The mainstream Western leaders and intellectuals are increasingly preoccupied with the so-called “crisis of the liberal international order.” Western media outlets daily broadcast apocalyptic narratives: the “universal” and “fundamental” values of liberalism are besieged by the contagious forces of “extremists,” who apparently threaten the progress of the entire humanity. Listening to liberal opinion leaders in the European capitals, one could not help but feel as if the sky was falling upon us. However, one can be stunned by the fact that these world-ending narratives are almost entirely absent in the Japanese public debates. While challenges of Trumpism are rightly recognized in Japan, they are discussed in the manner of business-as-usual: how to constrain the unilateral ambition of the hegemonic American partner, which has been an enduring theme defining Japanese foreign and economic policy over the last seven decades. This short article briefly introduces a select number of Japanese perspectives on the ongoing transformation of the international order and explains why Japanese leaders are coping with the contemporary challenges in a relatively more sober manner.
To begin with, Westerners cannot keep calm in the face of the mounting challenges to the liberal order because liberalism has become an absolute faith for many of them, or at least for the mainstream leaders and intellectuals. From an outsider perspective, Western liberals appear to be treating conservatives in the same way Europe’s medieval religionists treated non-believers.
While Western liberals talk of the crisis of liberalism, Japanese thinkers distinguish the crisis of the liberal philosophy from the crisis of liberal elites. Through centuries of interaction with the West, Japanese observers have learned that Westerners are brilliantly good at developing enlightening philosophies yet they are remarkably bad at practicing them in an enlightening way.
The mainstream Western leaders and intellectuals are increasingly preoccupied with the so-called “crisis of the liberal international order” . Western media outlets daily broadcast apocalyptic narratives: the “universal” and “fundamental” values of liberalism are besieged by the contagious forces of “extremists,” who apparently threaten the progress of the entire humanity. Listening to liberal opinion leaders in the European capitals, one could not help but feel as if the sky was falling upon us. However, one can be stunned by the fact that these world-ending narratives are almost entirely absent in the Japanese public debates. While challenges of Trumpism are rightly recognized in Japan, they are discussed in the manner of business-as-usual: how to constrain the unilateral ambition of the hegemonic American partner, which has been an enduring theme defining Japanese foreign and economic policy over the last seven decades. This short article briefly introduces a select number of Japanese perspectives on the ongoing transformation of the international order and explains why Japanese leaders are coping with the contemporary challenges in a relatively more sober manner.
Liberalism as a faith
To begin with, Westerners cannot keep calm in the face of the mounting challenges to the liberal order because liberalism has become an absolute faith for many of them, or at least for the mainstream leaders and intellectuals. Take the example of the European Union (EU). Ken Endo, Professor at Hokkaido University and Japan’s leading expert on European integration, points out the pathology of EU seizensetsu [EU-goodism] in his award-winning book Tougou no shuen [The End of Integration] – a blinding tendency to uncritically celebrate the EU as an absolute good . Anybody who questions the integrity of the holy Union is treated as a mad man, as if the EU is some kind of sacred church. From a Japanese point of view, this is a déjà-vu. When secularism emerged in Europe, religious elites of the time tirelessly disseminated apocalyptic narratives of the “value-based” Christian transcontinental order besieged by “secular extremists,” “bulger nationalists,” and “uneducated peasants.” When the mass was uprising against the Christian union in Western Europe, religious elites blamed “puppets of Satan” for spreading disinformation, dividing societies, manipulating people’s fear, and undermining their “fundamental” and “universal” values. While occidental leaders of the medieval age saw a shadow hand of Satan in every secular uprising, Western leaders of our time see a shadow hand of Vladimir Putin in every popular resistance. Japanese leaders rarely see the world in such a theological picture since they do not have an absolute faith in liberalism: for them, liberalism is not the final Destiny.
