As significant as the material damage, which appears to be almost incalculable, and as worthy of attention as the economic damage, also titanic, is a potential shift in the international alliances and strategies in the Far East, particularly among China, Japan and the US and its allies.
The grim truth is that Japan, already beleaguered by a stagnant economy, a pitiless demographic decline, and a fate-filled geographic location, now has been hit with devastation the equivalent of total war, including the continuing threat of nuclear disaster. One look at the satellite photographs reveals devastation that makes Sherman's march on Georgia and the Nazi blitz of London seem restrained.
Japan has been critically wounded, and it will not be long before her ancient enemy China, and possibly China's ally North Korea, along with other opportunistic nations, move in to take advantage of her present weakness, as enemies always do.
For Japan's situation is not like a nation such as France, which is ensconced amid European allies with empathetic governments and favorable economic alliances fostered by the European Union. On the contrary, there has not been any particular inclination by China and North Korea to hammer out mutually agreeable agreements with Japan such as are characteristic of the Western democracies, regardless of their unique national distinctions and rivalries. China and North Korea are not democracies but authoritarian communist governments who see economic strategies in terms of command, not mutually satisfying cooperation.
Japan is flanked on the East by the vast and geographically quixotic Pacific, which can arbitrarily wreak devastation at a moment's notice. To the West, she is bordered by nations with long memories and persistent antipathies. Just as bad, even friendly allies such as the United States and Australia, unless they act swiftly, will be forced to revise their long term Far East and Southeast Asian strategies in light of Japan's new weakness coupled with the increasing strength of China's military coupled with China's already strong economic presence within Japan itself. This is to say nothing of North Korea's steadfast and intractable hatred of her ancient nemesis.
It is sometimes hard for Americans, who are always among the most magnanimous, forgiving and generous of nations, to grasp how ingrained and intractable are hostilities among the Far East nations. It is equally difficult to comprehend how those hostilities continue to play out among ancient rivals. That is because we in America do not have the long, long history of conflict and carnage which has characterized the chief antagonists of Far East. Japan, China and Korea have been entangled in wars and occupations from time immemorial; wars which are not forgotten and in many cases not forgiven because of the immense brutality doled out by Japanese occupying forces.
Japan may generally have escaped the both the odium and the klieg lights which have kept the Nazi atrocities under continual scrutiny, but her behavior as conqueror and occupier of China and Korea was as horrific as the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe and their Barbarossa campaign against Russia. Japanese cruelties such as the "Rape of Nanking," the brutal occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 , and the Japanese atrocious medical and biological warfare experiments in the infamous Unit 731 and elsewhere are still living memories for the Chinese and Koreans. Despite the attempts of Japan to apologize for past transgressions and despite the fact that both China and Korea also have been guilty of atrocities, neither country would be sorry to see vengeance heaped on their former tormentors. Nor would either of the nations hesitate to take advantage of Japan's present and probably lingering weaknesses. There are old scores to be settled with Japan. The reaction of China and its quixotic and undependable ally North Korea will probably not yet take the form of overt military action because of the presence of the United States military and America's strong alliance with Japan. However, both will move to strengthen their already growing hegemony in the Far East and beyond, seeing the catastrophe as an opportunity to take portions from Japan's economic pie by moving in to replace Japanese influence, already diminished by its two decades long economic malaise. The accompanying result could be a diminution of US influence in the Southeast Asian region.
While the leaders of North Korea will doubtless continue to hold their cards close to their chests, erupting occasionally with a missile launch and threats of ratcheting up the development of an atomic bomb, what might China do next in view of ancient antipathies she now sees as having the possibility of being rectified? What goals will she seek to achieve in view of Japan's and America's weakened positions in the Asian theatre?
The most likely possibility is that China will attempt to achieve some long term goals more rapidly than previously thought possible.
One accelerated goal will almost certainly be to achieve the quiet and "peaceable" reintegration of Taiwan into the Chinese mainland, absorbing it in much the same way Hong Kong was quietly absorbed in 1997. We may look for one of the many conditions of reunification to include the return of the imperial treasures presently in the Taiwan National Museum, where they were safeguarded from the destruction which befell many historical artifacts in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. One of the memories still very much alive in the minds of China's present day rulers is the fact that when Chiang Kai Shek and his wife retreated to Taiwan, they took with them much of their nation's exquisite and irreplaceable art; art which represented the very soul of China and the essence of its rich artistic heritage. They Mainland China now wants the art back.
The watching world may also expect increasingly strengthened ties between Australia and China with diminishing ties to US and its ally, Japan. That is because regardless of Australia and New Zealand's cultural ties with the Anglo-sphere, they also are isolated and vulnerable islands whose relative proximity to China necessitates realignments not necessarily in favor of its present allies. China's increasing hegemony over the seas surrounding Australia, waters once firmly dominated by Western powers, may be cause for a new pragmatism on the part of both Australia and New Zealand.
In fact, Japan's accelerated weaknesses may tempt China to increase its already considerable presence in countries such as Burma, where it seeks easy access to the Indian Ocean; and in Vietnam, which has endured a thousand year-long Chinese cultural hegemony, has sought to retain its influence in the South China Sea, despite the hot breath of the Red Dragon down its long neck. Just recently, Vietnam protested February's Chinese military maneuvers near the disputed Spratly Islands, whose surrounding waters are rich in minerals the Chinese economy demands. The maneuvers will doubtless continue and multiply now that Japan is down and out.
There will also be increased pressure on China's growing rival India. Like Burma, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand and other southeastern nations, India will feel the consequences of the earthquake and tsunami, as minus Japanese strength and the preoccupation of the US with the Middle East, China will seek to strengthen her control over the South Sea, thus diminishing through military threat India's ancient trade routes, routes which are critical to her continuing economic success. India's and the West's hegemony over the South Seas is threatened as China will seek to derail both India's and the US alliances and dominance of the South Sea.
How must the US and her allies react to the Japan's weakness and China's attempts to take advantage of that weakness?
First, the US must, together with its allies in Europe, despite our and their economic troubles, launch a Marshall Plan to help Japan regroup and get back on her feet. Distractions in the Middle East must not prevent concerted attention being devoted to helping Japan. Next, Japan must increase her own military strength in order to balance increasing Chinese belligerence in that region. Further, the US and her allies must immediately form and strengthen a coalition of Eastern nations who will, even if it is only for immediate pragmatic concerns about their survival, be a firewall against increasing Chinese influence and domination of the region's economies and seas.
Next, America must increase its ties with India, whose empathetic government and growth as an economic power are capable of being a counter balance to China's antidemocratic authoritarianism, drive for dominance of the Southeast, and increasing belligerence on the world stage.
Also among the necessary domestic strategies for counterbalancing Japan's current weakness: beefing up rather than cutting the US military, rapidly decreasing debt obligations to China by dealing with runaway government spending, reassessing the US stance concerning trade imbalances, and rectifying the US/Chinese currency difficulties.
If the US and her allies act now, Japan's current weakness will be shored up and the effects of the devastation brought on by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown will be significantly mitigated if not entirely rectified, while Japan's ancient enemy China and her odious ally North Korea are at least contained and prevented from accelerating China's goals in Southeast Asia and beyond.
The US must see its role as more than helping out a stricken ally. It's imperative to develop and implement strategies which will contain the inevitable increase in belligerence from China and North Korea.