I spoke on Al Jazeera and to the Congressional Quarterly yesterday about the Bush-Abe meetings this week. On the comfort women issue, my basic take is this: Japan should seize the moment to take the moral high ground, not get caught up in cynical short-term political calculations. Shared values is the glue that holds the US and Japan together, and it is what gives the US and Japan legitimacy to lead. Based on the news yesterday, I get the sense that Abe is coming to the same conclusion, despite Japanese diplomats' protestations.
In my view, seizing the moment for Japan would mean: 1. taking responsibility for the recruitment of comfort women and 2. embracing human rights. This is to say Japan should reframe the issue as protecting human rights and responsibility--not about pride and sovereignty. I get the feeling from Japanese press, polls, and friends that this approach would resonate with the public. Japan is thirsty for a moral, visionary leader. Here are some of my comments from the al Jazeera interview:
Q: Perhaps the biggest issue that PM Abe and Pres. Bush will discuss is North Korea. Both countries are partners in an effort to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons- what is Japan’s role? Abe owes much of his popularity to his tough stance on North Korea, but the Japanese view America as being ‘soft’ on NK- especially with the missed deadline to shut down Yongbyon. What kind of strain does this put on their relationship?
I would put the question differently: What is North Korea's role in US-Japan relations? Although the US-Japan alliance is firmly in place for the long run, based on shared values and what I would call contiguous interests, North Korea is somewhat of a thorn in their side. The simple fact is that Bush and Abe are weak leaders who need a foreign policy success and are willing to do a lot to get it. The problem is that the US just wants a deal with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear facilities, while Japan wants a more hard line resolution on the abduction issue. Both of these demands are coming from domestic constituencies in Japan and the US---and that's what happens when foreign policy is made in the context of democracy.
The US is waiting for North Korea to start dismantling its nuclear facilities. And the US is optimistic that North Korea will cooperate and allow inspectors in. What about the US record with comfort women, ask some in the Japanese press? The US is not without guilt. No one has a spotless history. Whether it's fair or not, it is Japan that is under international scrutiny now, not the US.
Q: Is China’s rising economic power a growing concern for Japan?
China just became Japan's biggest trading partner, surpassing the US. And Toyota has just surpassed GM as the largest car maker in terms of sales last quarter. We are starting to see what many people have predicted as the Asian Century. Power is shifting to Asia. Is Japan afraid of China? Absolutely. There is enormous change happening in East Asia in economics, politics, and security, and that is frightening. But China's leaders need a stable economy as much--maybe even more so--as Japan's leaders. While China's political stability is based on economic growth, Japan's is based on democratic legitimacy. Japan's view of China is ambivalent overall: It sees China as a great opportunity with high risk and it sees it as an economic challenge--in terms of intellectual property rights, the environment, energy consumption, and eventually in the manufacturing sector. But this wont really happen until China gets some recognizable brand names. And I give that another 10 to 15 years.
Q: President Bush and PM Abe both are dealing with low popularity, does this make their alliance even more crucial?
Bush and Abe are dealing with low popularity so they will probably want to avoid anything risky during their public appearances during this trip. They need to show that they have friends in the world. The US is Japan's most reliable friend and vice versa. My prediction is that these leaders will re-affirm their commitment to the spread of democracy (the glue in the relationship) and will try to find common ground on areas that everyone agrees on, including cooperating on environmental technologies such as clean coal plants, cooperation in energy conservation (something Japan knows a lot about), and possibly the idea of deeper economic partnership. Japan launched FTA negotiations with Australia recently and US signed an FTA with Korea. Many see these talks as preludes to a deeper US-Japan economic partnership based on shared values.