Interview: Alexis Dudden

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Interview: Alexis Dudden

How unprecedented are the tensions in East Asia today?

Interview: Alexis Dudden
Credit: The White House

Alexis Dudden is a professor of Japanese history at the University of Connecticut. She has conducted extensive research on Japan’s role in the Pacific War, U.S. policy in East Asia, and current environmental and security issues in East Asia. She is the author of two books: Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States and Japan’s Colonization of Korea: Discourse and Power. She recently spoke with The Diplomat about the historical context for the tensions that prevail in East Asia today.

When you observe the conflicts between China, Japan, and Korea today, whether economic, political, cultural, do you see similar patterns from the past, or do you observe unprecedented patterns of behavior?

The historian in me tries to impress upon students that the twentieth century in East Asia was an aberration from history in that Japan was the powerhouse. Japan’s power took the form of traditional military power, but also it took the form of knowledge and education. The Japanese defined the terms for intellectual debate within East Asia to an unprecedented degree.

Those strengths were a result of the decisions made during the Meiji Era that set Japan on a path of institutional reform and technological revolution that put it suddenly ahead of the continent.

There were reasons for that breakthrough. This may come across as a reductionist perspective, but ultimately it did matter that Japanese thinkers as early as the eighteenth century had started to embrace a profit-based conception of the political economy which was beyond the pale in Korea or China.

But where exactly did this difference come from in terms of Japanese development? Was Japanese culture so different, or did they just buy into rapidly expanding technologies at just the right moment?

Japan was able to respond to the global development of a market economy and pre-modern Japanese were more comfortable with the concept of market economies. We know Adam Smith as the great father of capitalism with his concept of the invisible hand of markets that helped the businessman to make a profit. But in Japan, there were already Confucian thinkers like Ogyu Sorai in the early eighteenth century who wrote about the economy not as something divine or natural, but as the product of the diligence of merchants.

Such a view contradicted the concept of a benevolent Confucian world order which did not see making money as a virtuous act. But thinkers in Osaka in the middle of the eighteenth century, flipped Confucianism upside down, and defined profit as a virtue. They were confirming a reality in a country where markets were at the center of the political economy in Japan.

Now fast-forward to the arrival of the black ships from the West, particularly the visit of the American Admiral Matthew Perry to Japan in 1853. The shock of a global economic system demanding the participation of Japan was great, but Japan already understood how to make a profit and power the economy based on markets. It was no accident that Osaka was the world’s first future’s market.

Korea and China understood money and trade and they saw its advantages clearly. But Confucian ideology did not define profit as a virtuous exercise. So in the case of China and Korea, American, British, French, German merchants were able to formulate, create and manage trade, finance and profit more easily because the Chinese and Koreans had no competing system already in place.

Japan however, had its indigenous models and it quickly figured out how to respond in a Japanese way in the Meiji Restoration. The implications were not limited to markets. Japan could also start a modern military or a postal service effectively and quickly. There was simply much less ideological resistance. Japanese thinkers like Ogyu Sorai understood money and power in the terms close to those employed in industrialized society.

At the time of Perry’s visit, the United States was trying to thwart British attempts to be the dominant power in Japan. The United States wasn’t going able to challenge British supremacy in China. Americans were dependent on British imperial ships to do business with China. But the U.S. got its foot in the door in the case of Japan and a unique relationship developed between these two powers, both of which ultimately was challenging the British system.

Japan was in shock at first, but it quickly found its footing and was hard at work giving contracts to rival countries to build modern ships. Japanese could not build a new navy and army fast enough. Most astonishing was the remarkable consensus on the project among Japanese elites.

So where are we today?

Today we see the return of the more traditional world order in East Asia, one that is increasingly focused around China. The dominance of Japan that shaped the 20th century is fading and the impact of the “Western powers” is less critical, at least in the popular imagination.

But we have not gone back to the past in any sense of the word. This is an entirely different world with a global service industry and a financial industry that is constantly trying to figure out what kind of money it can make off of the most recent development in geopolitics. In the late nineteenth century Japan challenged the China order by aligning its modernity with Western definitions of knowledge and power and adopting Western approaches to education and science.

To this day we see Japanese saying “We in the West” and clinging to the image of Japan as a member of the G7 that can hobnob with the Westerners in Brussels or Washington D.C.

