Will Japan Step Up to the Plate?

By Yoichi Funabashi

We are witnessing a "brave, grave new world" - with the rise and fall of nations underway on a grand scale.

China's rise and India's advance are two of the most spectacular dynamics. The power shift to the Asia Pacific, however, will be a long transition, and Asia faces three major challenges over the next decade: first, the instability of the North Korean regime in the process of leadership succession and the eventual unification of the Korean peninsula; secondly, maritime security in the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea; and third, energy and the environment.

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The US will remain a superpower, but it will also become less stable as a "new world" emerges. This new world will be characterized by multipolarism without multilateralism - power will be dispersed and centered in local clusters all over the world, but with a less unified front and less effective global governance. Asia is not alone, and a fundamental question for the world is how to manage restructuring for this emerging multipolar world.

Instability of the Korean peninsula is likely to bring the most problems in the next three to five years. Against the backdrop of a delicate leadership succession, economic crisis and further hardship unfold for North Korean citizens. The situation is unsustainable, and likely the regime will collapse. If North Korea does implode, there could be far-reaching ramifications for the stability of the region. So the vision of a unified Korea is a priority.

At the same time, Asia must devise a maritime security strategy. Seafaring regions stand as the Asia's global face. Yet maritime issues are also a source of much tension. The US has so far provided maritime stability for the Asia Pacific, but is increasingly challenged by China. India is also increasingly ambitious. Maritime issues could reach a peak within five to seven years.

The South China Sea could prove to be extremely divisive, as China increasingly perceives the area as its own and denies rival claims to several chains of islands, including the Spratlys. Some Chinese reportedly call the sea their "core interest," provoking controversy in other Asian nations.

Of course, China is not solely responsible for the dispute in the South China Sea. However, it is notable that at a recent ASEAN regional forum in Hanoi, 12 nations expressed unease about China's activities in the South China Sea.

Mishandling of East China's maritime security issue - by any player - could be a game changer for East Asian geopolitics. This will be the first critical test for China's much-heralded "peaceful rise" doctrine, and the country could quickly lose the respect gained over the past 30 years, particularly through its handling of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

Some Chinese vehemently criticize use of the Yellow Sea for US aircraft exercises, accusing the US of bullying tactics. China interprets US naval activity in the region as a form of "hegemonic bullying," according to General Luo Yuan in the People's Daily newspaper on August 14. Luo warned that China would not be fearful if other countries ignored China's "core interests," which suggest the waters surrounding China. More worryingly, the general implied that China considers the Yellow Sea part of its "offshore area" - an absurdity as it would mean that even Incheon is part of China's "offshore territories."

Finally, energy and the environment are joint issues coming to a head in about seven to ten years. Energy usage is rapidly rising. Every country in Asia depends on oil imports. Desperately trying to catch up with developed economies, developing and emerging countries care little about environmental degradation and lack the requisite safeguards to prevent it. The recent flooding in Pakistan is a sharp reminder of how Asia remains at mercy to nature.

Almost all of Asia's major rivers - the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Indus, the Ganges and the Mekong included - begin in the Tibetan plateau. The melting of the Himalayan glaciers, recognized as partly responsible for the current floods, will wreak catastrophic consequences across the entire continent if it continues at the present rate.

China, India and Pakistan have the first, second and sixth largest populations in the world, respectively. And all are heavily dependent on the Himalayan glaciers for their water supply and livelihoods. Water security could become Asia's Achilles heel.

Amid these new dynamics and challenges, Japan has a role as stabilizer. Japan acts both as a stabilizer in its own right, as well as partner in the framework of the US-Japan alliance.

During the debacle that was the 10 short months that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was in power, many Asian nations expressed concern over the deterioration of the US-Japanese security ties. This revealed how Asian countries increasingly regard the alliance as an essential part of the "common goods."

Maintaining the solid deterrence factor of the US-Japan alliance vis-à-vis North Korea is even more critical as the latter displays increasing instability. That contribution should be appreciated throughout the region, not least by the Japanese themselves.

Japan must explore the modus vivendi of strengthening its relationship with Asia in tandem with deepening its security tie with the United States. Pursuing trilateral dialogue of the US-Japanese alliance with a third partner - such as China, India, Korea, Australia or Indonesia - would be useful. This would answer both the critical need to strengthen the alliance on one hand and enhance regional Asian frameworks on the other.

If the two Koreas were to unify in the future, this would give Japan an opportunity to forge a new strategic relationship and improve stability in North East Asia. Trilateral cooperation between the US, ROK and Japan and between China, ROK and Japan is crucial for stability. Six-party talks or five-party talks in the future will also be useful. A new framework to form a stable and democratic world within Korea could deliver a new era of peace and security in the region.

Japan also has a significant role in the non-military field, and the alliance with the US should be managed according to the principle of complementarities - bringing together the strengths of each nation, both military and non-military, to achieve maximum effectiveness.

This principle has become relevant as the nature of threats have changed. In the Cold War era, the US and Japan focused on the single threat of the Soviet Union. In contrast, the US, Japan and others throughout Asia face multiple, diverse threats, from large-scale natural disasters and climate change to failed states and nuclear proliferation.

Military power alone is simply not enough to deal with these threats. The root cause of threats such as terrorism must be ascertained and targeted, which requires the mobilization of economic and social forces.

For example, Japan's strength is civilian power, while the might of the United States lies in its military prowess. Japan can take a lead in many areas, including humanitarian and disaster-relief assistance; peace-building and peacekeeping; economic development for nation-building; nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament; a departure from petroleum dependence; and global environment protection with an eye toward creating a low-carbon society.

Given the sensitive historical issues, Japan's role as a global civilian power would be more acceptable to other Asian countries and would also be conducive for strengthening the US-Japanese alliance.

Yoichi Funabashi is editor-in-chief of Asahi Shimbun and author of many books.

Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright 2010(c) Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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