'Abe will balance nationalism, pragmatism'

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push for the nationalist policy agenda would be curbed by the pressing need to boost the sluggish economy and the US' desire to maintain a stable regional security landscape, a political scientist said.

Sohn Yul, the dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University, noted Abe may strive to "strike a balance between nationalist ideology and pragmatism" given that he secured the electoral coup last December based on the public calls for economic revitalization.

Painting a negative outlook for Japan's economy that has slipped deeper into recession, Sohn also noted the public support for Abe could weaken rapidly ― a reason why he should concentrate his policy attention on shoring up the economy.

Touching on South Korea's concerns stemming from its onetime colonizer's pursuit of a greater security role, the scholar said that as long as the US maintains its military preponderance and China's power continues to rise, Japan could not take seriously destabilizing actions.

The following is the interview with Sohn.

The Korea Herald: Japan has been pushing to strengthen its military and a constitutional revision to become a "normal" state. What do you think of Japan's prospects for a greater security role?

Sohn Yul: What we need to consider first is the shift in economic power in Northeast Asia, given that a change in economic power could lead to one in military strength. In 2010, China's economy ― in terms of the gross domestic product ― has surpassed that of Japan. Only five years have passed since then, but Japan's GDP is now half that of China. Many analysts also forecast that China will overtake the US in GDP terms around 2020.

But there is a "military-power lag," considering that Japan's naval power is still greater than China's. Although China's defence spending is double that of Japan and its economy is far bigger than Japan's, Japan is still ahead of China in terms of its maritime defence capabilities, enabling it to cope with naval threats from China over the dispute surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. In this vein, the US military preponderance is expected to continue for some time even after China's economy surpasses that of the US

Analysts estimate that the US' military and technological preeminence would continue over at least the next 15 to 20 years. This tells us that a critical shift in the balance of power between the US and China in Northeast Asia may not occur in that span of time. Then, on the premise that there would not be any critical power shift, Japan may want to continue to capitalise on the US' preponderant military position and its alliance with the US to ensure its security.

The odds appear to be very slim that Japan's economy would rapidly rebound, and in particular, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic stimulus drive, called "Abenomics," seems to have almost failed or lost traction, which presages a wider economic gap between China and Japan ― a situation that would force Japan to continue to rely on its security alliance with the US So, back to your question of Japan's military buildup, we can envision a Japan pushing for heavier armament within the confines of the US-Japan alliance, and there will be a strategic perimeter beyond which the US does not want Japan to move, and Japan could hardly exercise its military power beyond that perimeter.

KH: Can you elaborate on the scenarios in which Japan might go beyond that strategic perimeter?

Sohn: The situations may involve Japan offensively responding to any disputes with China, intervening unilaterally in affairs on the Korean Peninsula, and even seeking military hegemony in Asia and nuclear armament, and so forth. The US wants Japan to be stronger, but it wants its ally to remain a second Japan ― which is under the US nuclear umbrella and does not undermine its strategic interests. From the US strategic standpoint, Japan should not pursue an inordinate military power to break the peaceful mood between the US and China, and it should not exercise its military power in a way that would hurt the security balance on the Korean Peninsula.

But what we should carefully watch is the Sino-Japan relationship. China has started to perceive Japan as an adversary and vice versa. Japan, thus, wants to strengthen the alliance with the US, and be more active in defending itself. And in this process, there could be a military conflict or competition between China and Japan, although the Sino-US relationship would continue to remain stable.

Against this backdrop, a variable of the Abe government's identity comes into play. The government has shown revisionist views on history on the one hand, and on the other hand, it has pursued status as a normal state. Under the US-Japan alliance, there are limits to what Japan can do ― and of course, as well as much room for Japan to manoeuvre within the alliance ― and I believe it would be very difficult for Japan to become a militarily dangerous state. But given Tokyo's identity, the intensity of the tension between China and Japan could increase.

