Japan needs to step out of Washington’s shadow in Asia
by Ramtanu Maitra on 01 Jan 2014 1 Comment
“The best possible way that Japan could contribute in Afghanistan’s future, and thus stabilize a perpetually unstable country and pave the way for multi-nation efforts to interconnect Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran to South Asia, is riding on India’s shoulders.”


There is no dispute about the technological brilliance and economic successes that together make Japan an extremely powerful nation in Asia. Despite earning this advantage, which has made the country the primus inter pares among the Asian nations for decades, Tokyo chose to refrain from formulating an independent foreign policy that would have been pro-active toward South and Central Asia. Instead, since World War II, Tokyo has kept its foreign policy apparatus hidden under Washington’s long shadow. While this may have been somewhat understandable during the Cold War days, Tokyo is still unable to act on the realization that the world has changed since the end of the ugly period. It is now a multi-polar world and Asia is emerging as the likely dominant continent during the present century. Tokyo must note that an Asia without Japan playing an appropriate leadership role will bar Asians, including the Japanese, from a future that could have been brighter and safer.


What prevents Japan from breaking out of the decades-old inertia? It is certainly not Tokyo’s unmitigated respect for US foreign policy, which now lies in tatters all over the globe. What, then? Is it the fear that if Japan becomes pro-active, Asians will be worried that Tokyo could once again don the cast-off imperial mask it had on during World War II? Or, is it Japan’s fears that it would be shunned by the Asians because it has long been dubbed an economic “animal”? Or, is it Japan’s lack of confidence in dealing with neighbours they no longer know very well?


Decades-old inertia


Whatever has kept Japan tied to its rusty old moorings, it is now time for the country to get up, open its eyes and see the opportunity of becoming a responsible and contributing member of Asia. In recent years, China has emerged from its own dark shadows and has become a mighty power. A rapidly developing China is building railroads and highways to interconnect its vast land with its immediate and distant neighbours. China has succeeded remarkably in this venture, despite the fact that Beijing did not have a single true friend in its neighbourhood at the time the Cold War ended. Even more remarkable, China has also succeeded in mending its fences with Russia, against whom it had plotted and conspired during the better part of the Cold War.


But China cannot do a whole lot more for the time being. The effort put into developing linkages between Southeast, South and Central Asia could very well under-prioritize its own daily economic necessities. China’s fast-growing economic machine needs a regular flow of energy fuel and many other mineral reserves to keep it churning. It is almost a certainty that China will be busy developing infrastructure near home and in distant parts of the world with its prime objective to extract and haul those resources almost on a daily basis to feed its own giant economic machine. Therefore, its future investments in developing infrastructure, and even economic corridors, in other nations will focus not so much on those countries’ domestic requirements, but on how such investments can enhance availability and extraction of oil, gas, coal and other necessary resources mainland China requires.


India, another populous and growing nation situated in South Asia, needs to become similarly pro-active in Asia. But India has not succeeded in generating any noticeable amount of surplus that could be invested in infrastructure developments linking Asian countries separated and kept hostile to each other by rapacious European colonial powers from the 18th through the 20th century. As a result, India’s domestic infrastructure remains shoddy and rickety, resembling yet another Third World country. This abject failure is keeping India tethered within. Despite the much-vaunted 8-9 percent growth that India earned over almost a decade, today, at least 400 million people are still without electricity and many more are without access to safe drinking water.


At the same time, India has developed a segment of its manpower that is fully capable of performing at a very high level. Although hundreds of millions of Indians still lack the technological skills, or adequate training, to participate in building high-speed railroads or advanced power stations to run high-productivity industrial facilities, nonetheless the country has what Japan does not - a vast pool of underutilized and tech-savvy manpower.


Japan must note that the economic weakening of the United States, the bankruptcy of Europe and the rise of China and India as economic powers has changed Asia already. The economic muscle of Japan during the Cold War days helped shape - if not wholly, at least partially - the present state of some of the Southeast Asian nations. China’s economic might is bringing in new economic opportunities and a brighter future for the people in Southeast Asia. Sooner or later, China’s growth will also make a positive economic impact in South and Central Asia. However, that day has not arrived and may not arrive soon. But with Japan participating as an active ingredient in Asia’s developmental endeavour, that day may arrive sooner rather than later.


Put India-Japan collaboration on a fast-track


Japan’s lukewarm interest in more vigorous participation in Asian development is matched by New Delhi’s inability to recognize the full potential of Japan as a developmental ally. For instance, when Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited India recently, the mainstream Indian media, who eagerly report insignificant Western dignitaries’ visits to India with drumbeats on the front page and in-depth reports of the old colonial master’s royal households’ antics and gossips endlessly, virtually ignored this historic visit.


