Shinzo Abe’s pivot to Asia

15.06.15 Publication:

Over the past year, relations among East Asia’s three most successful economies – Japan, South Korea, and China – have been slowly but steadily improving. This is notable, because their ties with one another have never been easy or smooth. The history of the twentieth century and their longer-term rivalries have seen to that.

This August, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gives a major speech to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, he has a chance either to accelerate the rapprochement or bring it to a halt. Given his rightist pedigree and revisionist views about Japan’s wartime history, the region is bracing itself for a new bout of diplomatic turbulence surrounding his address.

Abe should remember that it is within his power to bring about a different outcome. And, though not delivering a speech at all might have been the most prudent course, he can still use the occasion to reinforce an image of his country as a positive force in Asia. He should take pains to present Japan as a strong country that looks forward rather than backward, and that wants to contribute to economic development, peace, and security around the world – and especially within Asia.

During the 1960s and 1970s, after Japan’s economy had recovered, the country dealt with its wartime history in large part by becoming a generous donor of overseas aid throughout Asia, including China. Abe should place this type of generosity of spirit and action at the center of his speech.

The power of generosity can be disarming. In 2007, I visited the “Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression,” an institution whose name reflects the sentiment expressed by the bulk of its exhibits. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that the last exhibit on display was a wall of items acknowledging Japan’s aid and investment in China in recent decades.

Last month, Abe showed that he may be thinking along these lines when he announced a Japanese plan to invest $110 billion in infrastructure projects in Asia over the next five years. The trouble was in the timing. Both the United States and Japan have made the mistake of refusing to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and criticizing the more than 50 countries – including the United Kingdom, Germany, and France – that have done so.

That stance has left both countries isolated and looking somewhat churlish. For Japan, it has had the additional effect of making its investment announcement look like a tit-for-tat response to the AIIB, even to the extent of topping the bank’s initial capitalization of $100 billion.

Abe would do even more damage to the region’s perception of Japan were he to use his speech to try to mollify right-wing supporters. Chinese and Koreans, in particular, will be incensed should he avoid overt apologies for Japan’s behavior during World War II or question criticism of its conduct at the time, such as the Imperial Japanese Army’s sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women.”

Instead, Abe should take a leaf from his speech to the US Congress in April. There, he described a “deep repentance in his heart” when he visited a memorial to American soldiers who died in World War II, to whom he offered his “eternal condolences.”

Concerning Japan’s actions in Asia, however, Abe pledged only “to uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard,” without repeating their actual apologies. In August, Abe should reiterate – and go beyond – his predecessors’ statements. Words similar to those he used to address the subject of America’s war dead would demonstrate that Japan does not intend to rewrite history, and that Abe feels repentant toward not only its US ally, but also its neighbors in Asia.

Abe would then have an opportunity to pivot from the past to the future by declaring Japan’s intention to be generous and constructive. He could talk about the sort of Asia he would like to help build and describe the kind of regional institutions that he believes are necessary.

One dramatic way to seize the initiative would be to build on Japan’s existing initiatives in post-conflict peace-building with a proposal for an inclusive plan for Asia’s defense and security. Such a scheme would include joint military exercises and information-sharing arrangements not just with South Korea and the US, but also with China, India, the Southeast Asian countries.

Such a proposal might turn out to be too bold to realize; it would, after all, come up against Asia’s very real divisions. But as a gesture for peace and a better future, it certainly would allow Japan to claim the moral high ground. And that is where the country should aim to be.