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The time of stormy weather over Japan, Asia and the world. Reflections from my journey to Japan

By Marek Madej
University of Warsaw
November 14, 2018

When I have been visiting Japan - for the first time in my life - in October 2017, it was raining almost all the time. In fact, only for one day – the first day of the visit – the sky was free of clouds and we – the group of ten security experts in Europe - have experienced beautiful sunny weather. Quite conveniently, it was on the beautiful island of Okinawa. The stormy conditions had a source in the incoming typhoon. That typhoon was, as I realized later, a harbinger of the unusually rainy and stormy weather over Japan in the passing year that has culminated in the tragic floods of July, in which more than hundred of Japanese citizens lost their life and much more their homes and property. Definitely, Japan was recently exposed to unusually hard conditions. However, unfortunately, not only by the weather.

Similarly stormy and ominous changes characterized recent international security relations on the global level in general, and in Asia-Pacific region in particular. Therefore, we had a plenty of issues to discuss with Japanese hosts, ranging from problems like nuclear program of North Korea, to the rise of China or the role of the US in global and regional security after Trump’s victory in presidential elections. Since the visit happened just a month after the sixth, most powerful nuclear test of North Korea and series of missiles tests, some of which flew also over Japan or its territorial waters, it was pretty understandable that that issue caught huge part of our attention. However, what deserves in my opinion special recognition, especially in light of escalation of diplomatic tensions over the nuclear issue at that time and highly emotional rhetoric used particularly by Korean and US leaders (just to mention their rather infamous quarrel over the sizes of their “nuclear buttons”), was the really sober and balanced assessment of the problem offered by most of Japanese experts and government officials. Of course, all of us agreed that the preferable option would be to achieve full denuclearization of the peninsula. However, I fully shared the healthy skepticism, that dominated our talks on Korean issue, in assessing the possibility of achieving such ultimate and ambitious goal as full denuclearization through negotiations, economic sanctions or – seen as the worst case scenario – military actions. Taking into account the importance of nuclear arsenal for North Korean leadership, earlier experience of negotiations with DPRK, as well as regional security conditions, particularly China’s position (which, as one of the Japanese experts rightly said “prefer stable North Korea over non-nuclear North Korea”), but also substantial limits of Pyongyang capabilities to develop their conventional military potential, it seemed to be advisable, as it was frequently suggested, to – without abandoning efforts to find an agreement on denuclearization – work seriously on expanding capabilities of regional powers and international community as a whole to deal effectively also with “nuclear North Korea”. And the real rollercoaster, which the world have experienced in context of this nuclear program in recent months - starting with the “the war (US intervention) is near” mood in Autumn 2017, then DPRK’s surprising “peaceful turn” before the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in South Korea and Kim Yong Un declaration on partial dismantling of nuclear program, even more unexpected change of President Trump’s view on the need of direct talks with Korean leader, which led to their officially successful, but rather inconclusive meeting in Singapore in June 2018, and ending with the recent revelations on the continued or even accelerated works of North Korea on uranium enrichment and missile technologies just couple of weeks later – proved in my opinion the Japanese experts’ position on that issue well grounded.

The second most intensively discussed topic by us were challenges posed by “the rise of China” and its increasingly assertive foreign and security policy, especially since it is accompanied by internal changes aimed to strengthen centralism of Chinese political system under the leadership of Xi Jinping. The gravest concerns, among Japanese experts in particular, were caused by Chinese aggressive steps in South China Sea, including transforming small rocky reefs there into some kind of artificial islands with evidently military installations on them. Such moves, commonly perceived as illegal under the Law of the Sea, were seen as something that could really change the strategic balance in the region that is so crucial for global economy. For European experts equally interesting (as well as potentially challenging) were the views on the prospects of much more general (but at the same time really elusive) Peking’s One Belt One Road initiative. There were general agreement that the idea has a real potential for growth and could stimulate some forms of fruitful international cooperation, primarily in economic realm. However, simultaneously the somewhat Protean nature of that initiative, with ever-changing list of possible projects it would consist of and still rather vaguely defined benefits of partners of China in this endeavour, should advise caution in assessment of its prospects as well as consequences for global stability. Nevertheless, it was generally agreed that in the long term “the rise of China” in its current form will constitute the most important factor shaping at least regional security in Asia and will have a serious impact on stability on global level as well. Therefore, it should be crucial for liberal democracies like Japan or Western European countries (EU) to formulate the responses to challenges (but also some opportunities) the changes in China could pose in as coordinated way as possible.

