Japan risks isolation in the Asia-Pacific

Jean-Pierre Lehmann

May 16, 2017, 5:00 am SGT

Tokyo needs to make peace with its neighbours, especially those that were its former victims.

I spent March and April at Hong Kong University teaching my course on globalisation and Asia. This coincided with a number of events and developments in this fast-moving and “Vuca” – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – world, including the Mar-a-Lago summit that was much discussed in class. As I pointed out to the students (roughly half of whom are from China), the good news is that Mr Donald Trump does not seem to be keeping his campaign promises!

The contrast between the Sinophobic offensive campaign rhetoric and recent developments in the evolution of the China-US relationship – “the most important bilateral relationship, bar none”, as we are often reminded – border on the hallucinatory.

The atmosphere in Mar-a-Lago was more than just cordial, sweetened by Ms Ivanka Trump’s children Arabella and Joseph reciting poetry and singing a traditional folk song in Mandarin for Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan. This was an unexpected scenario!

That was on April 9. Last Thursday, hardly a month later, media headlines reported the White House hailing a concluded US-China trade deal, according to which the Chinese will open their market in a dozen areas, including credit cards, natural gas and beef. In this spirit of cooperation, Washington sent a senior delegation to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit that ended yesterday, which until then it had been intent on boycotting. There are noises about China engaging in the Trump Rebuild America Infrastructure Plan, while in turn the US may become a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Thus, far from engaging in trade war, as many (including this author) had predicted, the US and China appear to be making trade love! Of course, in a Vuca world, everything is possible and this could be the proverbial calm before the storm. For now, things are certainly interesting and encouraging.

The sunshine extends beyond trade. In campaign rhetoric, in his inaugural speech, and in a number of caustic remarks (and tweets!) since then, Mr Trump had intoned that his most poisonous bone of contention with China was North Korea. To that end, he had sought to engage his Asia-Pacific allies South Korea and Japan and impose on the former the US Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-ballistic missile system. This was bitterly opposed by Beijing, which saw it as a means to spy on China. In the meantime, another twist in the Asia-Pacific narrative occurred with the impeachment of the hawkish former South Korean president Park Geun Hye and the election of the far more dovish Moon Jae In who has announced he is sending a senior delegation to Beijing to seek a peaceful resolution of the Thaad dispute.


It is too early to down the cup of Baijiu and shout “Ganbei”, as things could still go terribly wrong, but the tale does illustrate once again a point I have been frequently stressing, including in this column: Japan is out of sync with what is happening in the world generally and in its Asia-Pacific neighbourhood especially.

The Japanese narrative of the period from roughly 1895 to 1995 is one of outstanding success. From feudal Asian backward isolation, Japan, alone among non-Western nations, became both a major industrial and military imperial power. It lost World War II, but this seemed to be a temporary hiatus in its rise. Less than two decades after its devastating defeat, it astonished the world with its “economic miracle” – marking the first time, to my knowledge, that the terms “economic” and “miracle” were made contiguous!

Throughout this century of brilliant – even if at times extremely bloody – ascent, Japan never had any Asian allies: only Asian colonies! It had three successive Western allies: Imperial Britain from 1902 to 1922 (during which it colonised Korea); Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1945 (during which it waged implacable war on China and most of South-east Asia, with tens of millions of deaths, including civilians); the US since 1952, during which it has been able to perform the economic miracle while riding on American security coat-tails.

Its defeat in World War II notwithstanding, it was able to retain its leadership position in Asia by virtue of having been transformed from the US’ most hated enemy to its most pampered protege. Japanese “foreign” policy, especially vis-a-vis Asia, was decided in Washington, not in Tokyo. Though denied an active military role by virtue of its US-imposed “peace Constitution”, it supported the US in the Korean and Indo-Chinese (Vietnam and Laos) wars by providing logistic support, as well as R&R (rest and recuperation) facilities for American soldiers, and repair and maintenance facilities for combat ships and planes.

Tokyo also followed to the letter US instructions in refusing to recognise Beijing as the legitimate government of China, opting instead for the renegade government of Chiang Kai Shek in Taipei. It was only after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Mao Zedong in 1972 – taking Tokyo totally by surprise – that then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka sheepishly hastened to Beijing in his footsteps.

