Friday, August 28, 2020



Shortly before announcing he would step down, congratulatory banners went up in Prime Minister Abe's home province of Yamaguchi celebrating his milestone accomplishment of serving longer than any other Japanese prime minister. Although some saw the politicized banners as an inappropriate use of tax-payer money, it is telling that Abe Shinzo’s allies in Yamaguchi should want to remember him it this way.

Indeed, Abe’s political longevity itself, grudgingly achieved over the course of two lackluster terms, is one of his few uncontested successes.

In contrast, the man's preening ambition to reinvent Japan along revisionist lines and revive and beautify the militarism associated with his convicted war criminal grandfather Kishi Nobusuke has failed. Abe's egotistic desire to elide himself with the nation as the voice and embodiment of a mythic "beautiful Japan" is on a par with Trump's declaration that he is the "greatest president ever" (except perhaps for Lincoln?)

In Japan, prime ministers have a reputation for fleeting, if not entirely flighty tenures.  Ruling party bureaucrats, in conjunction with a handful of political blue-bloods, closely hold power in the traditional set-up. Since World War Two, Japan has fielded three dozen prime ministers, several lasting only a year. During the same period, China has seen just six leaders and the US elected 13 presidents.

For Abe to put his foot in the revolving door of representing Japan’s ruling party is indeed a signal accomplishment. While this “democratic” accomplishment disguises the fact that Japan has been under the dominant rule of a single party almost as long as China, Abe’s longevity played an important public relations function during a time period when international summitry reigned supreme and taming the media was a mark of power.

Respecting both the need for disclosure and to make a point about access, I was awarded an Abe Fellowship to conduct research in Japan and China in 2014 during the early part of Abe’s second tenure as Prime Minister. The Abe Foundation, which funds scholarly research through the auspices of the Social Science Research Council, is named after Abe’s father Shintaro, an LDP stalwart and former foreign minister. It is designed to function free of political influence, in theory at least, though it works close with the Japan Foundation and Abe Shinzo and colleagues have attended functions related to the foundation’s work.

Carrying a namecard which identified me as an Abe Fellow, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not open any doors for me in China where I studied how the media covered Japan. But it didn’t really open doors for me in Japan either. When I submitted a written request to interview Abe through the auspices of the foundation, I was turned down with polite apprehension. That’s not the way thing work in Japan, not under Abe, and I probably should have known better.

Abe, not unlike his self-proclaimed pal Donald Trump, was a keen observer of the media and saw it as a key to wielding power. Like Trump, he had people keeping score of how journalists covered him and treated them accordingly.

NHK, Asahi Shimbun and the Japan Times, all three of which I have done extensive work for, came under intense pressure to toe the Abe line after he came into to power. He was aided in struggle to win praise and subdue critics by his cronies in the ultra-conservative Nippon Kaigi organization, the platform of which seeks to reverse verdicts of the Tokyo Tribunal and get rid of the peace clause in Japan’s constitution.

The Asahi Shimbun was targeted by Abe’s ideologues, emerging defiant but somewhat muted, while the Japan Times, under new ownership with links to Abe’s ideological circle, caved in entirely.  “The newly-born” Japan Times, as lauded by rightist commentator Sakurai Yoshiko, quickly adopted a sycophantic party line. Temple University’s Jeff Kingston, a respected columnist known as a critic of political revisionism was one among several dismissed without explanation. The newly-installed editorial team under the direction of Mizuno Hiroyasu also disputed pieces contributed by other critics of Abe, including this author, and went as far as altering coverage in an Orwellian way in keeping with the rightist policy of white-washing history with obfuscating euphemisms. Terms such as “forced laborers” and “sex slaves” referring to victims of the Imperial Army, were stricken from the Japan Times style-sheet.

It was no coincidence, as a leaked tape reveals, that the Japan Times “scored” an exclusive interview with the sitting prime minister as a reward for cleaning up shop and getting rid of erstwhile critics. NHK, a quasi-governmental national television station, also came under intense pressure to alter coverage deemed unfavorable to the interests of the ruling clique of the ruling party, both through the appointment of the inexperienced Abe loyalists, such as Momii Katsuto who became Chairman, and the ever-present implicit threat of funding cuts.