In this vein, a growing number of Japanese intellectuals argue that liberalism has somehow become a godless religion in the Western world . This is a main theme explored by Mao Yamaguchi, a Harvard-educated young Japanese lawyer, who recently released her new book Riberarizumu toiu yamai [The Sickness of Liberalism] . From an outsider perspective, Western liberals appear to be treating conservatives in the same way Europe’s medieval religionists treated non-believers. In the American political arena, mainstream liberals treat Trumpians in a very illiberal way, constantly derogating them into subhuman psychopath, or worse, a “deplorable” disease to be eliminated for the sake of a “brighter” future. While conservative thinkers in the West skillfully amplify popular resentments to mobilize resistance, Western liberals are also driven by the naked hatred towards those who disagree with their moral convictions.
From a Japanese point of view, this rage of hatred against hatred only reminds us of Western religious wars where there was no holy side. Hidetsugu Yagi, human rights scholar and Professor at Reitaku University, once rightly pointed out in his Han jinken sengen [Anti-Human Rights Declaration]  that, while Western liberals preach the respect for “all,” they show no respect for non-liberal states and citizens. The absolutist doctrine of human-rightism is used and abused to silence those who do not endorse liberal worldviews, paradoxically undermining the most essential foundation of the liberal world order – the freedom of thought. In light of this, Yagi maintained that religious fundamentalists, Soviet revolutionaries, and liberal internationalists share one thing in common: the attitude to dismiss their opponents as “unenlightened” peasants acting “against their own interests.”
The crises of philosophy
While Western liberals talk of the crisis of liberalism, Japanese thinkers distinguish the crisis of the liberal philosophy from the crisis of liberal elites. A few centuries ago, Japanese samurais understood the crisis of the Christian world order not very much as the crisis of Christianity, but more accurately as the crisis of occidental Christian elites. Today, Japanese leaders understand the crisis of the liberal world order not very much as the crisis of liberalism, but more accurately as the crisis of Western liberal elites. The problem may not be liberalism per sei, but instead the quasi-religious zeal of contemporary Western liberals who want to paint everything in the color of liberalism. A similar line of reasoning is put forth by Tatsuo Inoue, prominent Japanese liberal philosopher and Professor at the University of Tokyoi in his award-winning book Riberaru no koto ha kirai demo riberarisumu ha kirai ni naranaide kudasai, or, as the title of the book suggests, “You May Hate Liberals But Please Do Not Hate Liberalism“ .
While liberals often condemn conservatives for blindly following their inflexible conservative convictions, liberals also blindly follow their own. For instance, Inoue’s new book Ziyu no chitsujo [Order of Freedom] fiercely criticizes the illiberal tendency of the EU to present itself as the only game in town, as if the European integration is driven by the “iron law of history” from which no deviation shall be permitted . This fatalistic and teleological worldview appears pathologically similar to that of Marxism-Lenism, which envisioned the coming of a singular “objective” future organized by the “fundamental” and “universal” values of socialist cosmopolitanism. As British scholar E.H. Carr once famously wrote in his book The Soviet Impact On The Western World, “The first Bolsheviks remained impenitent westerners: for them Russia was a backward country to be regenerated by revolutionary doctrines derived from the west. The early Bolsheviks were also whole-hearted internationalists who believed that the ‘workers had no country’ and regarded the Russian revolution merely as pan of a European or world-wide revolution.”  In the face of the Soviet cosmopolitan project, Western liberals repeatedly taught Japanese leaders that any utopian project which curtails opposition would eventually end up turning itself into a totalitarian system of suffocating political correctness. As Japanese liberals like Inoue point out, it is truly ironic that Western liberals seem to be following this dangerous path of a messianic quest for the singular Truth.
