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Who can lead Asia?

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Historically, China was always the most powerful country in Asia, and was clearly Asia's leader.  It practised suzerainty over many neighbouring countries, meaning these countries were tributaries and indeed paid tribute to the Chinese empereur.  In theory, all East Asian rulers derived their authority from the Empereur who was the centre of the civilised world. 

Japan always managed to escape China's suzerainty, hanging on fiercely to its independence, and benefiting from its geographical isolation.  Even today, Japan is still hours away from everywhere even by plane.  All this means that Japan has always been an outsider in Asia, much more than the UK is an outsider in Europe.

Things began to change from the 18th century.  China was by then ruled by the Manchus (Qing dynasty).  In the 19th century, China fell into disarray through mismanagement and internal strife.  Western powers occupied parts of China, mainly through treaty ports.  And then Japan started its rise, colonising parts of China and some other Asian countries, and declaring war on the US.

Following the second world war, Japan resurged again and became the world's second biggest economic power under US protection.  Japan then developed an Asian economic leadership of sorts, as it transferred large parts of its manufacturing operations into developing Asia, starting in the late 1980s.  This began the vast Asian supply chains that we witness today.  And then the tables started turning again, as the Japan fell into what has now become two lost decades, while China boomed such that it is now set to overtake Japan in terms of total GDP, though not for a long while in terms of GDP per capital.

So, the question arises as to which of China or Japan could become Asia's leader?  Could Japan's great uniqueness be a barrier?  (On another occasion, we will examine the case of China.)  Ken Pyle's recent excellent book "Japan Rising" gives some interesting insights in his Chapter 2 entitled "Japan's National Style".  While these aspects of Japan's approach to its external environment are also present in other countries, they are very much more marked in the case of Japan.  They are:

(i)  A preoccupation with power.  This vestige of it long experience with feudalism translates into an almost warrior-like exercise of power in its own society, and a manic desire to catch up and be allies with the reigning power of the time.  

(ii) Lack of transcendent and universal ideals.  There is no strong philosophical or religious orthodoxy like in China, the Islamic world or the West.  The Japanese remain puzzled by the US's espousal of universal principles like international liberalism.

(iii) A pattern of adaptation and accomodation to changes in the structure of international system.  As a small late developing country, Japan usually moves with the trend of the times, rather than seeking to make trends.  In its pre-modern history, Japan basically did not participate in international society.

(iv) A quest for national autonomy and regional hegemony.  Before the opening up 150 years ago, Japan was fully independent.  Ironically, modernisation and industralisation increased Japan's dependence on the outside world for raw materials.  And with its lack of natural resources, it is one of the world's most dependent nations, such that economic security is always a preoccupation.  But its attempts to achieve regional hegeomony to ensure resource supplies were pursued with such agression that it provoked a backlash from its neighbours which persists to this very day.  

(v) A pattern of emulation of the best practices of other countries.  Innovations only came when the Japanese had mastered the technologies of others.

(vi) An obsession with rank and honour, both for its own internal hierarchical society and for its position in the world.  Its theories of "Japaneseness" always establish hierarchies with Japan of course at the top.

In short, Japan's national style is shaped very much by its geographical isolation, its perception of an outside hostile world and its long feudal experience.  This is the basis of its political identity and also its sense of superiority over other Asians.  It entered the modern world with a sense of self-reliance, independence and its own uniqueness  And while the last 60 years have witnessed an economic miracle, society and politics have evolved much less so.  The Japanese remain insular, ethnocentric and tribal.  They still do not know how to treat as equals their dynamic neighbouring countries who were very recently poor backward countries.  

Michael Zielenziger in his book "Shutting Out the Sun" also has some reflections of great relevance.  In his analysis of contemporary society, he notes that "The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve -- through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters, and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep "outsiders" at bay -- carried a dark and destructive seed. ... Until this moment, Japan has been able to appropriate the trappings of the modern world without creating for itself a critical consciousness, a truly democratic sensibility, or a vision of how a 'unique' people might interact easily and equally with the rest of the world."

Another perspective which is relevant to the possible Japanese leadership of Asia is the fact that its economy and society are the least open of all Asian economies, except perhaps North Korea.  Although Japan's exports have been an important motor for its success, its level of imports are low, inward foreign investment is puny, official assistance low and declining, and immigration is almost non-existent.  It accepted a minimal number (less than 10,000 out of 1.3 million) of Southeast Asian refugees following the end of the 1970s conflicts in that region.  In short, Japan lives in a region of developing countruies, but does not have development friendly policies.  By contrast, for much of the Cold War period when the US was trying to support economic growth in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, it practised "asymmetric openness" by having its markets more open for these countries than vice versa.

Coming back to Pyle's book, there is an interesting quote of Henry Kissinger speaking with then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai: "If I can contrast China with Japan as a society, China by tradition has a universal outlook but Japan has had a tribal outlook".  In his book "Lost Japan" Alex Kerr posits that the regimentation and of repression of individualism in Japan began with the Kamakura Shogunate at the end of the 12th century.  "As Japan is an island country, rules could be imposed with a thoroughness impossible in a large continental nation like China." 

Pyle also reports that Lord Lytton wrote to his wife that "The Chinese are so articulate -- they talk beautiful English and French and express themselves clearly.  With the Japanese it was a surgical operation to extract each word".  Even today the Japanese remain poor communicators, with the worst level of English capability in East Asia, around the same as that of North Korea.

All things considered, it is difficult to see how Japan with all its peculiarities could vie for regional leadership, especially given the current level of political instability in Japan.  It does not seem to have a mastermind like the Meiji oligarchs or post-war Prime Minister Yoshida who can offer the necessary vision and leadership.  In this context, it is interesting to note that in Foreign Policy's listing of the world top 100 influential thinkers, none of them came from Japan whereas several came from China.   

Could China then vie for regional leadership?  Beijing's main concern these days is ensuring internal stability.  And also, given its size and its communist government, its neighbours in East Asia are hardly likely to accept it as a regional leader. 

The weakness of leadership and co-operation in Asia is evident from the fact that most initiatives are built on ASEAN, the puny and innocent player in Asia.  In sum, it seems clear that only one country can lead Asia into the future, and that is the country that has led it in the past, namely the United States of America.

If you are shocked by my negative assessment of Japan's capacity to lead Asia, have a look at Foreign Policy's April 2008 article on "The Top 100 Public Intellectuals".  14 of the 100 come from Asia: Aitzaz Ahsan, Pakistan, Lawyer and politician; Anies Baswedan, Indonesia, University president, political analyst; Fan Gang, China, Economist; Ramachandra Guha, India, Historian; Hu Shuli, China, Journalist; Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore, Politician, national patriarch; Minxin Pei, China, political scientist; Ashis Nandy, India, Political psychologist; Sunita Narain, India, Environmentalist; V.S. Ramachandran, India, Neuroscientist; Amartya Sen, India, Development economist; Wang Hui, China, Political theorist; Yan Xuetong, China, Political scientist; Muhammad, Bangladesh, Microfinancier, activist.

Did you notice that most intellectuals come from China and India, but not one comes from Japan!  A country with no thinkers cannot lead. 


"Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose", by Kenneth B. Pyle, 2007.  A Century Foundation Book. 

"Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation", by Michael Zielenziger, 2007.  Vintage Books.

"Lost Japan", by Alex Kerr, 2009.  Lonely Planet. 

"The Top 100 Public Intellectuals", Foreign Policy, April 2008.