I believe my selection as an Abe Fellow was free of political influence, as the application procedure is outsourced to the SSRC in New York, but my access and ability to get things done in Japan was hampered by a body of freelance work covering Japan over a period of 25 years, including published critiques of rightist revisionism in manga, movies and other media.

Still, there is little joy in marking the end of the Abe era, despite its rightist politics, media power plays and hopelessly old school thinking, because the man stepping down is not alone in thinking that Japan can do no wrong. Of the handful of men most likely to replace him, most of them share the quasi-racial national chauvinism expressed in Abe’s book, “Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan.”  

Some of his right-hand men are even more unforgivingly right-wing than he and think Abe is too soft on China and Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.

It is to Abe’s credit (and a credit to his accumulation of power and prestige) that he was able to soften his party’s hardline stance on China. It’s a “Nixon-in-China” dynamic, by which only hard-core conservatives can get away with floating bold policy changes that would sink a liberal leader. Under Abe, any thaw with North Korea remained a non-starter, because he banked his political credibility on being a voice for Japanese abducted by the Pyongyang regime.  But during his most recent tenure in office, the long-contentious, borderline explosive China relationship stabilized and showed signs of modest improvement, helped by the people-to-people honeymoon of the Chinese tourist boom in Japan.

Although Abe never ceased to break bread with racists and rightists in his LDP coalition, he prudently refrained from irking Beijing with deliberately provocative visits to Yasukuni Shrine and other acts that deigned to glorify the perfidy that was militaristic wartime Japan.

One odd and unexpected legacy of Abe’s latter years in power is his chummy relationship with Donald Trump. Eager to be on friendly terms with “the Don” he jumped the gun and visited Trump at Trump Tower between election and inauguration in 2016. He lavished attention on the US president during his visit to Japan, even if it meant eating hamburgers instead of more delicious Japanese food. He tagged along with Trump on the golf course, even though it caused him to tumble into a sand trap. Few leaders have worked so hard to stay on good terms with the erratic American president, and while it didn’t stop Trump from stabbing Japan in the back in policy terms, the personal relationship survived even after it no longer thrived.

Let's hope both men have ample time for hamburgers and golf come this November.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020


by Phil Cunningham

“U.S. Leads a Coalition of One against China” screams the headline of The American Conservative. It sounds like a parody piece in the Onion or a college humor magazine but it comes from the pages of a serious, right-leaning publication not known for going easy on Beijing. The article by Ted Galen Carpenter highlights the utter failure of the Trump administration to get allies, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom, from supporting its crusade against China. 

As for the UK, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a visit to London to twist arms and bend British will on controversial questions such as Huawei and military preparedness in the South China Sea with mixed results. A coerced “Coalition of Two” may well be achieved, but the rest of Europe just isn’t buying it, and neither is Asia. 

Guardian World Affairs editor Julian Borger pithily explains why the US “coalition” is failing to coalesce: “The failure of governance evident in the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic – which has left the US as the biggest, most enduring hotspot, and Americans banned from travelling to much of the world – has also made it hard for US diplomats to cajole foreign governments into a common cause against China, without drawing pained smiles.” 

Trump has alienated even longstanding US allies with his erratic, petulant behavior, whether it be slamming down the phone receiver or belittling essential allies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and the Republic of Korea’s Moon Jae-in.

Australia, which the US has long taken for granted as a bulwark against China, has pushed back against Pompeo’s push. "The relationship we have with China is very important, and we have no intention of injuring it," according to Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

In Asia, India has reasons of its own to seek common ground with the US China-hawks, but an Indo-US “democratic alliance” against China doesn’t stand much of a chance since long-standing New Delhi-Washington DC distrust can’t be easily overcome.

Even Japan, bound by treaty to be a stalwart supporter and “key security ally” of the US, has shown reluctance to get on board the runaway Pompeo train, even on more moderate issues, as seen in this June 7, 2020 report in the Mainichi Shimbun: “Japan opts not to join U.S., others in rapping China for Hong Kong law.”

