The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Looking Beyond Cold War History in Asia

September 30, 2008

In order to gain mid- and long-term insights into Japan and Asia in the twenty-first century, it is essential that we explore the role of Japan in post–World War II Asia. The key to this question lies in the history of the Cold War in Asia.

An Outline of Postwar Asia

When asked to name the biggest events in post–World War II Asian international affairs, the Korean and Vietnam Wars are among the first to come to mind. Although economic interdependence is growing faster than ever today, even prompting talk of an "Asian Community," postwar Asia was for a long time a byword for conflict and disorder. If we accept the view that Japan was content during this period to focus single-mindedly on its own economic development and look upon these conflicts as irrelevant to its own interests, then the postwar history of Japan and Asia might be characterized by a "rupture" between the two. Indeed, perhaps the common perception of the history of Japan and Asia's relationship in the postwar era is that Japan's sole connection to the rest of the region was its own economic advancement.

Underlying this perception of the Japan-Asia relationship is the Cold War in Asia. If we assume that postwar international politics in the region was centered on Cold War relations between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, then Japan was little more than a bit player, and there is nothing particular to be gained from analyzing its role in this period of the region's history.

However, if we alter our perspective and take a comprehensive look at the more than 60 years of post–World War II Asian history, a different view emerges. In the 1950s and 1960s, Asia was a region marked by independence movements and revolution, as well as a region where the seething political undercurrents of the Cold War broke loose in the form of "hot" conflict. Afterward, Asia underwent a period of development and economic growth commonly referred to as the "East Asian miracle," and today is best known for being the most economically vibrant region in the world.

Certainly it is this transition from politics to economic development that, more than any other factor, best characterizes postwar Asian history; no other region in the world achieved such a remarkable transformation during the same period. The root cause of this transition is another notable postwar movement that developed alongside the Cold War: the shift in focus from throwing off the yoke of colonialism to economic development. When we examine the history of this process, Japan's role emerges as one of considerable significance.

The "Southern Advance" into Asia

After the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, a once-more independent Japan sought its way back into Asia: first South Asia, mainly India, then Southeast Asia, and then Northeast Asia. India's resources and markets and the prestige of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of high international stature, all served to draw early postwar Japan to South Asia; however, the overriding factor behind Japan's interest in that region was that Northeast and Southeast Asia were effectively off limits. In the Northeast, Japan was cut off from mainland China as the Korean conflict expanded the Asian Cold War front, and Southeast Asia, was impractical owing to the unresolved issue of wartime reparations. Thus postwar Japan found itself stymied by the Cold War on one side and by wartime scars on the other. (The final remaining problem is North Korea. China and Korea are the last nations left divided after the end of the Cold War; having them as close neighbors has had a profound effect on the international environment surrounding Japan.)

Although Japan developed various plans and took an array of initiatives to re-enter Asia, when we examine the facts it seems clear that Japan's primary strategy for establishing a new presence in Asia was a "southern push" toward Southeast Asia. As we are now well aware, Japan sought to use payment of war reparations to establish a foothold in the region. But any efforts made by Japan to enter the countries of Southeast Asia would be seen as an attempt to fill the vacuum created when rising nationalism led to the dissolution of the Western colonial system. Japan developed the strongest relationship with Indonesia, whose size and political prominence made it the cornerstone of maritime Asia. President Sukarno was one of the most fervent opponents of colonialism in the world. It was under Sukarno that Indonesia had fought its war for independence from the Dutch and hosted the anti-imperialist Asian-African Conference in 1955; no other country had made such clear progress in ridding itself of colonialism.

After liberating Indonesia from colonialism, Sukarno grew increasingly radical and sought to thwart Britain's attempted reorganization of its colonies in Malaysia and Singapore, ultimately allying Indonesia with communist China in a Beijing-Jakarta axis. Japan made repeated attempts to intervene with a policy of engagement with Sukarno but was unable to prevent this alliance before the fall of Sukarno's administration in the wake of the 1965 anti-communist rebellion known as the September Thirtieth Movement.

