Asia-Pacific is one of the most active geopolitical spaces in the world, with several powerful nations located in this geography where the U.S. has enjoyed traditional influence over the region. At present, a security system with vivid presence of Washington is ensuring the balance of forces there. However, some countries of the region are shaping political courses aimed at revisiting the current status-quo. One of those is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of ”active pacifism”. While experts analyze this political course and produce different predictions, we believe the situation is more complex than it appears.
Historical Recurrence: Start of New ”Pacifist Decade”?
Powerful Asian countries are on the verge of decimating the geopolitical miracle they have achieved owing to their development, primarily China, India and Japan. Common feature is prevalence of nationalistic sentiments in the government’s agenda.
In late 2012, with Shinzo Abe becoming a Prime Minister, the former initiated a change in the substance of Japan’s foreign policy. In the past, the experts simply noted the incorporation of nationalistic terminology into the political rhetoric. Yet, actions of the official Tokyo have proven that the situation is quite different.
In December 2013, the Japanese government has adopted several documents of the strategic nature. ”New Defense Program Guidelines”, ”2014-2018 Five-Year Defense Program” and ”National Security Strategy” were the most notable ones because they outlined main objectives and principles of the foreign policy of the official Tokyo in the new era (see: Валерий Кистанов. Стратегия Японии: хочешь мира – готовься к войне? / ”Независимая газета”, 30 June 2014).
In light of these novelties the experts are particularly emphasizing the passage of the new national security strategy of Japan. This event is the first of its kind for the official Tokyo in the modern history. Perhaps, Abe’s move is calculated to address some pressing problems. Country’s national interests and objectives on the international scene occupy a prominent spot. The document contains issues pertaining to military, economic, technological and other fields. The key target is to ensure interests in the international security sphere (see: previous article).
Another significant aspect is associated with implementation of all the programs by the National Security Council that must build its performance on the policy of ”active pacifism” outlined by Abe. Latin translation of “pacifism” is “peacemaking”. The Pacifist movement is the one of peace and anti-militarism. It opposes war and violence.
Presumably, S. Abe’s ”active pacifism” envisages attaining peace solely through negotiations. Russia-Japan talks, in the fall of 2013, in the ”2+2” format, were conducted based on the very policy of ”active pacifism” (see: Россия и Япония обсудили политику ”активного пацифизма” / ”ТВ Центр”, 2 November 2014).
However, regardless of appealing terminology, there is one delicate historical aspect. The 1920s were mostly referred to as the ”decade of pacifism”. During that time, the nations resenting the Versailles-Washington arrangement opted for a compromise solution to rid them militarily of the German hegemony. Great Britain and France had bigger stakes because they emerged stronger in the aftermath of the World War I and sought to solidify their position. Locarno Treaties of the 1925 guaranteed inviolability of Germany’ western borders and that year the country was accepted to the League of Nations.
Japan became the signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, which called for renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy. Nonetheless, it eventually rescinded the treaty and attacked China. In the 1933, Japan was enjoying control of Manchuria. The U.S. and France had had to confront Japan and coerce it into signing of a compromise treaty with China. It must be stressed that the timing of aggression was chosen to coincide with the period when regional nations were busy alleviating the economic grievances.
Between Peace And War: Where Does Nationalism Take Asia?
The purpose of highlighting this otherwise commonly known information is to underline that Japan has concrete historical experience when it comes to the policy of pacifism and regrettably, it not all that peaceful. Are we witnessing recurrence of history? May be the very episodes of Sino-Japanese relations regarding the pacifism, entrenched in the memories, are causing Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul to be suspicious of Abe’s programs? In these countries, Abe is seen as ”foreign policy vulture”, ”nationalist” and ”revisionist” (see: Валерий Кистанов. Previous reference).
All of this seems to be thought-provoking in light of the three articles of Abe’s ”national security strategy” document. First, shift in the global balance of forces has increased the geopolitical significance of the Asia-Pacific. Particularly, some powerful nations with substantial military prowess are located in the North-East Asia. Second, tensions in the region are growing, owing to North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities and its production of ballistic missiles. Third, China’s dynamic growth and active engagement in different fields is regarded as a troubling factor for Japan (see: previous reference). It is not that difficult to calculate the steps chosen to confront the three aforementioned factors based on the ”active pacifist policy”.
Other than that, Tokyo noted that the document addresses the issue of the return of the Kuril Islands in their relations with Russia. Admittedly, all-in-all, the picture is ”not particularly peace-loving” as Abe makes an impression of a nationalist-revisionist. In the meantime, the experts reiterate that change of the situation towards more uncertainty cannot be ruled out.
Gareth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister in 1988-1996 and the International Crisis Group President in 2000-2009, expressed interesting opinion in that context. In his article in the ”Project Syndicate” he writes that it has to be about ”Abe’s Asian Gambit” (see: Gareth Evans. Abe’s Asian Gambit / ”Project-syndicate.org”, 28 July 2014). According to him, ”makeover of Japanese foreign policy could undermine fragile power balances that have so far kept the Sino-American rivalry in check” (see: previous reference).
Three aspects of the geopolitical transformation are more pronounced. First of all, under the current security arrangement, the U.S. has obligations with respect to Japan, South Korea and Australia. Second, if China is strengthening militarily, Washington is providing a chance to its allies to independently develop their military capabilities. Third, there are other multilateral dialogue formats, such as regional forum of ASEAN and The East Asia Summit.
New Japanese foreign policy hampers performance of these mechanisms, as Japan opts for bilateral cooperation. While doing so, some of the nations of its choice may fail to meet the criteria of the aforementioned security arrangements. Tokyo intends to cooperate with India, Russia, Korea and China under different conditions. This situation adds to the urgency of viewing the issue of regional security from a different angle.
Another aspect of the issue is associated with implications of the nationalistic sentiments for the policies of other countries in the region. Processes akin of those unfolding in Japan are observed in India, China, North Korea and South Korea. Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the UN, draws attention to this side of the issue and highlights one distinctive contradiction.
According to him, in China, there is an ongoing fierce rivalry between the adherents of peace and favorers of war. The same goes for Japan. Essentially, it’s about ”hawks” and “doves” and the fate of the region will largely depend on the outcome of this rivalry (see: Kishore Mahbubani. Helping China’s Doves / ”The New York Times”, 17 July, 2014).
Evidently, Asia is facing a geopolitical dilemma, and Abe’s ”active pacifism” is one of its fragments. In general, foreign policies of the regional nations are undergoing transformation, with one common feature uniting them – resurging nationalism. And it is not the adopted documents but real processes that will determine whether this means war or peace.