Commentary Magazine


Topic: Shinzo Abe

Are Asia’s Nations Losing Their Fear of China?

One of the great enablers of China’s rise in Asia has been the fear of smaller nations to oppose its increasingly coercive behavior. Facing the sheer size of China, the worry that trade relations could be affected, and growing power of its military, most Asian nations have tried to avoid antagonizing Beijing over disputed territory in the region. This has been most noticeable in the South China Sea, where China’s largely successful attempts to wrestle territory away from the Philippines and Vietnam has now been complemented by a land reclamation policy that literally creates islands out of coral reefs.

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One of the great enablers of China’s rise in Asia has been the fear of smaller nations to oppose its increasingly coercive behavior. Facing the sheer size of China, the worry that trade relations could be affected, and growing power of its military, most Asian nations have tried to avoid antagonizing Beijing over disputed territory in the region. This has been most noticeable in the South China Sea, where China’s largely successful attempts to wrestle territory away from the Philippines and Vietnam has now been complemented by a land reclamation policy that literally creates islands out of coral reefs.

Yet there are signs that Asia’s nations have had enough, or at least are no longer willing to mute their opposition and anger at Beijing’s high-handed actions. This story, about a recent confrontation between Chinese maritime patrol vessels and Philippine fishing boats in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, contains all the elements of Asia’s geopolitical tussle. China’s coercive actions, including using water cannons and cutting the smaller boats’ mooring ropes, mimics previous incidents with Vietnam and other nations.

Yet now official condemnation of China is becoming more common. The Philippines’ presidential palace criticized China for the recent acts, one of just a number of Asian states that seem less willing to back down, at least diplomatically. While few of these nations have the military capability to effectively protect their claims, and none will be able to replicate Beijing’s feat of creating new islands on which to place airstrips and bases, they seem to have turned a corner in their willingness to denounce China’s actions.

Some of this is due to the realization that silence bought them little respite from China’s creeping control over the waters of Southeast Asia. Yet some more may be due to the fact that Japan has increased its diplomatic and security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations, providing patrol vessels and talking about enhanced relations. As Tokyo has deepened ties with both India and Australia, it is beginning to form a least a loose community of nations working more closely together in building up their defensive capabilities. Perhaps this, too, is changing the calculus of Asian states that have felt isolated until now.

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will visit Washington next week, for what may turn out to be an important summit with Barack Obama. Abe is eager to deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance, and it looks like a new set of guidelines for defense cooperation will be released. But where it counts today is on the waters of the South China Sea. The U.S. just concluded its largest military exercises with the Philippines in over a decade, a sign that Washington understands the sensitivities at play.

Yet whether President Obama will embrace Japan’s bid to link together those nations that feel threatened by China is yet unknown. Throwing his weight behind Abe’s initiatives would be a sure sign to Beijing that its rise is not without cost, and that it must temper its actions in order to ensure continued peace in Asia. With less than two years left in his administration, this is President Obama’s last, best chance to help reduce risk in Asia and potentially reshape its regional relations.

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See the U.S.A., Mr. Abe

When Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, arrives in Washington D.C. late this month, the cherry blossoms will have just dropped. According to U.S. and Japanese government officials, Abe will travel to Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles after addressing a joint session of Congress. That’s all predictable, and uninspired. Let me offer a more interesting itinerary for Japan’s leader.

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When Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, arrives in Washington D.C. late this month, the cherry blossoms will have just dropped. According to U.S. and Japanese government officials, Abe will travel to Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles after addressing a joint session of Congress. That’s all predictable, and uninspired. Let me offer a more interesting itinerary for Japan’s leader.

At the end of his congressional speech, Abe should look at the representatives of America’s people and say the following:

“My American friends, I now leave your capital city to see your country. Unlike most world leaders, I want to understand as best I can what makes America so strong. I want to take back with me lessons that will help make my economic plan, called “Abenomics,” as successful as possible.

“And so, I am on my way from here to Fargo, North Dakota, to see first hand the incredible shale oil revolution that is transforming your economy and the world’s energy markets. I will be the first foreign leader to visit your shale fields, which may help my own country in its struggle to diversify its energy imports away from the unstable Middle East and increasingly aggressive Russia.

“I want to see the technologies that are opening up the earth’s hidden resources, and understand the business environment that led Fargo to be the fastest growing metropolitan economy in the U.S. last year, with an unemployment rate of just 3 percent.

“After that, ladies and gentleman, I am off to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit one of America’s great technological centers. As an aging country, Japan must remain at the forefront of technological innovation in everything from healthcare to defense. Japanese must see how the universities of the ‘Research Triangle’ create new ideas and attract some of your country’s best minds. We have our own technology zones, but they have not prevented Japan’s companies from losing their competitiveness over the past two decades. I hope to find some answers to our technological research challenges in Raleigh.

“But ideas only take you part of the way. I have pledged in my economics plan to revitalize Japan’s domestic economy. How do we turn ideas into real goods and services and get them to our people? Despite being the world’s second-largest democratic economy, Japan continues to struggle to improve its national logistics in everything from air travel to telecommunications. And so, I will fly to Jacksonville, Florida, which boasts almost unparalleled links for trains, planes, and automobiles, as well as ships and telecommunications. Japan’s economy must learn to become more efficient and better integrate all elements of our domestic economy, and to make it easier for our companies to trade internationally.

“Yet Japan faces a major challenge of ensuring that all of its regions and cities prosper. I have committed to strengthening local economies and our countryside, as well. So I want to see some of America’s thriving smaller cities. There are many to choose from, but I will head back to your Midwest and visit Lincoln, Nebraska, which is one of the strongest growing small cities, and see how its state university adds to the local economy. Or perhaps Sioux City, South Dakota, whose lower taxes and reduced regulations helps nurture local businesses.

“Maybe we can get some of Japan’s larger companies to consider moving out of Tokyo and to our medium-size cities, if we can learn how parts of America’s heartland continue to attract skilled labor, smaller tech startups, and corporate headquarters. Maybe that will help us grow small business, as well. It may not be a perfect fit with our local economies, but I know that seeing vibrant small American cities will give me ideas for Japan’s.

“I may not visit your most famous cities on this trip, and I won’t be heading to places that give the best photo-ops. But the vibrant nature of America’s economy, from New York to South Dakota, is based on that special combination of individual freedom and entrepreneurial spirit. I know that your energy and dynamism comes not from this city, not from the federal government, but from local economies, small businesses, and educated citizens.

“And just maybe, a Japanese leader visiting your most innovative and economically active areas will remind the members of this Congress and the rest of the American government of just what is unique about your country, and help you, too, to ensure that it is not suffocated by an ever-intrusive, growing national government.

“Maybe, in fact, we can work on that goal together, in both our great countries.”

Now, that would be a trip worth covering.

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New Japan-U.S. Defense Guidelines Are Really About Japan

Washington-based security analysts not surprisingly interpret almost everything through a parochial lens, seeing how it affects America and domestic interests. Such an approach sometimes can miss the bigger picture. I would argue that such is the case with the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, which are nearing completion and were the subject of much of U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s first visit to Tokyo this week.

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Washington-based security analysts not surprisingly interpret almost everything through a parochial lens, seeing how it affects America and domestic interests. Such an approach sometimes can miss the bigger picture. I would argue that such is the case with the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, which are nearing completion and were the subject of much of U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s first visit to Tokyo this week.

The revised guidelines, Carter said in a press conference, will “transform” the alliance, allowing Tokyo and Washington to “cooperate seamlessly” across the globe. Last modified in 1997, the guidelines will be overhauled to include cyber and space issues, as well as the possibility of Japan participating in collective self-defense. This last is a major departure for Tokyo, which has been restrained by a self-imposed ban on cooperative defense activities for decades.