And yet today some argue that China is more Westphalian in its approach to international relations than anything the rest of the Westphalian system ever produced. Chinese leaders speak about law and order, sovereignty and international law in ways they could not have imagined a hundred and fifty years ago, and in many respects, would not have 40 years ago. The social sciences have won the intellectual debate and are preeminent in China.

The loss of the humanities in China has been tragic. For me the greatest draw about China was the importance of the humanities in the tradition. It was a country where you could study literature and philosophy and then go on to serve in government at the highest levels.

Marxism has been driven from the curriculum and departments of Marxist economics have not been popular with students. We do see a bit of a reversal in this trend recently.

Marxist terms in China are the center of an intellectual confusion. Chinese use words and concepts in a manner that they did not do twenty-five years ago. This creates internal chaos in terms of what national priorities should be. So China’s biggest problem, obviously, is China. How do you feed that many people and keep the economy stable? They certainly are reflexive participants in the politics of China even if the society is not entirely open.

But the major problems we see today globally originate with the United States on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

What are we to make of the confrontation of the United States with China? I find it unfathomable that the country I grew up in is now engaged in this rush to militarize East Asia without even considering arms control agreements or opportunities for engagement. Is this sort of behavior on the part of the United States just something inevitable? Do countries that become powerful also grow arrogant and then structurally fall apart?

I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this situation in world history, to be honest. Geopolitical developments today are unprecedented in two respects. Of course, there have been great empires that clashed, or competed, throughout world history. But what we’ve see now is on a different scale in terms of politics and, more importantly, in terms of the potential devastation.

In the United States we have developed this dangerous culture of violence that colors everything in our foreign policy. At the same time, we have one of the most interdependent economies in the world. I mean, my child would not have an article of clothing or a toy to play with without China.

And yet there are those in America who seem to think you can just start a cold war, or plan for a hot war with China. But do these people know what exactly they are talking about? China is a continent; China is one in five people in the world. China is an enormous part of the United States economy.

And the technologies are such that the consequences of militarization go far beyond what we see on TV. We see a lot of hype in the United States. Not much of a calm approach to these issues. Nobody has posed the question, “what is the future goal of the United States in East Asia” or “what is our vision for what cooperation in East Asia would look like.” That’s where the rather alarming desire of some to quarantine China over a few sandbars in the South China Sea is hysterical, and unrealistic at every level.

We have to think about this question of climate change. This threat dwarfs everything else. And yet these new missile systems, and fighter planes, they have no role to play in the response to climate change. But even to ask that question is simply taboo.

That misconception of security has meant we cannot grasp real security threats like climate change. I mean, who’s really worried that the United States will not have a toehold in the Pacific?

In any case, the United States has been complicit in the rise of China at multiple levels. The whole process of financing China, buying cheap products from China, and encouraging production in China at a low cost by underpaid workers was an American idea. The China problem is an American problem at the core.

But rather than make that fundamental shift, we have rather clung to this bizarre concept that somehow we should prepare to fight World War II again.

The damage control moment brought to you by the American authorities in 1945 set the stage for our current misunderstanding of the nuclear bomb. The bomb that has inspired such fear as a weapon of mass destruction, morphed into a good and a necessary thing for peace. The last fifty years has resulted in a complete failure of Americans to understand what security means and ushered in the current catastrophe.

I think a related problem is the inability of Americans to simply understand what the United States committed to in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We promised to stop possessing them. But instead we are designing new ones and asking other countries not to possess them.

Many American policymakers have completely forgotten what the Non-Proliferation Treaty says. Just like the US State Department condemns China for violating the Law of the Sea, but the United States, unlike China, has never signed the Law of the Sea.

So here we are with the power to destroy the planet at many times over, and today’s nuclear weapons are hundreds of times more destructive than what we used in 1945. But when we flip on the television we just hear about North Korean nuclear capability.

And we are not just talking about nuclear weapons. Nuclear waste is just piling up and we have not figured out a way to dispose of it because there is no way to dispose of it.

We were cursed with the education to know how the world really works, but we do not have any easy way to change the course of events other than to simply keep on trying.

Well what is disturbing is the emergence of an America that doesn’t know how to define the rules for the region or project a convincing order. It sometimes seems as if the US is just there in the middle of everything, standing on a tank or on a battle ship, to say “we are doing this because we can.” It is not clear to the region that the United States represents anything greater than the spectacle or offers anything more than images of strength. We have tired out all our old supporters in the region with our antics.

