Sunday, August 27, 2006

An Internal Japanese Affair

“The president is not going to get involved in that,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow responding to a question regarding Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s official visit the previous day – Aug 15, anniversary of the end of World War II – to the Yasukuni Shrine.

Snow then sequed into an irrelevant discussion about how the shrine visit would not impact resumption of the six-party talks for disarming North Korea. Three of the antagonists in the Yasukuni Shrine issue are a part of the talks. There was no followup question and Snow moved on to other matters.

Still, it was a pregnant moment. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that the Yasukuni Shrine, hitherto a matter of supreme indifference in the U.S., had impinged on a presidential news conference or begun to be acknowledged and discussed outside of Asia.

A couple of prominent American pundits picked up the issue, presumably because Koizumi made his pilgrimage on the anniversary of the surrender. Previously, he had paid his respects on other days.

George Will of Newsweek wrote a column about it, although he made a rather curious comparison to the controversy surrounding display of the Confederate flag. “With their comparatively minor but still acrimonious arguments about displays of Confederate flags, Americans know how contentious the politics of national memory can be.”

In one sense the U.S position that the brouhaha is “an internal Japanese matter” is understandable, even wise. One could argue that Washington, President George W. Bush in particular, has enough global problems to contend with without adding a new one, especially with a valuable ally.

Prime Minister Koizumi has been a faithful handmaiden in many recent American endeavors, from the War in Iraq to the efforts to disarm North Korea. Why antagonize him or his successor over an issue that almost no American knows or cares about?

There is a curious disconnect in the American attitude, though. It is as if World War II in the Pacific was some minor dustup between China, Korea and Japan of which the U.S. was merely a passive bystander. It is as if the U.S. is being asked to settle differences among Asian friends of which it has no stake itself.

Yet the famous 14 “Class A” war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni – not to mention Class B, C, D criminals – more than 1,000 in all – were not convicted by the Chinese or the South Koreans. They were convicted by the Tokyo Trials set up by U.S Occupation Forces. It is America’s war legacy that is at issue in Koizumi’s visits.

It may be that Koizumi’s presumed successor when he steps down next month, Shinzo Abe, will discontinue the practice, and the issue will essentially go away. He has been vague on whether he would follow Koizumi’s practice (though he is every bit as conservative on the matter, if not more so, than Koizumi.)

During President Bush’s visit to Japan late last year, Koizumi had the cheek to tell Bush to his face, “even if I am told by the U.S. not to, I will go.” This is sheer bravado. If Washington made an issue of the visits, they would stop. Period.

All it would take would be one well timed snub, one official protest. The only real issue is whether anyone in the U.S. government has the spine to do it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Why Japan will nevewr go nuclear

Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid his official respects at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo Tuesday, Aug 15, becoming the first Japanese premier to visit the shrine on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II in 21 years.

Koizumi has visited the shrine in his official capacity as prime minister on five previous occasions during his tenure, but he had never before visited on the anniversary of Japan's surrender. The last premier to visit the shrine on that date was Yasuhiro Nakasone.

The anniversary visit had been widely anticipated, even if it was deplored by China, South Korea and many Japanese as well. It is considered by many to symbolize a turn by Japan's leaders toward conservatism, and nationalism.

Just last month, in the wake of North Korea's July 5 missile tests, prominent leaders said that Japan should consider possessing the capability to carry out pre-emptive attacks. That notion is a departure from Japan's post-war policy of not posessing offensive weapons but has led some to speculate that Japan might consider arming herself with nuclear weapons.

Sometimes it seems as if certain elements in the administration of US President George W Bush are egging Japan on. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer has raised the possibility of an independently nuclear-armed Japan. "If you had a nuclear North Korea, it seems to me that that increases the pressure on both South Korea and Japan going nuclear themselves," he said.

He was only repeating what other American leaders keep saying. On the television interview program Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea with ballistic missiles to deliver them will, I think, probably set off an [nuclear] arms race in that part of the world."

In fact, North Korea claims to be a nuclear weapons state, even though it has not proved this assertion doubt by actually testing one. As it demonstrated earlier this year, it has medium-range missile capable of striking both South Korea and Japan (though not the continental U.S. - not yet anyway.)

This talk partly reflects the frustration many in the administration of President George W. Bush felt over its inability to push China to push North Korea to disarm. One way to motivate Beijing is to scare her with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan.

