Sunday, November 29, 2020

Asia Monday Events, November 30, 2020

10:30-11:3am (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: Middle East Institute (MEI). Speaker: Major General Kevin Copsey, the Deputy Commander of Strategy for the Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve (CJT-OIR).

HUMAN SECURITY AND AGENCY: REFRAMING PRODUCTIVE POWER IN AFGHANISTAN. 11:00-Noon (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. Speakers: Nilofar Sakhi, Professorial Lecturer of International Affairs at George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, Director of Policy and Diplomacy at McColm & Company; Benjamin D. Hopkins, Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

THE LEGITIMACY OF INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS. 12:30–2:00pm (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: Johns Hopkins, SAIS. Speakers: Jonas Tallberg, Stockholm University, Sweden; Nina Hall, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Johns Hopkins University.

THE ORIGIN AND FUTURE OF THE CHINA CHALLENGE: A CONVERSATION WITH PETER BERKOWITZ. 3:00-4:00pm (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: Hudson. Speakers: Peter Berkowitz, Director of Policy Planning at U.S. State Department; Tod Lindberg, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute.

WHAT REMAINS: BRINGING AMERICA’S MISSING HOME FROM THE VIETNAM WAR.  4:00-5:30pm (EDT), WEBINAR. Sponsor: History and Public Policy Program, Wilson Center. Speaker: author Sarah Wagner, Associate Professor of Anthropology, GWU. Moderator: Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program Wilson Center. PURCHASE BOOK:

ALLIED POWS IN COLONIAL KOREA. 6:00-7:30pm (GMT) 1:00PM (EST), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: University of Cambridge. Speaker: author Sarah Kovner, Senior Research Scholar, Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University, Fellow in International Security Studies, Yale University, Associate Professor of History, University of Florida. PURCHASE BOOK:

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Biden's Japan History Relationship

Why Biden Will Embrace The American Alliances in Northeast Asia

By Daniel Sneider, Stanford University and APP member

First appeared in Tokyo Business Today, November 23, 2020

In the halls of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, it is popular to express anxiety about the future of relations with the U.S. under a new Biden administration. Fed by the conservative media in Japan, officials and ruling party politicians revive familiar claims that Democrats are ‘anti-Japan’ and ‘pro-China,’ or even worse, ‘pro-Korea.’ Some see evidence of this in the RUMORED appointment of Susan Rice as Secretary of State, while others point to former President Barack Obama’s cool relations with then Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

Interviews with former senior Obama administration officials from the State and Defense departments, as well as current Biden advisors, most of whom preferred to speak on a background basis due to the sensitivity of the transition, paint a very different picture. President-elect Biden will bring to the White House not only his experience as Obama’s Vice President for eight years, but even more importantly, 36 years in the U.S. Senate, where he twice chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. Biden is a consummate politician, sensitive to the limits on foreign policy imposed by domestic politics but also confident in his ability to use personal relationships to shape foreign relations.

The Vice President draws upon his own experience of personal tragedy – the death of his first wife and daughter, and later of his son Beau – and his sense of history, derived in part from his Irish heritage. He brings to foreign policy “a sense of Greek tragedy but also of the importance of individual destiny,” says a senior Democratic party Congressional aide. “He believes in personal diplomacy, in a way that Obama did not and that Donald Trump never did for reasons of lack of empathy.”

Based on his experience in the Senate, and as Vice President, the Congressional aide describes him as “fluent in Asian style diplomacy.” Biden, he adds, “is a true believer in alliances. That is a deep fiber of his being.” For the incoming administration, alliances are central to their major goals – crushing the pandemic, tackling climate change, and restoring economic growth.

Biden’s views on the centrality of alliances were shaped by the Cold War and his early focus on the Soviet Union and on the role of the NATO alliance. Though he was placed on the Foreign Relations Committee by Senator Mike Mansfield, who later served as Ambassador to Japan, Biden has mostly been a Western Europe centered politician. When it comes to Asia, however, Biden has been influenced by longtime aides who see Japan as the most important U.S. partner.

Biden in action – the Asia swing of 2013

Biden’s trip to Japan, China and South Korea in December 2013 offers a unique window onto his views. The Obama administration was looking to deepen its ‘pivot’ toward Asia and, as a key part of that strategy, conclude negotiations to form the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Hopes for a close partnership with China were fading as the Chinese flexed their military muscles in the East and South China Seas. Meanwhile, North Korea conducted it third nuclear test in February, along with numerous missile tests.

The U.S. was eager to bring Japan and South Korea into closer security cooperation, tightening trilateral coordination as a counter to China. There was growing concern about South Korea drifting into the orbit of China, propelled partly by the election of conservative President Park Geun-Hye who was eager to improve ties with Beijing.

