Gordon Campbell on why Japan is our new best friend

abe-asoOn Thursday, Acting PM Winston Peters will be playing host to the nearest thing to his doppelganger in the Asia-Pacific region. Like Peters, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso is a dapper conservative in his seventies who has been described as a “pugnacious nationalist” by the New York Times – and if anything, Aso’s habit of making controversial, headline-grabbing statements even exceeds that of the NZ First leader.

Peters after all, has never denied the existence of sexual harassment (which Aso did earlier this year when defending one of his sleazier subordinates) and nor has Peters felt inclined to praise the nation-mobilizing abilities of Adolph Hitler, or extol the achievements of pre-war Japanese colonialism. Nor is Aso quite as beloved as Peters by older voters, since on more than one occasion, Aso has told them to “hurry up and die” and cease being a burden on the Japanese state. Earlier this year, Aso barely survived his Ministry’s central role in covering up a recent corruption scandal involving his Prime Minister.

For all his failings and foibles though, Aso is an important figure in New Zealand’s immediate plans. Aso has been the architect of the economic plan called “Abenomics” (after the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) that has sought to open up the Japanese economy to global trade, and thereby revitalise the national economy. In that process, Japan has become increasingly important (a) as a potential market for our farm products, and (b) to provide our “independent” foreign policy with a bit more breathing space, by easing our current dependence on China as our main trading partner.

We have good reasons to be grateful to China. In effect, it was China’s insatiable demand for exports that saved us from the worst of the Global Financial Crisis, but the subsequent dependence has left us highly vulnerable to the current tit-for-tat tariff wars between China and the United States, which could hurt both parties, and include us in the collateral damage. Obviously, if we’re going to put substance into our vaunted ‘independence’ on foreign policy – when, in reality we depend on China for trade and on the US/Australia for defence – we need to diversify our markets, fairly quickly. Japan (plus smaller Asian markets like Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam) and the European Union, are all we have in the way of a Plan B. We can’t end our dependence on China overnight, but we do need to reduce it.

If we don’t, the salutary lesson from history is what happened to New Zealand in the wake of the Rainbow Warrior incident. Basically, the French threats to our exports to Europe throttled our ability to mete out justice to the culprits. Sure, in our MFAT dealings with China we can cite where we agree with them, try to isolate the points of disagreement and make a plea for general understanding. China isn’t known for that kind of selective engagement, though. On the South China Sea dispute for instance, the Chinese may voice token respect for our dissenting views, but it can then easily tighten the screws of bureaucratic delays for our exports, on their wharves. Meaning: sure, we can talk up our independent foreign policy and cite the ANZUS break as an example of where we’ve previously put that independence into practice. But this will remain a weak negotiating hand, so long as our export trade is as lopsided as it currently is.

Japan, which is already a partner in the CPTPP – is central to our plans for market diversification. Japan (and the EU) are the escape routes from our current diplomatic bind. In Taro Aso, Peters will have no difficulty in finding a kindred spirit when it comes to painting this process as being one of asserting one’s nationalism, in the face of a growing Chinese hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. Aso will be in sync with that message, given that Japan has the same problem, caught between a looming China and an unpredictable United States. Japan needs us – and it needs Abenomics to deliver some gains – almost as much as we need them.

Bridges, a zero on climate change

How sad it must be to be a Young National, given what an ideas-free zone the Party has been (a) in government, where its ‘pragmatism’ was synonymous with inertia and (b) in Opposition, where it seems similarly devoid of alternatives, and capable only (under its new leader) of scare tactics about whatever the coalition government is proposing. There’s no contest of ideas in sight – and especially so over the response to climate change.

After all… be afraid, be very afraid, is hardly an inspiring election campaign message. It’s a message for the old, not the young. (Deary me, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, what with all these strikes and goodness knows what next.) You can hear Simon Bridges at it again, in a brief exchange with RNZ’s Guyon Espiner near the end of this clip, yesterday. No ban on plastic bags. No increase to the charges on waste disposal. No blanket ban on mining on DOC land. For all the talk about reaching out to the Greens, there’s no substance involved.

So much, as Espiner indicates, for the ‘more environmentally friendly’ approach that Bridges promised upon winning the party leadership. It would seem that any policy that involves political risk and/or imposes a cost on cleaning up the environmental mess is to be opposed, on principle. As always, National seems more than happy to kick the problems of climate change and environmental degradation further down the road. To quote the Aussie economist John Quiggin when describing Bridges’ ideological counterparts across the Tasman:

This is centrism at its worst. Faced with a choice between an evidence-based response to climate change and culture-war proposals to actively subsidise the destruction of the global environment, [they] have gone for the “middle course” of doing nothing whatsoever about climate change.

Turning Japanese

Over the past few years, J-Pop innovators like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu have influenced everyone from Katy Perry to indie bands like Chairlift to pop electronica artists like Charlie XCX…and the wider world is steadily opening up to the wealth of popular music from Asia, be it electronica or noise, or boy bands, or the franchise girl bands of which AKB48 is still the prime example. (Earlier this year the boy band BTS made history by being the first K-pop band to top the US album charts.) Here from 2014, is CL (from the J-Pop band 2NE-1) with one of her best singles:

Harry Hosono has to be one of the coolest dudes on the planet. I recommend his infinitely expressive sangfroid on the Youtube video for “Merry Go Round” but this shorter track also captures his laconic sense of humour really well.

By way of difference… this haunting mid-1970s track “Wandering” by Hako Yamasaki is about embracing your loneliness, and accepting whatever each day and passing relationship, can deliver. Memorably, it appeared on the soundtrack of the 2016 South Korean erotic thriller The Handmaiden…