Japan: Promoting Democracy in Asia Comes with a Distinct Disadvantage for Japan


Phar Kim Beng

With the Bush Administration reeling from the fiasco in Iraq, compounded by the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, nothing much can be expected from the White House for the next 18 months. Given Iran's determination to proceed with its nuclear enrichment program, the focus of the United States would be on Persia, rather than Asia. Conscious of this strategic window of vulnerability, Japan has been one of the first countries in the region to forge a military relationship with Australia. Japan has also reinforced its ties with India, New Zealand, Vietnam and Indonesia, all of which are countries deemed important to Japan's strategic interest. With the exception of Vietnam, India, New Zealand and Indonesia are all democracies that rank well with that of Japan. Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is determined to promote 'universal values' in Asia, a platform otherwise taken up by the United States, the responsibility of promoting good governance, democracy and sound environmental management would obviously rebound on Japan and its regional counterparts. But Japan faces a distinct problem in seeking to promote such a democratic coalition. Of the three countries that Japan hopes to work with, none of them have a strong pro-Asia policy and only as recently as 2005 became members of the East Asian Summit.

As a virtual continent on its own, India has for the last five decades kept its distance from the rest of Asia. Australia suffers from the same problem, as does New Zealand which is closer to the Pacific than it is to Southeast Asia. Indonesia's democracy is still at its infancy, and too enfeebled by corruption to serve as a sound model.

Abe's idea of a democratic coalition is also taken from the original proposal of his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, who first articulated in 2002. It is not necessarily lacking in merit as it is devoid of Abe's personal imprint.

Meanwhile, China continues to grow. Its defense budget for 2006 increased by 18 per cent with no sound explanation for the vast increase as yet. In spite of the readiness of North Korea to stop its nuclear enrichment program, Pyongyang still pack enormous military might that it can use at its disposal.

Domestically, Abe is also becoming weaker by the day, due to his indecisive style of governance. With the upper house election coming up in July 2007, Abe would not be able to concentrate on the task of promoting democracy. His failure to address the comfort women issue, where Korean women were forced into prostitution by the Japanese army, has also cast aspersions on Japan's credibility to promote democracy abroad.

Invariably, what this amounts to is a region that will rely on bilateralism, more than multilateralism. To the extent countries latch on to the latter, they would have to rise to the occasion only on an ad hoc basis, as when they faced SARS, tsunami or any disasters of a pan-regional nature.

Hence, in spite of Japan's willingness to promote democracy in Asia under a common agenda with the United States, that is working in league with India, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, there is very little progress that can be made.

WATCHPOINT: Japan's attempt to promote a coalition of democracy in Asia would not succeed. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become increasingly consumed by domestic issues to play any decisive regional role.


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