Through centuries of interaction with the West, Japanese observers have learned that Westerners are brilliantly good at developing enlightening philosophies yet they are remarkably bad at practicing them in an enlightening way. Soviet Communism is the latest of the failed Western enlightenment projects in this regard. Initially developed as the embodiment of the freedom of choice, liberalism once signified the rejection of absolutes. Nowadays, contemporary liberals act as if liberalism is an absolute faith – the standard of “politically correct” conduct which must be embraced by any “sane” human. If the moral appeal of liberalism appears to be in a sky-fall, it is not because the liberal philosophy is unattractive, but because this otherwise-inspiring philosophy is practiced in an awfully illiberal way lacking tolerance, compromise, compassion, and flexibility. After all, most Japanese leaders can keep calm in this apparent “crisis” of the liberal world order because they predominantly understand liberalism as practical guidelines to organize politics, not as holy doctrines to be fanatically imposed at all cost. Put differently, liberalism is one among many competing values defining the Japanese political arena, whose uniqueness lies in its organic fusion of Western and traditional Japanese ideas. As long as Western liberals want to seek a homogenous world of an unchallenged liberal morality, they shall find no peace in this messy world of pluralistic realities. After all, the essence of liberal governance lies in the promotion of competition, including democratic governance (political competition), market economy (economic competition), and the rule of law (competing claims put forth by prosecutors and defenders). Then, it is truly paradoxical that Western liberals are acting as if there should be no challenge to liberalism.
First published in our partner RIAC
- 1. See, for example, Ikenberry, G. J. (2018). The end of liberal international order?. International Affairs 94(1): 7-23.
- 2. Endo, K. (2013). Tougou no shuen [The End of Integration]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten. Endo maintains that many of the core principles of the EU are in fact derived from Christian principles of governance. For instance, he points out that the EU’s principle of subsidiarity is basically a copy of the Protestant principle of subsidiarity which advocated the decentralization of decision-making in Protestant communities.
- 3. Financial Times reporter Eduard Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism makes the exactly same claim. See Luce, E. (2017). The Retreat of Western Liberalism. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
- 4. Yamaguchi, M. (2017). Riberarizumu toiu yamai [The Sickness of Liberalism]. Tokyo: Shinchosha.
- 5. Yagi, H. (2001). Han jinken sengen [Anti-Human Rights Declaration]. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo.
- 6. Inoue, T. (2015). Riberaru no koto ha kirai demo riberarisumu ha kirai ni naranaide kudasai [You May Hate Liberals But Please Do Not Hate Liberalism]. Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbun Shuppan.
- 7. Inoue, T. (2017). Ziyu no chitsujo: Riberarizumu no houtetsugaku kougi [Order of Freedom: Lectures on Liberal Legal Philosophy]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
- 8. Carr, E. H. (1947). The Soviet Impact On The Western World. New York : Macmillan, p. 105.
The Korean Peninsula needs more peace talks rather than game drills
Although military drill is legitimate and often conducts internationally, it is still required to be transparent and cautious. That means the participants involved should publicly announce the game not be directed against any third party, if not having the pre-talks before the drills. For example, the Chinese military participated in Russia’s the Center-2019 drills and a large-scale Vostok-2018 strategic exercise. But both sides announced their aims to fully test and improve the capabilities of the Chinese troops in joint operation and logistics with a view to improving the strategic coordination between the two militaries.
However, this is not the case of the United States and its ally South Korea on the Korean Peninsula although the latter often display its reluctance to follow the dictate of the U.S. military command. It is sure that hostile behavior or policy like regular military drills against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would lead to serious consequences. At the Xiangshan Security Forum in Beijing of this October, a top officer of DPRK armed forces put it, although Pyongyang has worked to build lasting peace but that the situation has relapsed into a “dangerous, vicious cycle” of exacerbating tensions because of the regular military drills of the U.S. and ROK forces.
Since 2018 when the DPRK-U.S. joint statement was issued, there is no progress in improving bilateral relations between the two sides. Pyongyang has insisted that it is completely because of the U.S. anachronistic and hostile policies against the DPRK and also the ROK (South Korea) has adopted a “double-dealing attitude” in continuing to carry out military drills with the U.S. and buying advanced military equipment. Under such circumstances, Pyongyang has no other choices but conducted missile tests in recent months, including that of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and broke off the latest working-level nuclear talks with the U.S. Understandably, DPRK’s top negotiator for the talks blamed the U.S. for the breakdown with accusing Washington of “bringing nothing” to the negotiating table. In addition, the DPRK officially accused the U.S. of using sanctions in order to enforce disobedient countries to their knees. Yet, sanctions draw only resistance and counteraction from those affected countries, without providing any help in solving the issues. Therefore, the DPRK must stand up to such attempts without giving in to any external pressure.
