During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan emerged as the first non-Western society to successfully modernize, winning the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars and joining the ranks of the world's major powers. Then the country lost many of its assets in its World War II defeat.
This is not to say that Japan's history has been without defeats at the hands of foreign adversaries; in 663, the country lost the Battle of Baekgang on the Korean Peninsula. But in 1945, Japan found itself in an unprecedented situation, with the mainland occupied by foreign forces for seven years.
How did it rebuild from that point? The most important choice for Tokyo was to restore friendship with the United States, which had overwhelmed Japan by laying waste to its major cities and dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who came to power shortly after the war, chose to be a "good loser" who would cooperate with the U.S. occupation policy and let Washington do everything in its power to rebuild Japan.
This shift was important because the United States was at the center of creating and managing the postwar international order. In particular, the international economic system, which began at the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, was an indispensable foundation for Japan's postwar efforts to rebuild its economy. This international infrastructure enabled Japan's rapid economic rise during the 1960s.
On the other hand, the United Nations system, which was expected to lead to a new security order, became partly dysfunctional with the outbreak of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. For Kijuro Shidehara and Yoshida, who became post-war leaders based on their diplomatic experience, the confrontation between Washington and Moscow was an opportunity to make the United States recognize Japan's strategic importance. Japan signed the historically generous San Francisco Peace Treaty and, at the same time, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Recognizing that the defeated nation of Japan would not be able to defend itself against the Soviet Union, a superpower to its north, Prime Minister Yoshida called for the continued presence of U.S. forces in the country. This is the structure of Japan's security policy, in which it looks to the U.S. for support while concentrating all its energy on economic activities. The new constitution called for the promotion of peace and democracy, and at its core was the idea that Japan's peaceful rise could be based on improving people's lives through the expansion of economic activity.
Another important aspect of postwar Japan's diplomatic quest was its efforts to seek friendship with Asian countries. In the early stages, this was only on a sentimental level. But from the time of the Fukuda Doctrine in 1977, in which Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda spoke of "heart-to-heart" exchanges with Southeast Asian neighbors, Japan was able to build fruitful friendships with many countries. These relationships were backed up by its provision of substantial official development assistance to developing countries around the world. These new ties, together with the U.S.-Japan alliance, formed Japan's diplomatic assets in the postwar era.
In the 1980s, the United States, Europe and Japan became the three main pillars of the international community with their economic vitality, as symbolized by the Group of Seven summit meetings, and their overwhelming of the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Cold War was coming to an end.
But while the post-Cold War world has been overtaken by the U.S.-led globalization of information technology, it has, on the other extreme, become an era of rampant ethnic and religious conflicts as people seek their own spiritual home. The 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. shook the world. Islamic extremism flourished in the 2010s to the extent that some factions proclaimed a new Islamic State, but in 2016 it began to decline.
China, on the other hand, has continued to make great strides without waning. Thanks to the reform and opening-up policies of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, China's economy continued to grow at a high rate for 30 years, starting in 1980, and by 2010 it had overtaken Japan as the world's leading economic power. And that is not the end of the story. In the post-Cold War era, China has focused on expanding its military, with the aim of becoming a military power on par with the United States by the middle of the 21st century. Under President Hu Jintao, China spoke of a harmonious society and a peaceful rise, but under the current Xi Jinping regime, iron-fisted domestic rule and major power diplomacy have been prominent.
This became even more pronounced in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China. Beijing has remained tight-lipped about its own responsibility for the outbreak causing so much pain to the world, and has repeatedly taken blatant action to tighten its control over Hong Kong, the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands, and other areas. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced communist China's ambitions for hegemony in a speech on July 23, calling for a "new alliance of democracies" to counter Beijing. The confrontation between the U.S. and China is likely to advance to an unprecedented stage. This development requires Japan's attention.
In the immediate aftermath of its defeat in World War II, Japan used the intensification of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as an opportunity to rebuild itself. Now, 75 years later, the confrontation between the United States and China has become more serious, and Japan's diplomatic technique of balancing the U.S.-Japan alliance and the Japan-China entente is faced with a difficult situation. Japan may be forced to choose between the two major powers. What should we do?
First, Japan should call on China to reflect strongly on its attempts to seize the Senkaku Islands, which have never been occupied by China in its history, and remind Beijing that if it continues to do so, the foundation of Japan-China relations will be lost. China must refrain from sending public ships and fishing vessels to encroach on Japan's territorial waters around the Senkakus. Underlying China's actions is the reality that the country's 30 years of post-Cold War military buildup has brought China's surrounding waters and the Japanese mainland within range of its missiles and warplanes.
Second, Japan must let China know that Tokyo has no intention of matching China's military buildup, but any attempt to change the status quo by force will not come cheap. To make China realize this, it is essential to combine three measures: (1) improving Japan's ability to help itself, (2) deepening the U.S.-Japan alliance, and (3) securing international support.
Third, however, it is clear that a war between the U.S. and China is in no one's interest and will have catastrophic consequences. The only beneficial way out for Japan and humanity is the formation of a new world order that can be administered jointly by the U.S. and China. At present, the two countries are at odds with each other, and it is impossible for them to settle this issue on their own. That is why the importance of a major power in between, Japan, is growing for both sides. Shouldn't we recognize this situation as an opportunity for Japan to say what it has to say to both countries, and in doing so lead them to the welfare of Japan and humanity?
(By Makoto Iokibe, Chairman of the Asian Affairs Research Council)