Strategic Space-Time, from Tokyo to UNHQ

Strategic Space-Time, from Tokyo to UNHQ<br /> GB speaks with one of the world’s gentleman-geokrats

GB: What are the key strategic priorities of Japan today?

DM: here are a number of strategic priorities. First of all, the economy has been fairly flat, with minor variations for the last 25 years. In 2012, the incoming prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who is still prime minister today – a longevity that is not all that common in Japanese politics – articulated a plan that came to be known as Abenomics to try to reflate the economy. The results have been mixed: there are some good signs and some discouraging signs. Within Japan, if you went out on the street and asked people, they would say that by far the most important national issue is the economy. Beyond that, if you spoke to people who are particularly interested in international relations, the rapid shifts in global power and influence have been both exciting and also unsettling for Japan, as the country had for so long been used to being the clear number two in global economic weight. To now be number three after China or, in terms of purchasing power parity, even number four – behind China, the US and India – is something new to which the country will have to adjust.

This adjustment or repositioning is not easy, because the population is gently shrinking and ageing. Japan has a comfort zone built on a very secure and well-organized domestic society. Its challenges likely call for more global engagement, and perhaps even greater flows of non-Japanese people into the country than those with which most Japanese are currently comfortable.

The rise or return of China has, by global and historical standards, happened extremely fast and suddenly – especially since it has happened not through military conquest but rather through economic engineering. The speed and intensity of this Chinese economic emergence have taken Japan, like many others countries, including the US, somewhat by surprise. Of course, the Chinese, like the South Koreans, owe a great deal of their success to some of the approaches that Japan took a few decades ago.

GB: What is the current state of the Japan-China bilateral relationship?

DM: It is actually much improved at this point. There was a point where the leaderships were not speaking to each other, but that has come to an end. Multilateral diplomacy is extremely useful. The Chinese hosted the APEC summit in Beijing in 2014. Prime Minister Abe attended and it effectively forced an exchange between him and Xi Jingping. From that exchange flowed a much better sense of connection, and a number of agreements are being discussed once again. In the West, it may be fashionable to think of multilateral meetings as useless talk shops. In fact, when you live in an occasionally tense part of the world, nothing is less useless than talking. It is not talking that is useless.

GB: What is the state of the evolution in Japanese thinking about the military instrument?

DM: First of all, the strong attachment of the Japanese population is to peace, writ large, and also to an absolute ban, or to as absolute a ban as possible, on nuclear weapons – having been the only country to date to suffer a nuclear attack on its soil. This general posture remains very, very strong in Japan.

Of course, you can have a strong military and peace at the same time. Japan actually does have a very sizeable, well-trained military, but it is dedicated to self-defence and a bit of peacekeeping for the UN. That is the way that most Japanese would like to keep it, even if there is also a realization that the world is a different place, and that Japan may need to use its military, at times, in the company of others to uphold the values that the Japanese hold dear. To be sure, this is new thinking for Japan, and it is uncomfortable for many. The Japanese have barely got used to the idea of UN peacekeeping, so the idea of other uses of the Japanese military can be disquieting. Other than Canada and perhaps Australia, Japan has the most cast-iron military alliance with the US. So its bedrock defence requirements are, in fact, met by its own forces, but only in conjunction with those of the US.

GB: What is the state of Japanese-Indian relations?

DM: That relationship is a paradox. On the surface, it is going all guns blazing, in the positive sense of the expression. Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Modi have been political friends for many years. When Modi was elected, the relationship went into very high gear at the political level. On the other hand, the economic relationship is very disappointing. There are several Japanese success stories in India. Maruti Suzuki would be one of them. But overall, it has been very disappointing. About one percent of India’s trade is with Japan and vice versa, which is extraordinary when you think that these are among the largest economies in the world.

The relationship is expanding in areas like naval cooperation. It is expanding in terms of geostrategic dialogue. Once again, however, the economic relationship is hardly expanding at all, and that is where Modi and Abe have been trying to exercise a lot of leadership. Of course, in market-oriented democracies, politicians cannot make business happen. It is business that makes business happen. And Japanese businesses seem to find the wide world of India somewhat unnerving, scary, noisy, chaotic, and occasionally violent – all things that the Japanese do not particularly cultivate in Japan. The Indians, for their part, are being courted from all sides. Everyone, from China to Russia and the US, wants to do business with India. The guest of honour at the recent Republic Day parade in India was François Hollande. The French are very keen on the military procurement deal involving Rafale aircraft. And President Obama has been to India several times.

