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Strategic implications of Japan’s disaster

I have been cautious about predicting the longer-term strategic implications of the massive earthquakes and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11. To begin with, years ago I lived for a summer in the part of Japan that has born the brunt of this disaster, interviewing farmers and politicians for a column I struggled to ...

By , the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

I have been cautious about predicting the longer-term strategic implications of the massive earthquakes and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11. To begin with, years ago I lived for a summer in the part of Japan that has born the brunt of this disaster, interviewing farmers and politicians for a column I struggled to write each week in Japanese for the local Iwate Nippo Newspaper. The images of death and destruction, especially to the beautiful Sanriku Coast, have been heartbreaking for me to watch. A second reason for caution is the lesson many of us learned trying to anticipate the longer-term impact of the December 2004 Asian Tsunami. Most of us in government at the time expected that the civil war in Sri Lanka would end because the tsunami had destroyed the Tamil Tigers' fleet and coastal bases, but that the insurgency in Aceh, Indonesia would grow worse because the tsunami had destroyed the Indonesian Army's bases and lines of supply. The exact opposite occurred -- the Sri Lankan civil war dragged violently on for five more years, but Indonesian President Susilu Bambang Yudyuhono managed to sign a peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) within six months of the disaster. A final reason for caution is that the scope of the disaster is not yet clear -- particularly at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, where a few dozen engineers bravely remain to cool the reactor cores.

Yet as Japanese scholars and citizens themselves begin considering the future -- and as American rating agencies and pundits hit a drumbeat of negative and often ill-informed predictions -- it seems both appropriate and necessary to at least frame the possibilities of what comes next for Japan.

The first thing that can be said about the disaster is that it has highlighted both the traditional strengths and the adaptability of Japanese society. The world press has marveled at the stoic resolve and orderliness of the Japanese public as they queue for hours for scarce supplies without breaking the rules or complaining. This is precisely the national character that allowed Japan to rebound from even greater disasters such as the Edo fire of 1657, the Kanto earthquake of 1923, and the aftermath of the Pacific War's end in 1945, when the Emperor announced that the Japanese people would have to "endure the unendurable"... and they did. The response has also highlighted the adaptability of Japan. After studying shortcomings in the response to the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, the Japanese government strengthened coordination with the Self-Defense Forces and created crisis management centers across central and local government. This preparation has saved countless lives, even as the government struggles on multiple fronts because of the scale of the disaster. Even more impressive has been the activism of Japanese civil society and especially of Japanese youth; frequently dismissed in recent press analysis as self-obsessed "herbivores," they have mobilized spontaneously through Facebook and other social media and have been shown carrying elderly citizens to high ground on their backs.  

I have been cautious about predicting the longer-term strategic implications of the massive earthquakes and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11. To begin with, years ago I lived for a summer in the part of Japan that has born the brunt of this disaster, interviewing farmers and politicians for a column I struggled to write each week in Japanese for the local Iwate Nippo Newspaper. The images of death and destruction, especially to the beautiful Sanriku Coast, have been heartbreaking for me to watch. A second reason for caution is the lesson many of us learned trying to anticipate the longer-term impact of the December 2004 Asian Tsunami. Most of us in government at the time expected that the civil war in Sri Lanka would end because the tsunami had destroyed the Tamil Tigers’ fleet and coastal bases, but that the insurgency in Aceh, Indonesia would grow worse because the tsunami had destroyed the Indonesian Army’s bases and lines of supply. The exact opposite occurred the Sri Lankan civil war dragged violently on for five more years, but Indonesian President Susilu Bambang Yudyuhono managed to sign a peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) within six months of the disaster. A final reason for caution is that the scope of the disaster is not yet clear — particularly at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, where a few dozen engineers bravely remain to cool the reactor cores.

Yet as Japanese scholars and citizens themselves begin considering the future — and as American rating agencies and pundits hit a drumbeat of negative and often ill-informed predictions — it seems both appropriate and necessary to at least frame the possibilities of what comes next for Japan.

