Abe’s dangerous game

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Abe’s dangerous game

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Lee Byong-chul

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has defiantly propelled Japan on a more possible war course than ever, allowing the Japanese military to support the aid of friendly countries under attack. With the bilateral frictions mounting on a few yet vital fronts - including South Korea’s near disputed islets in the East Sea (known as the Sea of Japan in Japan) and comfort women - the hawkish Abe’s decision to free its military in a cleverly incremental fashion is certain to infuriate South Korea, not to mention China whose growing economic and military assertiveness poses a serious threat to Japan.

The room of Japan’s recognition toward past history literally grows darker around us, as if Japan were ready to notch its nationalism up to the level of ultra-nationalism. The conventional wisdom among right-wing Japanese people is that “an incomplete nation could be completed by imperialist expansion abroad and militarization at home.” To this end, Abe apparently succeeded in creating an offensive, no longer defensive, atmosphere that would partly embrace the outspokenness of the conservative Japanese leaders today. Not surprisingly, they tend to regard history and the postwar pacifist Constitution as something written on a bubble gum paper.

At the same time, it is significant that Japan’s emergence as a more “normal nation” through the constitutional reinterpretation coincides with a large-scale transformation in the power configuration in the region, where the high-speed rise of China has impressed upon Japan that the military power is the very basic requirement for survival. Japan already lost its position as the No. 2 economy in the world, giving way to its age-old rival which, according the Financial Times, poised to pass the United States as the world’s leading economic power this year. That said, Beijing now has the upper hand over Japan in terms of trade and diplomacy.

History tells us, however, that at every critical juncture between Japan and its neighbors, astute Japanese politicians have always responded to a growing public sense of post-Cold War insecurity by appealing to long-dormant nationalists and patriotic sentiments, instead of trying to placate them. Abe’s hawkish stance was obviously meant to please ultra-conservative supporters, demonstrating Japan’s newfound willingness to “say no” to foreign critics, and especially to China. It means that Japan still has a long way to go in playing by the universal norms and rules and winning global respectability.

On June 20, for instance, a pack of government-appointed Japanese experts did their best to taint the accuracy of the 1993 Kono Statement of apology to women coerced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers in front-line brothels during World War II, as if the “comfort women” had merely been the accidental accompaniment of an infamous Imperial Japanese Army. Indeed bashing the Kono Statement is no longer a big story of the Abe government trying to move in an opposite direction of history.

If the past is any indication, Abe’s irrational nudge currently roiling Northeast Asia cannot win in the war against history. Even by Japanese standards, the right-wing politician already strayed into the path of anti-history, while repaying a lot of South Korean comfort women’s tragic life with distortions and dishonor. It is not unreasonable to think that Abe’s flirtations with extreme positions and rhetoric would eventually do incalculable damage to Japan’s international standing, regardless of Xi’s visit to Seoul seen as the diplomatic event to capitalize on the worsening relations between Seoul and Tokyo to further cement the wall of distrust between the two main U.S. allies in the region.

While the weight of history is not kind of things that can be easily measured by the whim of government, Abe’s shortsighted and vile Weltanschauung offers significant lessons that history could be outrageously distorted even in a “normal and democratic state.” His self-confidence bordering on hubris became very much a part of the mind-set of Japan’s policy-makers, even though diplomacy, by the nature of its craft, requires many days and nights for its goals to be achieved. Abe is bravely dancing on the masquerade of history, while extending a welcoming hand to a nuclear-armed North Korea. The timing seemed propitious for Abe to distract from the summit meeting, on July 3, between Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Xi Jinping of China.

Even the United States, it seems, cannot stop Abe’s assertive folly. To the contrary, the Obama administration has virtually endorsed the path that leads its prime ally to proactively expand the role within the framework of the two countries’ alliance, instead of actively engaging in resolving the frosty relations between Seoul and Tokyo. History shows a similar fact that through World War I, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance had played the decisive role of accelerating Japanese encroachment on China.

On cue, Mr. Xi impressed a group of students on July 4 at Seoul National University that people of China and Korea had fought “shoulder to shoulder” against Imperial Japan more than four centuries ago, rather than couching his deep-rooted animosity toward Japan in vague language. Mr. Xi also had allegedly proposed holding joint memorial services with South Korea next year to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, as if Seoul and Beijing can enter into a marriage of convenience in the future.

Japan’s constant hawk-infested nudge can be played as an explosive role of fomenting anti-Japanese sentiment throughout the region. Abe, who already became a lightning rod in this anti-Japanese sentiment, is running faster and faster on the treadmill of military adventurism. The faster the treadmill goes for the extreme right, the harder it becomes to jump off. It is a symptom of speculative quicksand, so to speak.

Abe’s sharp turn to the extreme right can best be understood as a huge national gamble. While considering a series of bellicose events as an inevitable clash to determine the leader of the Western Pacific, Abe sees it as a political move to whet the ideological appetite for his conservative supporters. Moreover, the right-wing nationalist is squared with the ideology of the right that is eager to regain the glory of the broken imperialism, instead of strengthening a harmonious stability and peace in the region. Abe’s Japan is too dangerous to be left to his hands.

In the perspective of history, the past never ends, never recedes, but continues to play onstage. Both Korea and China have an indelible memory of what was brutalized by Japan. It has arisen not out of thin air but from the painful experiences in the not-so-distant past. Japanese’s turning a blind to the past wrongdoings would actually degrade Japan’s prestige on the global stage. It, too, would stoke Japanese liberals’ fears about an expansive right-wing cascade of imperialism within the ultra-nationalistic elites themselves. After all, Abe is going to find himself hubristic in front of history by risking the lives of his people, while shortening a lead time to accept China’s “undeniable leading status” in Asia.

Abe acted as if he were opposing wind, which would allow a “China kite” to rise high, albeit it’s hard for the United States to swallow. While reluctant to say so publicly, both South Korea and U.S. policy makers increasingly view the existence of Abe as part of the problem, not as the solution, for the tripartite alliance. Can this be sustained in such a climate?

*The author is the director of Nuclear Nonproliferation Center at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.

By Lee Byong-chul



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