The revised guidelines will indeed help make the U.S.-Japan alliance more responsive and flexible, though the devil will be in the implementation of the details. But as much as Carter’s trip was designed to highlight the new era of cooperation between the United States and Japan, and to reinforce the message of President Obama’s pivot, I would argue that the revised guidelines say more about Japan than they do about the United States.

In fact, while Asia watchers in America are prone to view the U.S.-Japan alliance through a D.C.-centric lens, in this case the alliance modernization is actually just a small part of Japan’s much broader security revolution. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it may not be going too far to say that U.S.-Japan cooperation is being used to serve larger Japanese purposes. Thus, instead of seeing the permission of collective self-defense in terms of the alliance, the revised alliance guidelines should be seen as supporting Japan’s expanded range of security activities.

For the past two years, Prime Minister Abe has enhanced Japan’s relationship with a host of nations, including India, Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. He has scrapped the ban on exporting arms, and has provided maritime patrol boats to Hanoi and Manila, while agreeing to develop submarine technology with Canberra, and possibly sell submarines to New Delhi.

Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, the commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which is based in Japan, has encouraged Japan to engage in collective self-defense with countries other than America. This perfectly fits Abe’s plans, and is a realistic interpretation of where the Japanese leader hopes to bring his nation.

The obvious driver for all this activity is China, whose nonstop military modernization over the past two decades has eroded Japan’s once undeniable military edge, and even called into question the credibility of the alliance. Now, concerned about maintaining its control over its far-flung southwestern islands, and facing a China that has ballistic missiles that can range all of its territory, Tokyo is finally dramatically changing the way it thinks about and pursues security.

While Japan’s ability to grow the size of its armed forces is limited, and it will never match China in quantitative terms, it is instead recasting the whole range of its security relationships to take advantage of widespread regional concern over China’s trajectory. This, of course, dovetails with Washington’s goals of maintaining U.S. military predominance in Asia, but Abe’s goals are far more of a “pivot” than are Washington’s.

None of this is to deny the utility of the revised alliance guidelines, nor its role in U.S. security planning in Asia. Yet viewing it from a different perspective shows how Washington is not necessarily driving the trends that will reshape Asia over the coming decades.

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Japan Makes Slow, Steady Moves in Asia’s Geopolitical Chess Game

Just a decade ago, only fantasists would have dreamed up headlines such as “Japan, Indonesia Strengthen Defense Ties,” or “Australia-Japan Military Ties Are a ‘Quasi-Alliance.'” The common perception that Tokyo was utterly dependent on its alliance with Washington, and failed to take any initiative to reshape its security relations in Asia, was not inaccurate. No longer, however, can the changes on Asia’s geopolitical chessboard be ignored.

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Just a decade ago, only fantasists would have dreamed up headlines such as “Japan, Indonesia Strengthen Defense Ties,” or “Australia-Japan Military Ties Are a ‘Quasi-Alliance.'” The common perception that Tokyo was utterly dependent on its alliance with Washington, and failed to take any initiative to reshape its security relations in Asia, was not inaccurate. No longer, however, can the changes on Asia’s geopolitical chessboard be ignored.

The driver of all this change, of course, is China. Its rapid military development, combined with a coercive approach to regional disputes, has alarmed its neighbors, particularly in Southeast Asia. Those smaller nations find themselves with limited options to protect their interests, and by default, have waited and hoped for the United States to play a larger role. Yet many of them, while welcoming the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia, have been disappointed with the lack of substance behind it.

Into this gap Japan has gingerly stepped. Tokyo cannot play the same security role in Asia that Washington does, nor does it want to. What it is seeking, however, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is to slowly reshape regional security relations. The goal, in effect, is to create a de facto coalition against China, so as to make Beijing temper its behavior.

The latest example of this approach is this week’s announcement between Prime Minister Abe and new Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Jokowi, as the Indonesia leader is known, visited Tokyo for his first state trip as president. That alone is a sign of Japan’s influence in Southeast Asia and the concern over China. While in Tokyo, Jokowi and Abe announced an enhanced security relationship, particularly on maritime issues, where the two both face challenges from China. In this, Abe is following up on a pact with Australia to co-produce advanced submarine technology (which has had a rocky start), the selling of maritime patrol vessels to Malaysia and the Philippines, and a deepening of defense ties with India.

None of this is to suggest a formal alliance, nor a NATO-type coalition of forces. What Abe is doing, however, is making it clear that Japan is a potential security partner to nations throughout the region, offering an alternative to simply acceding to Beijing’s policies. Over time, the weight of this community of democratic nations may well lead to a permanent change in the perception of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, if not the actuality of it. Washington would be well advised to start taking advantage of the initiative of its key Asian ally, and the willingness of other nations to begin thinking of how to take the initiative in Asia’s great game.

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Abe Trip On; Okinawa Base Off?

Compared to relations with Israel, Washington’s ties with another key ally, Japan, remain strong, though some of the same personal dynamics come into play. As far as can be known, Barack Obama feels little of the antipathy he is known for harboring for Benjamin Netanyahu towards Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister. Sources inside his government instead reveal a general distrust on the part of America’s very liberal president for Japan’s very conservative prime minister. Despite this, the White House just announced that Abe will arrive in the United States on April 28 for an official visit that will include an official dinner (not a state dinner, since Abe is not the head of state), and an address to a joint session of Congress that Obama will not try to derail.

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Compared to relations with Israel, Washington’s ties with another key ally, Japan, remain strong, though some of the same personal dynamics come into play. As far as can be known, Barack Obama feels little of the antipathy he is known for harboring for Benjamin Netanyahu towards Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister. Sources inside his government instead reveal a general distrust on the part of America’s very liberal president for Japan’s very conservative prime minister. Despite this, the White House just announced that Abe will arrive in the United States on April 28 for an official visit that will include an official dinner (not a state dinner, since Abe is not the head of state), and an address to a joint session of Congress that Obama will not try to derail.

Also, as with Israel, the working relations between the two countries remains strong, despite whatever personal reservation there is between the leaders. Over the past several years, Washington and Tokyo have moved to deepen their alliance, and Japan’s own modest military buildup and development of a national security strategy that implicitly acknowledges the uncertainties engendered by a rising China, fits in well with Washington’s general policy of maintaining a strong American presence in Asia, and (giving credit where it is due) under Obama, attempting to expand America’s working partnerships, especially in Southeast Asia.

Yet dealing with democracies is always tricky (just ask Iran’s mullahs), and U.S.-Japanese relations have just been blindsided again. In this case, it is local opposition in the far southern island of Okinawa to a long-planned transfer of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the congested southern part of the island to the less-populated north. Okinawa’s new governor, elected on an anti-base campaign, today ordered construction on the base stopped, ostensibly due to reports of damage to undersea coral reefs from the drilling needed for landfill. The on-again, off-again base issue once again is hanging fire, and the longer it goes on, the more trouble it will cause for U.S.-Japan relations.

The Futenma base replacement issue may seem arcane, but it is one of the more frustrating parts of dealing with democratic allies. More importantly, it goes to the heart of the U.S. Marine Corps presence in Asia. Without the Okinawa bases, the Marines argue they will have a far less effective presence, especially for dealing with unexpected crises.