Park was deeply uneasy with Abe, who had come to power in December 2012. The conservative Japanese leader had signaled his intention to roll back previous Japanese government statements on wartime history, particularly the Kono statement on Comfort Women and the Murayama statement on the war issued in 1995. By the fall of 2013, relations were almost entirely frozen.

In November, China announced the establishment of an “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone,” covering most of the airspace of the sea, including territory administered by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. China’s provocative move was at the top of Biden’s agenda when he arrived in Tokyo on December 2, making the need for trilateral security cooperation even more urgent.

“We believe that Northeast Asia will be strongest when its two leading democracies work together to meet common threats, and when the three of us – the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea – work together to advance common interests and values,” Biden told the Asahi ahead of his trip.

Privately, Biden pressed Abe on the need to reach out to Park and hold a summit to break through on relations. He left that meeting convinced that Abe was ready to meet.

His decision to get engaged in this effort was made against the recommendation of his advisors, according to a former senior State Department official who was based in the region.

“We wanted the Japanese and Koreans to do a better job of getting along,” the official told me, “but we didn’t recommend that Vice President Biden jumps into that issue.” American officials were pleased with Abe’s stance on alliance issues, particularly the TPP. “But the one low mark he was getting from the U.S. was on history issues,” the official explained. Still, American diplomats were wary of getting in the middle of history issues, fearful that it would only anger both sides. “But Biden was a confident American politician,” said the official, believing that his personality “might make a difference.”

Biden went next to China and spent some five hours in talks with Xi and other Chinese leaders, pushing back on the ADIZ declaration and pressing the Chinese to improve ties with Japan and South Korea. They also spent considerable time talking about North Korea, with Biden hoping to win Chinese help to bring Pyongyang back to the bargaining table.

The last stop was Seoul, on December 6-7, where Biden and Park had a somewhat difficult conversation. They spent a lot of time talking about defense cost-sharing with Biden pressing the Koreans to do more. Biden told Park that Abe was ready to meet, putting pressure on her to agree to a summit.

“There is a growing frustration in Washington without assigning blame to Park,” a senior American diplomat told me and a small group of Stanford visitors two days after Biden left Korea. “We may get historical issues, but we still think these countries should get along.”

When I and my Stanford colleagues met Park, the Korean leader was visibly upset about the squeeze being put on her by Biden. The Koreans clearly felt the Americans had misread Japanese intentions. She took office prepared for cooperation with Japan, Park told us, but Japanese officials, including deputy Premier Aso Taro and Abe made statements that either ignored or sought to revise the previous Japanese positions on history issues.

“I am not closing the door to a meeting and dialogue is important,” Park said. “But it is important that for a summit to be successful, Japan should not be glossing over these issues.” It would be worse, she continued, if Abe were to emerge from a meeting and make controversial statements about the past or even visit the Yasukuni shrine to the war dead. Park spoke passionately about the problem of the surviving Comfort Women. “They will not live much longer,” Park told us. “This issue involves more than just these women. It involves the human rights of women in wartime. We cannot afford to see Japan deny responsibility for such a grave issue.”

Park insisted that a summit had to be based on a firm commitment from the Japanese government to confirm the validity of the Murayama and Kono statements and refrain from any provocative actions. It was a message, U.S. Embassy officials told us, she had conveyed very clearly to Biden.

Evan Medeiros, the NSC official and Asia expert who accompanied Biden on this trip, insisted that the Vice President “didn’t try to mediate between Japan and Korea,” as he put it to me. “He raised issues about history with both Park and Abe and encouraged both to be flexible and reasonable.”

The Yasukuni crisis

Some days later, Biden held a long phone call with Abe, briefing him on his trip and his discussion with Park. He had pressed Park to meet, Biden told Abe, but she was worried about what might happen afterwards. Abe did not make any firm commitments in the call, but U.S. officials, and Biden himself, were left with the clear impression that Abe would not visit Yasukuni shrine or take other actions that might undermine the attempt to hold a summit.

Biden’s efforts came crashing down when, to the surprise of the Americans, Abe visited Yasukuni shrine on December 26. “Biden inserted himself and it didn’t work,” the former senior State Department official told me.

When the news hit Washington, it was Christmas day and the White House, with Biden’s involvement, authorized the Embassy to issue an unusual statement expressing “disappointment” (失望)with Abe. “What Abe said and what Biden heard might have been different things,” the former official admitted. “I think the entire U.S. government was pissed off at Abe. Japanese were shocked and were really worried. And that was the intended impact.”

Despite that moment, however, Biden did not come away with any grudges, the senior official told me. Instead, Biden, with the President himself now engaged, pressed ahead. In March 2014, Obama hosted Park and Abe at a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Hague, trying to use North Korea as a way to bring them together. In April, Obama visited both Japan and South Korea and took his own stab at addressing the history issues, carefully avoiding them in his public statements in Tokyo while openly acknowledging the pain of the past in Korea.