Consider this, people wondered why the United States and its allies have been so hostile and even often ridiculous in dealing with the DPRK which is one of the isolated and economically most poor states in the world. Actually China and Russia have supported the U.N.-endorsed sanctions against the DPRK, but they have opposed to any attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to change the ruling party and regime of Pyongyang regardless of the dire consequences. As the close neighbors of DPRK, China and Russia have vowed that they would never allow the chaos occurred in the Korean peninsula. Given this, Pyongyang has demonstrated its willingness to conduct negotiations with the United States and its brotherly counterpart the South Koreans. True, China and Russia have provided the necessary humanitarian aid to the DPRK but they also proposed two-suspension formula of the Korean issue, that is, the two sides simultaneously suspend their nuclear tests and military drills. Unfortunately, due to the United States’ arrogance and stubbornness, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has never been improved substantially.
Now the tension on the Korean Peninsula reappears again and even more dangerous move is that the DPRK’s supreme decision-making body lashed out at planned U.S.-ROK military drills with a stern warning the United States will face a greater threat and harsh suffering if it ignores Kim Jong-Un’s end-of-year deadline to salvage nuclear talks. Obviously the DPRK is deeply concerned with the annual U.S.-led military drills which are supposed to cause a “vicious cycle” in relations between the two sides. It is arguable that the United States with the most powerful arsenal in the world should have better behave itself with prudence at the sensitive time when the situation on the Korean Peninsula could return to the dangerous starting point due to the joint military drills. Here is no reasons to defend the DPRK’s menacing rhetoric but it does have the sound line to recognize the legitimate concerns with its own security.
This paper holds that despite the disappointment of those closely watching the tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the failed summits, yet diplomatically, the door between Pyongyang and Washington is still open. Although the United States and DPRK presented their own narratives on the disagreement, they didn’t finger point at each other as what they would have usually done. Actually, Trump has spoken of Kim favorably and Pyongyang’s tone on the impasse of the talks was soft. Everything indicates that both countries look forward to the next meeting though undecided. Past experiences tell that challenges are inevitable when the two sides discuss the issues that involve their core interests and grave concerns. Yet, it is obvious that both sides will benefit from sincere dialogue. As the success of diplomacy can’t be based on false promises and on breach of faith, it supposes that there is no reason to regard the chance of peace for the Korean issues failed. At the least, the two sides have no intention to reject the dual-tracks and two suspensions proposals by China. It has also reflected Beijing’s role on the Korean Peninsula issue is irreplaceable since Kim made four trips to China in just ten months and Trump praised Xi as a highly respected leader due to his help to mediate with Pyongyang.
If we look into the past summit talks between Trump and Kim, they faltered due to the American rejection of Pyongyang’s demands for broad sanctions relief in exchange for the partial dismissing of its nuclear capabilities. Following that, Kim responded with intensified testing activities but also indicated he would “wait with patience until the end of the year for the United States to come up with a courageous decision.” Curious enough, the United States indicates that it will consider changing plans to conduct joint military drills with South Korea if that helps support diplomatic efforts to restart a dialogue with Pyongyang. As U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “We always have to remain flexible in terms of how we support our diplomats to ensure that we do not close any doors that may allow forward progress on the diplomatic front.” His remarks were greeted cautiously by Pyongyang although it still demands for a cancellation of the upcoming exercise. Yet, this was finally realized when the United States and South Korea decided on November 17 to postpone the planned military drills.
For sure, it is still too early to tell what would happen on the Korean Peninsula in terms of the deeply-rooted suspicions and the hostile groups on the both sides? But we should have confidence in the prospective meetings between the United States and the DPRK in the near future. In effect, Pyongyang and Washington have agreed that lifting sanctions is a key part of denuclearization that needs to be negotiated sincerely and constructively as well. At this crucial moment, it might be time for China to resume its role as expected. It seems that China is ready to extend its help as it has reiterated to both Washington and Seoul that Beijing is willing to continue to play a constructive role on the Korean Peninsula issue.
