Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.04.08

The United Kingdom and Japan

JBpress on April 4, 2014

Last week, there was a fog upon London. It was a combination of poisonous European industrial smog and dust from the Sahara desert. Britons fear Scottish independence by referendum. Leaders in Westminster debate the pros and cons of the U.K.'s membership in the E.U. Oddly enough, London and Tokyo, both maritime status quo powers, look quite alike in geopolitical terms.

For years, Japan has been a victim of hazardous PM 2.5 pollution particulates and yellow desert dust from China. Of course, it might be difficult for the silent majority of Japanese to imagine that Scotland may leave the U.K. and become independent again as early as this September. This is because Japan has been closely united over the past several centuries.

Having said that, what if some minority Japanese had a similar idea? What if, for example, the Okinawans voted for their independence in a democratic referendum? This would be as shocking to the mainland Japanese as an independent Scotland is to the people in England and Wales. In the U.K., unfortunately, this could be an inevitable reality.

Similarly difficult to understand might be the debate in London on whether the U.K. should stay in or leave the European Union. However, this is not new to Japan, either. Since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan's intellectuals have been divided into two schools, namely the school of "(Japan should) Leave Asia and Enter the West" and the school of "Asia is One (including Japan)."

The debate has neither converged nor been terminated. In other words, modern Japan's foreign policy has been haunted with these two ideas without reaching any consensus. As is the case in the United Kingdom, this debate about Japan and Asia may continue forever.

In London, I gathered that Ukraine is a "game changer" not only for Europe and America but also for East Asia. The crisis in Crimea means that the post Cold War era is ending and that the West has failed to stabilize Eastern Europe by containing Russia. After spending a week in Europe, I am convinced that Crimea is not the end but is just a beginning.

The implication is not confined to Europe. Russia would be likely to retaliate by challenging Western interests: in the Middle East, whether in Syria, Iran or elsewhere. Historically, Russia has faced three geopolitical challenges from Western Europe, Islam and China. Therefore, such a strategic transformation in Europe and the Middle East would also impact stability in East Asia.

The United States' famous policy of "Rebalancing" to Asia is no exception. The policy, which is very unpopular among trans-Atlantic security experts, is based on the assumption that Europe is safe and at peace, wars are ending in the Middle East and, therefore, we should focus on Asia. Now that tensions are renewed in Europe and the Middle East, this policy may not be sustainable.

Especially since Washington can no longer wage two major wars at the same time, the U.S. policies for Europe, the Middle East and East Asia may require further coordination.

The Cold War, which was basically waged between two internationalisms, effectively contained dangerous nationalisms. Having recently visited Paris, London and Berlin, I am almost certain that "revisionist nationalisms" are back again and that democracies in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia now face common nationalistic challenges for changing the status quo by coercion.

So here are the perspectives from Tokyo: In a nutshell, the Crisis in Crimea is not a "fire on the other side of the river." The situation in Ukraine will directly or indirectly impact Japan's own national security interests. Unfortunately, unlike before, Japan's passive defense posture may no longer be enough to deter those challenges.

Therefore, Japan's new proactive measures include reviewing the Guidelines of Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, establishing a National Security Council in the Prime Minister's Office, reviewing the principles on arms exports to enhance international defense cooperation, or relaxing the constitutional interpretation of the right to collective self-defense. All of these seem to be relevant.

Tokyo's pacifism is no longer passive and is getting more proactive and realistic. It is in response to increasingly nationalistic and assertive challenges in East Asian waters. However, Japan's lone efforts are not enough. It is high time also for the East Asian region as a whole to have a new crisis-preventing mechanism in order to maintain globally the post Cold War status quo.