01/27/2009, 00.00
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Tokyo rethinks alliance with United States in multipolar world

by Pino Cazzaniga
The global economic crisis and the presidency of Barack Obama are prompting Japan to rethink policy and international prospects. The 21st century will be that of Asia, and Japan, with its "soft power," can take the lead even in front of China and India.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - The Japanese find themselves facing an historic challenge not unlike those of the second half of the 19th century, when they shook off feudalism, and of 1945, when, with the rejection of militarist nationalism, they chose democracy. This time, the spur to choose radical change is coming from the global economic crisis and from the new American president, or better, from the America that he represents.

Prime Minister Taro Aso, at the nation's helm since last September, has lost no time in establishing contact with the new president, in order to plan a meeting in Washington by March. In a statement released to the press, Aso said that he intends "to work hand in hand with President Obama in order to reinforce further the alliance between Japan and the United States."

The motivation for this desire is not so much national prestige as the awareness that Japan has long required political initiative in worldwide governance, and not only the diplomacy of economic aid. In this context, the Aso government, in addition to its efforts to confront the worldwide economic emergency, is proposing three areas of collaboration with the United States: climate change, the reduction of nuclear weapons, and support for Africa.

For Washington's part, Hillary Clinton, the new American secretary of state, has stated that "the alliance between the United States and Japan is the cornerstone of American policy in Asia."

From hegemonic power to a multipolar world

But the true interpreters of the position that Japan must take in the new international situation are the intellectuals. Professor Yasuaki Onuma, who teaches international law at the University of Tokyo, has spoken out with particular clarity on this topic, in an article entitled "Japan can prosper in a multipolar world," published in Asahi. The study is of particular value because it summarizes the convictions of historians and essayists, and is based on a cultural analysis of reality beyond petty nationalistic prejudices.

For Onuma, the severe economic crisis, which is unprecedented because it is globalized, is not a whirlpool into which the world has fallen, but a dark and perhaps a long tunnel, beyond which a brilliant future shines. The enormous global crisis is not in itself a factor of change, but something that brings to light the process of epochal change now underway.

Reflecting from the point of view of Asia, he distinguishes three centuries in the historical perspective: the first two (nineteenth and twentieth) concern the past, and the third (twenty-first) the future.

The nineteenth century was the century of Europe. So, he writes, "the leading European powers built a global colonial system, they spread modern science to the world, and guided 'civilization'. The twentieth century was that of the United States. We enjoyed the benefits of motorization, we cultivated the sensibility spread by Hollywood movies and rock music, and we were brought to the threshold of a civilization characterized by information technology."

The historiographical outline sketched by the Japanese professor is useful from an educational point of view, although it is incomplete and its contents. He does not underestimate the benefits that the world has received from these two civilizations, but he also highlights their hegemonic aspects: the world has been governed first by Europe, and then by America.

And how will the twenty-first century be? It is a widespread conviction that it will be the century of Asia. China is expected to become an economic superpower surpassing America, and India will also join the ranks of economic superpowers. When this happens, some predict, Asia's power will exceed that of Europe and the United States before the end of the century.

Onuma hesitates to claim that the twenty-first century will be the century of Asia. He expects that "the world will be more multipolar, with different civilizations than those of the twentieth century, dominated by the values of Europe and America." The prediction of Asia's dominance in world governance is based on the 'understanding' of the past, while the vision of a multipolar world is based on the 'imagination' of the future. It is an imagination that is not fantasy, but an attentive reading of the 'signs of the times'."

Japan's role in epochal change

The second half of the twentieth century has seen the enormous and positive economic influence of Japan all over the world. But now, because of the decline of the Japanese economy, which has been pulled into the vortex of the worldwide crisis, some are afraid that there is no more room for Japan in the multipolar world. Those who base the influence of the nation on material power - meaning military and economic - fall into this pessimism. Much more important is the influence that the Anglo-Saxons call "soft power," that of a civilization that puts man at the center, and not things. In the West, there are three elements of this power: democracy, human rights, and, we would add, Christianity, which constitutes its foundation. But Asia also has its own spiritual values that have forged very ancient civilizations.

 But the fever of rapid economic and industrial development is playing havoc with these values in the two nations that were the cradle of Asian civilization: India and China. It is at this level that there emerges the "soft power" of Japan. The various threads of Asian culture over several centuries have arrived in the country of the rising sun as if coming to their last shore, and here they have undergone a process of elaboration that has continued even over the past 150 years, in spite of the grim tragedy of imperialist militarism. "The Japanese were among the first peoples of Asia to learn modern Western civilization, and use it extensively," Onuma observes. "But at the same time, they have maintained their identity as part of Eastern civilization." Now they are in a position to assist the nations of Asia to accomplish this synthesis. The power of Japanese culture elaborated by these experiences is the "soft power" of Japan, which Onuma does not hesitate to describe as "colossal."

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”