First broached back in the mid-1990s, and then agreed to in 2006, the building of a replacement helicopter base at Henoko has run into constant roadblocks from Okinawan governments, buttressed by constant public opposition. The Obama administration thought that Abe’s government, which strongly supports expanding the alliance, had finally put aside years of delay, and pushed through approval for the landfill and other construction issues. Yet elections have consequences, and Okinawa’s new governor now has brought the project to a halt.

The pressure will now be on Abe to figure out how to override the governor’s authority and get the base construction back on track. The way the law works in Japan, Okinawa’s governor cannot cancel the project outright, but he is using his prerogative to halt projects that have adverse environmental side effects. Abe will either have to make some sort of end-run around the governor, in the name of national interest, or convince him (probably with some financial inducement or strong-arm tactics) to drop his opposition. Yet enough Okinawans remain steadfastly opposed to the American military presence on the island that the outcome remains in doubt.

The broader issue is one of America’s ability to work with allies to restructure its alliances to deal with a rising China and an erratic North Korea. Weakening part of our military posture in Asia may both sow doubt about Washington’s commitment to its allies (even when those problems have been caused by the allies themselves) as well as run the risk of emboldening our competitors and adversaries. Coral reefs and concrete runways may not capture our imagination, but they are one piece of an increasingly complex security puzzle in Asia.

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Whose Asia Pivot is Working Better: Obama’s or Abe’s?

My post yesterday on foreign and domestic criticism of President Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia elicited responses including those that faulted me for focusing on two minor issues, and missing the forest for the trees. The very initiatives that I referred to, and praised, in the opening of the article have been adduced as evidence that the rebalance, as the administration calls it, is indeed working.

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My post yesterday on foreign and domestic criticism of President Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia elicited responses including those that faulted me for focusing on two minor issues, and missing the forest for the trees. The very initiatives that I referred to, and praised, in the opening of the article have been adduced as evidence that the rebalance, as the administration calls it, is indeed working.

One of the issues I did not address yesterday was the larger question of just what the pivot is for. This is something that others and I have questioned, and which the administration has never satisfactorily answered. Given the depth and diversity of American interaction with Asia, why is the pivot necessary? What is the goal? Is it to contain China? To create a democratic Asia? Simply to halt the erosion of America’s standing? Without the answer to the big question of ‘why,’ it is hard, if not impossible to judge how well the pivot is working, or if it is achieving its goals. Without being unnecessarily snarky, it sometimes seems that the Obama administration is guided by Woody Allen’s dictum that 90 percent of life is showing up. In other words, just being present, showing interest, and the like is enough, by the administration’s lights, to make the pivot a reality, whether or not the policy actually deals successfully with any of the pressing issues facing Asia.

There is another pivot going on in Asia, which might be useful in comparison to Obama’s. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shaken up Asian regional politics by aggressively pursuing a policy of creating new partnerships, breaking restrictions on Japanese security activities abroad, and offering Japan to Asian nations as an alternate partner of choice to China. Abe’s actions may be the most comprehensive and assertive by a Japanese premier in memory, but are they working? How do they stack up in comparison to Obama’s?

Abe has it both easier and also harder. Japan is undeniably an Asian nation, unlike America, so his assertions of Japan’s desire to play a larger role in Asia are inherently more believable to the target audience than are numerous American avowals of interest in Asia. That is a factor that Obama, let alone any American president, can’t control, so put it aside. On the bigger question of ‘why,’ however, Abe’s coherent plan seems to me to beat Obama’s. In his keynote address to the 2014 Shangri-la Conference, Abe clearly laid out Japan’s goals for regional security and the role it would play. He may not have called out China by name, but it was clear what his target was. By comparison, Obama and his officials have never clearly spelled out why America had to pivot, since they are unwilling to directly criticize China for threatening regional stability.

In terms of specifics, Abe also has made impressive moves. He is in the process of overturning Japan’s decades-long ban on collective self-defense, has scrapped the restriction on arms exports, and has already sold maritime patrol ships to the Philippines and Vietnam. In addition, he has signed an agreement with Australia to jointly research and develop submarine technology, has finalized plans to purchase the F-35, and increased Japan’s military budget for the second year in a row. Yet compared to America’s putting F-22s and more Navy ships into the Pacific, Abe is necessarily limited in how much he can increase Japan’s military presence, and thus its ability to act. That, however, may not be the right metric with which to judge his moves, since he is scaling his actions to fit a larger goal of reshaping Asia’s balance of power.

One might take Abe to task for the political ramifications of his pivot. Since taking office, Japan’s relations with its closest and most important neighbors, China and South Korea, have cratered. A year after becoming premier (for the second time), Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where World War II war criminals are enshrined, enraging Beijing and Seoul. He has failed to get substantive meetings with the leader of either country. Yet it is not unreasonable to see Abe’s pivot precisely as a response to the parlous state of relations with China and South Korea stretching back years. In that respect, his approach may not have led to an accommodation between Japan and its nearest neighbors, but that was not its primary goal. Instead, his outreach to India, Australia, and Southeast Asia is a bold gamble to expand Japan’s web of working relationships and reshape the larger balance of power.

On trade policy, Abe is actually fairly well tied to Obama’s pivot. Japan has signed on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), thereby making it Abe’s signature trade piece, along with increasing the overall number of free trade agreements Japan has. A failure to conclude TPP would harm Japan’s regional trade presence, as it would America’s. Also, like Washington, Tokyo was caught flat-footed by China’s successful proposal of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which I discussed yesterday, and has been left behind, as most Asian and major European nations have indicated their interest in signing on with Beijing. As Asia’s financial architecture evolves, potentially away from American and Japanese influence, Tokyo’s attempts to protect the role of the Asian Development Bank, which it largely runs, will become more difficult.

With baseball season soon on us, we all want to read the box score. It’s usually more entertaining than useful, but sometimes it does allow one to put the trees together with the forest. In the case of pivots to Asia, I would argue that Japan’s Abe slightly edges America’s Obama. That’s not to say either are without any value or destined to fall short. But after five years or so, the limits on Obama’s pivot seem to be more apparent, while Abe’s much harder task seems to be, at least initially, successfully shaking up Asian security relations, while making less of a trade and economic impact. Like his counterpart in the White House, Abe may soon run up against the limits of his ability to take the initiative in Asia, but given widespread concern over China’s intentions, he will likely be able to continue surprising observers with his willingness to push boundaries.

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ISIS Stokes Sino-Japanese Antagonism

Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

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Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

When the government-controlled Global Times opined that Japanese Prime Minister Abe would likely use the horrific murder as an excuse to send Japanese armed forces abroad, it was both revealing a deep-seated Chinese fear and seeking to further isolate Japan in Asia. Abe had indeed made very un-Japanese statements about making the terrorists pay, but that simply put him in league with Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Jordan’s King Abdullah. To the Chinese, however, Abe’s statements were in reality a dog whistle to right-wing nationalists that the Japanese military would finally be unleashed beyond Japan’s borders.

Such fantasizing is of course hogwash, not least because Japan has almost no offensive or power projection capability. Moreover, the still-powerful strain of pacifism in Japanese society has actually led many to criticize Abe’s plans for a greater Japanese role abroad as being too dangerous. China’s criticism instead says much more about Beijing’s worries than Japan’s intentions.

When Chinese officials look around Asia, they see only one country that could plausibly frustrate their desire to become the undisputed hegemon of the region. Despite having ten times the population, and having surpassed Japan in gross GDP, Chinese officials understand Japan’s continued strengths, its strong alliance with the United States, and its newfound willingness to reach out to other Asian nations to form partnerships. Given that China inspires growing worry over its military power and aggressive designs on disputed territory and common sea lanes alike, officials in Beijing know that the region is slowly adopting a balancing position against them. And Japan, especially under Abe, is the leader of that movement.