However, they were also some surprising views and tones in what our Japanese interlocutors presented. Particularly two thing were striking me here. The first was somewhat extensive focus of Japanese experts on regional – i.e. East Asian or Asia-Pacific–problems as a source of challenges, but at the same time the possibilities of cooperation on universal level in dealing with them, including forms and means of involvement of European countries in these activities. At the same time we devoted little attention to development of international cooperation and tasks of liberal democracies, including Japan, in coping with such threats or challenges like those posed by massive migration, volatility of global economic system, strategic disarray in the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel, fighting against terrorism or organized crime, consequences of growing Russian assertiveness, climate change or quick evolution of security environment in cyberspace (especially when not to some degree “traditional” cyber attacks or hacking are concerned, but phenomena like intentional creation of information chaos by spread of fake news or various forms of propaganda or the consequences of the emergence of big data and its impact on privacy and human rights). It was even more surprising in light of the Japan’s tradition of policy of promoting human security and Tokyo’s significant role in international efforts to counter terrorism in recent decades. Of course, there is no reason to question the significance for global security of the situation on Korean Peninsula or border and territorial disputes in East and South-East Asia. It is also fully understandable that from Japan’s perspective they are by far the most urgent and demanding security problems. However, those issues like mass migration, Middle Eastern quagmire or evolution of Russian policy, even if their consequences and implications can be noticed – at least as for now – mostly in other than Asia-Pacific regions, have their global implications too, also since they require from European, North American and other powers involvement in form of resources, limiting inevitably their ability to engage in responding to East Asian tensions and contingencies. Therefore, when looking for effective solution of security problems and challenges in Asia-Pacific region, and particularly for engagement of extra-regional powers in it, one cannot to belittle or neglect that aspect too.

Second striking thing for me was noticeable optimism of many Japanese experts in assessment of the chances for fruitful cooperation with the current American president Donald Trump. For many (in fact majority) of European experts, not only those present with me in Japan, Trump’s presidency is a source of serious concerns and fears in fact since his inauguration, and these concerns have rather grown than diminish with the passing months. The doubts have risen over the predictability of US policy, Western (or Transatlantic) cohesion and stability of liberal democratic order in the world, and the pessimistic tone started to dominate in context of prediction of the future state of affairs in this respect. Quite interestingly, among Japanese experts there was noticeably much more hope that relations with Washington “under the new leadership (or maybe rather management)” could still move in the right direction (or be better than initially expected), at least in case of Japan – US cooperation. Of course, there were some solid arguments to back that – rather cautious, I had to admit - optimism, ranging from convergence of US and Japanese national interests, especially in the security realm, long tradition of effective cooperation or – equally important - good personal relations, some kind of “chemistry” between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Trump. Nevertheless, I was then not fully convinced and, to be honest, I wonder, in light of – unfortunately – growing difficulties in relations of the biggest European powers with Washington and tensions in the US relations with China, to what degree that optimism is still present in Japan.

However, my visit in Japan was not only about “the big issues” and high politics, it was also about developing personal ties, deepening the knowledge on Japanese culture and heritage and exploring Japan’s traditions. And that was something what I will definitely remember for my whole life, obviously besides the in-depth views on international security offered by Japanese experts I have met. The calm, quiet eminence of Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples, the subtle elegance of the ceremony of the preparation of tea, the surprising sounds of the “Nightingale Floor” of Nijo castle (my personal favorite among Japanese landmarks), strong walls of Shuri-jo castle on Okinawa, vibrant, colourful streets of Shibuya or Shinza in Tokyo, the charm of Japanese gardens and taste of Japanese cuisine – all that were evidence that even in the time of bad weather and unstable politics there is a space for things that are simply good and beautiful. However, what probably impressed me in Japan most, were Japanese people – open, knowledgeable and not just polite and well-mannered, but simply extremely kind and helpful to strangers, no matter if you meet with government officials or cab drivers. That is definitely something truly unforgettable and worthy to be experienced. And that also could be reason for the hope for future, despite incoming storms and turbulences.

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