GB: Would you agree that India’s economic and strategic emergence has been nowhere near as dynamic or impressive as that of China?

DM: Absolutely.

GB: What are the key sources of India’s emergence?

DM: Ten years after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, India, at the end of the Cold War, in the wake of a classical balance of payments crisis, introduced a degree of economic liberalization that, while not nearly as radical as anything that Deng Xiaoping had done, was enough to unleash growth rates that, some 10 years later, hovered anywhere between seven and nine percent. The growth rates are slightly lower now because of the global slowdown. They are just above seven percent. But that is still quite good when you are looking at the world from Europe.

Another consideration is that India is a continent-scaled country, and one that will soon have the world’s largest population – and a young population at that. Many people oversimplify India. There are still many challenges to doing business with India, but there is a lot of money to be made there – there is no doubt about that. If the government liberalizes further, Indian growth will accelerate happily in the years to come. It needs to do so because there are still hundreds of millions of ultra-poor people in India who deserve better.

GB: What about strategic thinking in India? Is it not also significantly behind Chinese strategic thinking? What about strategic thinking in India? Is it not also significantly behind Chinese strategic thinking?

DM: India’s geostrategic outlook is certainly one of global engagement at this point. Modi had been expected to be a very effective politician domestically, and not particularly effective internationally. And yet if one is to caricature his prime ministership to date, one might say that he has been tremendously successful internationally and has yet to prove himself domestically. He has been engaging all over the world. He is a great traveller, like Abe in Japan. Both have a posture of generalized engagement.

GB: What about Japanese-Russian relations since 2014?

DM: Of course, 2014 was a difficult year for Japanese-Russian relations because Japan joined its Western partners, and in some cases allies, in condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea and in putting off some state visits in both directions. However, the reality is that both President Putin and Prime Minister Abe would like to build a more positive relationship. Both countries have longstanding territorial disputes stemming from WW2. There is a sense out of Moscow that the Russians are more open to discussing and settling these disputes than they have been in the past. That is music to Japanese ears, as these disputes have been an irritant in the bilateral relationship. In any event, these are countries that deal with each other a lot. Siberia hangs over all of East Asia, and North Korea is of concern, in different ways, to both Russia and Japan. So the overall relationship is on a bit of an upswing. President Putin should be coming to Japan soon with the expectation of serious discussions not just about the usual trade and investment issues, but also about the island disputes.

GB: How are the UN system and international institutions absorbing the strategic expansion of Asia?

DM: There are several ways of thinking about the multilateral system today. A very large component of the system is economic- or development-oriented – one way or another. Very little of it is actually geostrategic in nature or function. The geostrategic parts of it, including the UN Security Council, are surprised to find themselves once again experiencing great power rivalries after a period of great comity in the post-Cold War era. That is a bit unsettling. These rivalries come to the fore in crises like Crimea, Syria, and even Libya. Again, this is unnerving because, by and large, the great powers had been getting on quite well for 22 or 23 years. The new tension is therefore unwelcome, even though these great powers often unite – for instance, in trying to solve conflicts in Africa, where the Security Council continues to work mostly consensually.

But when you think of the economic and development system of the multilateral world, it is, of course, stressed by change – and some of it excellent change. The developing world has been advancing in Africa with quite robust growth rates, in Asia with generally robust growth rates, and also in Latin America with a great deal of very interesting social development – although Latin American economic growth is less impressive. The crisis of 2008 is still reverberating. The US is recovering. In due course, it will pull Canada along – given all of Canada’s short-term economic problems, having, as usual, allowed itself to become over-reliant on commodities. But Europe is in a deep funk, and the bedrock of the multilateral development system has been European money. A great deal of the European money that used to flow through the World Bank, through the regional development banks, and through the UN in a variety of ways for development purposes is now being rechannelled to refugee resettlement. An admirable country like Denmark has today available for development purposes about a third of the money that it did three years ago. This is a clear snapshot of how Europe has had to reorganize its spending, and how much of it has been done to the detriment of development funding.

GB: What do you think about the future of Security Council reform? What is the view from Japan today? What is the Indian position?