In the 1980s, as the Japanese economy soared and the American economy plummeted and the relationship was marked by quite acute “trade friction” (boeki masatsu), when the Japanese economy was seen as overtaking the US economy, there was a certain xenophobic resentment of the US, illustrated by publications such as The Japan That Can Say “No” by the late co-founder of Sony Akio Morita and former governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara, and by the coinage of the term “kenbei” – contempt for America.


Since 1995 – the year of the Great Hanshin earthquake – things have been going downhill for Japan: The economy has stagnated in a deflationary spiral, there was the Fukushima nuclear disaster (2011), and China’s gross domestic product surpassed Japan’s in 2010.

For the previous 100 years – 1895 was the year Japan defeated China in the first Sino-Japanese war – Japan had dominated China, a country for which many Japanese felt contempt. It is for that reason, among others, that Japan never felt compelled to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, all the crimes against humanity it perpetrated in China. Former Tokyo governor Ishihara, to cite only one example among many, stated the Nanjing massacre never occurred!

Since coming to office in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, notwithstanding his nationalism, has been fawning vis-a-vis Washington and used that as a rampart to constrain China. He enthusiastically supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership in what was seen in Tokyo as fundamentally a US-Japan-led bilateral deal to ostracise China.

He followed the American lead in being the only major Western or Asian economy not to become a member of the Beijing-led AIIB. He paid an official visit to Pearl Harbour – nice, but not necessary as Pearl Harbour was not a crime against humanity – while still refusing to visit Nanjing. Japan was not represented at the BRI summit.

When Mr Trump was elected, Mr Abe was the first head of state to go to pay tribute – in the form of a gold putter – and bask in the balmy breeze of Mar-a-Lago. Mr Trump’s bombastically cacophonic anti-Chinese tirades were undoubtedly sweet music to his ears.

Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, but strongly, the winds have changed. As the Xi-Trump romance seems to blossom, including through bilateral trade deals, participation in the BRI summit, probable membership of AIIB, Tokyo stands out pathetically as the jilted lover left holding the empty can.

It’s an interesting spectacle to watch, but also quite distressing and in many ways alarming. The winds may change again and blow in Tokyo’s direction. But in whatever direction it blows, it is an ill wind that bodes potential danger.

As a Frenchman born in 1945, my generation – in contrast to my father’s (World War II) and to my grandfather’s (World War I) – has lived in serene peace. There are a variety of factors that have determined this situation, but only one really matters: Germany has made peace with and unconditionally expressed apologies to its former victims.

There will be no solid durable peace in the Asia-Pacific until and unless Japan makes peace and unconditionally apologises to its former victims, China and Korea especially. It would be splendid if the current winds could make Tokyo wake up and face this reality. The peace and prosperity of future Asian generations depend on it.

•The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

Source: Straits Times “Japan risks isolation in the Asia-Pacific”

Note: This is Straits Times’ article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.


8 Comments on “Japan risks isolation in the Asia-Pacific”

  1. johnleecan says:

    I know Koreans, North and South alike, all very much wants to reunite their country and punish Japan. All who thinks that North and South Koreans hate each other are just propaganda by the Americans.

    I hope that the long patience of the Chinese will eventually mean it will be time for China to take Japanese land in the future. We the Chinese do not want apologies or anything the Japanese dogs offer. Every Japanese, without exception, should pay for the Japanese dogs sadistic, brutal, inhuman and murderous rampage during WW II. We the Chinese want revenge!


    • Gon says:

      Amerika had no right to go in and occupy South Korea just like that. They did not win the war against the Japanese on the Korean peninsular. The Russians did. Besides it was Kim Il-Sung and his men who fought a fierce war resisting the Imperial Japanese who colonized Korea, NOT Syngman Rhee, the appointed puppet of Amerika from the U.S. Mr Kim ll-Sung was justified in launching a Korean unification war. This is a nationalistic matter. Amerika intrusion – like the way they invaded and occupied South Vietnam against Vietnamese – manifest the imperiaistic agenda of Washington. Amerika, the “butcher of East Asians”, must go.


  2. Steve says:

    Repetition should be infinite that Japanese are Barbaric Savages, Unrepentant and a Scumbag dishonest bunch of Racist. Japanese corrupt leaders cast a hypocritical and immoral darkness over Japan, as a portent of obliteration.

