Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.10.01

What's really happening in the rest of the world

the japan times on September 24, 2019

Recklessly, I undertook three self-imposed "forced marches" abroad in September -- visiting Hong Kong for less than 48 hours, Seoul for just 30 hours two weeks later and then a 48-hour stay in Palo Alto, California, because something very important was happening in the rest of the world.

It was hectic, but intensive one-on-one conversations with overseas intellectuals have always help me think more deeply about international affairs. This time the short trips in a period of just three weeks helped me realize what would be the best foreign policy for Tokyo in the years to come.

When it comes to deep thinking, shallow analyses or easy propositions on day-to-day specific developments are insufficient and counterproductive. What you really need is to have the right perspective to feel the general directions or historical trends of issues.


Its rise is now inevitable, but its ultimate objective is not to dominate the whole world. It's probably just to overcome the historical trauma that has taken place since the 1842 defeat in the Opium War and to regain its regional dominance by eliminating the last Western elements, namely U.S. forces stationed in Japan and South Korea. China will never allow Hong Kong to enjoy freedom and democracy, but it is not in a hurry to take full control of it either. Any failure in Hong Kong could spill over to such core issues as Taiwan as well as to sensitive minority issues in Xinjiang or Tibet. Beijing can wait and time is often on its side.

North Korea

After losing Russia and China's help in the 1990s, Pyongyang has continued to pursue its survival as a communist dynasty. Rejecting the open-door policy model of China or Vietnam, North Korea is now completing its nuclear weapons development programs. Thanks to the idealistic inter-Korean policies by South Korean President Moon Jae-in as well as to U.S. President Donald Trump's naive Northeast Asia policy, it is nowonly a matter of time until Pyongyang deploys nuclear-armed mid-range ballistic missiles aimed at Tokyo and Beijing.

South Korea

The shift of the strategic environment from the Cold War posture that had existed since the 1950s gave South Korea a golden opportunity to regain its national pride and identity, and to finally become the owner of its history. The nation is now returning to the traditional "balancing" foreign policy that existed on the Korean Peninsula prior to 1910.

Now Seoul naively believes that it can maintain a strong alliance with the United States while improving ties with China and North Korea. South Korea has started to review the alliance/semi-alliance among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, which it may no longer highly value or take for granted.


The Middle East became destabilized following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the 1991 Gulf War. The geopolitical situation further deteriorated due to the vacuum of power created by the 2003 Iraq War and the fragmentation of Syria since 2011. Iran is now filling the vacuum created by the two wars in southern Iraq and other parts of the Persian Gulf region. The true nature of the problem, however, is not necessarily the religious competition between the Sunnis and Shiites but rather the traditional nationalistic rivalry between the Arabs and the Iranians.

Europe and Russia

The 1991 demise of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War in the European theater. It is ironic, however, that the breakup of the Eastern bloc and its eventual accession to the European Union revealed the limits of the EU, which pursues political unity while allowing each member country to retain its sovereignty.

Domestic political difficulties such as Brexit, populist nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant movements in the region will make Europe and Russia more inward-looking and, therefore, much less influential in the global competition among the great powers in the 21st century.

United States

What I call the "dark side" trends in the world, an ugly and unhealthy combination of nationalism, populism or other forms of discrimination and xenophobia did not originate in the U.S. Having said that, it is fair to state that the Trump administration has accelerated the global trend.

U.S. President Donald Trump is not the cause. He is a result or symptom of the dark side of America. What has declined, however, is not the power of the U.S. but rather the ability of American politicians to make the best use of U.S. power.

Given these assessments, what should Japan do in the years to come? I will share my concrete proposals for the optimal foreign policy options for Tokyo in my next article. The conclusions, however, may not be as simple as I wish, because the conventional wisdom from the past 70-some years in Japan may no longer be conventional anymore. On the contrary, it could be even counterproductive with respect to the survival of Japan as a nation. Stay tuned.