Seventy-three years ago today marked the beginning of a new era in world history.
After what President Franklin Roosevelt called a “dastardly attack” on our naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, the United States went to war with Japan. For the next four years, young Americans fought some of the most brutal air, sea and land battles in the nation’s history against a hardened and vicious enemy. Young Americans had to push Japanese soldiers off of the islands they had occupied from Wake Island and Midway to the Philippines and Iwo Jima. In Okinawa alone, more than 50,000 Americans were killed and wounded. Japanese casualties were more than twice that.
Fast forward 73 years and the future of the American relationship with Japan is again entering a new era.
Once the war ended after the emperor’s surrender in August 1945, the enemies in war became allies in building a new East Asia. The Japanese recognized that their effort to dominate the region had failed, and they turned to the United States for assistance in rebuilding their country. Americans recognized that a vibrant and democratic Japan was crucial for world peace and the containment of communism, promoted by the Soviet Union.
Japan became the anchor for capitalism in Asia. American investments financed new factories for automobiles, electronics and computers. The American military ensured Japan’s security and its access to food and industrial materials mostly acquired from neighboring Asian countries. Oil and other energy resources came from all over including Texas, Indonesia and the Middle East.
By the 1970s and 1980s, Japan emerged as the first “Asian tiger.” Its citizens were highly educated, productive and peaceful. They exported more to the United States and Western Europe than they imported, and they used their balance of payments surplus to invest abroad. In fact in the 1980s, many Americans worried that Japan was buying too much New York real estate. There were also concerns that they were unfairly “dumping” their electronic products on the American market, undercutting U.S. companies such as Texas Instruments.
That partnership has now changed radically.
With the opening of China to the international economy coupled with the precipitous decline of Japan, China has become the largest producer and consumer in all of Asia at breakneck speeds. Japan has fallen behind because of poor investment choices, corrupt government and population decline. Japan’s population is aging rapidly, and its closed immigration policies prevent the arrival of young and innovative people from abroad. Simply put, the center of Asian entrepreneurship has shifted to China.
Because of this, our relationship is markedly different from how it was during the decades after the Pearl Harbor attack. So what does the future hold?
Japan will remain a major producer of automobiles and high-end electronic items for the United States, and Japanese citizens will continue to purchase American products. But future growth for American businessmen is not in Japan. Nor does the security of Asia revolve around Japan. U.S. economic interests in China, along with India and Vietnam, will continue to grow, and Japan will get less American attention. The Japanese know this, and their government’s greater military assertiveness in recent years is an effort to become more self-reliant.
That does not mean the relations between the two former World War II adversaries will worsen. Americans will continue to trade with Japan and visit that country in large numbers, but more of these activities will include China and South Korea too. The special bilateral partnership between the United States and Japan will become a looser regional relationship with neighboring countries involved. There will be more independence, more compromise and tougher bargaining for all business and security deals between the U.S. and Japan.
If the 73 years of U.S.-Japanese relations since Pearl Harbor have been intensely close, the next few decades will be more distant and multilateral. That should still be good for business and democracy not only in Asia, but in the wider world.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 7 December 2014.
The early summer of 1989 was the most optimistic season in recent memory. William Wordsworth, writing in a previous revolutionary moment, captured the sentiment: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” I remember that feeling, if not those words, as a high school student convinced that I was blessed to be born at such a time.
In the early months of 1989 the communist governments of Poland and Hungary, two traditional stalwarts of the Soviet bloc, opened political participation to long repressed trade unions and dissident groups. The leaders of these societies saw that the Soviet Union had entered a period of rapid political and economic reform, including unprecedented efforts to open to the capitalist West. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke explicitly of ending Cold War tensions and creating what he called a “common European home.” This meant a reversal of Soviet-enforced tyranny in Poland, Hungary, and soon all the other satellites in Eastern Europe. By June 1989 it was clear that Gorbachev and his political reforms were for real. No one knew precisely where events would lead, but all signs pointed to brighter sunshine in what had been the very dark world of postwar communism.
On May 15 Gorbachev visited China. He was greeted by mass demonstrations led by students and intellectuals demanding democratic reforms in their country. Centered on the huge Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, but spreading throughout other urban areas, a popular movement that began to grow in April took rising inspiration from the Soviet reformer. If Russian communism could be reformed to allow more political freedoms, why couldn’t Chinese communism do the same? The street demonstrators in Beijing and other cities had supporters within the Chinese ruling elite who were themselves inspired by Gorbachev and the example of reform throughout Eastern Europe. The Soviet leader’s visit brought international attention to the tremors shaking China.
For nearly three weeks after Gorbachev’s visit, leaders throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China debated how to manage the powerful impulses unleashed for radical change in their societies. This was one of those rare but recurring historical moments when impregnable institutions looked like they were about to crumble under the weight of their long-standing inertia. Gorbachev and his East European counterparts chose to embrace change and re-define political authority in their societies to address the demands of their citizens. Chinese hard-liners, led by Deng Xiaoping, turned in the other direction. They purged reformers from government and ordered more than 200,000 soldiers from the countryside to attack demonstrating students in the cities. On the night of June 3-4, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party massacred those who dared to hope for democracy in their country.
For many American observers, the flowering of freedom in Eastern Europe disguised the murder of courageous activists in China. The Chinese Communist Party has subsequently used force, economic coercion, and propaganda to erase the memory of June 1989. Twenty-five years later it is difficult to imagine the democracy movement in China producing anything other than the repression and autocracy that followed it. Twenty-five years later the current communist regime appears “natural,” even appropriate for a vast and populous Chinese society in need of political order and managed economy.
Returning to the history of the Chinese tragedy in 1989 deflates this very damaging lie. Chinese society, like its counterparts in Eastern Europe, had many democratic alternatives to repression in that promising early summer. The popular movement in Beijing and other cities was as serious and substantive as anything occurring elsewhere. Chinese democracy activists had a long history of their own to draw upon, including major efforts a decade earlier. The reformers were well-educated, cosmopolitan, and compelling. They had supporters throughout the Chinese political and military establishment. Many of them had strong personal and institutional connections to the power elite of their society.
The massacre at Tiananmen was a rear-guard action opposed by many and, by some accounts, barely pulled off. For a few days it appeared that the military might revolt against its instructions to attack civilians. Some high-ranking generals resigned or disregarded orders. The success of the repression shows the extreme determination of a select few leaders, and their effective manipulation of a large and poorly-informed rural population.
It clearly did not have to turn out this way. Renewed focus on the realistic alternatives of 1989 should remind us that alternatives are also available today. History is about contingencies, near misses, and possibilities for rapid change after long periods of stagnation. Repression is never as “necessary” as it seems.
Americans had little influence over the Chinese events in 1989. Our influence is similarly limited twenty-five years later. We have many reasons to work closely with the contemporary Chinese government for the sake of East Asian security and global economic growth, both of which are imperiled today.
The historical memory of 1989, and the remembrance of what might have been, should prevent us from simply accepting present circumstances. The Chinese people have a recent and an ancient history of struggling for self-governance, personal dignity, and freedom from repression. We should affirm those values as we manage our relations with the current regime.
All politics, like all relationships, is about the past, the present, and the future. The present Chinese leadership must recognize that it cannot erase the past. It must instead make that past part of its future. Thinking back to the optimistic early summer of 1989, we owe the kindling of this historical memory to those who suffered for change and those who might make it young again.
This blog post originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca