Perhaps the biggest Asian security news of the summer is the high-profile marker of the shifting tectonic plates out here – China’s surpassing of Japan as the world’s second largest economy. You know your society is in real trouble when being displaced like this is termed a “relief” by a fellow citizen on the New York Times op-ed page. Is anyone in Japan really relieved that China has pushed it aside this way? China’s meteoric growth is nerve-racking enough, but who wants to live in a society that wants to be eclipsed? To boot, how should Japan’s allies/partners on the China question (US, Korea, India) respond to a society that is “shrugging” over its decline?
So this made me think of the fin-de-siecle Austro-Hungarian empire. Maybe there is something romantic in the twilight pessimism of fading greatness coupled with high culture? I remember Poindexter asked in Revenge of the Nerds, ‘would you rather live in a society during its rise or its decline?,’ and maybe there is something lush, overripe, decadent, boozy, and deliciously self-conscious about watching one’s own tragedy (think about the character of Hayward from Of Human Bondage). Contrast this with the regular hysteria that greets the bout of American declinism that besets the US every generation. Americans go into neurotic fits, and start talking about moonshots, new frontiers, mornings in America, new foundations (Obama), etc. By contrast, Kingston wisely asks after yet another dreadful summer for Japan, can anyone govern it anymore? Increasingly you don’t need to be a Japan expert to think the answer is not really…
The sociological questions for Japan broached by this are beyond my skills, but the international consequences can’t be good. This slow eclipse of liberal, democratic, modern Japan can’t make Asia anymore secure. It will only bait China more, scare Korea more toward a separate regional deal with China, and pull the US deeper into Northeast Asia at a time when we desperately need to constrain defense spending and commitments. India, for all its ‘emerging’ potential, still can’t really compete with China as Japan might. In effect, this cedes regional order building to China: Japan won’t try, the US can’t afford to it, and India is still to0 immature to contest it. Normally we think of rising challengers battling leaders to primacy – Wilhelmine Germany v. Britain, the USSR v. the US. But in Asia at least, China is taking the game as much by the failures of the rest as by its own abilities. Note also, that as China takes over Asian leadership by default, it becomes impossible to test its real intentions. Much of the debate over China is whether or not it is prepared to use to force in the future to get its way. Increasingly, it looks like we won’t know because the democracies are simply abdicating the game to it.
So I’ll ask the same question Kingston does, what needs to happen to get Japan back in the game? Have they really just dropped out to become the Switzerland of Asia?