Briefly, it argues that the Korean Peninsula needs more peace talks rather than game drills. Equally a stable Korean Peninsula surely benefits the peaceful rise of China and the harmony of the Asian-Pacific region. This is the essence of diplomacy in light of its continuous negotiation, sincere persuasion and necessary compromise.
It’s when not if China’s Middle Eastern tightrope snaps
China is manoeuvring to avoid being sucked into the Middle East’s numerous disputes amid mounting debate in Beijing on whether the People’s Republic will be able to remain aloof yet ensure the safety and security of its mushrooming interests and sizeable Diaspora community.
China’s challenge is starkest in the Gulf. It was compounded when US President Donald J. Trump effectively put China on the spot by implicitly opening the door to China sharing the burden of guaranteeing the security of the free flow of energy from the region.
It’s a challenge that has sparked debate in Beijing amid fears that US efforts to isolate Iran internationally and cripple it economically could lead to the collapse of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, accelerate Iran’s gradual breaching of the agreement in way that would significantly increase its ability to build a nuclear weapon, and potentially spark an unwanted military confrontation.
All of which are nightmare scenarios for China. However, Chinese efforts so far to reduce its exposure to risk are at best temporary band aid solutions. They do little to address the underlying dilemma: it is only a matter of time before China will have no choice but to engage politically and militarily at the risk of surrendering its ability to remain neutral in regional conflicts.
Israeli intelligence reportedly predicted last year that Iran’s gradual withdrawal from an agreement that Mr. Trump abandoned in May 2018 would ultimately take Iran to a point where it could create a nuclear military facility within a matter of months. That in turn could provoke a regional nuclear arms race and/or a pre-emptive military strike.
That is precisely the assessment that Iran hopes will persuade China alongside Russia and the European Union to put their money where their mouth is in countering US sanctions and make it worth Iran’s while to remain committed to the nuclear accord.
The problem is that controversy over the agreement is only one of multiple regional problems. Those problems require a far more comprehensive approach for which China is currently ill-equipped even if it is gradually abandoning its belief that economics alone offers solutions as well as its principle of no foreign military bases.
China’s effort to reduce its exposure to the Gulf’s energy supply risks by increasing imports from Russia and Central Asia doesn’t eliminate the risk. The Gulf will for the foreseeable future remain a major energy supplier to China, the region’s foremost trading partner and foreign investor.
Even so, China is expected to next month take its first delivery of Russian gas delivered through a new pipeline, part of a US$50 billion gas field development and pipeline construction project dubbed Power of Siberia.
Initially delivering approximately 500 million cubic feet of gas per day or about 1.6 percent of China’s total estimated gas requirement in 2019, the project is expected to account with an increased daily flow of 3.6 billion cubic feet for 9.5 percent of China’s supply needs by 2022.
The Russian pipeline kicks in as China drastically cuts back on its import of Iranian liquified petroleum gas (LPG) because of the US sanctions and is seeking to diversify its supply as a result of Chinese tariffs on US LPG imports imposed as part of the two countries’ trade war.
China is likely hoping that United Arab Emirates efforts to stimulate regional talks with Iran and signs that Saudi Arabia is softening its hard-line rejection of an unconditional negotiation with the Islamic republic will either help it significantly delay engagement or create an environment in which the risk of being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is substantially reduced.
Following months of quietly reaching out to Iran, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash told a recent security dialogue in Abu Dhabi that there was “room for collective diplomacy to succeed.”
Mr. Gargash went on to say that “for such a process to work, it is essential that the international community is on the same page, especially the US and the EU, as well as the Arab Gulf states.” Pointedly, Mr. Gargash did not put Russia and China on par with Western powers in that process.
The UAE official said the UAE envisions a regional order undergirded by “strong regional multilateralism” that would provide security for all.
Mr. Gargash made his remarks against the backdrop of a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a multilateral security arrangement in the Gulf that would incorporate the US defense umbrella as well as an Iranian proposal for a regional security pact that would exclude external players.
Presumably aware that Gulf states were unlikely to engage with Iran without involvement of external powers, Iran appeared to keep its options open by also endorsing the Russian proposal.
