Behind The Shades Of Japan's Not-So-Subtle Diplomacy

The Yasukuni Shrine
The Yasukuni Shrine
Philippe Pons

TOKYO - The conflict between Japan and China over the sovereignty of the inhabited Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) is symptomatic of Tokyo's diplomatic weakness. In its duel with Beijing, Japan appears isolated in its claim and abandoned by its allies.

The United States announced that the islands were covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty, but they have refused to take sides in the conflict. Together with Tokyo, Washington decided to halt a joint military exercise in order not to provoke the Chinese. The simulated invasion of an occupied island was to have taken place at the beginning of November in the Japanese Okinawan archipelago.

In Europe, the only message Japan received during the recent visit of its foreign minister Koichiro Genba to Germany, France and the U.K., was a polite request for it to resolve its differences with China "peacefully."

Although Japan was the “blue ribbon” of the advanced economies in the 1970s and 1980s, it has lost its luster. China has overtaken Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world.

However, Japan's so-called “lost decades” of the 1990s and 2000s should be reappraised. The Japanese model for scientific research and social stability is worth considering, in spite of the aging population and a growth in inequality. On the other hand, it is difficult to give such credit to Japan’s diplomacy.

Like its domestic policy, Japan's foreign policy is ambivalent and hesitant. Because of the nation’s large public debt, Japan no longer contributes as much in foreign aid, which was once a major pillar of its peaceful diplomacy. Economic stagnation is only one factor in Japan's loss of influence on the world scene. Lack of political direction is another. The deterioration of Japan's relations with China is one example of this. Historical disagreements between the two countries are nothing new, but in the past, in spite of the occasional high jinx, the problems were usually kept under control.

Subjects of disagreement were put on hold, which allowed the two countries to make headway on cooperation in their common interest as economically powerful neighbors. But this status quo was broken by the unwise visits of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) to the Yasukuni Shrine, a sanctuary where war veterans are honored since the end of the 19th century, including seven "Class-A" war criminals condemned and executed by the international court in Tokyo after World War II. They have become de facto "heroes,” writes historian Tetsuya Takahashi in his 2005 book What is the Yasukuni problem?

Nationalist provocations

To the Chinese government, which bitterly remembers the “horrors” perpetrated by the Japanese from 1931 to 1945, these visits, which Koizumi used to rally the right wing and rebuild Japanese nationalism, were felt as provocations. The democrats who came to power in 2009 have not been able to halt the deterioration in Japan's relations with China. After the fall of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was swept out after having tried to disentangle Japan from the American strategic embrace, his successor Naoto Kan mishandled the 2010 incident in which a Chinese trawler deliberately collided with a Japanese coast guard ship off the Senkaku Islands. Kan had the captain of the boat arrested- a mistake. Tokyo was forced to free the man to appease Beijing's fury. Then, in April of this year, Shintaro Ishihara, the populist and nationalist governor of Tokyo, announced that he planned to buy the islands for the city from their private Japanese owners.

Instead of reminding the governor that foreign affairs were not part of his job description, as the Japanese ambassador to Beijing, Uichiro Niwa, did before being replaced, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's administration, weak and timorous, decided that Japan itself would buy the islands. The immediate "damage" was thus limited, but the decision affirmed Japanese sovereignty over the islands, a subject which had been deliberately left "fuzzy" since the normalization of China-Japan relations in 1972.

China had recognized that Japan administered the islands, but understood that sovereignty was undecided. This modus vivendi was reiterated when the friendship treaty between the two countries was signed in 1978. Today Tokyo says that this was a Chinese initiative that the Japanese did not agree to, without having formally rejected it. If the governor of Tokyo, who has just resigned to found a right-wing party, wanted to start a crisis with China, he has succeeded. The administration fell into the trap. "We should never have allowed this obliteration of the efforts by several prime ministers to maintain good relations with China," declared Niwa, the former ambassador to China.

According to Ukeru Magosaki, a former diplomat and best-selling author, "politicians and public opinion think we should stand our ground with China. However, diplomacy that merely follows public opinion is often contrary to the national interest." The only bright point for the Noda administration is the regional irritation that Beijing's claims are causing among other nations in the South China Sea. But that can hardly be creditd to any measure of diplomatic subtly from Tokyo.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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