Thus, the vilification campaign. Instead of acknowledging Japan’s right to avenge its murdered citizens, and perhaps even offering support, China’s propaganda handmaidens seek instead to fan the flames of anti-Japanese feeling. Outside of China, this may well play the best in South Korea, where bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest level in decades, thanks in part to Abe’s ill-advised statements questioning sensitive World War II issues such as the comfort women or larger questions of Japan’s war guilt. For some of the antagonism between himself and his neighbors, Abe indeed deserves blame, but not for asserting that he will protect Japan’s interests.

What China is really telegraphing is far simpler: there will be no rapprochement between the two great powers anytime soon. And that means an Asia that continues to simmer with tensions both real and imagined.

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Does the ISIS Beheading Prove Japan’s Prime Minister Right?

Japan’s second hostage, journalist Kenji Goto, has apparently been beheaded by ISIS, following the fate of the countryman he sought to help rescue. In an unusual, some would say unprecedented, response, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been quoted as vowing “to make the terrorists pay the price.” Such rhetoric, it is being pointed out in Japan and the United States, is something one expects to hear from American presidents, but not from Japan’s famously bland leaders.

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Japan’s second hostage, journalist Kenji Goto, has apparently been beheaded by ISIS, following the fate of the countryman he sought to help rescue. In an unusual, some would say unprecedented, response, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been quoted as vowing “to make the terrorists pay the price.” Such rhetoric, it is being pointed out in Japan and the United States, is something one expects to hear from American presidents, but not from Japan’s famously bland leaders.

Yet Abe has made a hallmark of rocking the boat in his second term in office, making him both admired and despised. Many Japanese (and foreigners) consider him a nationalist hawk, and his fighting words will confirm their opinion that he is a danger to Japan’s security. Others think that he is simply acknowledging a reality that Tokyo for far too long ignored: that the world is a dangerous place, that Japan cannot hide from it, and that it has a role to play in protecting not only its own interests, but stability more generally.

It was this last that may have doomed Goto and his fellow Japanese Haruna Yukawa. Abe’s pledge of $200 million in humanitarian aid to countries fighting ISIS apparently caused the two Japanese to be targeted. If Abe hadn’t done that, so the thinking goes, if he hadn’t pushed Japan into a crisis that did not affect it, then there would have been no kidnapping and murder of Japanese nationals.

To adopt such an attitude is to give a victory to ISIS, in transferring blame to some degree to the victim (in this case, a country), instead of the aggressors. Abe is right, and ISIS has proved him so: the danger of radical Islam, or of other disruptive actors, like North Korea, cannot simply be ignored. That may not mean getting involved in every case, but it does mean clearly recognizing the threats to any sense of civilized norms, and deciding how and when to act.

That, of course, is the most difficult, and Abe has now drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, by stating that some punishment will be meted out. Given that Japan lacks an offensive military capability, not to mention a hostage rescue capability of the kind that has failed even the United States in dealing with ISIS, Abe’s words may be written off as overblown rhetoric. Yet in saying them, he is indicating the path that he wants Japan to go down. The word’s third-largest economy, and a force for stability in Asia, should not be so impotent that it cannot protect, rescue, or avenge its citizens. It may be another sign of how Japan will change in the coming years in ways that will complement, not counter, U.S. efforts to respond to global disorder.

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Shinzo Abe’s Provocation

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

Some Japan watchers posit a more conspiratorial explanation for his provocation: By visiting Yasukuni, Abe will enrage China, North Korea, and South Korea, among others, possibly prompting symbolic Chinese retaliation, thereby making the Japanese people feel threatened and making them more receptive to his agenda of rearming Japan and adopting a more aggressive posture in foreign and defense policy.

This sounds plausible to me, but it is also short-sighted on Abe’s part, because he is simply feeding Chinese nationalism and xenophobia–the greatest threats to East Asian security today. He is also making it harder, indeed nearly impossible, for Japan to work together more closely with South Korea on issues of mutual concern, such as the threat from North Korea. Japan and South Korea–both democracies closely aligned with the U.S.–ought to be natural allies, but for that to occur South Korea would have to overcome decades of bitterness over Japan’s imperialistic exploitation of their country. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni makes that nearly impossible.

Abe has the potential to be one of Japan’s greatest prime ministers. He has already achieved a great deal by turning around the Japanese economy, which is emerging from years of stagnation. He will also do much good if he succeeds in expanding Japan’s capacity and scope for military action. Japan is America’s closest ally in Northeast Asia and one that can do a good deal of good by checking the rise of Chinese power. The just-concluded agreement to keep a U.S. marine base on Okinawa by relocating it to a remote part of the island is an example of Abe at his best. The visit to Yasukuni, unfortunately, undermines this achievement and creates needless antagonism toward Japanese rearmament.

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Kidnap Victims & Nukes

At this moment, the monstrous state run by Kim Jong Il is holding over a thousand South Koreans against their will. Approximately 540 of them are Korean War prisoners who, in violation of the 1953 armistice, were never repatriated to the South. Another 490 or so, according to conservative accountings, have been abducted by Pyongyang’s agents since the end of that terrible conflict. Some estimate the number of kidnapped individuals is in the thousands.

Is help on the way for Asia’s most undeserving victims? As Michael Auslin noted in this forum, Lee Myung-bak scored a landslide win in yesterday’s presidential contest in South Korea. Among other things, the conservative victor has promised a tougher policy toward Kim’s regime. “I assure you that there will be a change from the past government’s practice of avoiding criticism of North Korea and unilaterally flattering it,” the president-elect said at his post-victory news conference. “The North’s human rights issue is something we cannot avoid in this regard, and North Korea should know it.”

Of course, there is no guarantee that Lee’s brand of “pragmatic diplomacy” will free South Koreans trapped in the North, yet it’s a safe bet that he will end his country’s unconscionable silence on the issue. Moreover, it’s unlikely that South Korean diplomats, especially those stationed in China, will continue to resist helping South Koreans who have escaped from the North. A state’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens, and now Seoul will live up to that for the first time in a decade.

Agents of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il abducted Japanese as well. Tokyo says that North Korea snatched 17 of its citizens from 1977 to 1983, but some believe the real number is over a hundred and others claim 400. Kim has admitted that rogue agents employed by his father—did his dad have any other kind?—abducted only thirteen Japanese citizens. In 2002, he returned five of them and claimed that the others had died. Kim also maintains that any South Koreans in the North are there of their own free will.

Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister, made the return of the Japanese abductees one of his highest priorities, but the nation’s current leader, Yasuo Fukuda, is wavering on this matter. Fukuda is wavering in large part because the Bush administration, in a mad dash to convince the North to give up its nuclear weapons, has made it clear that it considers the abductions unimportant and will not permit them to complicate the disarmament process.

Yet the abduction and nuke issues should be considered one and the same for America’s purposes. If Kim Jong Il is not prepared to make an honest accounting of the South Koreans and Japanese his government forcibly took or detained, how can we ever expect him to come clean on a matter of far greater importance to him? Sometimes, complex matters of diplomacy boil down to simple questions like this one.

At this moment, the monstrous state run by Kim Jong Il is holding over a thousand South Koreans against their will. Approximately 540 of them are Korean War prisoners who, in violation of the 1953 armistice, were never repatriated to the South. Another 490 or so, according to conservative accountings, have been abducted by Pyongyang’s agents since the end of that terrible conflict. Some estimate the number of kidnapped individuals is in the thousands.

