Country Report: Japan (September 2013)

Coverage of Abe Shinzo in the Japanese media has centered on three familiar themes and on one that has gone mostly unnoticed abroad. The July 21 Upper House elections were a referendum on Abenomics. Speculation about Abe’s revisionism only quieted some after it became known that Abe would not visit the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15. Moreover, moves to bolster Japan’s defense capabilities, national security strategizing, and the US alliance—drew an upsurge of attention. Yet, another issue should not be overlooked in the preoccupation with these themes: there has also been growing interest in Asia as a sign of a more activist, realist/idealist foreign policy, triangulating with the United States on values and in maritime arenas from Australia to India, especially in Southeast Asia.

Even before the elections, curiosity was building on what would be Abe’s foreign policy priorities. On the list were: collective defense, TPP, establishment of a Japanese National Security Council (NSC), and new defense guidelines. These objectives were highlighted by Abe’s close advisor, Yachi Shotaro, who made it clear that Japan seeks to go beyond bilateralism to formulate strategic diplomacy from a panoramic perspective of the world. He listed also the elements of Abe’s “values diplomacy” on the axis of the Japan-US alliance, encompassing freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, while taking pride also in Japanese national character, rooted in history, tradition, and culture. Although the expression “arc of freedom and prosperity,” introduced by Foreign Minister Aso during Abe’s prior time as prime minister, is no longer used, he concedes continuity. Yet, Yachi rejected charges that this was directed at containing China, saying it is about peaceful means of combining values in the pursuit of joint development, whether through ODA or human exchanges. This is still the course, adds Yachi, fretting that a hard-line faction in China may be gaining power, willing even to risk a clash at sea, whereas Japan seeks healthier relations. Unlike some Japanese who say the United States is prioritizing China over Japan, Yachi insists that US-Japan ties are much deeper, joined by common values. The new realism is mixed with internationalist idealism, but that does not suffice.

In an in-depth interview with published on July 5, Yachi contrasts the way Abe is approaching Asia and Hatoyama’s 2009-2010 rebalancing to Asia through fraternal relations and the East Asian community. Abe’s premise is that Japan builds a stronger alliance with the United States, but Hatoyama tilted away from the alliance. Moreover, Hatoyama left the door open to some sort of distinctive regional values, as opposed to Abe’s strong affirmation of universal values Finally, dithering over the Futenma airbase and lacking conviction on matters of national defense, Hatoyama damaged the alliance, which Yachi credits Abe with restoring as he, with US encouragement, reinterprets the Constitution and begins to boost the long stagnant defense budget. These moves provide a very different context for Japan to redouble its diplomacy toward Asia, as is occurring.

Following the LDP victory in the Upper House elections, Japanese media reflected on its meaning for relations with China, above all. Some wondered if relations would go into a tailspin, as leaders knowingly snubbed the other side’s feelings, for instance by how they responded on important anniversaries, such as August 15 in Japan and September 11 in China, a year after Japan’s nationalization of the disputed islands. They especially argued that because the Chinese media interpret Abe’s dream of “Japan’s return” in dichotomous terms—the peace constitution vs. militarism akin to pre-1945—, the most that Japan can expect is a watchful China unwilling to engage with Abe except on some less sensitive issues and ready to pounce in the coming months if Abe does not exercise clear restraint. Conveying Chinese responses in detail, Japanese media took a somber tone, suggesting little prospect of reining in nationalist emotions in coming years. Much was made of the record low positive views of each other in China and Japan, each having fallen sharply from about one-quarter positive in 2008 to close to zero, as the drop accelerated by the summer of 2013. Talk of an Asian strategy generally took this dismal reality for granted.

Standing firmly with the United States breaks down only in Northeast Asia, where Japan used to take care to be deferential. Yachi is downcast on South Korea in ways that have offered little hope, while he is upbeat on Russia despite little evidence. Both relations are seen strictly in bilateral terms with history in the forefront. On South Korea, Yachi puts the blame on very strong anti-Japanese sentiments in the mass media and in the National Assembly, acknowledging as well some anti-Korean sentiments in Japan. He concludes with a call for calm, nothing more. This results in an Asian strategy of working around South Korea, countering China without a lot of fanfare, and looking for every possible opening on its periphery, even a long-shot approach to Russia, while hugging the United States closely, although US-South Korean and US-Russian relations are not at all in sync with Japan’s approach. Coordination in Northeast Asia, but not Southeast Asia, declined.

