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Japan's Aso renaissance

By M.D. NALAPAT, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Sept. 5, 2008 at 4:45 PM   |   Comments

MANIPAL, India, Sept. 5 (UPI) -- Although Germany shed its "historical guilt" for the 1939-45 war by the 1980s, most Japanese leaders have yet to abandon the cringing tone that they employ in the presence of those coming from countries that collectively defeated Japan. Recently resigned Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was a typical example of this, especially with regard to policy toward China.

Most reasonable -- indeed, rational -- observers would agree that Beijing represents more a threat than an opportunity to Tokyo, not just in the economic but also within the diplomatic and military spaces. In almost every national capital, Chinese diplomats spend hours seeking to dampen support for Japan, portraying that country as one that still needs to be watched and where hopes of conquest still linger.

Fukuda made clear that his path toward better relations with China was to concede on practically every issue on which disagreements existed. Had he continued for a full term, Japan may well have embraced the policy of "non-alignment" between the United States and China that is being subtly encouraged by Chinese diplomats across capitals linked in security relationships with Washington, including Seoul and Canberra.

In fact, the same way that former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's "non-alignment" favored Moscow over Washington, such a policy of equidistance between the competing strategic interests of the United States and China would have favored Beijing, prying loose several present allies from the list of U.S. backers.

Apart from diplomatic maneuvers, it is thanks to the People's Republic of China that North Korea has become a missile and nuclear power, and thus as potent a threat to Japan as the PRC-armed Pakistan is to Asia's other giant democracy, India. To Fukuda, the authoritarian Chinese state is a much more natural partner for Japan than democratic India, a country that he has ignored and sought to downgrade in tandem with his fellow sinophile, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Under these two, the background has been created for China's unprecedented naval and military expansion in the Pacific Ocean, to a level not reached since the Japanese navy became the dominant force in the region by the mid-1930s. Both together have bludgeoned the concept of an Asian NATO, a concert of democracies linked by a security chain that would exclude China and implicitly guarantee the safety of Taiwan by providing a multilateral framework in place of the unilateral U.S. commitment via the Taiwan Relations Act. Now, Rudd and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao are being abandoned by their ally Fukuda, who steps down from office on Sept. 22.

The front-runner to replace Fukuda, Taro Aso, is unapologetic about his preference for democracies and his backing for the continued independence of Taiwan, where he has several friends in the Democratic Progressive Party. Aso has particularly favored a more robust Japanese engagement with India, following on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's vision of a U.S.-Japan-India alliance that would keep the peace in East Asia, mainly by acting as a check on China.

Within Japan, he would be likely to stress economic growth and loosen some of the constraints that are holding back Japanese industry. Unlike Fukuda, who was open about his pandering to Beijing, Aso is likely to steer Japanese corporations away from their present significant dependence on China as a manufacturing hub. He is likely to expand ties with countries such as Mongolia and Vietnam, using his country's Buddhist traditions to advantage.

Most importantly, he is unlikely to repeat the mistake of confusing the Chinese people with the Chinese Communist Party. In the case of Japan's ally Taiwan, Kuomintang Chairman Emeritus Lien Chan surrendered to the CCP in a way that must have had former Taiwan President Chiang Kai-shek spinning in his grave.

The KMT under Lien identified the Chinese state with its people and shied away from the obvious -- that the "democratic example" of Taiwan is unlikely to be welcome to China's ruling party, which seems set on ensuring the continuation of authoritarian rule and crafting an international presence that would substitute for the Soviet Union during the period before its collapse in 1991.

Under Fukuda, the Liberal Democratic Party followed Lien Chan's policy of substituting support for the aspirations of the Chinese people with unqualified backing for the CCP, a stand that Aso is likely to reverse.

In an Asia wary of China's lengthening geopolitical shadow, the coming to office of Taro Aso will be welcomed, although -- in view of the reaction from Beijing -- in muted tones.

Japan, Australia, India and Singapore together can form a security system capable of meeting any challenge thrown at it in this century, and in Taro Aso, the LDP has a leader willing to try to make this construct a reality. An Aso-led renaissance beckons Japan.

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(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO peace chair and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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