Is help on the way for Asia’s most undeserving victims? As Michael Auslin noted in this forum, Lee Myung-bak scored a landslide win in yesterday’s presidential contest in South Korea. Among other things, the conservative victor has promised a tougher policy toward Kim’s regime. “I assure you that there will be a change from the past government’s practice of avoiding criticism of North Korea and unilaterally flattering it,” the president-elect said at his post-victory news conference. “The North’s human rights issue is something we cannot avoid in this regard, and North Korea should know it.”

Of course, there is no guarantee that Lee’s brand of “pragmatic diplomacy” will free South Koreans trapped in the North, yet it’s a safe bet that he will end his country’s unconscionable silence on the issue. Moreover, it’s unlikely that South Korean diplomats, especially those stationed in China, will continue to resist helping South Koreans who have escaped from the North. A state’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens, and now Seoul will live up to that for the first time in a decade.

Agents of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il abducted Japanese as well. Tokyo says that North Korea snatched 17 of its citizens from 1977 to 1983, but some believe the real number is over a hundred and others claim 400. Kim has admitted that rogue agents employed by his father—did his dad have any other kind?—abducted only thirteen Japanese citizens. In 2002, he returned five of them and claimed that the others had died. Kim also maintains that any South Koreans in the North are there of their own free will.

Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister, made the return of the Japanese abductees one of his highest priorities, but the nation’s current leader, Yasuo Fukuda, is wavering on this matter. Fukuda is wavering in large part because the Bush administration, in a mad dash to convince the North to give up its nuclear weapons, has made it clear that it considers the abductions unimportant and will not permit them to complicate the disarmament process.

Yet the abduction and nuke issues should be considered one and the same for America’s purposes. If Kim Jong Il is not prepared to make an honest accounting of the South Koreans and Japanese his government forcibly took or detained, how can we ever expect him to come clean on a matter of far greater importance to him? Sometimes, complex matters of diplomacy boil down to simple questions like this one.

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Jabbing Japan

Japan’s new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, arrives in Washington tomorrow for talks with President Bush on Friday. This is his first foreign trip since taking office in September, after the resignation of Shinzo Abe, a staunch supporter of the United States.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of tensions between Tokyo and Washington. The issue that gets the most attention is the withdrawal of Japan’s naval mission in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, there are other matters unsettling relations between the United States and its most important ally in East Asia. The one that can do the most immediate damage on Friday relates to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Pyongyang demands that the State Department remove it from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states. Japan, for its part, insists the United States take no such action until the North comes clean on the whereabouts of Japanese nationals it has abducted. The Japanese public has rightly become transfixed over the plight of the victims, especially Megumi Yokota, a schoolgirl who was nabbed in late 1977 on her way home from badminton practice in Niigata.

In a gesture to then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, Kim Jong Il admitted that rogue North Korean agents—are there any other kind?—had abducted the young Yokota and twelve other Japanese from 1977 to 1983. Five of the abductees were still alive, Kim said. Megumi, however, was not among them. She had, according to the North Korean leader, taken her own life in 1993. The government said it could not locate her remains.

The North Koreans then tried to get the Japanese to accept the actuarially-improbable notion that almost two-thirds of the young abductees had croaked and the medically-incredible claim that both a 24-year-old male and a 27-year-old female had died of heart disease. Since then, Pyongyang has issued more prevarications, inventions, and fabrications about the abductees. Fortunately, the Japanese public has not bought any of the perverse untruths. Tokyo’s envoys have also been resolute.

American diplomats, however, have taken a less inspiring stand. For example, Christopher Hill, the State Department’s lead negotiator in the North Korean disarmament talks, appears to have cut another of his famous side deals recently. It looks like he promised to take North Korea off the terror list in return for Pyongyang’s cooperation on disabling nuclear facilities and disclosing its nuclear programs. Fukuda, who has a reputation as a dove, has reportedly been upset on being undercut by Washington on the abductee issue.

What do the Japanese abductees have to do with the American terrorism list? Pyongyang kidnapped the thirteen-year-old Yokota and other Japanese to obtain language and culture instruction for its undercover agents. Pyongyang won’t release Yokota and the seven others because, it appears, they know too much about Kim Jong Il’s responsibility for clandestine activities and terrorist acts, especially the downing of a South Korean jetliner in 1987.

Americans seem to be fascinated by abductions. But we’ve negelcted Megumi Yokota, wrongly: her fate is now bound up with ours. People might disagree with me if I said that we cannot truly solve any of the problems involving North Korea until we solve all of them, so let me make a more modest point: I do not see the logic in offending Japan, an old friend, to please a dangerous adversary, North Korea. North Korea should stay on the State Department’s list until it frees Yokota and the other abductees.

Japan’s new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, arrives in Washington tomorrow for talks with President Bush on Friday. This is his first foreign trip since taking office in September, after the resignation of Shinzo Abe, a staunch supporter of the United States.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of tensions between Tokyo and Washington. The issue that gets the most attention is the withdrawal of Japan’s naval mission in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, there are other matters unsettling relations between the United States and its most important ally in East Asia. The one that can do the most immediate damage on Friday relates to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Pyongyang demands that the State Department remove it from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states. Japan, for its part, insists the United States take no such action until the North comes clean on the whereabouts of Japanese nationals it has abducted. The Japanese public has rightly become transfixed over the plight of the victims, especially Megumi Yokota, a schoolgirl who was nabbed in late 1977 on her way home from badminton practice in Niigata.

In a gesture to then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, Kim Jong Il admitted that rogue North Korean agents—are there any other kind?—had abducted the young Yokota and twelve other Japanese from 1977 to 1983. Five of the abductees were still alive, Kim said. Megumi, however, was not among them. She had, according to the North Korean leader, taken her own life in 1993. The government said it could not locate her remains.

The North Koreans then tried to get the Japanese to accept the actuarially-improbable notion that almost two-thirds of the young abductees had croaked and the medically-incredible claim that both a 24-year-old male and a 27-year-old female had died of heart disease. Since then, Pyongyang has issued more prevarications, inventions, and fabrications about the abductees. Fortunately, the Japanese public has not bought any of the perverse untruths. Tokyo’s envoys have also been resolute.

American diplomats, however, have taken a less inspiring stand. For example, Christopher Hill, the State Department’s lead negotiator in the North Korean disarmament talks, appears to have cut another of his famous side deals recently. It looks like he promised to take North Korea off the terror list in return for Pyongyang’s cooperation on disabling nuclear facilities and disclosing its nuclear programs. Fukuda, who has a reputation as a dove, has reportedly been upset on being undercut by Washington on the abductee issue.

What do the Japanese abductees have to do with the American terrorism list? Pyongyang kidnapped the thirteen-year-old Yokota and other Japanese to obtain language and culture instruction for its undercover agents. Pyongyang won’t release Yokota and the seven others because, it appears, they know too much about Kim Jong Il’s responsibility for clandestine activities and terrorist acts, especially the downing of a South Korean jetliner in 1987.

Americans seem to be fascinated by abductions. But we’ve negelcted Megumi Yokota, wrongly: her fate is now bound up with ours. People might disagree with me if I said that we cannot truly solve any of the problems involving North Korea until we solve all of them, so let me make a more modest point: I do not see the logic in offending Japan, an old friend, to please a dangerous adversary, North Korea. North Korea should stay on the State Department’s list until it frees Yokota and the other abductees.