As for South Korea, asking Seoul to “choose either China or the United States” is like “asking a child whether you like your dad or your mom,” according to Moon Hee-sang, the speaker of South Korea’s legislature. Talking to The Atlantic in late July he added, “We cannot abandon economy for the sake of security, and we cannot abandon security for the sake of economy.”

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi appears to concur: “It is neither necessary nor possible for the two sides to change each other, Wang stressed in a Xinhua report in early August. "Instead, we should respect the choice independently made by the people of the other side."

The US has been undermining support and chiseling away at its own alliance network for some time now. Japan was upset by the way the US unilaterally pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The childish storming out of various arms control agreements has not added to American stature.

The Trump administration inherited a bureaucratic disregard for decisions of the World Court and global environmental protocols, but making a mockery of the UN has done nothing to win upsets allies. Quitting the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic is par for the course for Trump’s tone-deaf diplomacy.

The carnage wreaked out to traditional institutions and valued protocol is so great that critics can be found across the political spectrum.

“Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched yet another evangelical crusade, this time against China,” writes liberal economist Jeffrey Sachs. “His speech was extremist, simplistic, and dangerous – and may well put the US on a path to conflict with China.”

Equally cogent analysis comes from conservative writers who are hoping to dampen the impact of Pompeo’s audacious and ill-conceived move to declare a Cold War on China.

University of Chicago-trained historian Daniel Larison argues against Cold War rhetoric and intervention by citing, unsentimentally, an especially egregious failure of the past in “The Jakarta Method: How the U.S. Used Mass Murder To Beat Communism.” 

Larison focuses on Indonesia in 1965 when the US supported Suharto’s bloody coup, (ostensibly an anti-China crackdown) to drive home the point it would be off-the-charts disastrous if US hubris encouraged it to take aim at China today.

“The U.S. would do well to reject regime change, covert or otherwise, and to respect the sovereignty and independence of other states instead. The U.S. should also avoid another Cold War with a major power rival that leads to such monstrous crimes as the mass murder in Indonesia.”

Everywhere you look, outside of race-driven populism of Rupert Murdoch’s TV and newspaper empire, there is a palpable sense that US policy has lost its bearings.

“The dirty little secret is that the administration has no strategy. It is a snake pit of competing policy entrepreneurs, most of whom understand little about China or world affairs,” writes Columbia Professor Andrew Nathan for the centrist Asia Society. “For many, domestic politics is the key consideration.”

Nathan identifies the “snakes” as follows: Mike Pompeo, White House advisors Peter Navarro and Matthew Pottinger, Vice-President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General William Barr, and outside ideologues Newt Gingrich and Steve Bannon. Congressman Ted Yoho of the Taiwan Caucus gets special mention because he was recently upbraided by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   

To Nathan’s taxonomy of the “snake pit,” might be added four congressional “hoarse men” known for their rabid anti-China venom: Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Chris Smith.

The good news is that this loose, incoherent coalition is already fighting among themselves and will be in no position to prosecute a Cold War if Trump loses the election.

The bad news for those who want to avoid a new Cold War and prefer cooperation over confrontation is that Biden and the Democrats, desperate to outflank Trump, are almost equally hawkish on China these days.






The stealthy but steadily expanding pandemic, which has put millions of people on edge, worried about their lives and livelihoods, is proving to be a game-changer. Its toll on human suffering and devastated economies is reasonably well documented, but not the pressure it exerts on foreign policy. The short tempers, petty provocations and latent prejudices seen erupting on the street are echoed in the halls of governance as well; indeed a pattern of top-down invective can be clearly traced.

Global anxiety about the pandemic is a force field full of distortions akin to the “fog of war.”  Fear, panic and a rush to self-preservation is diminishing common decency and common sense.

Petty slights, retaliatory digs and mean-spirited policy threaten to become casus belli. When China and the US each accuse each other of weaponizing the coronavirus, the world suffers from the release of a new, unwanted political virus.

The White House casts cruel aspersions about Chinese people and summarily puts immigrants and foreign students on notice. In the Pacific Ocean, routine patrols have been stepped up, “freedom of navigation” asserted with bellicosity and surveillance increased. Companies get slapped with sanctions without evidence. Journalists are tossed out on both sides, leaving hysterical voices to fill the vacuum.

