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Japan expert plans talk for MISTI Week

Samuels to discuss East Asia 'challenge'
Richard Samuels
Richard Samuels

The power and influence of the United States may be felt all over the world, but Japan is already preparing for the decline of its major military ally.

"Although the United States will undoubtedly remain the world's pre-eminent military power for decades more and possibly longer, Tokyo already sees U.S. diplomatic vigor, moral authority and economic allure waning," according to Richard J. Samuels, MIT's Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for International Studies.

Samuels will talk on "Amassing Power That Is Not Too Hard and Not Too Soft, but Just Right: The Goldilocks Challenge in East Asia" at noon on Sept. 22 in Room E51-095. The talk is a featured event of MISTI Week, which celebrates MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).

Samuels, who directs the MISTI Japan program, recently outlined Japan's strategic thinking in an essay that appears in the autumn 2006 issue of The Washington Quarterly. The essay is derived from his upcoming book, "Securing Japan."

Samuels describes the evolution of Japan's strategy from the immediate post-war period to the present, outlining the reemergence first of Japan's economic strength and more recently of its military capability. "Japan may still be punching below its weight in world affairs, but it has been bulking up in preparation for new bouts," Samuels writes.

That bulking up began after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was spurred by four factors, Samuels asserts: "1) a rising China, 2) a miscreant regime in North Korea, 3) the possibility of abandonment by the United States, and 4) the relative decline of the Japanese economy."

More recently, Japan has been repositioning itself with an eye toward the relative decline of the United States and the increasing might of China.

"The extent to which China displaces the United States as a target for investment and as a market for goods and services will determine whether the China threat gives way to a China opportunity and, possibly, to progress toward a regional economic bloc," Samuels writes.

In cozying up to its neighbors, however, Japan has so far been seriously hampered by its imperial history. For example, Samuels writes, "A mutually acceptable Pacific War narrative between Japan and its neighbors has been impossible. Japan's unwillingness or inability to confront its history squarely is undoubtedly the largest single constraint on its diplomacy."

And Japan doesn't just make its neighbors nervous. "Any overt sign of Japanese ambitions for great-power status and for a fully autonomous security posture is bound to stimulate balancing behavior by Japan's neighbors and undoubtedly opposition from the United States as well," he writes.

Samuels concludes that Japan will therefore hedge its bets going forward -- "Japan will be neither too close to China nor too far from the United States. We await the appearance of Japan's Goldilocks, the pragmatic leader who will get security just right," he writes.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 20, 2006 (download PDF).

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