DM: About 12 years ago, four countries – Brazil, India, Germany and Japan – banded together to try to convince the UN membership to create permanent seats with vetoes for them. The world has changed a lot since then. Germany is clearly the strongest country within Europe, even though the UK and France sit on the Security Council. Merkel is so powerful that she does not need to sit on the Security Council. Brazil, for its part, is going through a rough patch at the moment, but will re-emerge as the strongest and largest country in Latin America. India, as mentioned, is ramping up its game very significantly. Japan, on the other hand, has continued, broadly, stagnating in economic terms, although playing a more kinetic role in its foreign policy. The membership of the UN in 2005 did not accept the aforementioned plan, which included a couple of permanent seats for Africa. The plan did not name the African countries because there was no consensus on this in Africa. If anything, though, there is even more resistance today among the wider UN membership to the overhauling of the membership of the Security Council and also to the veto.

What might happen in the future is the creation of semi-permanent seats that countries like Japan and Brazil would occupy. They would have longer terms. For instance, countries could be immediately re-elected, which is not the case today. But I am very skeptical that more vetoes will be created. And if permanent seats are created, I am quite certain that they will not have vetoes, which will evidently make them second-class permanent seats relative to the existing permanent five. So that is where we are at present. This has left the four aspirant countries frustrated. While the permanent five say that they are perfectly open to Security Council reform, not one of them has lifted a finger to make it happen.

GB: What should be the qualities of the next UN Secretary General? What are the top three or four challenges or priorities for that person?

DM: What is interesting in the election for Ban Ki-moon’s successor is how many women are in the race. Most of them are not yet formally supported by their government, but the names of at least 10 or 11 very competent women are the corridor talk in New York today. A very competent man, Antonio Guterres, just received the support of his government. Until recently, he was High Commissioner for Refugees and also a very successful politician in Portugal. But what was funny about this, in a way, was how surprising it was to hear about a man in the context of a competition that has been all about women thus far. There is a sense that, just as Canada’s new prime minister declared “Because it’s 2015” in respect of having a gender-balanced cabinet, it really is high time that the UN had more gender balance. There is no better way of demonstrating this than having a woman as Secretary General.

If you think of the successful Secretaries General – leaving Ban Ki-moon aside, as he has not yet finished his term – the two most successful ones, in my judgement, were Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan. And two people less like each other than Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan I cannot imagine. So I do not think that there is a fixed set of qualities for a great Secretary General, but I do think that the UN today needs a Secretary General who has natural authority and huge communications abilities – as Kofi Annan had with publics around the world. It needs to be someone with a very serious grasp of international relations and the fast-evolving geostrategic and economic circumstances of our world. This is not a job for an amateur – far from it. Ideally, it would be someone who has a sense of the UN – either by having been a foreign minister or a political leader, or possibly even someone like Guterres, who has headed one of the major UN agencies.

The world is a more complex and slightly less stable place than it was when Ban Ki-moon was selected. The Security Council, which makes a recommendation to the General Assembly on a name, and could even recommend a few names if it wanted to, needs to be very, very careful this time. The UN has more peacekeepers deployed at the moment than at any time in its history – overwhelmingly in Africa, and often in the context of longstanding conflicts without easy solutions. As mentioned, the development agencies of the UN are facing a different climate – one in which developing countries have been far more successful in their progress than in the past, and may as such feel that they do not need the World Bank or development agencies quite as much as they once did; and also one in which donor countries that are committed to development are often quite pressed in their public finances.

Where the UN has done best over the last 10 years – and might have been expected to do least well – is on human rights. Ban Ki-moon, contrary to what one might have expected of the 70-year-old Confucian gentleman from South Korea, has been a very strong advocate for human rights, and has had excellent High Commissioners for Human Rights – really very vocal, very strong people. Many issues pertinent to human rights that would have seemed outlandish 15 to 20 years ago are today settled and more widely accepted globally. China is radically curbing the death penalty – or so it says. Its example will encourage others to do likewise. There is a move toward greater adherence to the rule of law. And democracy is now very well entrenched in Latin America.

GB: Does Japan have a view on the international criminal court and the other legal institutions within the UN system?

DM: Yes, Japan has been very strong on legal and human rights institutions in the UN. That is not an issue at all.

GB: What is the Japanese view of the American elections thus far?

DM: The Japanese are following the US elections with great interest. There is quite a lot of interest in Mrs. Clinton because she is certainly the person who is most recognized in Japan, just as the American ambassador to Tokyo, Caroline Kennedy, is a major celebrity in both the US and Japan. The American elections are obviously very important to Japan because an isolationist president would be very worrying for Japan, given that the country relies very largely on the American nuclear umbrella, as well as American naval and other assets in the region.