    Monks are not politically motivated, but when asked a question of great concern, their answers are precise and unambiguous. Two buddhist patriarch was asked on the state of affairs of China Japan relations separately over several decades.

    The 1st patriarch said that if Japanese do not control their Greed, in the future they will face extinction or obliteration.

    The 2nd patriarch said that in the future 7 out of 10 Japanese will face obliteration.

    It appears that such a destructive war maybe unavoidable.

    It is too late now for any repentance by future Japanese leaders. Even if there was such a Japanese leader in the future, kneeling and bowing to the Nanjing massacre memorial, he will be assassinated on his arrival back in Japan. Such is the strange behaviour of Japanese.


  3. Gon says:

    This is a well written piece by Professor Emiritus JP Lehmann expressing what many Chinese and Koreans feel.

    Beijing’spussy-footing around with “duplicitous” Abe and his team and even being ever so nice to Japan – the WW II “butcher of East Asia”, dismay many Chinese and even Koreans for its incorrect handling of Japan.

    By any account, especially Japanese’s unforgiving culture – killers, murderers, traitors (as towards other Confucianist Asians) – should be ostracized and sanctioned harshly without mercy; The terrible shame and social stigma felt by the Japanese must be not for just one generation but maybe two or three. That Japan has been given just a slap on the wrist is totally unacceptable. You get no respect for such irresponsible lack of firm treatment unlike the murderous Americans which beat the hell out of the Japanese, who got more respect from the Japanese.

    Beijing’s less than firm treatment to an unrepentant war criminal and current *rseh*le will come back to haunt them in the future. Relationships with Japan cannot be one based on diplomatic or political expedience. Unless there is atonement, Beijing should firmly sanction and treat dealings with Shinzo “militant grandson of a war criminal” Abe and his Administration, coldly. Avoid them like plague.


  4. Fre Okin says:

    As long as Japan is governed by a fake democracy under Abe, she will simply die off by her own demographic problem due to her racist immigration attitude. Their whole isolationism is due to the Abe’s government believe they are superior people though they never dare to say so publicly. The whole country have being brainwashed by the silly conservative ‘Japaneseness BS’ culture. There is nothing special about ‘Japaneseness’. It is a bunch of lies the Abe government, basically a bunch of LDP politicians with roots all the way back to Imperial Japan trying to promote Japan as somehow superior to other races but they never dare to say so publicly. To these people, Japan must be a pure race of Yamato people, maybe only Whites are acceptable.

    Japan can only become great again if the Japanese dare to start a revolution to throw out the cancer which is the LDP government which run Japan almost all the way since post world war II. All this criminal Abe ever do is offer insincere apologies, even to US trying to pass off ‘condolence to the dead’ as an apology to the Living. Such strange animals are not humans at all and it’s no wonder this Jepunya team up with India, same degree of dishonesty as Japan as can be seen in judge pal, the only judge in the Far East War Tribunal having a statue in Yasukuni Shrine for being the only judge among the dozen judges who dissent against the overwhelming verdict of Tojo and other Class A War Criminals.

    Japanese people Must Realise they are Useful Idiots for the Americans. Diaoyu/Senkaku serves Both Abe conservative nationalist agenda And US geopolitical interest for continued Excuse to hang out in Asia. The biggest losers are the ordinary Japanese people and they don’t even know it or can’t do anything radical as this will make them unJapanese. This is how sorry the Japanese people situation are, Brainwashed at birth by the LDP government!


  5. Simon says:

    China is now writing the rules of internanational trade. America is either part of that or isolated.
    What comes around goes around. I sincerly believe one of two things will happen with Japan before the end of the 21st century. They could be invaded by China. More likely a rethinking in Japan will happen that involve apologies for war crimes in WW2 and the years before it with Japan reverting back to being a client state of China. That is the only best option for Japan.


    • Steve says:

      If Japanese were to apologise out of desperation or seeking advantages from China, it would be a dishonest unrepentant apology. One of the better avenues to show goodwill is to return the stolen Diaoyu Islands. This would calm the waves of mistrust and allow the Japanese to show their righteousness rather than remorse.

      It would be interesting to know what the meeting entails when ASO was in China.


  6. alking1957 says:

    Well, let thre Japs isolate themselves. They will never repent, nor be remorseful for their crimes against humanity. They are the worst of the human races.