is at the center of the politics and diplomacy of such nations.

There are no clear-cut differences between the private and public sectors in those newly emerging economies. The government is always deeply involved in all economic activity.

Japan needs to create a decisive and robust economic diplomacy toward those nations. This could best be achieved through the cooperation of its public and private sectors.

Globalization represents another challenge.

After the shock from the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the greatest backlash against globalization has occurred in its epicenter, the United States.

At the same time, a cluster form of globalization with several new epicenters in the form of China, India and Brazil is also being born.

Japan is being buried under the circumstances of a "New World" symbolized by the trends of a bipolar managing partner relationship between the United States and China, the emergence of a public-private partnership in newly emerging economies and the cluster form of globalization.

The times are changing from one in which other nations approached Japan, even if it had nothing to say to them, to one in which Japan will have to aggressively approach other nations. It is also a change from times in which other parties studied Japanese to do business with this country to one in which we will have to become fluent in English and Chinese to do business with them.

Japan has no alternative but to seek out overseas markets for its economic well-being, future growth and resources.

Faced with such challenges, it is clear what Japan has to do.

It must ensure that Japanese are capable of conducting business worldwide. This would be the basis for revitalizing Japan's economic power, which in turn is the basis for fortifying its diplomatic capability.

The main purpose of Japan's diplomacy is to create through cooperation with other nations a "liberal international order."

The main principles of that order are a free, nondiscriminatory and multilateral trading system, a guarantee of such public goods as the oceans, space and cyberspace, the rule of law and respecting the rights of small nations.

With an increase in threats, in the form of nuclear weapons, terrorism, climate change and disease, and the expansion of risks, it will also be important to predict and prevent military conflicts that could occur in various regions.

There is a strong possibility of another wave of surging prices for food and energy. Developing alternative energy sources and realizing a low-carbon emissions society are pressing matters.

Diplomacy in all of these areas will require discussions on a multilateral level.

Japan must polish its skills in multilateral diplomacy. That would involve such tasks as deciding on the agenda, calling participants to meetings, leading those conferences, writing draft proposals, coordinating the differing arguments and interests of the participating nations, revising the draft on the spot and producing the proper political effects. All of those tasks would also have to be done in English.

The keys to economic revitalization are rebuilding the nation's fiscal health, improving Japan's international competitiveness and fostering Japanese capable of working anywhere in the world.

Those globally competitive professionals will need to acquire the language skills and understanding of foreign cultures as well as the ability to apply that knowledge, which is indispensable for those working on the global stage.

Given "New World" circumstances, Yuko Miyata, vice president in charge of human resources for Northeast Asia at Unilever Japan Holdings, said, "Those individuals have to work together with the peoples of newly emerging economies as well as developing nations while also exercising team leadership skills."

Globally competitive professionals who can jump into the markets of newly emerging economies, where demand from the new, large middle class is rapidly increasing, and develop new business projec

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ts will be sought by companies around the world. Japanese companies also have a strong need for such workers.

However, with entrenched deflation in Japan, about one in six college graduates is unable to find a job. Japan is falling far behind in fostering global professionals.

Executives at major companies complain about examples in which not a single young person applies to study at an American institution of higher education or desires to be posted to Africa.

In fiscal 2009, the Japan International Cooperation Agency received 4,752 applications for its Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program, less than half of the peak figure reached in fiscal 1994.

The phenomenon of "shut-ins" among young Japanese who do not want to go abroad is a result of the failure of Japanese companies, government and educational institutions to adequately train and use global professionals.

DPJ's Diplomacy

The public has turned a very critical eye toward the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's handling of diplomacy and national security. In relations with the United States, China and Russia, the government has been found lacking in its prior consultations, overall preparations and results.

However, the public is not simply questioning the DPJ's lack of experience or its poor use of career bureaucrats.

What the public wants to know is whether, under a DPJ government, this nation is being firmly protected and the lives and property of the public are being properly protected.

