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Does Japan's national consciousness make it a regional ally or dangerous?

By Adam Wand - posted Thursday, 4 September 2003

An Australian free-trade agreement with the United States; a similar deal in the pipeline with China. The focus of world economic power shifts further and further away from the star performer of the post-war world. Japan, it seems, moves inexorably off the pages of modern economic importance. Yet while this occurs, a type of national replacement therapy gathers pace in the Japanese halls of power.

The Prime Ministers of Australia, and shortly after, the United Kingdom, recently travelled to Tokyo. Amid the quite intense media coverage of these visitations, an opinion piece appeared in The Japan Times that made an unfortunate historical comparison. The article, focusing on Japan's efforts to find a new international role for itself, sought to draw a connection between the seeming development of a pro-US trilateral support structure comprising an axis running between Tokyo, London and Canberra, and the fatefully unsuccessful marriage of the late-18th and early-19th century, of Bismarkian, and then Wilhelmine Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Entitled "Triple Alliance Stands Behind Washington", it drew a link between the aggressive coalition that resulted in the tragedy of the First World War and the development of the ties between, and the current emphasis on, the contemporary cohort of would-be global crusaders. The parallels, if accurate, couldn't be more troubling.

As a member of one of the other fateful axes of the 20th century, the fact that such comparisons can be credibly made of modern-day Japan gives an authentic window onto how the national Japanese psyche is on the move. If Japan is to be written off economically, if its chequebook diplomacy of the 70s and 80s can't even win it concessions at the International Whaling Commission, if its creditworthiness is now lower than that of several African states, then a new method of promoting a battered national interest must be implemented. It's called shear cold assertion.


But is Australia playing its cards correctly, or are we, by throwing ourselves so firmly behind US power and Chinese economic promise, neglecting our most important post-war trading relation? Are we dealing with Japan as a vibrant economic partner of the future or are we reappraising her as a new militarily active member of the modern pro-US "triple alliance"; and in doing so are we not merely feeding the international attention deficit that is causing the problem in the first place?

John Howard finished the Japanese leg of his recent North Asian tour a month ago. During his time in Tokyo, apart from it being difficult to shake the feeling that he was merely warming the diplomatic seat for a fast-approaching Blair entourage, Howard and his ensemble spent the lion's share of their time trying to be heard over the constant din that marks Japan's perpetual Korea-dilemma. Also, the economics of the trip, mired in the controversy surrounding beef tariffs, were basically written off well before his arrival. For example, while Howard was in Tokyo, Trade Minister Mark Vaile was in the U.S. talking "real" free trade. The Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi even made public comments on how Japan would never be bullied in trade negotiations. So how was Australia to get the attention we are now so accustomed to in the post-September 11 global power constellations?

The answer? Talk tough; talk only security.

The trip's almost exclusive focus on issues like Iraq, hard immigration policies, terrorism and war is, from the perspective of long-term and sustainable policy development, highly problematic. These issues are, of course, wholly legitimate inter-state concerns but it is through the exclusivity of the focus on them that Australia is feeding what has the potential to become an uncomfortable and destabilising re-emphasis in Japanese dialogue. Addressing the Australia-Japan Symposium in Tokyo, Howard commented that he wished "to pay tribute to the great support that the Prime Minister of Japan gave to the coalition of the willing in the recent military operation in Iraq" and that while he acknowledged the need to watch the polls extended to a democratic Japan, he heaped praise on Prime Minister Koizumi's leadership as being "conspicuous in leading Japan to a more confident and, I believe, properly assertive role in the affairs of this region and of the broader world community". This message played well to the audience on the day but glosses over a truly historic debate currently burning in the halls of the National Diet and within the constituencies of its members. The population is asking: should Japan be assuming the very role that Howard proclaims as such a success or should it not be redoubling its efforts on the economic front? Many a man and woman on the street vehemently disagree with the Australian government's analysis of Japan's new place in the sun.

The Asahi Shimbun recently published polling that showed nearly half of all Japanese respondents were extremely critical of the US and British actions in Iraq. The normally stagnant Upper House Diet Committee that eventually passed the Bill facilitating a Japanese troop deployment to Iraq turned physically violent when the proposal became law and it is now also being reported that since the carnage of the UN's Baghdad headquarters bombing, public opinion and opposition support has shifted even more dramatically away from the official pro-deployment stance. In reality, the very difficulty of defining "non-combat" zones in a guerrilla war environment makes the efficacy of the non-combat Japanese deployment almost non-existent. Finally, the two main opposition parties, Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) and the Liberal Party, have also, in only the last few weeks, merged to create a united alternative force to the ruling conservative LDP coalition in the general elections which are expected within the next six months.

It's a stark disconnection that, while so much domestic opposition develops to Japan's new course and popular will moves against her growing desire to be heard increasingly through the use of hard power, Japan's courting allies - Australia and Britain prominently among them - are fuelling the potential flames. If we are to avoid the emergence of a new set of pariah powers, a new Triple Alliance, than Australia needs to remember the past, diplomatically ensure that Tokyo also commits it to memory, keep the economic linkages more astutely maintained and take additional care to observe more thoroughly the international and regional causes of the new national anxieties plaguing the Japan of the early 21st century.

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About the Author

Adam Wand is a former senior political advisor. He served as a Chief of Staff in the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments from 2007-10. He is also a participant in the Australian American Young Leadership Dialogue.

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