Japan on our mind
In June 1992, before assuming the presidency he had just been elected to, Fidel Ramos expressed reservations about a higher military profile for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in Asia. The New York Times dutifully reported his view, that any Japanese military initiative would arouse regional concerns. Fast forward to June 2014. On an official visit to Tokyo, President Aquino all but encouraged Japan to amend its pacifist constitution.
“We believe that nations of goodwill can benefit only if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others and is allowed to come to the aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defense,” Mr. Aquino said. “We therefore do not view with alarm any proposal to revisit the Japanese constitution if the Japanese people so desire, especially if this enhances Japan’s ability to address its international obligations and brings us closer to… our shared goals of peace, stability and mutual prosperity.”
What happened between 1992 and 2014? In a word: China. The increasingly aggressive posture of Beijing regarding its maritime and territorial claims to most of the South China Sea, including much of the West Philippine Sea, has dissipated almost all of the goodwill China painstakingly built over some two decades of its “peaceful rise.” The latest provocation, a curious map that reflects Beijing’s new expansionism, is yet another example of Beijing indulging the demands of its extreme nationalists, without a care for the sensibilities of its neighbors.
The Chinese government responded to Mr. Aquino’s statement in predictable fashion. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Manila was needlessly stirring regional tensions. “We think that the relevant country should earnestly show its sincerity, meet China halfway, rather than creating tensions and rivalry and adding new, complicating factors to the situation in the region.”
That strategic deployment of the Confucian virtue of sincerity is worth a closer look. In most cases and in many cultures, the use of the word “sincere” in the spokesperson’s statement would be understood as the opposite of hypocritical. That is, the Philippines should stick to the principles embodied in the Asean-China agreement to produce a binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. A listener aware of China’s own aggressive conduct in recent months, including the ramming of Vietnamese vessels and the construction of facilities in some of the disputed islands or islets, would read the statement differently: as proof of Beijing’s hypocrisy, that China is not in fact committed to the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed in 2002.
But in all likelihood, the Chinese spokesperson used the concept of sincerity in a conservative Confucian sense: that is, as an appeal from a superior to an inferior to know one’s place in society.
“The relevant country,” however, was only doing what it needed to do. Overdependence on the American security umbrella is especially problematic for a former American colony like the Philippines; the short argument can be summed up in a simple phrase: stunted maturity. But there is another powerful argument, reducible to a familiar saying: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket (even if it is a superpower’s basket).
It makes sense for the Philippines, then, to develop closer security ties with its other strategic ally, Japan, as well as with regional players such as Australia. In this light, President Aquino’s endorsement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s program to amend the Japanese constitution to allow greater scope for Japanese military forces to act abroad—especially “in the area of collective self-defense”—is only logical.
Mr. Aquino did not take the matter lightly. “Very few would question the devastation that my country suffered during the Second World War. However, since the middle of the 20th century, my country’s relationship with Japan has been characterized by trust and unfailing support,” he said. “Japan has acted with compassion and in accordance with international law and has more actively and more positively engaged the region and the world.”
Logical sense is one thing; psychological truth is another. More Filipinos will share President Aquino’s view of Japan if Tokyo takes further steps to assuage Philippine and regional concerns, for instance about Japanese responsibility for the abuse of the so-called comfort women. That, too, is part of Japan’s enhanced ability “to address its international obligations.”
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