The first thing that can be said about the disaster is that it has highlighted both the traditional strengths and the adaptability of Japanese society. The world press has marveled at the stoic resolve and orderliness of the Japanese public as they queue for hours for scarce supplies without breaking the rules or complaining. This is precisely the national character that allowed Japan to rebound from even greater disasters such as the Edo fire of 1657, the Kanto earthquake of 1923, and the aftermath of the Pacific War’s end in 1945, when the Emperor announced that the Japanese people would have to "endure the unendurable"… and they did. The response has also highlighted the adaptability of Japan. After studying shortcomings in the response to the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, the Japanese government strengthened coordination with the Self-Defense Forces and created crisis management centers across central and local government. This preparation has saved countless lives, even as the government struggles on multiple fronts because of the scale of the disaster. Even more impressive has been the activism of Japanese civil society and especially of Japanese youth; frequently dismissed in recent press analysis as self-obsessed "herbivores," they have mobilized spontaneously through Facebook and other social media and have been shown carrying elderly citizens to high ground on their backs.  

The disaster will likely have at least some impact on Japanese security and foreign policy. The government’s poor response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake was seized upon by national security realists to argue for changes in emergency legislation and greater acceptance of the Self Defense Forces as an instrument of national power. Fiscal realities may keep defense spending below 1 percent of GDP, but the disaster will reinforce calls to remove impediments to the SDF’s rules of engagement and for greater interoperability with the United States (Operation "Tomodachi" — the relief effort by the 50,000 U.S. personnel in Japan — is the largest joint and combined operation between the United States and Japan ever). Japan’s relations with China and Russia, which were abysmal before the crisis, may thaw somewhat now. Beijing’s 15man rescue team could take some of the edge off of the Sino-Japanese tensions 86 percent of Japanese said in recent polls that they do not trust China — though the root cause of the tensions, PLA operations around Japan, are unlikely to change.  Putin’s decision to set aside differences over the Northern Territories for now in order to help a "good neighbor" may have a more lasting effect, since the root causes of friction between Tokyo and Moscow were always more political than structural or strategic. Finally, many Japanese friends are telling me that the world’s outpouring of support and assistance is reminding average citizens in Japan how important it is for Japan to also make its own "international contributions" in terms of ODA and security. Of course, this impulse will be in competition with the understandable desire to focus on reconstruction at home over the coming years.

Japanese economic production will definitely recover from the disaster. The damage estimates are generally well above US $150 billion, and Japanese business surveys are expecting a big hit on manufacturing output over the coming months. However, the economy is still expected to grow overall in JFY 2011 (April 2011-March 2012) once corporations adjust their supply chains and reconstruction spending begins.  Moody’s Investors Service is warning that the huge financing needs may erode investor confidence in the country’s ability to repay its debts, but this underestimates the likelihood that Japanese citizens will buy reconstruction bonds (over 90 percent of Japanese debt is already domestically held) and ignores the huge amounts of cash Japanese banks and corporations have been sitting on the past year. (Moody’s also downgraded South Korea’s sovereign debt rating when Roh Moo Hyun came to power in 2003on the dubious logic that relations with the United States would deteriorate.) However, even if production recovers, that still leaves the question of whether Japan will revitalize its basic economic growth strategy. Phil Levy rightly pointed out in his post that the Japanese political classes could become addicted again to Keynesian approaches to growing the economy. On the other hand, Prime Minister Kan had already begun to embrace measures that would unleash greater competition in the Japanese economy, including participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations. That specific debate will probably be on hold for a few months, but the economic reformers behind it will seize on the reconstruction strategy to argue for even bolder measures to revitalize economic growth. Decisions about how to raise money for reconstruction — for example, whether to include incentives for private equity and not just rely on debt — will reveal the prevailing direction of the economic strategy debate in the coming months.

Numerous Japanese commentators had recently argued that the nation needed a shock to accelerate the kind of opening, reform and revitalization that Japan embraced after Commodore Perry’s ships landed in Edo Bay on July 8, 1853 and the war ended in August, 1945. While no one could have anticipated or called for the enormity of the heart-wrenching human tragedy of March 11, the nation again finds itself at an important turning point. And history would strongly suggest that Japan will emerge stronger.

Michael J. Green is the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished scholar at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @DrMichaelJGreen

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