The next year, Abe and Park made separate visits to Washington. Abe tried to meet American concerns by toning down his statement on the 70th anniversary of the war. When Park visited in the summer, Biden had a long lunch with her at the Vice President’s residence. He talked about Ireland and why history matters.

“Biden clearly understands the history issues,” a former senior Obama official who was directly involved in these talks told me. “What makes him unique is that he understands them from a policy standpoint but he also gets it as a politician. It is a political issue and it takes somebody at the leader level to understand the contours of this. It is not pressuring. It is understanding that it is important to the United States.”

The meeting had an impact, the former official believes. “There was some Biden magic,” he said. Park left that meeting and delivered a speech where she declared she was ready to meet Abe. The two leaders finally got together in November, on the sidelines of a trilateral summit with China, leading to a breakthrough in the long-stalled talks on a Comfort Women agreement, finally announced that December.

Biden and Suga – a match?

Today, we are at a similar moment. The incoming Biden administration will have to forge a new approach to China, but its priority will first be to strengthen alliances. Once again, the tensions between Japan and Korea stand in the way. But Abe is gone and the Koreans are apparently seeking a way out of the history impasse.

Does that mean Biden will personally get involved? Most Biden advisors believe he will empower others to act – probably Tony Blinken, likely to be Secretary of State. During the Obama administration, Blinken forged a vice-ministerial level trilateral coordination dialogue with Japan and Korea.

Personal diplomacy is likely to be essential, say Biden advisors. “Suga has a great personality for dealing with Biden,” says a former U.S. official who met him regularly. “In private, he has a good sense of humor, he can be garrulous, sharp and tough. He has a good chance of having a decent relationship with Biden.”

Biden advisors dismiss Japanese concerns about a ‘pro-China’ approach, or the role of Susan Rice. “I don’t think this matters,” one senior advisor told me. Whether the bureaucrats of Kasumigaseki believe that is another matter.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Asia Monday and Tuesday Events, Thanksgiving Week

This is a holiday week in Washington. But it will be a busy one of self-promotion and disappointment. Below are events taking place Monday and Tuesday.

REBUILDING THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: ROLE OF THE FEDERAL RESERVE SYSTEM. 11/23, 9:00am (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: PIIE. Speakers: Stanley Fischer, Federal Reserve Chair; Anna Gelpern, Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Supervision; David Wilcox, Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Economic and Monetary Affairs.

ACCORDING TO SHAKESPEARE, “EVERY CLOUD ENGENDERS NOT A STORM.” 11/23, 10:30am-Noon (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsors: World Wide Web Foundation; Internet Society; Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub; George Washington University. Speakers: Trey Herr, Director, Cyber Statecraft Initiative, Atlantic Council; Josephine Wolff, Assistant Professor, Cybersecurity Policy, Tufts University; Chelsea J. Smethurst, Senior Security Strategy, Cybersecurity Strategy, Microsoft. Moderator: Costis Toregas, Director, Cyber Security and Privacy Research Institute, George Washington.

TRADE POLICY DISCUSSION WITH CONGRESSMAN JIMMY PANETTA (D-CA). 11/23, 2:00-2:45pm (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: Washington International Trade Association. Speaker: Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Member, House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee.

A CONVERSATION WITH AFSOC COMMANDER LT. GEN. JIM SLIFE. 11/23, 2:30-3:30pm (EST), event recorded on 11/18, ONLINE EVENT. Sponsor: CSIS. Speakers: Lieutenant General James C. "Jim" Slife, Commander, Air Force Special Operations Command. Moderator: Seth G. Jones, Harold Brown Chair; Director, Transnational Threats Project; and Senior Adviser, International Security Program. 

RULING THE SAVAGE PERIPHERY: FRONTIER GOVERNANCE AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN STATE. 11/23, 4:00–5:30pm (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsors: History and Public Policy Program, Wilson Center; Asia Program, Wilson Center. Speakers: Author, Benjamin Hopkins, Associate Professor of History and International Affairs, GWU; Elisabeth Leake, Associate Professor of International History, University of Leeds; Benjamin H. Johnson, Professor, History Department and School of Environmental Sustainability, Loyola University Chicago. Moderators: Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program, Wilson Center; Eric Arnesen, Professor of History, GWU. PURCHASE BOOK

WHAT AWAITS THE U.S.-JAPAN ALLIANCE UNDER NEW LEADERSHIP? 11/24, 8:00-9:00am (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: Stimson Center. Speaker: Hon. Nobukatsu Kanehara, Former Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary. 

BIG TECH COMPANIES IN CHINESE FINANCE. 11/24, 8:30-9:30am (EST), VIRTUAL EVENT. Sponsor: PIIE. Speakers: Huang Yiping, Professor of Economics, National School of Development at Peking University; Martin Chorzempa, PIIE Research Fellow. Moderator: Nicolas Véron, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE).