The various manoeuvres to reduce tension and break the stalemate in the Gulf put Mr. Trump’s little noticed assertion in June that energy buyers should protect their own ships rather than rely on US protection in a perspective that goes beyond the president’s repeated rant that US allies were taking advantage of the United States and failing to shoulder their share of the burden.
Potentially, Mr. Trump opened the door to an arrangement in which the United States would share with others the responsibility for ensuring the region’s free flow of energy even if he has given no indication of what that would mean in practice beyond demanding that the United States be paid for its services.
“China gets 91 percent of its oil from the Straight, Japan 62 percent, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships…,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
China has not rejected Mr. Trump’s position out of hand. Beyond hinting that China could escort Chinese-flagged commercial vessels in the Gulf, Chinese officials have said that they would consider joining a US-backed maritime security framework in the region that would create a security umbrella for national navy vessels to accompany ships flying their flag.
Chinese participation would lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive regional security arrangement in the longer term.
China’s maritime strategy, involving the development of a blue water navy, suggests that China already de facto envisions a greater role at some point in the future.
Scholars Julia Gurol and Parisa Shahmohammadi noted in a recent study that China has already “decided to take security concerns in the (Indian Ocean) into its own hands, instead of relying on the USA and its allies, who have long served as the main security providers in this maritime region… If tensions continue to escalate in the Persian Gulf, Beijing may find it has no other choice but to provide a security presence in the Middle East.”
Implications of French President’s Visit to China on the International Arena
French President Emmanuel Macron pursues a policy of opening up to China and solving problems that may arise peacefully and diplomatically. France and Germany are the main pillars of the European Union, and the French opening to China is a European recognition of the importance of China’s role internationally.
Last Monday, the French president paid a three-day official visit to China amidst the US-China trade war. The French president has previously promised to visit China once a year throughout his term. These official exchanges between China and France strengthen China’s international standing, and prove the theory that China is a peaceful country seeking cooperation and opening up to the world.
Fifty-five years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France, a bilateral relationship based on respect and friendship despite some differences in regimes or strategic alliances. The Chinese model is mainly based on people-to-people communication and peaceful cooperation, and these are the main pillars of the Belt and Road Initiative launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.
Despite Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2015, Beijing and Paris have kept their promises to contain global warming, a positive point in the bilateral relationship. The French president considered that China and France should lead the climate agreement. Cooperation between the two countries has emerged considerably in the industrial sector, such as the development of nuclear energy, aerospace, and the automotive industry. Academic cooperation between the two countries has also been boosted through student exchange programs and the high demand for Chinese language learning in France, which was previously rare.
Commenting on the importance of trade exchanges between China and the EU, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce showed that trade between China and the EU exceeded 322.5 billion US dollars in the first half of 2018, up 13 percent year on year. Chinese Ambassador to France Zhai Jun recently expressed that China and France are to expand cooperation in agriculture, energy, advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence.
From the ancient city of Xi’an, the French president announced that an alliance between Beijing, Europe and Paris should be established for a better future for the world, and Macron stressed the need for a balanced relationship between China and Europe. The French president praised the Belt and Road Initiative and called for its activation in order to enhance the trade role of Asia and Europe.
France was the first Western country to recognize the People’s Republic of China. In a meeting with French ambassadors, the French president stressed that the West is in a moment of decline and China is progressing at a tremendous speed. During his visit to China, the French president took advantage of the trade war between the United States and China and worked to develop France-China trade relations, increase French trade partners to China, and promoting the French tourism, agriculture and services sectors.
France is seeking to strengthen Sino-European relations because of its great benefit to the European economy, but it is contrary to the Western orientation. China is also a beneficiary of good relations with France, because France has influence in Africa and many regions in the world and is a permanent member of the Security Council and it is a developed country at the military, technological and technical levels. China’s cooperation with a powerful country like France will bring many benefits and opportunities.
China’s great economic, technological and military progress indicates that China has become an important country in international relations, and it is in the interest of any country in the world to establish good relations with China. The best evidence is that France is seeking to establish good relations with China, as well as the European Union countries to make their relationship with China distinctive.
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