It could be said that Japan's primary motivation for its southern advance was its own economic improvement. Yet at the same time, there was also an underlying attempt to offer support to decolonization while using development and economic growth to prevent Asian nationalism from turning the region's nations toward communism. Put another way, what Japan sought through its involvement in the region was an Asia deeply joined in its economic, rather than political, aspirations. The problem was that the Asia of those days was just the opposite - deeply divided by volatile political factors like nationalism, revolution, and the Cold War.

The various internal conflicts that beset Asia's stability came to an end, broadly speaking, with the end of decolonization. The Beijing-Jakarta axis crumbled with the September Thirtieth Movement in 1965, and Indonesia began a major transition to an anticommunist, prodevelopment system under President Suharto. This same year also marks the start of Asia's "decade of transformation," a period of major transition from an emphasis on politics and decolonization to economics and development that was to last until the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

The Depoliticization of Asia

The Asia desired by Japan after World War II was one drawn together by economic aspirations; in other words, what Japan wanted was for Asia to become depoliticized through development and economic growth. Japan believed that revolutions and the Cold War - the sources of the chaos and conflict enveloping Asia at the time - would be dissolved in the process of economic development, rather than through class struggle. Such was Japan's latent worldview as it made its southern push into Asia, and indeed, this was the solution that had worked for Japan itself after World War II. Furthermore, the Japan of the postwar period was saddled with indecisiveness and restrictions over foreign policy and security. Before it could gain broad access to Asia, it was essential from Japan's standpoint that the region be depoliticized.

The decade of transformation brought about just the sort of Asia that Japan had been looking for. The region has undergone so-called miraculous economic growth, such that now it is known above all for its robust economies and has transformed itself into a region of interconnected ties. This process, of course, was not realized entirely by Japan. However, when countries essential to regional stability approached critical junctions in their transition from politics to economics - namely, Indonesia after the fall of the Sukarno regime and China at the outset of its reforms and open-door policy - Japan was there to provide enormous amounts of foreign aid to ensure these transitions would be irreversible. The political significance of Japan's aid to Indonesia and China (which incidentally have received the first and second largest total sums of postwar Japanese foreign aid, respectively) is made clear when we recall that these two were once the center of a radical left-wing Asian political axis.

The depoliticized, economically interconnected Asia was likely at its zenith in the 1980s, a period that coincides with the height of Japan's national strength and influence. Yet now there are signs on the horizon of a move towards renewed politicization in Asia, centered unsurprisingly on the emergence of China. China's decision to embark on its reforms and open-door policy under the old pseudo-alliance between itself, Japan, and the United States in opposition to the Soviet Union was the deciding factor in Asia's transition to an era of depoliticization. Now, however, it seems that China's economic expansion and attendant increase in national strength may upset the regional balance of power. The question that must be asked is how to grasp these new circumstances.

Japan and Twenty-first Century Asia

Drawing two separate maps of Asia may help us get a fix on the situation. The first map of Asia would be based on military and security considerations, while the second would be drawn from an economic standpoint. Simply put, the military map would show a conspicuous demarcation of the border between areas that are directly covered by the US bases and military network in the Asia-Pacific, and areas that are not - namely, China. On the other hand, the economic map would display nearly all the countries in the region painted in a single color, reflecting Asia's rapid economic integration and unification.

At present, the discrepancy between these two maps is nothing more than a latent one. Whether or not this discrepancy stays below the surface is, perhaps, the key to any forecast of Asia in the twenty-first century.

What policies can Japan pursue in order to ensure this discrepancy remains latent? Japan can (1) stabilize and enhance its alliance with the United States, (2) enhance its economic partnerships in Asia, and (3) work within the framework achieved through (1) and (2) to steadily promote long-term democratization within the region. Japan probably will have no other options upon which to compose the backbone of its regional foreign policy save for these three. Setting aside (1), the thrust of (2) is Japan working to open itself up to Asia. Cooperation and exchange in a wide range of areas, not just between governments but also among nonprofit organizations and the like, form the focus of (3), and are likely to culminate in cooperation of a truly meaningful nature. What Japan's involvement in Asia requires, in both shape and in substance, is progress and enhancement that reflects the region's own transformation.

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    • Project Member, Political and Diplomatic Review
      Professor, Faculty of Global Studies, Sophia University
    • Taizo Miyagi
    • Taizo Miyagi

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