SOUTH KOREA AND THE UNITED STATES, FUTURE AND VISION OF THE ALLIANCE. 11/24, 9:00-10:30am (EST), ONLINE SEMINAR. Sponsor: East Asia Institute. Speakers: Patrick M. Cronin, Asia-Pacific Security Chair, Hudson Institute; Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow, Korea Studies, Director of Program on US-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Sang Hyun Lee, Senior Research Fellow, Sejong Institute. Moderator: Chaesung Chun, Chair, National Security Research Center, EAI, Professor, Seoul University. 

THE BIDEN PRESIDENCY AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICA’S ‘FOREVER WARS’. 11/24, 1:00-2:15pm (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsors: Brookings Institution and Charles Koch Institute. Speakers: Madiha Afzal, David M. Rubenstein Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy; Vanda Felbab-Brown, Director of Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors, Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology; Christopher Preble, Co-Director, New American Engagement Initiative, Atlantic Council; Justin Logan, Director of Programs and Research Fellow, Center for the Study of Statesmanship, Catholic University of America. Moderator: Michael E. O’Hanlon, Director of Research, Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology. 

"ONE COUNTRY, TWO SYSTEMS” IN HONG KONG IS DEAD: DEBATE. 11/24, 9:00-10:15am (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: CSIS. Speakers: Regina Ip, Legislator and Member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council; Daniel Russel, Vice President, International Security and Diplomacy, Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI). 

ADVANCING US-VIETNAM COOPERATION IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA. 11/24, 10:00pm (EST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: Pacific Forum. Speakers: Trang Pham Ngoc Minh, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City; Alexander Vuving, Professor, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. 

RELIGION AND NATIONALISM: CHINA. 11/24, 3:00-4:00pm (EST), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: Georgetown University's Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues and its Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Speaker: Mayfair Yang, professor of religious studies and East Asian languages and cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

THE 2020 INNER MONGOLIA LANGUAGE PROTESTS: WIDER MEANINGS FOR CHINA AND THE REGION. 11/24, 3:00-4.00pm (GMT), WEBINAR. Sponsor: Chatham House. Speakers: Christopher P. Atwood, Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania; Eva Pils, Professor of Law, The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London; Uradyn E. Bulag, Reader in Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge; Kerry Brown, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Japan welcomes end of Trump era

But has its doubts over Joe Biden-led US

By Jeff Kingston, Temple University Japan, APP Member

First appeared in South China Morning Post, Nov 18,2020

President-elect Joe Biden’s administration has a lot to prove but inherits a relatively strong US-Japan relationship. He will also find Japan is ready to move beyond US President Donald Trump’s “America first” transactional approach to diplomacy. One can imagine Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s quiet fist pump when he learned of Trump’s defeat.

Tokyo hopes Biden will revive US multilateral engagement and provide greater coherence in Washington’s diplomacy but fears Biden might be soft on China. Following his congratulatory conversation with Biden, Suga sought to dampen such doubts by singling out his reassurance that the US-Japan mutual security treaty covers the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

Even so, scepticism lingers that Biden will seek rapprochement with China to the detriment of Japan, a concern former president Bill Clinton ignited a quarter-century ago when he visited China and bypassed Japan.

This underscores how symbolism matters in diplomacy and has implications for Biden’s choice of the next ambassador. Japan favours candidates who have strong political connections to the White House and know little about the nation because they are easier to manage.

Biden can send a different message, though. The United States has had a Chinese-American ambassador to China in Gary Locke, a Korean-American ambassador to South Korea in Sung Kim and an Indian-American ambassador to India in Rich Verma but so far no Japanese-American ambassador to Japan.

It is time to rectify this situation and Glen Fukushima, fluent in Japanese with extensive Japan-related public and private sector experience, is eminently qualified.

Trump shredded the US image with his browbeating of allies and fawning over despots, an improvised diplomacy of blunders and disrespect. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe nurtured a relatively good personal relationship with Trump, but on matters of importance, that goodwill did not seem to have much impact on the president’s actions.

For example, Trump ran roughshod over Japan by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, put sanctions on Japanese exports to the US, instigated a trade war with China that inflicted collateral damage on Japan and threatened to defund the World Health Organisation amid a global pandemic.

He did all this while repudiating multilateralism overall, the mainstay of Tokyo’s diplomacy.

He also played hardball on Japan’s financial support for hosting US military bases, calling for quadrupling the annual subsidy to US$8 billion.

Tokyo slow-walked those negotiations, probably hoping US voters would solve that problem. Biden will probably not take such a hard line but is also unlikely to offer Okinawans a reprieve from the controversial Henoko base construction project they rejected in a 2019 referendum.