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Two Collapses

Japan, according to Thursday’s New York Times, is in “disarray.” Its government, rocked by a series of resignations, has fallen apart. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, in office for only a year, checked himself into a hospital for stress after announcing his intent to step down. The country may be on the verge of a historic transfer of power: the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed the country almost continuously for a half century, looks exhausted after its crushing defeat in elections at the end of July. There will undoubtedly be a period of extended infighting, even after a new prime minister is finally selected. The financial community seems to think the stock market will fall and the economy will stumble. Foreign investors look as if they will flee. The outlook for Japan is grim.

The country’s prospects may be even darker than that. Yuichi Yamamoto, a Tokyo blogger, thinks Japan has already collapsed. The old system has failed, he notes, and the nation resembles the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. If he’s right, then the only reason the Japanese aren’t surrendering to neighboring China is because they’re too moribund to raise the white flag.

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Japan, according to Thursday’s New York Times, is in “disarray.” Its government, rocked by a series of resignations, has fallen apart. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, in office for only a year, checked himself into a hospital for stress after announcing his intent to step down. The country may be on the verge of a historic transfer of power: the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed the country almost continuously for a half century, looks exhausted after its crushing defeat in elections at the end of July. There will undoubtedly be a period of extended infighting, even after a new prime minister is finally selected. The financial community seems to think the stock market will fall and the economy will stumble. Foreign investors look as if they will flee. The outlook for Japan is grim.

The country’s prospects may be even darker than that. Yuichi Yamamoto, a Tokyo blogger, thinks Japan has already collapsed. The old system has failed, he notes, and the nation resembles the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. If he’s right, then the only reason the Japanese aren’t surrendering to neighboring China is because they’re too moribund to raise the white flag.

The Chinese, in comparison, look full of vim and vigor. They are also heading to a political transition. The so-called Fourth Generation leadership, led by General Secretary Hu Jintao, is beginning to select the Fifth. The Communist Party will hold its elaborately staged 17th Congress next month. When the last speech is finished to great applause—as such speeches inevitably are—we will know the lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee and thus be able to guess who is in the running to succeed the inscrutable Hu at the 18th Congress, scheduled for five years from now.

Although their governments are completely different in structure, both Japan and China will pick their next leaders in backroom deals arranged by heads of factions wielding immense power. Both governing systems are rotten in their own ways, and both are fragile. The only difference is that the breakdown of Japan’s “1955 System”—yes, it’s that old—is taking place in public view and change will eventually come at the ballot box. In China, the Communist Party will not give up power without the loss of even more life.

So Japan only looks like it’s failing. We are seeing the regeneration of politics in Japanese society as the old is reluctantly making way for the new. In China, the transition to the next form of governance—coming soon—will not be as smooth.

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Balancing Act

On Saturday, the leaders of the United States, Australia, and Japan met in Sydney to discuss security policy. President Bush, Prime Minster John Howard, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were careful in their first trilateral meeting not to rile Beijing. “As far as China is concerned, the three leaders shared the same recognition that it’s important to have a positive engagement with China,” said Mitsuo Sakaba, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman. Added Charles Morrison of the East-West Center in Honolulu, “They have bent over backwards to try to make sure that starting up their own dialogue does not upset China.”

Why should these nations be so apologetic? The Chinese, after all, do not hesitate to stand up for themselves. Beijing, in the last few months, sent diplomatic protests to the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, asking each of them for an explanation of their growing cooperation. The four participants in the new “quadrilateral dialogue” met in May to discuss strengthening their relationship. Last week, the navies of these four nations (plus Singapore) conducted five days of exercises in the Bay of Bengal—the first such joint exercise in the history of the five nations. The Chinese look south and east and see their neighbors trying to contain them.

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On Saturday, the leaders of the United States, Australia, and Japan met in Sydney to discuss security policy. President Bush, Prime Minster John Howard, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were careful in their first trilateral meeting not to rile Beijing. “As far as China is concerned, the three leaders shared the same recognition that it’s important to have a positive engagement with China,” said Mitsuo Sakaba, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman. Added Charles Morrison of the East-West Center in Honolulu, “They have bent over backwards to try to make sure that starting up their own dialogue does not upset China.”

Why should these nations be so apologetic? The Chinese, after all, do not hesitate to stand up for themselves. Beijing, in the last few months, sent diplomatic protests to the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, asking each of them for an explanation of their growing cooperation. The four participants in the new “quadrilateral dialogue” met in May to discuss strengthening their relationship. Last week, the navies of these four nations (plus Singapore) conducted five days of exercises in the Bay of Bengal—the first such joint exercise in the history of the five nations. The Chinese look south and east and see their neighbors trying to contain them.

Yet Beijing is in no position to complain that the democracies of Asia are drawing together in an arc that sweeps from India to Japan. This loose arrangement—it’s much too early to call it an alliance—was formed largely in reaction to China itself. Beijing is building up its armed forces rapidly and non-transparently. It’s been conducting joint military exercises with Russia since 2005 (including the large one last month), and slowly turning the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—a grouping of China, Russia, and four Central Asian “stans”—into a true alliance with an overtly anti-American cast.

The big trend in Asia is that nations on the periphery of China are banding together to match the continental alliance of the SCO and the growing relationship of Beijing and Moscow. The democracies of the Pacific need to acknowledge in public what they are thinking in private. They need to start defending themselves—and to stop being so solicitous of Beijing’s feelings.

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Abe’s Hard Road

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe so far has defied predictions of his imminent political demise. Refusing to take the traditional Japanese path and accept responsibility for his party’s crushing defeat in parliamentary elections last month, he has instead forged a new cabinet of the leading politicians in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His bold tactic, however, may well make it even harder for him to govern, thus hastening the end of his premiership.

Abe’s party lost the last election due in no small part to scandals among his ministers. Today’s news brings word of yet two more resignations, these from a Cabinet not two weeks old. Abe’s tactic was to turn around his team and forge ahead on important domestic and foreign issues, but the opposition party will certainly push as hard as possible for early elections that would likely further weaken the LDP.

Most importantly, the presence of LDP heavyweights, including former foreign and defense ministers, has the potential both to dilute policy-making and neutralize Abe’s primacy. He will have to navigate among a group of experienced, equally ambitious leaders, who have been brought in precisely because Abe couldn’t deliver the first time around. Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, moved from the Foreign Ministry to Secretary General of the LDP, has already made clear his intent to try to succeed Abe. The tendency toward lowest-common-denominator politics after the roller coaster years of Koizumi and the first Abe cabinet may naturally assert itself.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe so far has defied predictions of his imminent political demise. Refusing to take the traditional Japanese path and accept responsibility for his party’s crushing defeat in parliamentary elections last month, he has instead forged a new cabinet of the leading politicians in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His bold tactic, however, may well make it even harder for him to govern, thus hastening the end of his premiership.

Abe’s party lost the last election due in no small part to scandals among his ministers. Today’s news brings word of yet two more resignations, these from a Cabinet not two weeks old. Abe’s tactic was to turn around his team and forge ahead on important domestic and foreign issues, but the opposition party will certainly push as hard as possible for early elections that would likely further weaken the LDP.

Most importantly, the presence of LDP heavyweights, including former foreign and defense ministers, has the potential both to dilute policy-making and neutralize Abe’s primacy. He will have to navigate among a group of experienced, equally ambitious leaders, who have been brought in precisely because Abe couldn’t deliver the first time around. Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, moved from the Foreign Ministry to Secretary General of the LDP, has already made clear his intent to try to succeed Abe. The tendency toward lowest-common-denominator politics after the roller coaster years of Koizumi and the first Abe cabinet may naturally assert itself.

