In the March 23 issue of The National Interest Amitai Etzioni castigated Japan and the United States for jointly pursuing a policy of containing China. The United States, he said, would be drinking from a “poisoned chalice ” if it supported the nationalist ambitions of Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an LDP leader who had not—so he implied—fully learned the lessons taught by World War II. As a private citizen Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals are interred, and downplayed the ordeal suffered by Korean “comfort women” during the war. While reiterating Japan’s claims to the Senkaku Islands (also wanted by China), Abe had also sought to increase inflation and assist demand for Japanese goods through a consistent policy of monetary expansion to keep down the value of the Yen.
Actually, the new Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) policies are not primarily directed against China, nor are they the policies of one party alone. Instead, they are a reflection of Japan’s awakening from a long foreign policy and economic slumber which saw Tokyo’s diplomatic role plunge to a new low. The United States encouraged Japan to improve its coastal defense and join in the limited missile defense system directed at North Korea. U.S. encouragement applied equally to Abe’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, who helped solve the vexed issue of U.S. bases on Okinawa and also began to reinterpret the restrictions of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which mandated a dependent role for Japan.
It would be surprising if President Obama had not sought Japanese help. When he visited Beijing in March of 2010, his position was weak, and Beijing commentators observed: “The Chinese leadership will not worry too much about U.S. pressure. In the context of the financial crisis and [America’s] legacy on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. needs China much more than China needs the U.S.” When Obama hinted at the possibility of the creation of a G-2, bringing Beijing and Washington together, Hu demurred, offering only vague agreements on climate change, and no agreement to rein in a nuclear North Korea. Even today, with Kim Jong Un’s new threats, China does little or nothing in response.
So today America is seeking friends to buttress its position in dealing with a more active and upwardly mobile Beijing. Japan is certainly one such ally. The objective, however, is not to balance against or “contain” China so much as to attract it toward a strong industrial and Western coalition of nations. As my new book, The Resurgence of the West: How a Transatlantic Union Can Prevent War and Restore the United States and Europe, seeks to show, strong economic and political links between Europe and the United States (ably abetted by Japan’s adherence) will create an economic magnet of more than one half of world GDP. This magnet will attract China, which needs access to Western markets and technology to buy energy and oil and to develop the second-order industrial skills it eminently lacks. With the on-and-off exception of Russia and a few “Stans” in Central Asia, China has no allies, and the term “East” is a misnomer, assuming as it does that Eastern nations will act as a bloc. Actually China’s frontiers are populated with those worried about Beijing’s long-term ambitions. South Korea, Vietnam, India, and Japan remain hesitant to join any Chinese-led regional order. Actually, so does Moscow in its heart-of-hearts. Thus, the more active Japanese role shows a new wind is blowing from West to East. In time, this wind could not only cool down Chinese energies, but also redirect them toward the building of a more peaceful world.
This effort by both Tokyo and Washington reflects the agglomerative methods used to end the Cold War with the Soviet Union. As historians are beginning to observe, the Cold War did not end because of deterrence and an equal nuclear balance between the Communist side and the Western democratic side. The West triumphed because the combination of nations assembled carefully by the United States, Germany and Europe was economically and politically superior to the USSR. Mikhail Gorbachev wanted time to replicate the success of South Korea—to bring the antiquated Soviet industrial plant up to developing East Asian, if not fully Western, standards. He was not allowed the leeway to do so. “Perestroika” did not go that far. As 15 Soviet nation-provinces moved to independence in 1991, Gorbachev’s successor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was forced to turn to politics, not economics, to prevent further defection. Russia’s economic position, except where supported by high-priced oil and natural gas, dwindled, until in 1998 Russia defaulted. Since then, high oil prices have since propped it up, but the swift and ongoing development of natural gas supplies in Canada, the United States and Europe will further undermine Russia’s long term relevance as a great power, focusing the world once again on the growing economic potential of China.
This does not mean that China will go it alone. Meeting with members of the Chinese Politburo in January 2013 in the Great Hall of the People, our Western group of scholars, economic and military analysts concluded that China was still trying to reduce the temperature, even if no agreements were in sight. But China was unlikely to discipline North Korea or change its fundamental policy on Iran or even Syria. China’s famous nine-dotted line map of its territorial claims in East Asia remained in place. What then should those who were friendly to China but concerned about its expanded ambitions do? The answer was to consolidate an aggregation of economic strength that, by its potential for resource, for financial and for technological strength, could not be resisted by Beijing.
This means, among other things, supporting Shinzo Abe’s efforts to organize Japan’s reemergence. This is not drinking from a poisoned chalice, but dipping into a new well of energy.