My Op-Ed Today in the Mercury News

Bay Area friends will find an op-ed column I wrote in the San Jose Mercury News today (Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006). Here is the text as it appeared, reprinted by permission:

“U.S. should press Japan to mend fences with China”

By Graham Webster

When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Graceland with President George W. Bush this summer, Japanese-U.S. friendship took center stage. Koizumi, an avid Elvis fan whose suave hairstyle contributed to his maverick image at home, enjoyed a close relationship with Bush. But Koizumi’s tepid relations with China and other Asian nations pose a challenge to both Tokyo and Washington. His departure this week is an opportunity for a much-needed change.

Under Koizumi, Japan supported the invasion of Afghanistan and sent troops to Iraq, despite constitutional limits on military deployment. Koizumi’s team worked with the Bush administration on security in Taiwan and North Korea, and Japanese-U.S. economic ties are healthy.

But just as Koizumi strengthened cooperation with the United States, he slowed diplomatic relations with China to a virtual crawl through his uncompromising behavior on historical issues. Koizumi’s handling of the so-called “history problem” has been so ham-handed that Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council last year resulted in dozens of anti-Japan demonstrations in China, including the largest single demonstration in Beijing since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

The Chinese government was already fed up with Koizumi. Fulfilling a campaign promise to a right-wing interest group, Koizumi made five yearly visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead since the 1860s, including 14 people convicted as Class A war criminals after World War II. The Chinese and South Korean governments have loudly chastised him for the visits, which they say are a nod to Japan’s imperialist past.

The Bush administration, preoccupied with anti-terrorism efforts and a troubled Iraq strategy, has stayed out of this dispute. Some say Bush’s failure to scold Koizumi on historical issues, while humoring his Elvis impersonation, was read as a snub in East Asia. But soon, everything might be “all shook up” in Japan. Shinzo Abe, who most agree will become prime minister this week, has defended Koizumi’s shrine visits, but he has made no promises to visit regularly. Indeed, seeing the opportunity to improve ties with China, he has already hinted that he might forgo a visit this fall to pave the way for a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November.

Now it’s time for the United States to fully engage in the region. The White House should tell Abe that antagonizing Japan’s neighbors is not an option, and it should make sure China overhears. Then the administration should commit to greater engagement with China. Policy-makers concentrating on the Middle East need to be reminded that East Asia, too, is a vital region for America’s future. East Asia won’t wait for Washington to wake up.

If Japan mends ties with China and becomes more independent of the United States, American businesses may lose customers. Japan already trades more with China than with the United States, and a Japanese Cabinet minister last month found international support for an $80 million study toward an agreement to open up trade in Asia. The proposed agreement would include Japan, China, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand and India. If it comes through, the accord would include more than 3 billion people, but Americans would be left out.

The position of the United States as a moral leader in the world is also in jeopardy. China is working to improve its image and turn itself into a regional leader. Privileged Southeast Asians, who for years have seen value in learning English or Japanese, are now considering Mandarin, and China is building the schools to teach them. The United States should be a driving force in Asia for human rights, but Washington must lead by example. The Bush administration’s treatment of detainees in Guantánamo Bay, and highly publicized crimes by U.S. forces at Abu Ghurayb and Al-Hadithah, undermine U.S. moral authority.

Finally, the world’s military balance may change. In the coming decades, both Japan and the United States are likely to face a more powerful China and perhaps even an end to unilateral U.S. dominance in the Pacific. But Japan and the United States will be more secure if both countries work with China and avoid any standoff over such potential flash points as Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.

To maintain peace and prosperity in East Asia and at home, the United States must make the region a high priority. If we don’t, we ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog at Heartbreak Hotel.

GRAHAM WEBSTER is associate editor of, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress in Washington. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.

Japan, U.S. Concerned About Restrictions on Foreign News in China

There’s been a lot in the mainstream press on China’s decision to restrict access in China to news produced by foreign agencies. Here’s a news hit on the diplomatic consequences.

(Kyodo) — Japan is keeping a close watch on China’s newly announced curbs on foreign media news distribution while it examines the new rules, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday.

“In general circumstances, freedom of the press is a basic right that should naturally be respected. From such a standpoint, our country is taking an interest and keeping an eye on the (latest) moves within China,” Mitsuo Sakaba, the ministry’s press secretary, said at a news conference.

Sakaba was referring to China’s announcement of new rules on Sunday in which foreign news organizations are required to seek approval from the state-run Xinhua News Agency to distribute news in China.

The new rules, which took effect immediately, gave Xinhua the right to select news and information foreign media release in China and to delete news content deemed prohibited.

The United States has expressed concern over the rules.

China, for its past, has rejected criticism that such rules constitute a form of authoritarian information control that harms Chinese people’s freedom, saying they are aimed at strengthening the rule of law.