KH: Prime Minister Abe scored another big victory in the Dec. 14 lower-house elections, which showed that Japan's opposition and civil society failed to keep Abe's Liberal Democratic Party in check. Concerns here are the victory could provide momentum for Abe's nationalist security agenda, which may further worsen Seoul-Tokyo relations. What do you think about this?

Sohn: As I said, the experts' projections are that the US military preeminence will continue for at least the next 15 to 20 years. Thus, Japan will remain under the US military leadership. Then, the question is whether Tokyo would continue to step up its ultranationalistic drive. For those who have closely watched Japan's domestic situation, that scenario seems unlikely. If we analyse the election outcome, we can better understand its underlying implications.

The voter turnout was tallied at 52 per cent in the December election, the lowest rate in the post-war period. Does that signify the widespread voter apathy? Should a vast majority be apathetic about politics with a small class leading the entire nation, this would be a case of fascism. Thus, it may not be the case.

According to a post-election survey by Japan's Asahi Shimbun, it was the public distrust toward political circles that caused the lowest voter participation. Over 60 per cent of the respondents who did not vote said that they did not believe any political parties would adequately represent their interests. As these people harbour deep discontent towards politics, they could move to reject the Liberal Democratic Party, should the ruling party perform poorly or should a capable alternative opposition party emerge. This means public backing for the LDP is quite weak. Secondly, we can examine the 72 per cent of the respondents that said they supported the ruling party because the opposition parties were not attractive (not because the LDP was attractive).

Thirdly, in the election, the number of lower-house seats for the Next Generation Party ― an ultranationalist party that has splintered off from the right-wing Japan Restoration Party ― had been reduced to only two from 19. This indicates voters do not want to see ideological contentions. Fourthly, we also need to check the increase in the number of seats for the Japan Communist Party to 21 from 8. Of course, Abe's election strategies helped clinch the victory, but the underlying circumstances show that things are not necessarily propitious for Abe. After all, voters showed through the election that although the performances of both the ruling and opposition parties were far from satisfactory, they would like to give their confidence to Abenomics. Thus, voter support could disappear rapidly should Japan's economy fail to perform well.

I may sound too pessimistic. But Japan's economy has contracted for two consecutive quarters, and should it continue negative growth, things will turn very unfavorable for Abe. Without economic improvement, Abe would face a very challenging political landscape for him to push for his ideological security agenda. that said, I think Abe may strive to strike a balance between ideology and pragmatism. Therefore, I would not be too pessimistic about the prospects of the relationship between South Korea and Japan.

KH: Do you think US President Barack Obama feels that Abe's nationalist stance is excessive, although Obama may feel thankful ― to a certain degree ― for Abe being more active in sharing the US' Asian security burden?

Sohn: What worries the US would be Japan's historical revisionism, given that it could also mean the denial of history concerning the Pacific War (including Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor). Basically, the chemistry between Obama and Abe doesn't seem to be good: Obama used to be a grassroots figure leading civil activism and carries progressive characteristics, while Abe was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and rose up the political ladder on the back of his illustrious political pedigree.

In terms of strategic interests, Obama may feel thankful to Abe for sharing its security burden and playing an active role in keeping China in check. But on the other hand, Obama may feel (uncomfortable) as Abe continues to cause friction with Seoul over history issues, and also trigger unnecessary tension with China when the US wants to maintain a stable relationship with China. After all, Abe has pushed Korea toward China, which has caused the US to step in and urge Japan to keep its apologies for its wartime wrongdoings.

KH: South Korea appears to be facing an increasingly tricky diplomatic position as the strategic competition between the US and China emerges. What is the way forward for Korea?

Sohn: So now, we are talking about South Korea's strategic position amid the Sino-US rivalry. Basically, the US and China are working to forge a new type of the great-power relationship in which they respect each other's interests and favour a stable relationship. Thus, they are not caught in a fight or anything. But what about their relationship in this region? They are pursuing a stable, peaceful development of their relations, but things may be different in this region where there is a strategic competition over the Korean Peninsula and over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

During the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in November, Chinese leader Xi Jinping put forward neighborhood diplomacy principles of "qin cheng hui rong" ― meaning the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in conducting its "periphery diplomacy." In another session in December, he talked of the "big-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics," and he put China's relations with its neighbours first in his speech, then the diplomacy for the new major-power relationship and then for developing countries. Xi also talked of a "community of shared interests and common destiny with neighbouring countries." This indicates China is stepping up its periphery diplomacy, and South Korea appears to take a very crucial position (in Beijing's diplomacy).

