Tang Ben Forum
ABOUT TO STUMBLE AGAIN?
China is like the relatively new baby on the block that the neighbors fawn
over, mostly ignoring any negatives, acting as if itís the perfect child,
as the other children are unceremoniously pushed into the background.
Overlooked, they occasionally fling their rattles out of the playpen to
get at least a measure of the attention that they had grown used to
This is the growing
morose and neglected feeling in Japan today. So we had better watch out
for that rattle.
You donít even have to be
rooted in Japan to understand the Japanese malaise. Even here in Southern
California you can feel it. At the recent annual fundraising dinner of the
Asia Society Southern California at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, a Japanese
diplomat --- whom everyone greatly respects -- quietly muttered to me
about how the Asia Society has practically been kidnapped by the Chinese.
ďItís all about China these days." he complained. ďItís like Japan doesnít
even exist any more."
In reality, Japan not
only exists but itís now economically resurgent. The years of
domestic torpor are long gone; the country is on the move again. Its
markets are popping and domestic reforms are actually happening.
People tend to forget
that even with all of Chinaís phenomenal growth, Japan still has the
worldís second largest economy. China is coming on strong, to be sure, but
itís not exactly there yet.
And Japan is not going to
take the passing lying down, especially if its
political system can some put up another domestic genius like Junichiro
Koizumi--- but that might take a miracle. The current prime minister, due
to step down in September, is not your typical Japanese politician.
Instead of consensus, he prefers confrontation; instead of the oh-so slow
Japanese style, heís all for the go-go. It is remarkable how this
unorthodox and extremely strong-willed political character has grabbed the
frozen tundra of Japanese domestic politics and stuck a blow-torch
under its belly. His place in Asiaís history is secure.
But before long he will
be gone, by his own graceful and oft-repeated vow
not to extend his presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party and his
PM-ship beyond two terms.
He leaves behind not just
a landlubberís shoes to fill but boat-size pontoons.
Whoís next in line? Alas,
the most charismatic of the available successors is also the least
desirable from a number of perspectives. He is Shinzo Abe, the cabinet
secretary. He is sharp and strong-willed, similar to Koizumi, though
softer spoken. But just like Koizumi he is a hawk on the
war-shrine-visitation psychodrama. Every time the stubborn PM showed up at
the shrine, he handed Chinaís own hawks a resounding sledgehammer of an
issue with which to pummel Japanís image and remind all of Asia anew of
how cruel the Japanese army was over 60 years ago.
Thus, a slow-moving
consensus is growing in Tokyo (and in Washington, as
a matter of fact) that the better move would be to sidetrack the Shinzo
Abe bandwagon for a few years and turn to a transition-figure PM so that
Asia can get beyond the shrine-visitation issue and Japan-China relations
can be smoothed over. And so even though Abe recently showered the
question of whether shrine visitations would proceed apace were he
Koizumiís successor with a cloudburst of deliberate ambiguity, public
sentiment seems to be moving toward the need for an older, quieter, more
diplomatic transition figure.
That right now looks to
be veteran lawmaker Yasuo Fukuda. This 69-year-old gentleman is an
advocate of improved ties with China and South Korea, both of which have
been at Koizumiís throat; current polling suggests the Japanese regard him
as a capable diplomat.
A Fukuda Prime
Ministership could put Japan in a serious dilemma, however. Koizumi has
managed to give his countryís domestic reform effort substantial forward
momentum. Anyone substantially less flamboyant and steely-eyed than he in
this tough political area could wind up presiding over a Japan that would
be slowing down to a crawl again.
Everyone will blame
Koizumiís successor for this. But in fact the fault will lie with Super-K
himself. By digging in his heels on shrine visits, he created unfavorable
conditions for a successor more or less in his mold to come to power.
This is a pity. All the
cheerleading for the so-far peaceful and somewhat breathtaking rise of
China notwithstanding, there is only one number-two economy in the world,
and itís Japan. What happens in the geographically tiny country of 127.4
million over-achievers is not just important, it is vitally significant --
especially if Japan were to slow down again.
All eyes may be on China
these days, but youíd better keep a watch out
for Japan. One feels the coming of some kind of whistling rattle.
UCLA Prof. Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International
Policy, is a veteran American journalist, Tom plate, 2006. Distributed by
the UCLA Media Center.