The first-ever visit of the Japanese emperor to India, this landmark visit must be seen in the context of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s newly formulated foreign policy initiative - which could be considered unique - to develop closer Japan-India ties. Whether or not Abe’s pro-India initiative is a move to counter China is for the geo-politicians to fret about, but it is irrelevant. The fact remains that Japan, with its technology and manufacturing muscle, and India, with its large manpower, can accomplish even more than China is presently accomplishing in the region.


To begin with, a number of Japan-assisted projects within India, and yet-to-be-formulated India-Japan joint venture projects in Central Asia and Afghanistan, need to be a given priority. Japan has signed an ODA loan agreement with the Indian government to provide up to 2,606 million yen for Phase I of the Dedicated Freight Corridor Project. Under the DFCP, freight rail lines will be constructed along the Western Corridor between Delhi and Mumbai and the Eastern Corridor between Ludhiana, Delhi and Sonnagar. The Japanese ODA loan project will focus on constructing approximately 920 kilometers of track in the Western Corridor between Vadodara and Rewari, connecting major cities in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana, as well as introducing electric locomotives capable of high-speed, high-capacity transportation.


The DFCP is an important part of the “Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) initiative,” which is a Japanese-Indian collaborative project for comprehensive infrastructure development to create India’s largest industrial belt. The industrial parks and harbours of the six states between Delhi and Mumbai will be linked to promote direct investment and export, particularly to Japan. However, the project is not moving at an appropriate speed, despite the realization that on completion it will assure benefits to millions and be an icon of Japan-India economic collaboration.


In addition, the three most populous South Asian countries - Bangladesh, India and Pakistan - face a perennial energy shortage, now and in the future. Electrical power - which can be generated via coal, hydro and nuclear sources, and to a very small extent through solar and wind - is inherently short in all three countries that account for almost 25 percent of world’s population. The energy shortfall in these countries is not going to go away, but will surely become more acute in the years ahead.


Policymakers in these three South Asian nations have begun to realize that generation of electrical power using nuclear fission is the only long-term option that is left to meet present and future energy requirements. Within Asia, if not in the entire world, Japan has perhaps the most developed heavy engineering capabilities to build and provide nuclear reactors to these countries.


For instance, the largest and best-known supplier of heavy forgings in the world is Japan Steel Works (JSW). The company produces large forgings for reactor pressure vessels, steam generators and turbine shafts, and claims 80 percent of the world market for large forged components for nuclear plants. JSW has been manufacturing forgings for nuclear plant components to match US Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards since 1974, and some 130 JSW reactor pressure vessels are in service around the world today.


JSW has said that one of its main targets is to supply nuclear reactor pressure vessels to the Chinese and American markets, and it has advance orders from GE-Hitachi for ABWR (advanced boiling water reactor) and ESBWR (economic simplified boiling water reactor) components, as well as EPR (European pressurized reactor) pressure vessels. New orders are coming from China, India and the United States, as well as Europe. If Shinzo Abe restores nuclear power’s deserved prominence, JSW will be required to supply pressure vessels for future Japanese reactors as well.


Besides Japanese participation in generating nuclear power to make a significant dent in South Asia’s massive power shortages, Japan and India together could do a lot more. For instance, a number of corridors like the DMIC, which is unfortunately moving ahead at barely a snail’s pace, must be developed, making inroads into the hinterlands from the coastal areas of Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.


These would act as energy corridors, bringing oil and gas into South Asia from the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere, and could then be broadened into transport and economic corridors. The economic corridors, or economic belts, could be as wide as 50 miles on either side of the basic transport and energy lines, and would provide opportunities to develop infrastructure around those corridors, employing people productively. The corridors could be developed in the form of a hub-and-spoke model. Japan has high-speed trains and very many excellent technological capabilities, added to its adequate financial capabilities, to help the South Asian nations jump-start these developments. In fact, on Pakistan’s Baluchistan coast, China is developing Gwadar Port with the prime intent to bring in oil and gas to western China. This would be a long energy-transport corridor, one that could be fleshed out in certain areas to become an economic corridor.


To stabilize Afghanistan


Japan must also address the reality of the 2014 departure of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan after waging a wasteful and useless war for more than a decade. They will be leaving the country, and its neighborhood, in as much turmoil - or even worse, if one considers the state Pakistan is in now - as it was in when the Western warriors arrived in 2001 with their guns blazing.