The result of this would be at best muddling through and at worst a rudderless leadership, at a time when Japan is facing serious domestic and foreign problems. Abe’s first major test is renewal of the special law permitting Japanese naval ships to refuel coalition forces in the Indian Ocean. Failure to secure the extension would further complicate relations with the United States, which are already under strain due to the Bush Administration’s continued negotiations with North Korea through the Six Party Talks. Tokyo has so far stuck fast to its refusal to participate further in the talks until North Korea releases the numerous Japanese citizens it has kidnapped.

Abe has to start showing results. The Japan-ASEAN free-trade agreement reached two weeks ago is an important and laudable achievement; it goes a long way toward maintaining Japan’s presence in Asia. But more needs to be done. Abe’s call for a partnership of democracies or his “arc of freedom and prosperity” is still just rhetoric. Abe’s values-based diplomacy has yet to move beyond mere words—what kinds of partnerships, organizations, or policies is he imagining? How will he move toward them? Will he embrace all democracies in the regions, including South Korea and Taiwan, or is he aiming at strategic partnerships with India and Australia? Just as important is the question of how well, if at all, Abe can balance his desire to engage China with his apparent strategy of countering its rise by promoting the partnership of democracies.

Abe’s refusal to scale back his ambitious vision for Japanese diplomacy is perhaps his one salient similarity to Koizumi, who was famous for doggedly sticking to a goal once he had pledged himself to it. Whether he can match Mr. Koizumi’s longevity in office, however, is another thing entirely.

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(New) Leader of the Free World

On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, addressing the Indian parliament, proposed the formation of a partnership of democracies in Asia. The grouping, an “arc of freedom and prosperity,” would include, in addition to India and Japan, Australia and the United States. “This partnership is an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests,” Abe said.

Is Tokyo becoming the leading proponent of a free world? Since July of last year, Japan, among the democracies ringing the Pacific Ocean, has adopted the most resolute foreign policy positions on Asia. For instance, the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions on North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs were unsatisfactory, but they would have been weaker still if Tokyo had not persuaded Washington to adopt a stiffer attitude. Now, Abe is pushing a grand coalition that Washington should have proposed.

President Bush likes to talk about “ending tyranny in our world,” but he’s not been very good at it. And no wonder—he’s been too busy trying to cooperate with Russia and China, nations with dangerous ambitions and the ruthlessness to pursue them. Abe does not have the diplomatic clout to put together his proposed “broader Asia” partnership of democracies, but the United States does. Obviously, Abe won’t be running in next year’s American presidential election, but those who will should be talking to him, the most interesting leader in the free world.

On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, addressing the Indian parliament, proposed the formation of a partnership of democracies in Asia. The grouping, an “arc of freedom and prosperity,” would include, in addition to India and Japan, Australia and the United States. “This partnership is an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests,” Abe said.

Is Tokyo becoming the leading proponent of a free world? Since July of last year, Japan, among the democracies ringing the Pacific Ocean, has adopted the most resolute foreign policy positions on Asia. For instance, the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions on North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs were unsatisfactory, but they would have been weaker still if Tokyo had not persuaded Washington to adopt a stiffer attitude. Now, Abe is pushing a grand coalition that Washington should have proposed.

President Bush likes to talk about “ending tyranny in our world,” but he’s not been very good at it. And no wonder—he’s been too busy trying to cooperate with Russia and China, nations with dangerous ambitions and the ruthlessness to pursue them. Abe does not have the diplomatic clout to put together his proposed “broader Asia” partnership of democracies, but the United States does. Obviously, Abe won’t be running in next year’s American presidential election, but those who will should be talking to him, the most interesting leader in the free world.

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Japan’s Bad Memories

“Japan caused great damage and pain to people in many countries, especially in Asia,” Shinzo Abe said yesterday. “With a strong sense of regret, I express my sympathy to these victims on behalf of the people of Japan.” On the 62nd anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender in World War II, Japan’s Prime Minister paid his respects at a secular memorial. Yet he did not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war dead.

Some criticized him for not doing so. About ten sound trucks showed up in front of the prime minister’s residence blasting nationalist slogans and labeling Abe “a traitor to the Japanese people.” Abe stayed away from Yasukuni in an effort to avoid triggering protests in Asia, and to keep relations with the region on track. Beijing and Seoul, in particular, have been upset by the regular visits to Yasukuni by Junichiro Koizumi, Abe’s immediate predecessor. (Koizumi, incidentally, visited the controversial Shinto shrine yesterday, greeted with shouts of “Banzai!” from his supporters.)

Analysts will undoubtedly pore over yesterday’s events in Tokyo. Many worry about rising nationalism in Japan. Even Abe, who has devoted much of his short tenure to soothing relations with neighbors, has worked to institute patriotic education and strengthen Japan’s military. He has also triggered controversy this year by making comments absolving the Japanese government and military for sexual slavery during the war. China, for its part, has authorized a new round of commemorations of the Nanjing Massacre, in which, beginning in December 1937, tens of thousands of Chinese civilians (if not more) were slaughtered by Japanese troops. If Koizumi replaces the unpopular Abe, as some Liberal Democratic Party stalwarts want, we will undoubtedly see a new round of Yasukuni visits—and protests around Asia.

Tokyo and Moscow have never formally signed a peace treaty with each other to end World War II. Even if they do so—not likely, due to ongoing disputes over islands that Soviet troops grabbed at the end of the conflict—it does not appear that the war in Asia will be over anytime soon.

“Japan caused great damage and pain to people in many countries, especially in Asia,” Shinzo Abe said yesterday. “With a strong sense of regret, I express my sympathy to these victims on behalf of the people of Japan.” On the 62nd anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender in World War II, Japan’s Prime Minister paid his respects at a secular memorial. Yet he did not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war dead.

Some criticized him for not doing so. About ten sound trucks showed up in front of the prime minister’s residence blasting nationalist slogans and labeling Abe “a traitor to the Japanese people.” Abe stayed away from Yasukuni in an effort to avoid triggering protests in Asia, and to keep relations with the region on track. Beijing and Seoul, in particular, have been upset by the regular visits to Yasukuni by Junichiro Koizumi, Abe’s immediate predecessor. (Koizumi, incidentally, visited the controversial Shinto shrine yesterday, greeted with shouts of “Banzai!” from his supporters.)

Analysts will undoubtedly pore over yesterday’s events in Tokyo. Many worry about rising nationalism in Japan. Even Abe, who has devoted much of his short tenure to soothing relations with neighbors, has worked to institute patriotic education and strengthen Japan’s military. He has also triggered controversy this year by making comments absolving the Japanese government and military for sexual slavery during the war. China, for its part, has authorized a new round of commemorations of the Nanjing Massacre, in which, beginning in December 1937, tens of thousands of Chinese civilians (if not more) were slaughtered by Japanese troops. If Koizumi replaces the unpopular Abe, as some Liberal Democratic Party stalwarts want, we will undoubtedly see a new round of Yasukuni visits—and protests around Asia.

Tokyo and Moscow have never formally signed a peace treaty with each other to end World War II. Even if they do so—not likely, due to ongoing disputes over islands that Soviet troops grabbed at the end of the conflict—it does not appear that the war in Asia will be over anytime soon.

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Goodbye, Abe

Yesterday, the coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe lost its majority in the Upper House of the Diet, the national legislature. The LDP, with junior partner New Komeito, won 46 seats; its chief rival, the Democratic Party, won 60.

The Japanese sometimes complain that their country is not “normal.” Yet there was nothing out of the ordinary about Sunday’s landslide against the LDP, which has dominated Japan’s politics since 1955. Unlike Junichiro Koizumi, his charismatic predecessor, Abe presented a cold and diffident face to the average citizen. His central policy goals—improving relations with China and South Korea and bolstering the military capabilities of Japan—are critical tasks for any Japanese leader. But they were not high priorities for voters far more concerned about worrying economic trends.

