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Aim for lasting ties, Japan

Updated On: Jul 07, 2006

Otherwise, your new security role can lead to fresh insecurities

THE grey clouds in Tokyo now mirror the concerns for Japan and its role in the region. Japan has increased security around the nation and remains on alert as North Korea says it plans to continue testing missiles, after firing off on Wednesday seven missiles, including one Taepodong 2 long-range missile, into the Sea of Japan.

The latest tests happened as echoes of an earlier test are still being heard.

That missile was lobbed over Japan and did no physical harm. But it triggered new thinking about making Japan secure. In the years since then, Japan has moved even closer towards the United States as an ally and has re-looked at its self-defence forces.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has undertaken a farewell visit to the US. In partnership with the USJapan is looking to play a global role in security and peace.

It has sought a place on the United Nations Security Council. There is talk about Japan becoming a "more normal" country and loosening the restraints that date from World War II. The Japanese self-defence forces, already commanding a formidable budget and with experience in overseas deployment, looks set to be renamed as a defence force.

The world faces great insecurities and an increased commitment from Japan could help. In recent decades, the country played a commendable role in promoting peace, like the UN mission in Cambodia.

Yet ambivalence and controversy remains about accepting a new security role for Japan.

Much of this is sparked by the regular visits by Mr Koizumi to the Yasukuni war shrine. These have elicited howls of protest from China and South Korea and, to a lesser extent, reminded South-east Asians of the harsh war-time occupation by Japan.

Mr Koizumi's successor, whoever he will be, may cease such visits or agree to a temporary moratorium. Yet historical questions run deeper and wider and are unlikely to be resolved in the near- to medium-term.

It is not just the past. There are signs of Japan-China tension over the future leadership of the region. Some suggest that the renewed US-Japan alliance is not only aimed at dealing with North Korea or global issues in general. They see it as aiming to contain China's rise and increasing influence.

If tensions rise in the China-Japan-US triangle, the region will feel the impacts.

What can be done?

China and Japan are likely to seek to calm their relations somewhat. Protests in China after Mr Koizumi's last visit to the war shrine turned so violent that many foreign investors grew wary. China sees the need to reassure investors, including the Japanese firms on the mainland.

As for Japan, growing its role in the region requires not just an ability to contribute, but also the confidence of other states to accept its contribution. Japan must explain plans for its US ties and its defence forces to Asian neighbours and listen carefully to their feedback.

Too often, Japan has been considered to be different from the rest of Asia, not just in terms of its economic advancement but also in its outlook. Japan must re-balance its priorities between looking to the US and being fully a part of East Asia.

It must seek a major role in the new structures that are emerging in East Asia and re-emphasise its ties with Asean, which has played a role as the hub for many of these arrangements. In many cases, the means for this will depend more on economic cooperation, than security actions.

One key area will be in the economic partnership pacts Japan is negotiating with Asean states. It is important that these are wrapped up speedily. And, as the Japanese economy again shows dynamism, we should hope for new waves of investment in Asean, especially in Indonesia and its special economic zones like Batam-Bintan.

Another key area is the need to continue and indeed re-emphasise Japanese development assistance. This can be critical for developing countries like Cambodia and can be the foundation for good ties.

Such efforts will not shield Japan against a possible North Korean missile. But efforts by Japan can build longer-term ties that will cement its relations with its neighbours and emphasise the interdependence of peace and prosperity in Asia. If not, the very steps it takes to try to make Japan safe could inadvertently lead to new insecurities.