It appears prosecutors, the police and the Japan Coast Guard are not sufficiently carrying out their responsibilities. Wrongful arrest, a tenuous awareness of human rights, organizational egoism and the desire to protect their own, and sloppy handling of information--these are some of the factors that have led to a heightened sense of distrust toward the "night watch" role that is at the very core of what a state does.

What should be protected and what should be done to accomplish that goal?

Japan's territory and waters must be firmly protected. The deterrence and stabilizing force of the Japan-U.S. alliance must be maintained. A vision for a unified Korean Peninsula must be shared among Japan, the United States, South Korea, and China as well. A multilateral "peace at sea" must be created in the Asia-Pacific region by expanding free trade agreements (FTAs), including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A liberal international order must be created.

The issue is the method used in that protection.

For example, opposing FTAs and economic partnership agreements is not the most effective way to protect Japanese agriculture. At times, something must be changed in order to protect it.

In terms of diplomacy and national security, what must be protected are the diplomatic and national security assets obtained after World War II: in short, the Japan-U.S. alliance and the Constitution as well as the role of a global civilian power that does not depend on military might.

Those assets created trust in and respect for Japan from nations around the world.

The contributions of Japan and the Japan-U.S. alliance made it possible for China to embark on its course of modernization and peaceful rise since the 1980s as well as peace and stability in Asia.

Those assets can continue to be utilized as Japan's diplomatic and national security assets by matching them to the needs of the times.

The Obama administration has added the third D of development to its diplomacy and defense and declared its intention to become a "smart power" that combines military prowess with civilian power.

That concept has begun to resonate with Japan's role as a global civilian power.

That should also help in extending the frontiers of the Japan-U.S. alliance to deal with such issues as conflict prevention, building peace, humanitarian assistance and the global environment.

During the days when Japan pursued a course of becoming a global civilian power, it was a good listener as well as humble. It learned eagerly from others and occasionally gave in to pressure from foreign nations to push reform forward and open its own markets and society. It kept its pride as a nation hidden within its bosom and it was prudent about excessively asserting its accomplishments.

I believe that changed greatly from the time when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi led the government.

He ignored the protests of neighbors and continued to visit Yasukuni Shrine. At the same time, he undertook a form of diplomacy centered on the United Nations that included the goal of becoming a permanent member of the Security Council.

One result of such actions was that when a U.N. resolution was submitted in July 2005 to expand the framework of the Security Council, only three Asian nations joined as co-signers--Afghanistan, Bhutan and the Maldives.

Interests and Pride

At that time, Masahiko Komura, a lawmaker with the Liberal Democratic Party who once served as foreign minister, had the following observation:

"Politicians should think more about national interests. They tend to become very sensitive only about a nation's pride, but they should think about how much that has hurt national interests. In contrast, individuals only think about their own interests and they conveniently forget about pride at times. I want to urge everyone to place greater care on national interests and individual pride."

Conflict with neighboring nations can easily arise through issues of history and territory. At those times, we have to acquire a reflex nerve that allows us to automatically consider "national interests." Such a reflex nerve would be nothing more than an awareness of national interests.

Possessing such a reflex nerve would require radical realism, a strong desire to engage actively in the world and the ability to communicate.

Japan's enemy is an internal isolationism that turns its back on globalization while wincing at the emergence of China and other newly emerging economies.

Japan must be careful to avoid cornering itself into isolation.

Japan will not be able to protect itself or its people without participating in the world.

(This article is reprinted with permission from the December 6, 2010, issue of the International Herald Tribune/The Asahi Shimbun . Further reproduction, reprinting, or retransmission of this article is prohibited without the permission of the Asahi Shimbun.)

Yoichi Funabashi

  • Editor in Chief, Asahi Shimbun.
    Project Chair, The Tokyo Foundation and
    the Center for a New American Security Study Group on
    the Future of the Japan-U.S. Alliance.