To some extent, the Japanese government favoured Trump, mostly because he took a hard line with China and explicitly promised the US would militarily defend the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. This went beyond his predecessors’ reassurances that the US would respond according to Article 5 of the security treaty, which does not actually spell out how America would respond.

Trump also earned kudos for raising the abductee issue with Kim Jong-un, but Tokyo worried that his grandstanding diplomacy might lead to a deal on intercontinental ballistic missiles that left some of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal intact. Like many of his gambits, though, fanfare did not produce results.

Much has changed in the US since the Obama-Biden first term when there was an emphasis on engaging China and treating it as a strategic partner.

In 2012, then-president Barack Obama soured on engagement and announced the pivot to Asia, although not much happened in reality. Relations further soured under Trump, and some are convinced the US and China are locked into a cold-war rivalry.

While this might be a misleading comparison, it is clear Beijing’s regional ambitions are seen as threats to an Asian Pax Americana.

A war is being waged on trade, intellectual property and tech, and containing China is one of the few issues receiving bipartisan support in the US. Even if Biden knows there are benefits to hitting the reset button on Sino-US relations, this is virtually impossible.

Statements on the campaign trail are often not a reliable barometer, but Biden denounced President Xi Jinping, lambasted Beijing’s massive lock-up of Uygurs as genocidal and pledged to uphold support for democracy in Hong Kong. This is not exactly music to the Communist Party’s ears.

Biden appears to support the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision championed by Japan but is less inclined than the Trump administration to nudge the Quad security grouping towards a Nato-like institutionalisation. On trade, he might end Trump’s counterproductive tariffs, but tensions will persist.

After Trump pulled out of the TPP, Abe revived the multilateral pact now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The US is unlikely to join that or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, where China is the dominant player.

Japanese leaders have misgivings about Biden over trade as they believe Democrats pander to organised labour. They hope Biden will re-engage in Asia’s multilateral processes and revive its battered networks of influence, but the deep hole Trump dug at home will necessitate an inward focus that cautions against hopes of strong and sustained US leadership.

Tokyo wants Uncle Sam engaged as much as possible but worries the US is a declining power. It is thus hedging by expanding its regional security relations and boosting its autonomous capacity as a counter to China’s regional hegemonic ambitions.

Japan’s quiet rearmament

Shinzō Abe failed to overhaul Japan's pacifist constitution but the country will continue build its military might

by Jeff Kingston, Temple University Japan, APP member

Originally published in Prospect November 11, 2020 

In August, just four days after setting a record for the longest uninterrupted run as Japanese prime minister, Shinzō Abe announced that he would be resigning due to ill health. The 65-year-old had first been premier back in 2006, and had cut an instantly recognisable figure on the world stage—not only because of his distinctive quiffed hair, but also because of his approach to Japan’s wartime legacy. (Abe had visited controversial war memorials that honoured war criminals, and quibbled in Japan’s parliament, the Diet, about how much coercion was used to recruit the “comfort women” who were forced into wartime military brothels.) His more recent spell in office had begun in 2012, and he now signalled it was time to step aside, saying he didn’t want his worsening ulcerative colitis to interfere with his decision-making.

As well as giving Japan a level of stability at the top that it had not seen in years, Abe oversaw Japan’s recovery from the devastating earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. His bold, multi-pronged “Abenomics” strategy promised to inject some life into the chronically anaemic Japanese economy; most experts were sceptical about its effectiveness even before Covid-19 struck. For a long time he enjoyed public standing as a man of action. Yet the once-popular leader had more recently dropped in the polls. He exited under a cascade of sordid revelations—cronyism scandals, cover-up allegations and close links with politicians indicted for bribery—which leave a tarnished legacy. For the man himself, however, there is little doubt what his biggest disappointment is: the failure to revise the pacifist Article 9 of his country’s constitution.

Written in 1947, under the supervision of the occupying Americans after the Second World War, Abe and other conservatives argue that Article 9 hampers Tokyo’s capacity to respond to the 21st-century challenges in its region, such as China’s hegemonic ambitions and North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In practice, Japanese governments—and the Abe government in particular—have circumvented the restrictions, but the deeper issue is more about identity: revising Article 9 was central to Abe’s ambitions to restore Japanese autonomy, pride and power. For those who regret the world’s turn towards nationalism and militarism in recent years, the collapse of the project might from a distance appear to offer a case study in hope. But does it really?

A family affair

Fundamental questions about Japan’s place in the world can be traced deep into the nation’s past. Between the early 17th and the mid-19th century, the country closed its doors under the policy of “Sakoku,” locking out most trade, diplomacy and other forms of international engagement, which ended only when US Commodore Matthew Perry forced his way in with a convoy of warships in the 1850s. At the turn of the 20th century, tentative democratisation and internationalism appeared to be advancing hand-in-hand, but the western-dominated world order remained profoundly racist towards Japan, and the effects of this—especially when compounded by the Great Depression—catapulted militarists into power. They shunted civilian politicians aside, moved first into Manchuria and then eventually into a wider war that aimed at the control of all China and subjugation of much of Asia and beyond, plunging Japan and the entire region into catastrophe.