GB: What are the top three or four challenges for the new government in Ottawa?

DM: The principal challenge for the new prime minister and his government is very domestic in nature – namely, the Canadian economy. The government is going to have to decide which strategy to deploy in the context of the current inertia, given that oil prices may well stay low throughout most of 2016. The economy is more important to Canadians, I suspect, than anything else.

Internationally, Prime Minister Trudeau, who is a very kinetic figure, has been extraordinarily well received. I speak not just about the rock star dimension of the PM, but also about the messages that he has been articulating. I am not sure whether it was understood fully by all analysts and citizens of Canada how negatively the last government came across internationally. Its messages were essentially about praising Canadians, scolding the rest of the world, with policy attached to a narrow set of countries – essentially the old Anglosphere, but not even including the new and wider Anglosphere. Canada was not really absent from the global scene, as Prime Minister Harper was quite a strong figure in the fora that he valued. Nevertheless, his government’s messaging was not appreciated.

The new government is very new, so its messages are also very new. It will have to live up to them. That is the challenge that every government faces. For example, on the environment, there are a lot of good vibes, but the government’s agenda and international and domestic undertakings are going to require changes and costs in Canada that may not be popular everywhere. What is the new government going to do in respect of development assistance? (The last government allowed development assistance to wither somewhat.) Will Canada re-engage with UN peacekeeping? I hope so, because Canada was a model of peacekeeping leadership throughout most of the recent decades. But none of this has been set yet, which is not surprising. Now, having raised expectations, Trudeau and his team – including Catherine McKenna, the new minister of the environment, who had a high profile at the Paris climate change summit late last year – will have to deliver. That will be the tough part.

GB: What are the raw national interests that the new government must defend?

DM: The relationship with the US can never be emphasized too much. It is the central relationship for Canada. Paradoxically, it had deteriorated quite sharply under Mr. Harper. One would have expected Mr. Harper, of all people, to want to have a positive relationship with the Washington – even if the president was a Democrat. But that bilateral relationship at the top political levels is now clearly improving by leaps and bounds. A state visit within several months of being elected, in a White House that hosts very few state visits, is a strong signal that the new Canadian government is one with which the Obama administration wants to do business. A Canadian government would struggle to accomplish many things internationally and even domestically while having a weak relationship with the US.

Of course, Canada’s economic differences with the US remain. They need to be managed consistently at both provincial and federal levels. The Americans have isolationist impulses at times in their history. The outcome of the next US election will be important to watch in this respect.

GB: Have inter-faith relations become sharper under Modi, or is this overstated?

DM: No, they are definitely sharper. Communitarian tensions have risen in some places. They have not risen at all in others. South India is far less affected than the north. In some parts of northern India, communitarian relations are a bit more acute than they were prior to Modi coming to power. However, there are also elements of stability there. Modi’s party ran a fairly communitarian campaign in one of India’s largest state elections, and lost dramatically. That must have been a wakeup call for his party. He was not involved in the communitarianism himself, but a number of people with whom he is very familiar were, and the end result was a dramatic loss. This has crippled Modi in the Indian upper house for the foreseeable future.

When the BJP was last in power, I used to talk every now and then with one of its most powerful figures, Mr. Advani, who had been head of the party several times. I lived in India at the time. He said to me: “You know, when we were campaigning, communitarianism worked well for us in terms of getting elected. But once we were elected, as home minister, I realized that trying to govern India against 150 million people was insane.” Those are words on which one must reflect.

GB: What is the state of Japanese-Canadian relations?

DM: I wish they were more dynamic. Like everyone else, Canada has been bewitched by the China success story. Japan and Canada’s relationship is good and solid. It lacks drama, and it lacks profile – mainly because, like everyone else, Canada was pursuing opportunities in China. It must be said that Canada has had far less success in China than many other countries. The fact that Japan’s economy has been fairly flat for the last 20 years makes it a safe bet, but not a particularly exciting one.

Canadians are not particularly entrepreneurial on the trade and investment front compared to some other countries. As such, there are reasons for which the Canada-Japan relationship is, while very friendly and devoid of active problems, performing under potential. I hope that this will change because each country has a lot to offer the other.


David Malone is Rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo, past president of the International Development Research Centre (Ottawa), and past president of the International Peace Academy/Institute (New York City).


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