Abe’s ‘nor­mal state’ ab­nor­mal

Ja­pan’s right-wing politi­cians echo Ger­many af­ter its WWI de­feat by stir­ring na­tion­al­ism and chal­leng­ing world or­der

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Ja­pan’s Prime Min­ster Shinzo Abe vis­ited the con­tro­ver­sial Ya­sukuni Shrine in De­cem­ber. Less than a month later, when he at­tended the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in Davos, Switzer­land, Abe com­pared the ten­sions be­tween China and Ja­pan to the ri­valry be­tween Bri­tain and Ger­many on the eve of World War I.

How­ever, his anal­ogy is false, as be­fore the war erupted the ma­jor cap­i­tal­ist pow­ers had al­ready en­tered the era of im­pe­ri­al­ism. Ger­many, as an emerg­ing force, wanted to be a naval power and sought colo­nial ex­pan­sion, and this clashed with the es­tab­lished in­ter­ests of Bri­tain, the most pow­er­ful mar­itime na­tion of the time.

To­day it is a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion, as re­la­tions be­tween na­tions have un­der­gone fun­da­men­tal changes be­cause of glob­al­iza­tion. Even in to­day’s East Asia where there are pro­longed ten­sions, there is no way for Ja­pan to ma­te­ri­al­ize an armed camp like the one that di­vided Europe a century ago.

Peace­ful de­vel­op­ment and co­op­er­a­tion is the choice of most coun­tries and rep­re­sents the global trend, and a right-wing-in­clined Ja­pan has just backed it­self into a cor­ner. Given that this year marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the out­break of WWI, it seems Abe is seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity to try and ob­fus­cate the real rea­son why ten­sions con­tinue to es­ca­late.

Abe made his er­ro­neous anal­ogy ei­ther be­cause he sincerely be­lieves that Ja­pan’s strength in to­day’s world is par­al­lel to the naval supremacy of Bri­tain on the eve of WWI or be­cause he was try­ing to cover up Ja­pan’s sim­i­lar­ity with Ger­many.

In fact, what Ja­pan’s right-wing politi­cians are do­ing to­day — stir­ring up na­tion­al­is­tic sen­ti­ments and chal­leng­ing the post­war in­ter­na­tional or­der with its as­pi­ra­tions to be a mil­i­tary power — echo Ger­many af­ter its de­feat in WWI.

From the Sino-Ja­panese War (1894-95), its forced oc­cu­pa­tion of the Korean Penin­sula from 1910 to 1945, and its full-scale war of ag­gres­sion against China from 1937 on­ward to the Pa­cific War in the 1940s, ev­ery step im­pe­rial Ja­pan took brought un­told suf­fer­ing to its neigh­bors. In­stead of try­ing to em­u­late war­time Ger­many, Abe and his like-minded col­leagues should re­flect on post-WWII Ger­many and the way it has faced up to its past. They should stop try­ing to white­wash the war crimes of Ja­panese im­pe­ri­al­ism and mil­i­tarism, which is any­way doomed to fail­ure as these are his­tor­i­cal facts for which the ev­i­dence is ir­refutable.

But at­tribut­ing Abe’s in­ap­pro­pri­ately made com­par­i­son to just a lack of re­spect for his­tor­i­cal truths over­sim­pli­fies the scheme of this con­ser­va­tive hawk. When be­ing asked at the Davos fo­rum whether a mil­i­tary con­flict be­tween China and Ja­pan was “con­ceiv­able”, Abe replied that such a con­flict “would be a great loss not only for Ja­pan and China but also for the world and we need to make sure such a thing would not hap­pen”. But he also said the soured re­la­tion­ship be­tween China and Ja­pan was in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion to the An­glo-Ger­man ten­sions be­fore 1914, im­plic­itly com­par­ing China to then Ger­many. It was an­other way of say­ing Ja­pan was stuck in a hos­tile neigh­bor­hood with in­creas­ing threats com­ing from a ris­ing China.

By do­ing so, Abe at­tempted to di­vert at­ten­tion away from his con­tentious shrine visit, which has not only an­gered its neigh­bors, even Wash­ing­ton seems to have lost track of where its long-term ally is head­ing. Equally im­por­tant for Abe was nam­ing China as a top threat to Ja­pan’s na­tional se­cu­rity in or­der to jus­tify his coun­try’s mil­i­tary buildup and the re­vis­ing of its paci­fist Con­sti­tu­tion.

Ja­pan has pur­sued the goal of a “nor­mal state” sta­tus for decades, but the coun­try re­mains di­vided con­cern­ing what is a “nor­mal state” and how to achieve such a sta­tus.

About 15 months af­ter com­ing back to Ja­pan’s top job, Abe’s acts have fully demon­strated that his an­swer to those two ques­tions is Ja­pan must emerge as a “nor­mal” mil­i­tary power. In De­cem­ber, Ja­pan launched a US-style Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to strengthen the lead­er­ship of the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice in steer­ing de­fense poli­cies. A lit­tle while later, Tokyo en­acted a state-se­crets law tough­en­ing the penal­ties for leaks, de­spite wide­spread protest and crit­i­cism. Abe de­fended the law as “nec­es­sary” in smooth­ing the oper­a­tion of the new coun­cil and also in fa­cil­i­tat­ing the shar­ing of in­tel­li­gence with for­eign coun­tries. That same month, Ja­pan’s cab­i­net ap­proved three se­cu­rity documents, in­clud­ing the coun­try’s first-ever na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy af­ter WWII, which sug­gests Ja­pan’s fur­ther tran­si­tion from its post­war paci­fism to­ward what Abe disin­gen­u­ously calls “proac­tive paci­fism”.

In his New Year mes­sage to the na­tion, Abe reaf­firmed his re­solve to change Ja­pan’s paci­fist Con­sti­tu­tion, which lim­its Ja­pan’s mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties to self-de­fense and for­bids the use of force in set­tling in­ter­na­tional dis­putes. “As it has been 68 years since its en­act­ment now, na­tional de­bate should be fur­ther deep­ened to­ward a re­vi­sion of the Con­sti­tu­tion to grasp the chang­ing times,” Abe said, sig­nal­ing he is push­ing to re­al­ize his long-term am­bi­tion for mak­ing the Self-De­fense Forces a full-fledged mil­i­tary.

In Au­gust, the United Na­tions Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon urged Ja­panese politi­cians to do some soul-search­ing over his­tory to re­solve his­tor­i­cal dis­putes with neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Tokyo im­me­di­ately voiced ir­ri­ta­tion over Ban’s com­ments, with Chief Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary Yoshi­hide Suga ex­press­ing doubt as to whether Ban was fully aware of the ef­forts Ja­pan was mak­ing to have di­a­logue with China and South Korea. How true it is that Ja­pan has made great ef­forts, but not to re­solve the dis­putes, in­stead it has sought to ag­gra­vate them.

China and South Korea now refuse to talk with Ja­pan, and Ja­pan is fac­ing a storm of crit­i­cism from peo­ples around the world. It is to be hoped this will be enough to force its lead­ers to see rea­son and re­al­ize that if it continues along the path it is cur­rently fol­low­ing it is only dis­tanc­ing it­self fur­ther and fur­ther from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. The au­thor is deputy di­rec­tor of In­sti­tute of Ja­panese Stud­ies, Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sci­ences.

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