The deep faultline over contested memories of the Second World War is the real starting point for today’s debate over Article 9. Liberals believe Japan’s wartime aggression was a tragic mistake, and they regard Article 9 as a guard against any resurgence of ruinous militarism, a reassuring talisman of the modern nation’s pacifist character. Conservatives like Abe want to rehabilitate this controversial history to allow contemporary Japan to become more assertive internationally.

The argument is both about symbolism and substance. The constitution’s practical strictures were sidestepped as long ago as 1954, with the establishment of the Ground Self-Defence Forces (GSDF)—to all intents and purposes an army, albeit one that operates with restraints. But that doesn’t detract from the intensity of pacifist sentiments. Indeed, it is precisely because the Article is so symbolic that it is—on both sides—a question of political identity.

For Abe, it was also about personal identity. Growing up in a powerful political family, he entered the Diet in 1993 two years after his father, a former foreign minister, had left. A couple of decades before, Abe’s great-uncle Eisaku Satō—who was, until the grand-nephew broke the record, Japan’s previous longest-serving PM—had successfully haggled with Richard Nixon to return administrative control of Okinawa prefecture, which since the Second World War had been commandeered by the US for military purposes. An even more significant influence, perhaps, was his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was also prime minister from 1957-60: as a wartime cabinet minister, he was heavily implicated in war crimes but never prosecuted.

“Under Abe, wartime history was literally rewritten in textbooks”

Abe treated the rewriting of wartime history as one aspect of unfinished family business. On his watch, school textbook accounts of forced labour, chemical and biological warfare, and the “comfort women” system have been toned down, pruned or removed, while in public discourse fellow revisionists artfully depict Japan’s 1931-45 rampage as a defensive war to liberate Asia from western colonialism. But the constitution was another aspect which rankled Abe even more. In office, grandfather Kishi resorted to literal strong-arm tactics in 1960 (having opposition politicians carried out of the Diet before holding a vote) in order to revise and extend the 1951 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. The process sparked mass demonstrations, and Kishi was ousted before he could realise his ambition to revise the constitution.

But that was 60 years ago. Kishi was operating in a nation still emerging from the immediate trauma of war, as well as the lingering shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The opportunities for his grandson to overturn the pacifist settlement, bolstered by fading memories, heightened regional threats and a less reliable ally courtesy of President Donald Trump should have been incomparably greater.

His biggest chance came in 2017, when his (traditionally dominant, if arguably misnamed) Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory that gave it, along with its coalition partners, two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the Diet. Here at last was the supermajority needed to push through a constitutional revision. But Abe had been too aggressive in his oft-stated desire to revise Article 9: polls recorded strong misgivings even among those who support that change about it happening on his watch. On top of this, his coalition partner, the Buddhist-affiliated Komeito, opposed any significant watering down of Article 9. Abe responded by incrementally whittling down his proposed amendments of the Article to a mere tweaking of the phrasing, adding a sentence recognising the nation’s military. But even this faced stubborn resistance. For most voters, more concerned about stagnant wages, rising taxes and a gathering recession, it looked like a distraction. Within Japan, there were never enough people who shared Abe’s fixation to overcome those who considered it an irrelevance or a bad idea.

After Abe formally stepped down on 16th September, his chief cabinet secretary Suga Yoshihide took over as prime minister, and is expected to remain in post until Abe’s term ends in September next year. In his former post, Suga was immensely powerful, combining the roles of chief of staff, government spokesman and party whip, acting as Abe’s pit bull in dealing with media critics and ensuring cabinet ministers stayed on message. Without Abe’s backstory and obsession, Suga is—like leaders around the world—currently more preoccupied with coronavirus and its economic fallout, which leaves constitutional reforms on the back-burner. Thus, Abe’s mission to revise the constitution has effectively been abandoned, but anxieties about North Korea, China and the US alliance persist. The country will now have to navigate them without having answered the question that underlay the whole constitutional argument: what is Japan’s place in the world?

Decades of double-think

Back in 1947, Washington wrote Article 9 into the constitution with a view to keeping a defeated and occupied foe at heel. But very soon, the US came to regret it—starting with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Japan’s prolonged colonial rule in Korea from 1910-45 meant that many veterans and officials had first-hand experience and knowledge that could have made it a useful partner. When the US demanded it rearm, Tokyo brandished Article 9 and shrewdly concentrated on industrial redevelopment. But it gradually began the manoeuvres that would make a fiction of the pacifist clause, establishing a relatively small, lightly-armed National Police Reserve in 1950, with 75,000 members; expanded to 110,000 men and renamed the National Safety Force in 1952; and then reconstituted and rebranded again as the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) in 1954. Since then, under US pressure, Japan has gradually expanded its military capabilities while sidestepping constitutional constraints.

