Japan: From semi-sovereignty to splendid isolation?

The end of the post post-World War II order

To Tokyo, old certainties that underpinned the post-World War II order were suddenly melting, and rapidly. The base of this power structure was what the historian James MacDonald described as the great "unspoken bargain." That is, "the United States would exercise a near monopoly of force. However, it would use its force not to gain exclusive economic advantages, but as an impartial protector of Western interests." Japan was part of the Western bloc that benefited from US military protection and US-supported global free trade. However, as a defeated power in World War II, it settled into the role of semi-sovereign state, whose basic strategic and foreign policy choices were made in Washington.

With the future of the ancient regime suddenly in question, Abe has felt compelled to take on the role of being the pro-active partner in the US-Japan alliance. Commentators in Japan think that he accomplished his main mission in Manila, which was to get President Duterte to officially state that his country's alliance with the US was important. That concession is not, however, going to get in the way of Duterte forging closer ties with Beijing and Moscow, which sent a destroyer on a goodwill visit to Manila a week before Abe's arrival.

Equally important is the economic part of Abe's mission, which is to ascertain whether there remains interest in resuscitating the TPP even if the US withdraws from it, which Trump has announced as one of his priorities upon assuming office. Two of the countries he is visiting, Australia and Vietnam, are members of the TPP, while Indonesian President Jokowi had expressed interest in joining the body before Trump's electoral triumph.

Abe’s trip is taking place under the shadow of China, whose maritime claims in the Western Pacific worry Tokyo and whose economic clout now outweighs that of Japan, which has not really recovered from 25 years of stagnation. On both military and economic fronts, it will not be easy to convince Southeast Asia to support his strategy of containing China if the US is not seen as solidly behind it.

From semi-sovereignty to splendid isolation?

It's all so bewilderingly new for Tokyo. A center-right figure, Abe has always stated that his mission was to make Japan a full-fledged sovereign state, free of the vestiges of wartime defeat, like Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which banned war as an instrument of Japanese foreign policy. Moving away from the US alliance was not, however, one of his priorities; rather, his strategy to use the alliance with the US to rearm Japan and enable its military to play a greater regional role in containing China, which is the key aim of Japan's Grand Strategy.

Now, suddenly, owing to the unpredictable nature of democratic politics in its key allies, Abe and the Japanese elite are being forced to confront fundamental issues that had long been decided by Washington: Tokyo's relationships with China, Korea, Russia, and Southeast Asia.  

For Japan's elite, it was humiliating to be a semi-sovereign state. But it had its benefits. Among them was Japan's being able to become an economic superpower in the 4 decades since the end of the war, partly because it invested very little in defense. And it was comfortable. When things went right, like the US-China rapprochement in the 1970's, Japan could share in the benefits. When things went wrong, like the war in Vietnam, Washington was there to blame, even as Japanese businesses made money from the war.

The Japanese are beginning to realize that being fully sovereign means dealing with headaches that someone else had to take prime responsibility for over 70 years. And the biggest challenge of all, they are beginning to realize, is, with the US under Trump slouching towards isolationism, what will happen to Washington's principal ally in Asia? Will it be reduced to an isolated offshore state in the post post-World War II Asian order? – Rappler.com

A former member of the Philippine Congress, Walden Bello is currently a visiting senior researcher at the Center of Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University.