The Republican Party Policy Committee paper anticipating a North Korean test put it this way: "Essentially, the United States must demand that the PRC [China] make a choice: either help out or face the possibility of other nuclear neighbors." The implication was that Washington would tolerate or even encourage a Japan armed with nuclear weapons.

Well maybe, but I'm here to say that if they are counting on China quaking over the prospect of a nuclear Japan, they are going to be disillusioned. China's leaders are not going to fall for that bluff. They know that in the final analysis Japan will never acquire nuclear armaments because to do so makes Japan less safe.

Japan is famous for its nuclear allergy, as the only country ever attacked with nuclear weapons. It is also famous for its "three no's policy: not to make, posses or allow nuclear weapons on its soil. These attitudes remain as a strong brake on Japan going nuclear. But there is a more compelling reason why it's against Japan's interest.

Japan will never go nuclear because it can never maintain a credible nuclear deterrent against China. There can never be, as there was during the Cold War, a strategy of mutual assured destruction. The only assured destruction in any nuclear exchange with China would be that of Japan.

It would only take about five thermonuclear bombs, three on Tokyo and two in the Kansai region, to end Japan. But five nuclear bombs or even a few more, devastating as they may be, would not spell the end for China. Japan, in short, cannot survive a first strike and retaliate. China can.

General Zhu Chenghu caused something of a controversy last year when he said that China could aim nuclear weapons at American cities if U.S. forces intervened in an assault on Taiwan. Not so extensively reported was something else Gen. Zhu said: "We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xian [in central China]."

That was as blunt reminder that China has something that Japan does not have - depth. China has a lot more to lose than it did in Mao Zedong's time, when the communist leaders built bomb shelters and deliberately moved factories to the interior to help protect them from nuclear attack. But China can still absorb a lot of punishment - indeed, historically it has absorbed a lot of punishment.

The Japanese self-defense staff reached a similar conclusion in a study it commissioned back in 1981 on the feasibility of Japan acquiring nuclear arms. The report was then aimed at the threat from the Soviet Union and concluded that in a nuclear exchange Japan would suffer about 25 million fatalities compared with about a million in Russia's Far East.

Deterrence worked in the long nuclear face off between the U.S. and the old Soviet Union because both countries are continental powers. It was possible to imagine one or the other absorbing a first strike and surviving to retaliate. Such is not the case with Japan (or Taiwan and South Korea, for that matter).

Japan is much better off continuing to rely on and to strengthen its alliance with the United States depending on its nuclear weapons for protection. Among other things, the U.S. provides the strategic depth that Japan simply does not have.

Of course, people in Japan and elsewhere will continue to talk about Japan going nuclear. People talk about everything. Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Japan Democratic Party, once commented: "We have plenty of plutonium in our nuclear power plants, so it is possible for us to produce 3,000 to 4,000 nuclear warheads, making Japan an unbeatable power."

Japan's conservatives can bluster all they want. In the final analysis they would still come to the same conclusion. By cooling adding up the advantages and disadvantages of an independent nuclear arms program, they will inevitably decide that these weapons are a loser for Japan. She is far safer under the American nuclear umbrella.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

As Rich as . . .

Sometime later this year, possibly before the end of summer, China’s foreign exchange reserves will surpass the equivalent of a trillion dollars. Has there ever been a country so rich since the fabled Croesus?

As of July, China’s foreign reserves amounted to $941.1 billion. As they are growing now at a rate of about $20 billion a month, the trillion mark should be passed before the leaves fall.

China has already left the other Asian financial powerhouses, such as Japan and South Korea, in the dust to hold the world’s largest accumulation of foreign exchange. US dollars make up between 70 and 80 percent of the total.

Much of this fabulous wealth is recycled, as everyone knows, into US treasury bonds. This helps keep interest rates in the US fairly low – so long as the Chinese keep buying. But now there are new rumbles of that dreaded word “diversification”.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics gave the world something to worry about when it said this month that the country should diversify its foreign exchange reserves away from the dollar.

The statement held out the worry that the value of the dollar may weaken, increasing the risk of foreign exchange losses in the currency reserves if China clings to the greenback.

Said EverBank, the only US commercial bank that deals in foreign currency at the retail level, in its daily report: “Anytime one hears of a country with the largest reserves questioning the dollar holdings it is significantly negative for the dollar.”

Of course, there have been vaguely worded threats to diversify out of the dollar from central bankers in China, Japan and Korea in the recent past, without any real changes in their buying patterns.

That is true enough, but who a few weeks ago would have thought that Israel would respond to a cross-border raid by launching a massive air attack on Lebanon?