This strange situation—the existence of a powerful military which is theoretically banned by the constitution—clouds the Article 9 debate with cognitive dissonance. Japan now has a quarter of a million troops in uniform and, aside from the US 7th Fleet, the most advanced navy in Asia. On top of this, it has a large modern air force and an annual defence budget of about $50bn, which is similar to the UK and puts it in the top 10 nations for security expenditures.

Tokyo justifies this anomalous situation—while pleading compliance with its own constitution—through its membership of the United Nations, because the UN Charter gives every nation the right to self-defence. Abe stressed the absurdity of such sophistry to advance his demands to amend the constitution to reflect 21st-century realities and threats. Over the years numerous lawsuits against the article have been filed by citizens of very different leanings from Abe that have challenged the constitutionality of the SDF, notching up some victories along the way. But in the end, the Supreme Court has largely sided with the government’s interpretation. At the highest level, the country seems to have decided to have it both ways.

If this double-think has proved strangely durable domestically, there have been moments when it has looked like it could come unstuck diplomatically. During the first Gulf War (1990-1), Japan only contributed money in support of coalition forces, and it drew flak internationally for practising “ATM diplomacy” while leaving the heavy lifting to others, particularly embarrassing for a country so reliant on oil and gas imports from the Middle East. Unease about this “freeriding” saw Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights take up the cause of making Japan a more “normal nation” on military matters. The Diet passed legislation in 1992 allowing participation in UN peacekeeping operations under very strict rules of engagement. Later that year SDF members were dispatched in support of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, and have participated in numerous peacekeeping missions since.

But this was never going to be enough for Japanese conservatives, or indeed for the US, which had originally imposed the constraints. In 1997, amid tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, US-Japan defence guidelines were negotiated, expanding what Tokyo was willing to do in support of the US in a conflict in the region. Previously, Japan was under no obligation to intervene, citing its constitutional constraints. The scope of Tokyo’s action under the newly-reciprocal arrangement was still limited to “areas surrounding Japan,” but this nonetheless created potential new licence for it to act to maintain peace or stability across the East Asia region. A military officially retained only for self-defence was later subject to more mission creep in the face of rising Chinese might—particularly in relation to tensions over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo—and North Korea’s escalating nuclear arms programme.

“Although constitutionally pacifist, Japan still ranks in the top 10 nations of the world for security expenditure”

But the most drastic shift in Japan came under Abe, in 2014. On the anniversary of the establishment of the SDF, Abe unilaterally reinterpreted Article 9 to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defence, a stealth “revision” of Article 9, bypassing normal procedures for such amendments by simply changing the government’s interpretation, with potentially sweeping implications. Awkwardly, Abe’s handpicked constitutional scholars testified that the 2015 enabling legislation was unconstitutional, but the measure was forced through the Diet, and the Abe Doctrine came into being. Abe branded his country’s new stance “pro-active pacifism,” but this spin couldn’t draw its sting. The streets erupted with the largest protests since the 1960 rallies that had toppled his grandfather, with polls showing 80 per cent opposition to his security initiative.

In parallel, on the international stage, the US-Japan defence guidelines were again overhauled, greatly expanding once more what Japan agreed to do militarily in support of the US, while also removing the previous restriction to the East Asia region. The late US Senator John McCain—a former soldier and a powerful voice on defence—baldly spelled out that the new guidelines would commit Japan to sending in combat troops if conflict erupted on the Korean Peninsula, or if the US or its allies were under attack anywhere in the world. This was highly unpopular in Japan and Abe faced tough questioning in the Diet—but he prevailed.

By this point, Abe had radically changed the underlying terms of Japan’s defence policy. The logic now was collective self-defence, which in some ways resembles the logic that underpins Nato. This was a big shift, not at all welcomed by a public in fear of being dragged into conflict by Washington, and so Abe still had to tread carefully when it came to specific decisions about wielding real power. Earlier this year, Washington pressed Tokyo to join a US-led coalition patrol of the Persian Gulf; it wouldn’t have been hard for them to invoke “national interest,” since Japan imports nearly 90 per cent of its oil from the Middle East. But in the event, Abe—who was desperate to avoid a backlash that could snuff out his hopes of constitutional revision—demurred. Instead, he dispatched a single destroyer on an intelligence gathering mission, ostensibly acting separately from the US coalition while co-ordinating with it. When the most hawkish of Japanese prime ministers pulled back from an express request for help, the idea of Japan becoming like the UK, a dependable deputy sheriff to the US, was exposed as a pipe dream.

