Bridging the trust deficit in Northeast Asia
There has been a great deal of soul-searching about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's statement on the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. On 15 August 1945, Emperor Hirohito made his 'jewel voice broadcast' of surrender to the Allied forces, accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and ending World War II in the Pacific. After 70 years, some might wonder what's the big deal over recognising wartime history.
Both the baggage of history and the way in which the current Japanese leadership has dealt with it bedevils more productive and stable relations across the East Asian region. It sits like a dead weight upon progress on most dimensions of relations among Northeast Asia's three main powers — China, Japan and South Korea — but it especially weighs heavily on trust in political security relations as the Abe administration tries to explain its new security bills to its neighbours and at home. It impacts on America's relations with these countries and confounds US strategies for security and stability in the region. It sucks the oxygen out of the vibrant engine that these three economies collectively have the potential to become through deeper economic integration, not just for the East Asian region but also for the global economy.
Of course it's true that, despite the handicap of the political ups and downs in relations between China and Japan and between South Korea and Japan and the weakness in the foundations of trust, a thriving centre of economic growth and interdependence has been built among the Northeast Asian economies. This has been possible because each of them has committed to participation in the global economic and political system, via different pathways, to a global set of rules as well as to regional arrangements that encourage economic and political engagement despite their recurring bilateral difficulties and misunderstandings. The China-Japan bilateral economic relationship is third biggest bilateral relationship in the world despite the political handicaps under which it has laboured.
That's a remarkable achievement and testament to its further potential. A hesitance to
embrace closer bilateral or trilateral economic arrangements holds that potential back.
The stakes for Japan on getting the message on history right are high, not just for the justice and dignity of victims of Japanese imperial aggression, but also for the sake of bridging the trust deficit in Northeast Asia. It is a bottleneck to progress on a host of critical issues.
The expectations surrounding Abe's commemorative speech and exactly how he will address Japan's wartime history are under more intense scrutiny than on previous anniversaries. The 70th anniversary is a major inflection point in the memory of colonial and wartime history. This anniversary is almost surely the zenith in the quest of Japan's current Emperor for Japan's atonement during his lifetime, a quest to which high respect must be extended. Abe has also turned the spotlight on himself and his government, establishing a committee to advise him on his speech. The committee has reported on its task to investigate and outline the lessons from Japan's course through the 20th century; Japan's post-war path and contributions to the international community over the last 70 years; the state of reconciliation with former enemies; and a vision for Japan's 21st century foreign relations including specific measures that would contribute to peace.
On the surface this all appears an uncontroversial approach to a difficult and sensitive task. But given Abe's personal sentiments, his December 2013 Yasukuni Shrine visit, and his proclaimed desire to escape from 'masochistic history' and restore a sense of pride in Japan, there continues to be anxiety in Japan, in the region and elsewhere about how well his words will be directed to high purpose.
Abe is no political novice. In these and other affairs, his track record is that of a seasoned pragmatist. It's often forgotten that he secured his first stint as prime minister based on a promise to fix the China relationship after the freeze of the Koizumi years. More recently, Abe stepped up to acknowledge Japanese transgressions in Kokoda and Sandakan in the Pacific during a speech to Australia's parliament in Canberra in July 2014 offering his 'sincere condolences' and bit the bullet on Pearl Harbour, offering his 'deep repentance' over Bataan Corregidor and the Coral Sea in his address to the US Congress in Washington last April. It now seems certain that his anniversary statement will be subject to cabinet clearance (including by pacifist-leaning coalition partner, Komeito).
The world ushered in by the Allied forces' victory and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 (the anniversaries of which were commemorated last week in Japan and around the world) proved to be a world of incomplete peace. As Tessa Morris-Suzuki observes, 'The new security obsessions of the Cold War order diverted and forestalled the process of peace making. Because of Cold War tensions, the 1951 San Francisco Treaty, which supposedly sealed the peace between Japan and its former enemies, was not signed by the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), nor by North or South Korea … In the processes of redrafting, the terms of the treaty were revised in ways that left key territorial claims undefined. This served the strategic interests of the moment, but left unresolved a host of problems that plague international relations to this day'.
In this week's lead essay, Kazuhiko Togo concludes that Japan needs a roadmap to resolve these issues, as well as the outstanding issues that plague its regional relations, including the Yasukuni Shrine controversy, the 'comfort women' issues, other forced labour during the war, and territorial issues with its neighbours (the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute with China, the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute with South Korea, and the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute with Russia).
The first step in setting out such a road map begins with Abe's 70th anniversary speech. The next steps will need to be high-level dialogues between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The door has been left ajar to such meetings occurring, possibly later this year. Success further down the road requires renewed efforts at deepening regional economic integration — through engagement in multilateral financing institutions (AIIB), mega regional trade agreements (TPP and RCEP) and regional energy and environmental cooperation — and at utilising US-Japan alliance and US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation to engage with China in areas of mutual cooperation.
There is little doubt that Abe is pragmatic enough to lean on the door left ajar. The question is whether he has the strategic vision to see a path beyond that door.
10 August 2015
10 August 2015