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Yesterday, the coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe lost its majority in the Upper House of the Diet, the national legislature. The LDP, with junior partner New Komeito, won 46 seats; its chief rival, the Democratic Party, won 60.

The Japanese sometimes complain that their country is not “normal.” Yet there was nothing out of the ordinary about Sunday’s landslide against the LDP, which has dominated Japan’s politics since 1955. Unlike Junichiro Koizumi, his charismatic predecessor, Abe presented a cold and diffident face to the average citizen. His central policy goals—improving relations with China and South Korea and bolstering the military capabilities of Japan—are critical tasks for any Japanese leader. But they were not high priorities for voters far more concerned about worrying economic trends.

The Japanese economy has done relatively well under Abe’s short tenure, with growth up and unemployment down. Yet Japan is facing the same problems seen in the West, especially widening income disparity. Most Japanese think that unchecked globalization is not beneficial for them. Abe, the youngest prime minister in post-war Japan, seemed indifferent to their plight. Instead of paying attention to bread-and-butter issues and dealing forcefully with scandals in his cabinet, he spoke abstractly of building a “beautiful Japan.” That’s largely why Japanese voters hammered Mr. Abe’s party yesterday.

Hidenao Nakagawa resigned as the secretary general of the LDP, taking public responsibility for what Abe called an “utter defeat.” It seems as though the prime minister will be the next high-level casualty of yesterday’s debacle. Abe thinks a mere reshuffling of his cabinet will satisfy the electorate, but others are demanding he step down, or call immediate lower-house elections.

The Bush administration will not want to see a staunch friend like Abe leave office. Ichiro Ozawa, the head of the victorious Democratic Party, would be far less accommodating to America. But there’s nothing that Washington can do to save the now-embattled Abe. All politics in Japan these days is domestic.

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Raptors to Japan

On Saturday, the New York Times criticized the Pentagon’s spending plans for buying, among other things, the F-22 stealth fighter, also known as the Raptor. According to the paper, that’s just concentrating on “the kind of weapons that might have made sense during the cold war but have little use in the kind of conflicts America is involved in and is likely to face in the foreseeable future.”

The Air Force acquired the F-22 to penetrate the Soviet Union and face its fleet of Su-27 fighters. The Times reasons that, because the USSR disappeared, so did our need for the Raptor. Even if the paper is correct—it’s not—there is one nation that indisputably requires the plane today. Japan at this moment is threatened by China’s growing fleet of Su-27s and has to replace aging F-4’s.

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On Saturday, the New York Times criticized the Pentagon’s spending plans for buying, among other things, the F-22 stealth fighter, also known as the Raptor. According to the paper, that’s just concentrating on “the kind of weapons that might have made sense during the cold war but have little use in the kind of conflicts America is involved in and is likely to face in the foreseeable future.”

The Air Force acquired the F-22 to penetrate the Soviet Union and face its fleet of Su-27 fighters. The Times reasons that, because the USSR disappeared, so did our need for the Raptor. Even if the paper is correct—it’s not—there is one nation that indisputably requires the plane today. Japan at this moment is threatened by China’s growing fleet of Su-27s and has to replace aging F-4’s.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised the F-22 issue with President Bush during their summit this April. Japan would like to buy or build them under license from Lockheed Martin, the plane’s prime contractor. U.S. law prohibits the sale or license of America’s most capable fighter, and a recent attempt to end the ban failed earlier this year. Nonetheless, talk of Raptor sales just won’t go away.

Not only do the Japanese need to buy them, we have a compelling need to sell them. The Air Force has scaled back substantially its plans to acquire F-22’s, in part because of their cost—about $130 million per plane. The cutback not only threatens the Raptor program and jobs in Georgia, Texas, and California, but also undermines our industrial base. Selling F-22’s to Japan today preserves our capacity to build even more sophisticated fighters tomorrow.

Japan is just about the only suitable purchaser. Its wallet is large enough; it’s an ally that can be counted on to keep the plane’s secrets safe. We should arm allies that will fight on our side in the event of a large-scale conflict in Asia, which is increasingly likely, despite what the Times may think. America needs Raptors, and we need Japan to have them, too.

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The Dangers of Patience

On Tuesday, referring to North Korea’s failure to live up to its pledge to shut down and seal the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon by April 14, Condoleezza Rice remarked that “we don’t have endless patience.” North Korea made its promise to shut down the reactor in February at six-party disarmament talks as a part of a two-step plan to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. The talks were sponsored by Kim Jong Il’s only ally, China, which pressured the United States to accept the deal.

Secretary Rice was repeating comments made last Friday by President Bush, who declared that “Our patience is not unlimited” as he stood next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Camp David. (To their credit, Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, have been pushing the United States to adopt a stiffer policy toward Kim Jong Il.)

These latest statements add to the collection of similar warnings that Kim has collected over the past two weeks. “Our patience is not infinite,” Reuters reported a senior U.S. official as saying on April 14. On that day the State Department’s Christopher Hill, the chief American negotiator at the talks, said, “We are not indifferent to missing a deadline.”

Maybe the Bush administration is not indifferent, but it has been very tolerant. The same unidentified American official said that Washington was willing to give Pyongyang “a few more days.” In fact, the U.S. has given the North Koreans a few more weeks.

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On Tuesday, referring to North Korea’s failure to live up to its pledge to shut down and seal the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon by April 14, Condoleezza Rice remarked that “we don’t have endless patience.” North Korea made its promise to shut down the reactor in February at six-party disarmament talks as a part of a two-step plan to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. The talks were sponsored by Kim Jong Il’s only ally, China, which pressured the United States to accept the deal.

Secretary Rice was repeating comments made last Friday by President Bush, who declared that “Our patience is not unlimited” as he stood next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Camp David. (To their credit, Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, have been pushing the United States to adopt a stiffer policy toward Kim Jong Il.)

These latest statements add to the collection of similar warnings that Kim has collected over the past two weeks. “Our patience is not infinite,” Reuters reported a senior U.S. official as saying on April 14. On that day the State Department’s Christopher Hill, the chief American negotiator at the talks, said, “We are not indifferent to missing a deadline.”

Maybe the Bush administration is not indifferent, but it has been very tolerant. The same unidentified American official said that Washington was willing to give Pyongyang “a few more days.” In fact, the U.S. has given the North Koreans a few more weeks.

What’s next? Well, American policymakers will undoubtedly confront Kim Jong Il with . . . more patience. For his part, Kim seems to have a more robust strategy for dealing with us. Last week, for the first time in fifteen years, he showed off missile systems in a military parade. There were three new systems, but what caught analysts’ attention was a new intermediate-range ballistic missile with a maximum range of 4,000 kilometers. It can reach the American territory of Guam. Kim’s Taepodong-2 missile—though not yet deployed—will be able to reach America’s West Coast with a nuclear payload.

So perhaps it would be a good time to start paying attention to Pyongyang’s leader. As Kim Myong Chol, often described as North Korea’s “unofficial spokesman,” wrote at the beginning of this year, “Kim is now one click away from torching the skyscrapers of New York.” This is an exaggeration: at this particular moment, the worst the North Korean leader could do is to incinerate Anchorage or Honolulu. But if North Korea’s arms development continues at this pace, in five to seven years, Kim’s technicians will be able to miniaturize nuclear weapons, mate them to missiles, and deploy them in a launch vehicle that can reach any point in North America.

Perhaps we should move the White House to Bermuda.

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