Japan Welcomes China's Democratic Future

Contribution by Minister for Foreign Affairs Taro Aso to the Asian Wall Street Journal

March 13, 2006

I am positive on China. Already the biggest trading partner in our history if combined with Hong Kong, China has powered our recent economic recovery. Going forward, our co-dependence will only become more pronounced. I welcome China's return to center stage in East Asia--as long as China evolves into a liberal democracy. And I believe it will.

Democracy in Asia is spreading. Not so long ago, a Japanese prime minister would have to fly south overnight to Canberra to meet our nearest democratic neighbor. Now, he can fly west for only two hours to Seoul, capital of one of the world's most vibrant democracies.

China's turn is imminent, and I am positive on the prospects for this evolution. Citizens of Japan, South Korea and Indonesia can all attest that prolonged economic development creates a stable middle class, which in turn provides a springboard for greater political representation. The question is no longer "whether," but "at what speed" China will metamorphose into a fully democratic nation. I can assure our friends in China that Japan is committed to China's success to that end.

Imagine: In 20 years, China's influence in Japan will be enormous. Chinese holiday makers, from students to the retired, will be the largest consumers of Japanese tourism, filling favorite tourist spots like Kyoto. Tokyo's taxi drivers will speak Chinese, not English. China will be one of the largest investors in Japan's economy. A considerable proportion of the shares traded in Tokyo will rest in Chinese hands. Today, Japanese companies go to New York for investor marketing trips--soon, they will fly to Shanghai first.

In truth, there is little new or surprising about these scenarios, considering Asia's historical context. China is not emerging afresh as a world power, as many claim; it is, in fact, reclaiming its historical prominence. My hope is that China recognizes that there is no longer a place for an empire. Rather, the guiding principles in today's world are global interdependence and the international harmony that can engender.

China's history is one of extremes. In 1842, the pendulum swung to one extreme when the Qing dynasty was defeated in the Opium War and fell under the coercive power of the West. In 1949, the mainland swung to another extreme, as Mao Zedong ushered in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution--both now seen as misguided policies. Until recently, the Chinese did not have the luxury of striking a balance between vision and reality, between who they are and who they wish to be.

Crucially, China can learn from Japan's missteps--we have "been there, done that." Japan has experienced extreme nationalism twice in the last century. A telling incident occurred in 1964, shortly before the opening of the Tokyo Olympic Games, when a Japanese teenager stabbed Edwin O. Reischauer, then-American Ambassador to Japan. At the time, Japanese emotions still ran high at the thought of U.S. power and influence. Beijing's leaders can learn from such Japanese experiences to better manage their own rising nationalism. Environmental degradation, which suffocated Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, is another area where China can learn from Japan's mistakes, just as we hope China is also inspired by our successes.

In terms of military presence, Japan is Asia's natural stabilizer. The U.S. and Japan have the world's longest-standing security partnership. It is transparent and a relationship between two democracies. Acting alone, the Japanese or the Americans might raise a few eyebrows; acting together, there is no room for misunderstanding. China and every other Asian nation can continue to count on the built-in stabilizer provided jointly by Japan and America, a common good that is readily available to Beijing. Hence my request that Beijing fully disclose its defense spending, which has remained opaque yet--as Beijing admits--has more than trebled over the last ten years.

A final reflection on Japan's post-war record: I can say with confidence that with a few exceptions, Japan has conducted itself openly and treated neighboring nations as peers. As a self-proclaimed "techie," I have called the attitude that Japan has shown toward its neighboring nations one of "P2P," or peer-to-peer relations.

I would like these thoughts to resonate widely, especially with the citizens of China. For this reason, I have asked my colleagues at the Japanese Foreign Ministry to create a multi-year student-exchange program that is absolutely positive, like my vision of China's future.

I would very much like Japan's youth to look warmly at China. The growth of China must hinder no one's interests. Our new program will facilitate the exchange of thousands of Japanese and Chinese high school students, enabling these young ambassadors to stay in ordinary homes in each other's nations and planting the seeds of mutual understanding. If our program is successful, in 20 years' time, Japanese men and women with first-hand knowledge of China will view the Chinese among their closest friends. And many more Chinese will feel the same about Japan.

* This article also appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal on the 13th of March.


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