WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalistic views on history have disadvantaged Japan in its increasingly public fight with China and South Korea.
Harvard University professor Joseph Nye said Abe’s reforms across the board are solid but are being presented in the wrong way, frightening its neighbors and ultimately complicating Tokyo’s alliance with Washington.
“I thought Abe’s defense proposals and his package was a good package. The mistake was wrapping it in an old 1930s wrapping paper. If you get rid of the 1930s wrapping paper, then you have a good 21st century program and it will be much less frightening to others,” said Nye, former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, during an interview with The Japan Times in Washington.
Nye, who served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in 1994 and 1995 during the administration of former President Bill Clinton, said Abe has done much more than his predecessors during the 16 months since he took office for the second time in December 2012.
His unorthodox economic policies, dubbed “Abenomics,” have sent stock prices to their highest levels in years, and he also made the tough decision for Japan to participate the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact.
But the conservative leader is also actively changing defense policy. Although he increased the fiscal 2014 defense budget by a relatively small 0.8 percent, it was the first time in 11 years the budget had been raised.
He also managed to set up a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council, enact the highly contentious state secrets law, and drastically relax the long-held arms export ban, allowing Japan to participate in the joint arms development and equipment export businesses.
Yet Nye is wary of Abe’s “nationalistic wrapping paper,” referring to his December visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines Class-A war criminals, and his attempts to re-examine the 1995 Murayama statement on Japan’s apology for WWII and the 1993 Kono statement, in which Japan acknowledged the military’s role in rounding up the “comfort women” to provide sex for troops in wartime brothels.
Nye opposed the Yasukuni visit, saying it gave China and South Korea the impression that Japan is trying to remilitarize.
While Richard Armitage, U.S. deputy secretary of state under the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005, said at the Japan-U.S. Security Seminar in Washington last month that Abe can visit Yasukuni in a private capacity but not as prime minister, American critics across the board are opposed to any official visit by a prime minister in any shape or form.
The 1993 statement, issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, admitted for the first time that women had been forced into sexual slavery for Imperial Japanese soldiers through deception or coercion, and that at times, Japan’s administrative or military personnel directly took part in rounding up thousands of women from Korea, China, the Philippines and several other nations.
The series of hawkish moves in fact prevented summit talks from being held with South Korea until last month, when the leaders of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea staged a three-way meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague.
American critics agree that the worsening bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea is detrimental to regional stability because it hampers the three nations’ plans to jointly counter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and what is viewed as a military expansion by China, which raised military spending by 12 percent compared with 2013.
Amid mounting criticism of Abe’s revisionist views, his Cabinet on Tuesday officially approved a statement that said it will not review or issue a new statement to supersede the Kono statement.
But Nye said any nationalistic rhetoric is self-defeating because it will discredit Japan’s postwar contribution to global peace without its involvement in any military conflict.
“Japan has a very impressive record in the last half century. And it should get credit for that, but when you jump over the last half century and you go back to the 1930s and 1940s, all you are doing is shooting yourself in the foot,” said Nye. “Only Japan can isolate Japan and it’s doing a pretty good job of it.”
As a strong proponent of the right to collective-self defense, Nye also commended Abe’s bid to re-interpret war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution so Japan can exercise the right, which is granted by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
Nye also said Japan has been effectively exercising the right anyway by sending the Self-Defense Forces to participate in U.N.-authorized peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and counterpiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia.
The government enacted a contentious law to allow the SDF to join peacekeeping operations in 1992 and passed legislation in 2009 to send SDF personnel to Somalia.
“I think amending the Constitution is likely to create fears among Japan’s neighbors. So right now, politically inside Japan, my understanding is that New Komeito will not agree. So I think focusing just on the amendment of the Constitution seems to cause political problems both at home and abroad.
“That’s why I would say just leave it as it is and instead interpret how Japan will fill its peaceful roles (such as through providing combat assistance support to the U.S. military). Japan deserves credit for being a peaceful nation. And it can interpret how it will fill that role of a peaceful nation as an independent Japanese act,” said Nye.
On the relationship with China, Nye stressed that Japan has the moral high ground when it comes to dealing with China over the sovereignty issue concerning the Senkaku Islands, claimed as Diaoyu by China and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan. Japan has been administering the islands off Taiwan for decades.
Nye said Japan is not trying to turn the dispute into a military conflict while the Chinese demonstrate more aggressiveness.
In February 2013, a Chinese frigate put an SDF vessel under radar lock, setting off SDF alarm bells. It then set up a new air defense identification zone overlapping Japanese airspace over the Senkakus last November.
Nye said Japan should take a more proactive role by taking this issue to the International Court of Justice or declare it as a maritime ecological reserve. Abe’s government has rejected taking the Senkaku issue to the ICJ and maintains that no territorial dispute exists.
“Why shouldn’t Japan get the benefit of being a country which stands up for the international order?” he asked.
“Just to sit there and say there is no dispute is ridiculous. And it gives the Chinese the excuse to say there can be no discussions at a high level with Japan because Japan refuses discussions.”