The US-NATO departure will be followed by one of two basic scenarios. The first is an unattended and uncared-for Afghanistan plunging once again in internecine warfare, drawing in outside forces who love to fish in murky water. The only certainty in this scenario is further spilling of Afghan blood and the placement of Iran, Pakistan and the entire Central Asia at the mercy of militants carrying very many flags and engaging in senseless terrorist acts. The other possible scenario is one that is based on an understanding among the Asian nations of the long-term threats to the security of the region that the first scenario poses and the need to pull together as a region to get involved in helping stabilize Afghanistan. This scenario would require providing blueprints for infrastructural and industrial projects that could usher in hope for the future to Afghans, who have been living under the sword for decades.


What both Japan and India, and others in Asia as well, must note is that Afghanistan is the threshold through which to enter Central Asia and Southwest Asia. The problem with Afghanistan is that this country has been ravaged over the years by many nations, none of which were Asian but they used some of the neighbouring Asian countries. Today very few Afghans trust their immediate neighbours. While China is not a suspect in Afghans’ eyes, it is not wholly trusted either. At the same time, it is likely that China, which already has secured the Aynak Copper Mine extraction project, will become more pro-active in the post-2014 Afghanistan.


Among Afghans in general, India is arguably the most trusted nation. India, however, has limited financial capabilities. It has utilized its limited capabilities very effectively during the last 12 years to build institutions and road infrastructure in Afghanistan that has continued to help the Afghans.


Japan has had little or no exposure in Afghanistan. But the Japanese government’s decision to end naval support to US and NATO troops in 2010, when Japan’s defense minister ordered the nation’s naval ships to return from the Indian Ocean, fulfilling a pledge to end an eight-year refueling mission in support of the war in Afghanistan, has endeared Japan to many Afghans. At the time, political experts had warned that the withdrawal could further irritate Washington at a time when ties between the nations were frayed by a disagreement over relocating an American air base on Okinawa. Japanese premier Yukio Hatoyama stuck to his guns and softened the blow when he told President Obama that Japan would offer $5 billion in civilian aid to Afghanistan’s reconstruction instead.


It is evident that Japan knows little of Afghanistan - a country that has been devastated by foreign invaders, neighbours’ covert interferences and the rise of fanatical Taliban in the 1990s. The best possible way that Japan could contribute to Afghanistan’s future, and thus stabilize what has been a perpetually unstable country and pave the way for multi-nation efforts to interconnect Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran to South Asia, is by riding on India’s shoulders. Japan and India must develop joint ventures that would not only help Afghans in Afghanistan, but would open up the way for them to have an access to Southwest and Central Asia.


The Bamiyan Buddhas


Beyond preparing the blueprints of developmental and infrastructure projects mentioned earlier, one of Japan’s immediate tasks is to announce a project to restore the Bamiyan Buddhas. Two monumental Buddhas were cut, probably in the third and fifth centuries AD, in the tall, sandstone cliffs surrounding Bamiyan, an oasis town in the center of a long valley that separates the mountain chains of Hindu Kush and Koh-i-Baba. The taller of the two statues (about 53 meters, or 175 feet) is thought to represent Vairocana, the “Light Shining throughout the Universe Buddha.” The shorter one (36 meters, or 120 feet) probably represents Buddha Sakyamuni, although the local Hazara people believe it depicts a woman, according to W.L. Rathje, Discover Archaeology Magazine. For centuries, Bamiyan lay at the heart of the fabled Silk Road, offering respite to caravans carrying goods across the vast reaches between China and the Roman Empire. And for 500 years, it was a center of Buddhist cultivation.


In 1998, indoctrinated with the fanatical Wahhabi form of Islam, funded by the Saudis and armed by the Pakistani military, the Taliban set about to destroy those statues. There could be any number of reasons offered by these fanatics why they did it, but none of them justify the dastardly act. After the Taliban were routed in 2001, teams from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), along with the International Council on Monuments and Sites, began the painstaking process of putting the broken Buddhas back together. Those involved are sifting through some 400 tons of rubble and have recovered many parts of the statues, along with the shrapnel, land mines and explosives used in their demolition.


The restoration of these historic Buddhas is an inestimable gift for the future generations. Lest it mask another part of history, namely the barbaric effort by the Taliban to destroy these historic statues, the restoration should be accompanied by a complete history of the monuments, including such things as the Taliban complaints that their destruction was so difficult. Taliban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal, for instance, lamented: “This work of destruction is not as easy as people might think. You can’t knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain.”

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