We are seeing, for the first time in forty years, real challengers to the old order, both good and bad. I think the most exciting thing that is going on in the region right now, is the articulation of an alternative. We see Japanese people on the street saying: “You know what? You can’t change our constitution. We have a democracy, and that is the world order we want.” We have not seen that since the 1960s and in some respects the passion is unprecedented.

We do not know how this ends, but I will say that democracy in Japan is working much better than most of the Washington-based “alliance managers” give credit for. They’ve missed the fact that the Japanese occupation actually did what it was supposed to do, built a real democracy.

And we see original thinking in Japan and indigenous social theory and democratic urges. Let us face it. Japan’s is really one of the best constitutions standing on the planet. Some dismiss Japan, but the opposition there may have a chance again to offer an exciting challenge to what The United States or China are offering the region in terms of future vision.

I must say that Washington D.C. is not moving in a healthy direction. I’ve never seen anything like the reaction in Washington D.C. to the election of Hatoyama Yukio. I was in Japan that year and I was shocked to see how the establishment was committed to undermining and deposing a democratically elected prime minister.

Hatoyama challenged establishment thinking about U.S. bases in Okinawa and he talked about greater cooperation in East Asia. Nothing was wrong with what he was saying, although he used the wrong words sometimes. But the difference between Hatoyama, who was on his way to creating a new rapport with Japan’s neighbors, and Abe, who is ratcheting up tensions, is startling.

All Abe has been able to do is slam the door on Asia for Japan. He has embraced a bastardized version of the “cold war” which lacks any vision.

So, what is Korea supposed to do, being openly pro-American? More pro-American than Japan? Washington seems determined ignore the fact that in Japan, the other ally in Asia, we have someone determined to make Korea disappear from geopolitics.

Abe’s speeches completely ignore the role of Korea and he tries to overturn the progress made in deepening ties between the two nations.

But Abe clearly does not represent all of Japan. Cooperation wasn’t totally flipped over by Abe and there is a faction in Japan that wants closer ties with China.

That is true. Abe could not reverse all the trends. But what is very pernicious and will make things difficult moving forward is the sense among young Japanese that they should despise Korea. Such an attitude, picked up from the mass media, is counterintuitive. Because even as young Japanese enjoy the Korean Wave, there is this “get rid of the dirty Koreans” attitude that has just blossomed among average, young Japanese in recent years.

That trend is combined with the withdrawal of young Japanese from the world. They are not studying abroad and they are not establishing close relations with their peers around Asia.

This turn inward makes Abe’s claims that he has modeled himself on Meiji heroes like Yoshida Shoin seem a bit ridiculous. He does not offer anything to Asia and it seems he does not want the Japanese to go into the world other than as an armed force. In fact, he is not even encouraging internationalization.

When Hatoyama came into power, his party published a manifesto in the summer of 2009, saying: “Yeah, we need a change, but we need exactly the opposite of what Meiji did. We need to decentralize.”

Ironically, it has been Korea, which Abe so despises, that has actually managed to start the ball rolling with decentralization and Sejong City is looking rather promising.

People are grumbling because their institute is being sent to Busan, but it’s being sent to Busan anyway. The opposite trend is going on in Tokyo. That city is going to sink under its own weight at some point!

China is decentralizing in many respects, but at the same time its cities are growing very rapidly and that centralization at the local level poses serious challenges.

The power of local government has increased dramatically in China over the last twenty years. I see local government in China engaged in its own version of diplomacy and trade with local government in Korea and Japan these days, and even hiring regional specialists, as is Korean local government.

Over the long term Japan will change its perspective and return to the Hatoyama vision. There is evidence that Japan wants to be integrated into new structures and organizations for development, culture and administration, otherwise it will wither and die.

There are a number of really interesting alternatives concerning what we can do with the Self-Defense Forces. For example, we can think about what we really need: a humanitarian force that is not the U.N. which can serve as a first responder in places like Nepal. This is precisely the gift Article 9 has given to Japan and to the world: the potential for a military system that is not dedicated to war. And they would have enormous credibility because their soldiers don’t fire.

If Article 9 remains, then you get an entire fleet of ambulance drivers and first aid responders. Granted the refugee crisis in Europe, that is exactly what we need. That’s what they’re good at!