While calibrating its approach toward its neighbours, China may consider which neighbour it should give more strategic weight to. And I guess South Korea's strategic value is high (for China) as it is connected to the US and Japan. Thus, China may seek to get South Korea on its side considering that Korea is in a special position while China seeks to shape a new regional order or architecture. But what's worrisome is that this also indicates that South Korea could fall into a very embarrassing diplomatic position. If so, how should Korea deal with this?

Like I said on the premise that there will not be a critical shift in the balance of power over the next 20 years, the current major-power relationship will go on, and that said, South Korea doesn't need to take sides. There are some who say Korea should take a side, but this would only reduce the strategic space and diplomatic options for Korea.

What matters is how we can contribute to the reshaping of an East Asian order. Does South Korea have any alternative about that, when China wants to construct a Sino-centric order with the US striving to maintain the existing order? Korea should find that alternative. What is fortunate though is that the major powers are not yet caught in any military struggle or confrontation. The key is thus to create an order in which small and middle-power states are not forced to take any side, and all countries can peacefully coexist.

To create that order, we need to come up with an idea ― not an idea to make a Korea-centric regional architecture, but an idea to forge a harmonious regional order. There has been talk of competition between the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and between the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Asia Development Bank led by the West and Japan. But we need to think about a way to forge an architecture in which those competing entities can coexist rather than compelling states to choose between the major powers.

KH: The Park Geun-hye government has been pushing for its Northeast Peace and Cooperation Initiative, under which it wants to build regional trust by cooperating first on non-political, soft issues such as disaster relief and nuclear safety, and then gradually moving on to tougher security and political issues. Do you think this "functionalist" approach will be viable for this region?

Sohn: Not really in the short-term. This should be a long-term vision, and we never know how much time it would take to build the kind of regional trust the initiative seeks to foster. Like you said, this is aimed at nurturing a culture of multilateral dialogue and cooperation through cooperating first on soft issues and then on "high-politics" issues. This, after all, boils down to whether the "spillover effect" can occur from the soft issues to the hard issues. The concept of this spillover effect is part of the European integration theory and this occurred in the European context.

For the spillover effect, European integration theorists put forward three crucial conditions: First, the soft issues should be so vital that the security and political issues not impede cooperation over those soft issues. Seoul talks of soft issues including disaster relief and climate change, but these are not life-or-death topics that would leave regional states with no other option but to cooperate on security issues. Secondly, there should be deep interdependence or interconnection among those soft issues to create the spillover effect. But this interdependence seems to be weak when it comes to the soft issues Seoul has raised. And the last condition is about the social background or environment. To foster the spillover, the regional environment should be pluralistic, civil society should be strong, and there should be transnational networks of interest groups and experts. But countries in East Asia are very state-centric, nationalistic and somewhat exclusive in their nature.

Sohn Yul

  • Sohn, the dean of Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies, is a political scientist specialising in Japanese politics and foreign policy, international political economy and East Asian regionalism.
  • He previously taught at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Social Science, Yokohama National University and Chung-Ang University.
  • His publications include "Japanese Industrial Governance: Protectionism and the Licensing State," "The Political Economy of Korea-Japan FTA," "Translating Economy: Economy Concept in Modern Korea, and "Japan: Political Economy of Growth and Stagnation."
  • He is a member of the Presidential Commission on Northeast Asian Cooperation Initiatives, and the chair of the Center for Japan Studies at the East Asia Institute. He also served as the chair of the Korean Association of Contemporary Japanese Studies in 2012.
  • He earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Seoul National University in 1985, and master's and doctor's degrees in political science from the University of Chicago in 1995.