The world, riddled by the quick-flowing news and acidulous misinformation on the Internet, is seeing angry reactions in reaction to angry reactions, ad infinitum. The rapid exchange of insults and tribalization of like-minded views is creating a Tower of Babel moment. Proponents of isolationism and provincialism gain strength with each lockdown and the shock reduction of travel, tourism and trade.

Virus-battered, hypervigilant populations are beginning to shape relations between states. Reactionary populist demands make for bad diplomacy, but diplomacy, too, has been contaminated by the toxic mood of the times. 

A kind of collective trauma has set in. Even after the worst of the pandemic passes, stresses will linger. The irritability, confusion, anxiety and despair has gone global. The tell-tale signs of denial, angry outbursts and self-destructive behavior are in the daily news for all to see.

Everyone, everywhere, is on guard. China and the US are part of a larger world collectively suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

But it takes two to tango, and therein lies a strategy, if not a remedy.

Shi Yinhong at Remmin University recently touched on a critical point when he told the South China Morning Post that China need not respond in kind to every provocation:
“China could choose not to retaliate in this specific case,” Shi suggested, in reference to sanctions recently slapped on Chinese officials. “I think by doing so China could avoid causing further damage to its own interests.”

Indeed, breaking a cycle of resentment may well serve to create political capital. “An asymmetric approach could give China more space and leave a window to talk business with the next president,” Shi added.

Invoking asymmetry in the name of peace is break-through diplomacy. Asymmetry strategy has a long history in warfare, for example the rag-tag American colonial subjects who took on mighty Britain, or Ho Chi Minh’s under-fed, under-supplied troops who defeated both French and American attempts to take control.

But arguing for a foreign policy that invokes asymmetry for the sake of peace is fresh, out-of-the-box thinking. It helps avoid a race to the exits and a rush to the bottom. It is in tune with the struggle for social justice within nations, where subtle wielders of power such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King played a seemingly passive hand to great advantage.

In psychological terms, an asymmetric response to deliberate provocation is a way of scorning the provocation and standing above the insult. Properly practiced, it is a technique for taking control, not ceding it.

In contrast, to answer every tit with a corresponding tat, even if carefully calibrated, is a losing strategy.

To react quickly and vociferously to each instance of being prodded is to be played. Impulsive reaction does not allow the strategic pros and cons of a move to be thought through.

Unthinking retaliation to apparent provocation creates the risk of kinetic conflict. It’s much harder to make a voluntary show of restraint after the blood begins to flow, even if the alternative is a death spiral leading to all-out war.

President Trump is by any reckoning a bad-mannered politician, a failed businessman, a documented liar and a cheat, but he is first-rate provoker. He has mastered the art of the insult and unexpected gibe to deflect criticism and put others on guard, allies and opponents alike. 

Xi Jinping is more enigmatic, his statements more carefully scripted and less prone to public outbursts. But if veteran diplomats such as Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi can be said to reflect official thinking, they have shown, in their recent reports and published remarks a measured criticism of the US and a willingness to pull back from the brink and get back to the business of cooperative, civil relations.

Even if one sets aside the argument over which side has done more to aggravate the other--and make no mistake there are many serious issues that need to be addressed--both sides can and should exercise the option of restraint in the face of petty provocation.

Anger, once aroused, has a life of its own, resistant to logic. If provocations are played up by the press and popular opinion is weaponized in this age of social networking and instant messaging, it will be hard for even the most prudent politicians to call off the hounds of war.

When it comes to recalling past insults, Chinese collective memory is second to none. The “hundred years of national humiliation” meme, very much alive and kicking in China today, is a case in point.

Remembering is often a good thing, that’s what historians do, even if taking lessons from the past offers an imperfect guide to the future. But obsessing over every slight and reacting to everything all the time is ridiculously counter-productive.

But if a new Cold War is allowed to congeal due to perceived grievances and media-magnified complaints, the danger to both sides is unimaginably high. Precipitous decoupling is a guaranteed lose-lose proposition for all parties in this deeply fragile, deeply inter-connected world.