Japan on right path to become 'normal country'

Richard Haass - president of the Council on Foreign Relations that publishes "Foreign Affairs," a leading magazine on foreign policy - offered his insights into Japan's future international role.

The following are excerpts of an interview with Haass, who recently visited Japan for an international forum in Tokyo.

Abe's security policy

Q. I've heard you've been to Japan 15 to 20 times. Do you feel some change of political atmosphere, especially under the Abe administration?

A. I feel a sense of Japan being more confident, slightly more forceful, both domestically in terms of the economy, but also in terms of the region. Just a somewhat more assertive Japan. It is Japan with a stronger personality.

Q. Do you think it is a positive change?

A. In principle, yes. When I was in government, I have long encouraged Japan to become a more normal country. I thought it was time for Japan to become a post, post-World War II country.

Q. How do you evaluate the Abe administration's security policy?

A. In principle, I applaud the idea of Japan playing a larger role. Now, the question of what it does legally and politically to enable that is for the Japanese to decide.

But, to me, the most significant thing is that Japan is willing and able to play a larger role in the region and the world. Japan has the world's third-largest economy. It has one of the top five or so militaries in the world.

Japan has, however, been unwilling to do so - not unable, but unwilling - given its politics. And on one hand, I totally am respectful of it because of the post-World War II legacy and inheritance.

On the other hand, there needs to be a gradual process of Japanese entry and involvement in addressing the world's problems. The problems are many and large.

And we don't have the luxury of doing without Japan's participation. We - the United States - need partners, and we need capable partners.

What makes the US-Japanese relationship so important and so special to me is that we are both democracies, and there is a willingness on both sides to back up commitments.

Our commitments to each other are more than rhetorical, but they are real. One of the things I applaud about Mr. Abe is a willingness to see Japan play a larger role in the region and the world.

Q. Are things moving in the right direction for Japan?

A. Yes, absolutely. What is holding it back is that there's still a lot of domestic resistance to the idea of Japan playing a larger role. But what I think is good about what Prime Minister Abe has done is to place this issue firmly on the agenda.

It will take time and there will be steps back as well as steps forward. It'll be controversial. But, however long Prime Minister Abe is prime minister, when he leaves, his successor will inherit a different situation.

And things that people couldn't say five or 10 years ago, now they can say openly. That's interesting to me as an observer. That's a welcome development. It's healthy.

What Japan has to work on, particularly regionally, is, given the historical issues, it has got to be sensitive to how a more assertive Japan will be received.

That means with China and the Republic of Korea in particular. So that's a challenge for Japan: to make people comfortable with its taking on a slightly more active role.

It's not in Japan's interest that the countries in the region resent or resist these changes. It's simply a reality that Japan needs to think about not just what it does but how it does it.

Challenges over history

Q. What do you think is the right approach on this historical issue?

A. Questions of the past and historical narratives are very complicated. I was the chairman of the peace talks in Northern Ireland. And it was interesting how much of my time I spent dealing with the past, between the different communities and their different narratives. The past intrudes on the present.

It's unlikely that if Japan just does this itself it will satisfy anybody. My hunch is you have to have a lot of conversations with others.

And then, Japanese have to have very honest conversations among themselves. And this will be the sort of thing that will influence your textbooks and influence what you put in your museums.

It will be very painful. It will be difficult. It will be awkward. But it's probably necessary, because these problems simply don't go away because of the passage of time.

If anything, they get worse - because the worst forms of the narrative get widely accepted. I actually think time, in some ways, can be a problem. And that's why I always feel that it's necessary to confront these narratives and to discuss them.

Relationship with China

Q. What do you think about Abe's meeting with Xi Jinping?

A. It's a good opportunity, but it's simply one event. You can't be too ambitious for one meeting. What you can hope is this meeting launches a process of sustained conversations between Japanese and Chinese officials. I'm struck by how limited the Japanese-Chinese relationship is.

One day, if the consultations go well, then the consultations can become negotiations. That's the goal; where you set up new commitments or arrangements, and maybe you can deal with territorial issues and the rest.

What I'm struck [with] about this part of the world is how far behind it has lagged Europe.

The Japanese relationship with China, the Japanese relationship with the Republic of Korea, are very underdeveloped. Your regional institutions are pretty limited.

They're mainly economic and you don't have a serious regional security mechanism.

Q. So what is your idea? You emphasise the importance of institutions or structures.

A. What is important would be confidence-building measures; both communication agreements as well as behavioural agreements - not to have your ships and planes coming into close proximity.

Ultimately, I can imagine territorial conversations with Russia about the northern islands and with China, whether it's about the Senkakus or other issues.

I could see building a new Asian security institution; some Asian version of what exists in Europe - the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

You would build an Asian version that made sense for the geography and politics of Asia. All these things should be on the agenda.

US rebalancing to Asia

Q. Do you think the United States can play a role in this process?

A. Absolutely. There's the Pacific Ocean, which separates the US from the countries of the region, but we are an integral part of the security and stability in this part of the world.

We have special relationships and obligations to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia. We had better be a part of it. I'm not sure Asia succeeds without the United States.

I actually think the United States needs to be a part of this process. We need to be part of this dialogue. Without the United States, you'd have much more rearming.

You could have proliferation. You could have more conflict. I don't want to test this theory. And I would hope that we would be welcome not just by our allies but by others.

I would think that even China would understand that the United States has an important role to play.

Q. We don't see lots of US commitment in Asia.

A. I believe that our actions have not kept pace with our language. So we need to do more. We do need to increase our military presence; particularly air and naval forces.

The most important thing, though, is we need to increase the frequency and the depth of our consultations with various countries. And then, it's essential that we pass TPP [Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership].

We need a diplomatic dimension, a military dimension and an economic dimension. It's like a stool, with three legs. For stability, we need all three legs.

Q. What is the US general public's reaction to the rebalance policy?

A. This is not a big public debate. Americans don't get up in the morning, eat their cereal and drink their coffee, and debate the rebalance. Sorry.

What Americans, like Japanese, care about are basic economic issues; what we would call pocketbook issues. People also care about physical safety.

The debate about rebalancing is much more a debate among the foreign policy professionals.

But the general idea that Asia is going to be critical to the coming decades, and that the United States needs to do more, is a fairly popular concept.

Interviewee's profile

Haass was special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. From 2001 to 2003, he was director of policy planning for the Department of State.

Haass was born in New York in 1951.