A monstrous paradox

Abe has come and gone, and pacifism is still a matter of national self-image. Anxiety about being dragged into war and Japan’s place in the world permeates popular culture, and yet here—as much as in politics—we can see a double-think at work. Just as the US hydrogen bomb test loomed over the launch of the Godzilla film series in 1954, four years ago Trump’s first presidential campaign provided a troubling backdrop to the latest instalment, Shin Godzilla. Trump had called into question the US commitment to the alliance with Japan, and suggested the country might want to develop its own nuclear weapons. The film, a blockbuster hit, portrays the Japanese government’s fumbling response to the notorious monster’s attack. The US comes across as an overbearing, self-seeking ally that puts its own interests ahead of Japan’s, threatening a nuclear attack on Tokyo to kill Godzilla in order to protect the US.

It’s only a film, and the bumper box office tallies arguably proved nothing other than the allure of an enduring, familiar monster. But some took it as embodying a feeling that Japan should get out from under the US thumb, stand alone and presumably rip up Article 9. Clearly, the public is anxious, and there is an abiding crisis of confidence that Abe didn’t quite dispel about Japan’s receding influence in a fraught region. The Trump years have only aggravated these anxieties since: Japanese confidence in US foreign policy plunged from nearly 80 per cent under Barack Obama to 24 per cent under Trump.

The 45th President is an aberration in many ways, but that did not harm him in an election where he held up better than expected. A poisonous campaign revealed an insular American mindset on both sides: Joe Biden may have been politer about traditional allies, but he didn’t talk about them much, nor in any sustained way did he challenge the presumptions of “America First.” Irrespective of the result, the US will remain in relative decline as a world power. Staking everything on it continuing to make sacrifices for Japan deep into the future looks like an obvious risk. And yet it was in his unwavering allegiance to a US partnership that Abe really ran aground, as his handling of the grievances of Okinawa demonstrates.

“Japan will not be shaken from pacifism by a nationalism that defers to the US”

Three quarters of a century after the devastating battle of Okinawa, American military facilities continue to cover around 17 per cent of the island’s land area, alienating locals because bases can be noisy, environmentally damaging and hotspots for crime. Two years ago, Okinawans voted against the US military presence in a series of local elections, installing the anti-base Independent Denny Tamaki as governor in a landslide victory over the pro-base candidate backed by Abe, a humiliation for a PM who had been determined to placate the Pentagon. In a local referendum held last year, 70 per cent of islanders voted against the construction of a new US base, and yet Abe proceeded with the ill-fated project anyway. As far as Abe was concerned, Japan lives in a dangerous neighbourhood and will inevitably, even as it builds up its own forces, continue to rely on US protection.

Herein lies a paradox that could be important for where Japan goes next. The country has an unequal, almost “client-state” relationship with the US in matters of foreign and security policies, and yet, for all their avowed nationalism, conservatives see the alliance as essential and the only option for countering the threats from North Korea and China. Progressives, by contrast, fear the country’s entanglement with the US could not only accentuate regional tensions, but also encroach on sovereignty, contravene the constitution and subvert democratic values. Abe and like-minded conservatives believe the days of pacifism are numbered: in a world of rising threats and fraying alliances, they argue it has already become a luxury that Japan can ill-afford. But just as deep-rooted pacifist norms come into contact with the reality that Japan’s increasingly well-armed country now has free rein to use force in all kinds of scenarios, so too the pro-Washington assumptions of right-wingers like Abe confront the unreliability and ebbing power of the US.

Japan alone?

The idea of “Japan alone” sends a shiver up the national spine, which renders a rupture of bilateral relations unlikely. Nonetheless, it is tempting to conclude that Shin Godzilla is more clear-eyed than politicians on either side of the constitutional divide. The film suggests relying on Japan’s own technological ingenuity, social cohesion, teamwork, indomitable spirit, and—yes—military power, but it does so on the assumption of a break with America.

In his 2020 biography The Iconoclast: Shinzō Abe and the New Japan, Tobias Harris concludes that despite his long tenure and control of the Diet, Abe leaves a slight and tenuous record as a statesman. As Abenomics sputtered and promises on gender equality and corporate governance went unfulfilled, the former prime minister squandered energy on his doomed efforts at constitutional revision.

From his own nationalist point of view, however, Abe leaves behind not only a country with a strengthened military but, thanks to the expanded US-Japan defence guidelines and enabling legislation, also greatly enhanced licence for his successors to use it. His failure to prevail in his symbolic struggle to bury pacifism might be better understood as his failure to understand that the strongest argument for doing so is America’s isolationist turn.

Japan will not be shaken out of its pacifist norms by a compliant conservative nationalism that automatically defers to the US. The pacifist clause was made in Washington all those years ago; it was slowly subverted at the behest of Washington in the long decades since and, if it is eventually abandoned, it seems a fair guess that the root cause will trace back to Washington once more.