Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.07.09

Empires Strike Back: From Communism to Neo-Imperialism

JBpress on July 4, 2014

Seen from Tokyo, the Crimean Crisis is a case of deja-vu. The annexation of Crimea, followed by a phased Russian intrusion into south eastern Ukraine, heralds the beginning of a new era in Europe. However, if the crisis is the revenge of a former pre-modern empire in Europe, this is nothing new in the eyes of strategic thinkers in East Asia.

A Game Changer

What happened to Ukraine is a real game changer in East-West relations in Europe. Over the past twenty years since the Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994, the West has tried to democratize (and neutralize) Russia. The Russian annexation of Crimea, unfortunately, means that such European efforts have finally failed.

In a sense, the Cold War, a war between internationalisms, had frozen (and contained) the centuries-old, ugly and violent nationalisms in Europe. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, the notoriously xenophobic and suspicious Russian nationalism did not resurrect for a while, until Putin started utilizing it as his political tool.

Making Russia a democratic member of Greater Europe was probably an illusion as well as wishful thinking. Now the West may be reminded that the crisis in Ukraine is just the tip of the iceberg and that Europe could become more unstable if and when traditional nationalisms return and prevail again as they did in the 19th century.

Precedents in East Asia

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, similar moves have already been witnessed in the East and South China Seas. Chinese attempts to take over isles or shoals, which started as early as the 1990s, still continue on the water. This is another example of nationalism-motivated attempts to change the status quo by coercion or force.

The similarities are striking. In the case of the Soviet Union/Russia, which was a pre-modern major empire, communism did not directly transform into neo-nationalism/neo-imperialism. Russian communism turned first into democracy (and failed) and then eventually into a born-again nationalistic imperialism.

Conversely, in the case of Beijing, since the early 1990s Chinese communism has been transformed directly into nationalistic neo-imperialism. The turning point was the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 when, unlike in the last days of the Soviet Union, democratic and reformist movements were cracked down upon and brutally smashed.

China is not a communist nation anymore. In the eyes of the strategic thinkers in East Asia, China is, like Russia, becoming another nationalism-motivated former pre-modern major empire, without a single day of democratic experience. In this respect, the comeback of Chinese nationalism could be far worse than that in Europe.

Is Japan Another Empire?

This strategic transformation in Europe will impact the Middle East and eventually East Asia. Russia faces geopolitical challenges not only from Europe to the west but also from Islam to the south. Since Russia has a big stake in Syria and Iran, Moscow can easily complicate and further destabilize the situation in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, the Russians and the Chinese are not the only examples of neo-nationalism/neo-imperialism. There are potential "revisionist" powers in the Middle East. For instance, Iran, an ancient and pre-modern regional empire that is becoming more assertive recently, is a natural candidate for that status.

Another potential candidate in the Middle East could be Turkey, a successor state of the Ottoman Empire, if her democracy ceases to function under Prime Minister Erdogan. Turkey, while being benignly rejected for membership in the EU, will never be welcomed by her former subject nations in the Middle East.

All in all, democracies in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia all face common strategic challenges of "revisionist" powers possibly attempting to change the status quo by force, coercion or intimidation. Unfortunately, this global phenomenon has not been fully recognized or shared by many political leaders in those regions.

Now a question may be raised by thoughtful readers: isn't Japan also a former pre-modern empire with strong nationalistic tendencies? The answer is: Yes, it was but not anymore. Unlike China or Russia, she has been a born-again democracy since 1945. She was also democratic, like Weimar Germany, in the early 20th century.

Now Tokyo shares universal values such as democracy, freedom, rule of law, human rights, humanitarianism and the right to self determination with the United States and EU members. As long as Japan is democratic, she will continue to be a "status quo power."

Japan's Proactive Contribution to Peace

Tokyo is fully aware that the situation in Ukraine will, directly or indirectly, impact Japan's own national security. If the change in the status quo through Russians coercion is acquiesced to by the West, it may embolden Japan's neighbors to change the status quo, especially in the East and South China Seas.

By the same token, if the U.S. is seen as more involved in trans-Atlantic security issues, it may also send a wrong signal to those Asian "revisionists" that the U.S. will now focus mainly on Europe and will no longer pay due attention to peace and stability in the Middle East or in East Asia.

Prime Minister Abe's so-called "proactive contribution to peace" policy is designed to fill this gap. Now that Japan is physically threatened for the first time since 1945, it is becoming crystal clear that Japan's traditional passive defense posture can no longer deter those challenges.

Mr. Abe's series of new national security policies, such as reviewing the Guidelines of Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, establishing a National Security Council to coordinate Japan's security policies, reviewing the Principles of Arms Export to enhance international defense cooperation, and relaxing the constitutional interpretation of the nation's right to collective self-defense, are all important "homework" for national security which have been overdue for the past several decades and do not reflect any shift to a specific political denomination.

It is natural that Tokyo's contribution to peace is becoming more proactive these days. It is more realistic than passive in response to the increasingly nationalistic and assertive external challenges against the isles and shoals in the East Asian waters where Tokyo's vital sea lanes of communication are located.

Implication to the U.S. Asia "Rebalancing" Policy

In the middle of the above-mentioned global strategic transformation, the U.S. foreign and security policies vis-a-vis Europe, the Middle East and East Asia require further coordination. This is simply because the "Rebalancing to Asia" policy has been based on the assumption that Europe is at peace and that wars in the Middle East are ending.

Now that new tensions are arising in Europe, the instability in the Middle East may continue and the U.S. may no longer be able to wage two major wars at the same time, some new thinking is required. In the post post Cold War era, the U.S., EU and Japan, facing the same geopolitical challenges from "revisionist" powers, must maintain the post Cold War status quo. In an era of potentially wilder, uglier and more violent neo-nationalism/neo-imperialism, we, the Europe hands, Middle East hands and Asia hands alike, must overcome the deficiency of "intellectual compartmentalization" and jointly come up with a new global crisis-preventing mechanism.