Japan Fails the Test on Democracy and Burma

By Michael Green
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 8, 2006; 12:00 AM

Over the years, I have had many occasions to be proud of my work in strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance and to be impressed by Japan's positive role in the world. I remember Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's personal letter to President George W. Bush after 9/11 in which he vowed to help defeat terrorism. I remember the strong and principled stand taken by the Japanese delegation on human rights and denuclearization in the first round of the six-party talks. I remember traveling to a remote part of Pakistan and seeing a large banner in a small village that read, "Thank you Japan," because Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) money had helped to build the province's first modern school building. And I remember encountering in Kuwait a proud but tired detachment of the Ground Self-Defense Forces that had just returned from reconstruction work in Samawah, Iraq.

But I felt my greatest disappointment with Japanese foreign policy in a decade, when I read that on May 31, Japan's ambassador to the United Nations, Kenzo Oshima, had sided with China and Russia and against all the other democracies on the Security Council on the issue of Burma. The UN secretary general's special envoy had just briefed the members of the Security Council on the Burmese junta's rejection of his proposal to give economic aid in exchange for minimal steps toward a return to democracy. The Security Council members were also told the details of the junta's tacit support for international trafficking of drugs and women, its military oppression and forced dislocation of ethnic minorities, and its destabilizing policies toward its neighbors. Yet Ambassador Oshima sided with the Chinese and Russian delegations and argued that no further steps should be considered by the Security Council, though he acknowledged that "there are a lot of regrettable things on the human side." "Regrettable?" The only word that should be used to describe what is happening to Burma's 50 million people is "unacceptable."

I can imagine how the Japanese UN delegation came to this decision. Perhaps they felt that it was a mistake to leave Burma too open to Chinese influence. Perhaps they felt that this was a way to demonstrate that Japan has its own independent foreign policy. Perhaps it was simple "clientitis" in the Asia Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, or concern about natural resources. Whatever the reasons, Japan has made a big mistake.

For the past few years, a new generation of Japanese leaders like Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Aso has increasingly spoken of Japan's model as a "rule of law nation" and the defining importance of democratic values in Japan's own foreign policy and its alliance with the United States and other democracies. These are values that distinguish Japan from China and that put the historic Sino-Japanese controversy in a different perspective. Indeed, Japan's leaders have argued that they hope China will be more of a "stakeholder" like Japan. With this decision on Burma, however, Japan has lost the moral high ground. It is painful to see. On one side are China and Russia, which have increasingly repressed civil liberties and democracy over the past two years. On the other side stands every single democracy in the Security Council.

One must wonder whether this error in judgment will have implications for Japan's diplomatic standing in Washington and in Asia. For example, Senator John McCain is a solid friend of Japan and is likely to be the most ardent supporter of strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance of all the prospective presidential candidates for 2008. But Senator McCain sent an unmistakable message on Japan's relationship with Burma in a Senate speech in 2003, the last time Tokyo offered aid and comfort to the regime:

"Shame on the Japanese. Music to the junta's ears, perhaps, but I believe friends of the Burmese people must take a radically different and principled approach to a problem that kind words only exacerbate....free Burma's leaders and her people will remember which nations stood with them in their struggle against oppression, and which nations seemed to side with their oppressors."

Japan has the values system and the diplomatic tools it needs to maintain and expand its role in the world to the benefit of Japanese citizens everywhere. This will not happen, however, if Japan keeps trying to play a nineteenth century game of mercantilism and balance of power against China. China will win that game.

Consider Japan's relations with Indonesia. In the early 1990s, Japan had enormous influence because of its ODA and investments. After the 1997 financial crisis and then the fall of the Suharto regime, Japan's influence started to diminish in comparison to China, the United States, and Australia. Why? Because Japan had over-invested in the authoritarian regime and had failed to build a position with those who democratized Indonesia.

Democracy is on the march in Asia and Japan needs to be on the winning side. Japanese politicians who say that Japan's foreign policy identity must rest on its values as a democracy are right. And Senator McCain is right that a free people in places like Burma will remember who stood with them. In short, Japan needs to play a twenty-first century role based on its shared values with other democracies. Last week's move in the Security Council was a strategic setback for Japan's position in the world.

Michael J. Green is Senior Fellow and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Associate Professor at the Edmond A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Until December 2005 he was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff.

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