Abe, the Politics of Being Korean, and the NYT

From a conversation I had last week with David Marx and some snooping around on Japan’s popular 2ch message board comes Marxy’s essay on “Abe and the Politics of Being Korean.” The particular 2ch thread, which is now unavailable, got on Marxy’s back for being a vicious foreigner and also included unfriendly comments about New York Times reporter Norimitsu Onishi, whom the 2ch-ites say is a Korean Japanese. Part of Marxy’s take:

Much more moral clarity over on the thread, however, as posters want to know about this Japan-bashing writer Onishi. Apparently he is Korean-Japanese with Canadian citizenship. Comment 572 states 「大西は日本在住の、日本→カナダ国籍取った朝鮮人だよな。マジで殺されろ。」using a questionably-racist term for Koreans (朝鮮人) and then adding a cherry on top: “Seriously, he should be killed.” The logic is clear: of course, he is bashing Japan, because he is #1 – not actually Japanese – and #2 – the Korean-Japanese live their whole life to bash Japan. Racial purity determines political outlook.

Off Topic: An Age of Empiricism? Let's See Some Numbers.

This is the first of what promises to be many short essays on topics not related to the transpacific triangle. I’ll cut them off after their introductions to spare uninterested readers the details.

John O. McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern (whom I’ve never met), writes over the summer in Policy Review that “we are on the cusp of a golden age of social science empiricism that will help bring a greater measure of agreement on the consequences of public policy.”

It’s a bold statement. Reasonably, I think, I expected it to be backed by some empirical evidence. Alas, I was disappointed.
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This Week: China-Japan Ties Easing, Nakasone Broaches Nuclear Japan

It’s been a news-filled week for Japan-China relations and Japan in general, leading up to the LDP election later this month.

Several signs that tensions between China and Japan may ease after Koizumi’s departure emerged this week.

  • Using the a signed commentary in the People’s Daily overseas edition, the Chinese government demanded Abe Shinzo take a stand on shrine visits, writing Thursday, “Perhaps the strategists and advisers at Abe’s side see this strategy of ambiguity as a success, but they appear to have forgotten the lesson that sincerity can vanquish a hundred tricks. … Abe must ultimately use facts to demonstrate whether he’s truly serious about relations with China.” [The Reuters story apparently refers to this People’s Daily commentary, which is hard to interpret because of a rough translation.]
  • It is unclear whether he was responding to this specific call (I suspect not), but Abe said in a news conference he did not believe a fresh Japanese war apology was necessary from him as a new prime minister.
  • On Friday, Abe said he intended to meet with top Chinese and South Korean leaders at the November APEC meeting to calmly discuss political problems such as Yasukuni visits (「(靖国神社参拝などの)政治問題が拡大しないように冷静に対応するための会談だ。」). He added that he thinks China is coming to realize that “playing the Yasukuni card” was a mistake. (From a Japanese language Yomiuri Shimbun report.)
  • An English language Kyodo dispatch reported that Yomiuri had said more: That report said Abe will likely skip a Yasukuni visit during the fall festival in October to smooth relations with China before the meeting.
  • Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan said President Hu Jintao expressed the desire that China and Japan commit to peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Repeating well-worn phrasing, Tang also said, “We will adhere to the principle and make joint efforts with Japan in pushing ahead bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various fields and properly handling the existing problems and obstacles.” “Properly handling” is a key phrase, which has been used before to admonish Japanese leaders over textbooks and Yasukuni Shrine. The report appeared in the Chinese official press.An AFP report added that Tang had said that a “wise decision” on Yasukuni was a precondition for China to consider a November meeting with Abe.
  • The first “working level” financial talks between China and Japan since 2002 were held this week. AFP reported that an official gave the dubious excuse of “scheduling difficulties” as the reason that the annual talks had been held up. It is widely believed that such summits were stopped over Chinese objections to Koizumi’s shrine visits, and with some research, it may be possible to find reports where this was said publicly for these particular meetings, contradicting the new statement.

In other news, a new report issued by former Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro’s think tank, the Institute for International Policy Studies, proposes that Japan study the possibility of obtaining its own nuclear capabilities. I have not read the report, “Japan’s National Image in the 21st Century,” but a Japan Times article reported that Nakasone acknowledged that Japan is protected by what many call the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but he said it is unclear whether the umbrella will remain.

Indeed, as Japan strengthens itself, the United States may put less emphasis on protecting Japan. It is unlikely, however, that U.S. strategic interests in the region will diverge from those of Japan in the near future. My question is, how much study does it really take for Japan to create nuclear weapons, given its high scientific capabilities and prominent use of nuclear power? Since it is a virtual certainty that Japan could produce a nuclear deterrent quickly in a pinch, Nakasone is likely attempting to guide Japan in a hawkish direction to the extent that he still has influence.