“Japan’s Maritime Disputes”: Review of the Chatham House Event

Event details

“Japan’s Maritime Disputes”
Chatham House
2014.06.12
Talk by Professor Tom Berger, International Relations at the University of Boston
Open to the public, on the record (Chatham House rule not in effect)

Overview

Prof. Berger opened by stating the US-Japanese relations are having a “schizophrenic moment”—that the American pivot is sincere and it’s a productive time for trade and security, but there is a harsh ideological clash, and Abe and Obama “are not natural soul mates”. He goes on to say that a combination of geostrategical changes and geocultural changes are lend themselves to this, the ideal environment to develop the US-Japanese alliance wherein the tension commands attention but remains a manageable problem (for now).

The geostrategic situation has shifted from hegemonic American air/maritime power and Japanese isolation but potential for great power status to a new regional balance where China is rising as America declines, and where Japan no longer fears an American-led war by entrapment but where America fears being pulled into territorial squabbles.

The principle geocultural change is a “rising tide of nationalism”, though Prof. Berger was keen to point out that the “hydraulic model” employed by journalists is reductive. Abe is not an old-style (imperial) militarist, and Japan’s not too nationalistic; rather it’s not nationalistic enough. Nationalism and unity allowed Japan to rise until World War II, and its 20th century defeat was institutionalized, militarily and morally, and reinforced by the Japanese left. Since the 1950s Japan has sought to rediscover its unity: constitutional changes were made imbuing the education system with nationalism, and military policy was altered to allow Japan to become more independent (and by extension less dependent on the US). Abe’s support then comes from: perceived Chinese aggression on the Senkakus and the resulting sense of threat; and “Abenomics” (economic reform). That is, the conservatives supporting Abe are not ideological nationalists but pragmatists.

This geocultural shift toward nationalism is also present in South Korea and China, as these countries come into their increased strength. Both states have anti-Japanese sentiments and South Korea in particular can’t politically continue to ignore Japan’s imperial war crimes, but likewise both China and the ROK have set aside political concerns in favor of pragmatism, especially in trading.

During the Q&A Prof. Berger was asked about the nuclear issue, Japanese domestic politics, and the motivations behind the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. He finished by remarking that nationalism in Japan is taboo and therefore seductive, and it’s more likely to fuel anti-Korean sentiment via kimchi boycotts than militarization.

Prof. Tom Berger speaking at Chatham House, June 12, 2014 | Image: Morgan Potts
Prof. Tom Berger speaking at Chatham House, June 12, 2014 | Image: Morgan Potts

Review

Pardoning Prof. Berger’s casual ableism (“schizophrenic moment”), the talk was compelling. Berger acknowledged the plurality of Japanese perspectives and implicitly noted that it is from plurality and competing voices that states arrive at their “national interest” which directs policy.

However it also seemed fundamentally contradictory: is Japan experiencing a “rising tide of nationalism” under Abe, reflected in the Senkaku dispute and desire to lessen security dependence on America? Or rather is Japan not nationalistic, putting aside ideology and nationalism for pragmatism?

I would suggest that Japan is in fact nationalistic in its foreign policy, especially regarding the island dispute: if Japan (and China, it takes two after all) were pragmatic instead of nationalistic, the two states would table the issue of sovereignty and agree to jointly develop the resources within the EEZ of the Senkaku/Diaoyus, much as China and Vietnam have come to a fishing agreement in the Tonkin Gulf. Instead, the two nations exploit the dispute over otherwise meaningless barren rocks for their nationalistic effect on domestic populations—if this continues, Abe might rediscover Japanese unity after all.

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