M D Nalapat
JAPAN is a country that has reached the front rank of nations through the quality of its leadership as well as the quality of its people. The Japanese economy has weakened ever since a decision was made by Tokyo from the late 1980s till the middle of the 1990s to surrender to US demands on trade and investment rather than adopt the stance China has these days, that of resisting rather than accepting Washington’s demands. Any other country would have witnessed rising levels of social unrest as a consequence of the steady fall in average incomes during the extended period of deflation that Japan has faced. Instead, the Japanese people have stoically accepted their fate, and there has been no turmoil at all as a consequence of the much slower pace of the Japanese economy. Despite the fact that Administrations in the US made Tokyo agree to measures that serve the interests of the US at the expense of Japan, there has not been any vacillation in the manner in which successive Administrations in Tokyo have supported the US-Japan alliance.
While in the past, owing to its pacifist constitution, Japan was unable to militarily assist the US in numerous theatres of conflict across Asia. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is working hard on making changes to the constitution and the laws that would give a future government in Tokyo the freedom to intervene militarily if needed. It needs to be mentioned that the Japanese “Self Defence Forces” are a formidable force that contains a powerful army, navy and air force. It is also no secret that Japan is “just a screwdriver away” from having its own nuclear weapons. The nuclear industry is highly developed in Japan, and several companies in that island country are leaders in the field. The only blind spot of the Shinzo Abe government is its inability or unwillingness to recognize that the pre-1945 history of Japan still remains in the collective memories of the people of several countries, notably China and South Korea, in both of which the Japanese ruled, and not very gently. While China is now a superpower and can fend for itself, South Korea is still an economy smaller than that of Japan. The country was occupied by Japan for a considerable period of time, and as with most colonists, the people of Korea were exploited by the authorities in Japan in a manner that cannot be forgotten, even if it gets forgiven eventually. For this to happen, the Shinzo Abe government needs to adopt a much more understanding line towards Seoul than has been the case thus far. The latest example is the use of the trade weapon to attempt to force through concessions from South Korea. This is similar to what President Trump is doing in the case of China.
Both South Korea as well as Japan are not just democracies but neighbours of each other. The bitter memories of the decades under Japanese overlordship remain in the historical memory of not just South Korea but North Korea as well. It is no secret that Pyongyang is paying careful attention to the development of missiles and their payloads as would inflict significant casualties on the Japanese people in the eventuality of conflict between North Korea and Japan, which would need to come to the assistance of the US were President Trump to decide to tackle the North Korean issue through military force, hopefully an option that will be avoided. Just as there are several South Koreans with a negative view of Japan, there are many Japanese whose antipathy even extends to their even refusing to travel in a South Korean car when abroad, even though some of the South Korean models are better and more cost effective than many of their European competitors.
Playing to such sentiments is a political tactic that has been followed by both President Trump as well as his close associate, Prime Minister Abe. The consequence has been a souring in relations between Seoul and Tokyo that can damage both. The move by the Japanese government to block the sale of essential minerals to South Korea will be seen by the latter as an effort to weaken South Korean companies that are competing with Japanese entities across the world. The sudden rise in trade frictions across the world carries the risk of setting off a fall in global economic activity. Such a situation would increase the chances for unrest and chaos in several countries. It is no accident that the “Arab Spring” of 2011 took place in those countries where citizens battled high levels of inflation and unemployment, and spared those countries where the economies were strong and the life of citizens more comfortable. Prime Minister Abe is the leader of a country with a long tradition of noble conduct in the past, and he should keep that in mind while dealing with frictions caused by South Korean politicians.
In times past, the US would intervene in such situations, but President Trump has been so harried and pre-occupied by the Mueller probe into Russian influence among those close to Trump that the effectiveness of much of US policy has been compromised. Far from promoting the national interest, Robert Mueller and the Clinton Machine that backed him has harmed US interests substantially by weakening the hand of President Trump and diverting his attention and his energies from national causes to self-preservation in the face of an assault of unprecedented scale that has been designed to force him to quit or to create the circumstances for a successful bid to impeach him. There is almost no doubt that the Clinton Machine will succeed in the beginning an Impeachment Hearing in the US House of Representatives, that would further divert the attention of the President. Rather than following the example of politicians in the US, Prime Minister Abe needs to act with the grace and nobility shown by Emperor Naruhito of Japan, and work out a conciliation with the Moon Jae-in regime in Seoul rather than continue a conflict that is harming both East Asian democracies and tipping the world further into a global trade war of the kind that was last seen in the 1930s. Over to Shinzo Abe.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.