When Nihon keizai shimbun reported on July 22 on a trilateral meeting in Seoul among China, South Korea, and the United States, it stressed that South Korea has rejected the old triangle with Japan and on North Korean questions, and it is now centering on forging a different triangle of shared strategic thinking with China in place of Japan. Kuroda Katsuhiro, who long served as the Seoul bureau chief of Sankei shimbun, goes further in assailing Korean selectivity in attacking democratic Japan for its historical consciousness while staying silent about China’s responsibility for the Korean War. Knowing from the outset that China would not yield and seeing Japan’s willingness to apologize, Seoul, he insists, is lambasting Japan without limits. Bypassing history, it has now established a “honeymoon mood” in ROK-China relations. Sankei shimbun has criticized South Korea as well as China (painting the two with the same brush) for “moving the goalposts” in the middle of the game; so that Japan can never win, i.e., clear itself of its opprobrium. In the September issue of Chuo koron, Shiozawa Eiichi reinforced the argument that Seoul and Beijing are rapidly drawing closer and excluding Tokyo, but, in contrast to Kuroda, calls for strategic rethinking in Japan. Hopelessness about making South Korea part of Japan’s Asian strategy or US triangulation has been palpable, but there are some exceptions.

Fighting against the tide, on July 25, Seoul National University Professor Park Cheol-hee wrote optimistically in Yomiuri shimbun that a good opportunity exists to develop Japan-South Korean relations. While the South is expressing concern about the revival of Japanese militarism through revision of the Constitution, Park does not agree that this will happen soon. The reason is that more than half of the population must vote in a referendum for it, and Abe’s election win was due to Abenomics, not his realist policies. Both countries see the leader of the other as one-dimensional, Park notes, but this can change. Abe and Park are strong leaders, raising the prospects for progress, he concludes. This is worth noting because it is far removed from other opinions in Tokyo and Seoul.

With many observers stressing Abe’s focus on strengthening Japan’s alliance with the United States, little interest has been shown in Abe’s four journeys to countries along China’s rim during the initial period of his new stint as prime minister. First, he visited Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand, then he traveled to Mongolia, in May he went to Myanmar, and, after LDP success in the Upper House elections, he stopped in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. The thrust of this busy travel schedule is that Japan has a great power role. Recalling that Koizumi left office after five years under the cloud of having a US policy but no Asian policy, and seeing no sign that Abe will win acceptance in China or even South Korea, analysts do not hold out much hope for his initiatives toward Asia. Sources in Japan see a different outcome, based on Abe’s strategic thinking.

Abe has showcased his diplomatic priority to Southeast Asia, looking ahead to the Brunei summits in October and to a December summit with all ten heads of the ASEAN states in Tokyo, which will commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of dialogue with ASEAN at a time when Japan’s leaders were heralding their breakthrough in Asia toward a leadership role, and also the tenth anniversary of Koizumi’s summit with the leaders of these countries, when Japan was still hopeful about achieving the East Asian community through ASEAN leadership and a rough balance between Japan and China. As on these other occasions, there is a strong economic component as Abe noted in his July meetings in the region. There is also an unprecedented values component, fully in support of universal values with no hint of “Asian values,” as in previous talk of regionalism. The most striking difference from past agendas is the priority put on the subject of security. This was unmistakable in Abe’s visit to the Philippines, which will be given loans to build the capacity of its coast guard, outgunned in facing China over a maritime territorial dispute. Abe’s “strategic diplomacy” means defense cooperation, which fits well into US maritime strategy. Japan is no longer distancing itself from US diplomacy as too values-based, too centered on military security, and too oriented to free market principles. Yet, we would be remiss if we did not notice that there remains a tendency to emphasize the autonomous nature of Japan’s diplomacy in Southeast Asia, building on thinking during the Cold War about special ties and downplaying any reinforcement of US leadership.

Articles in the July/August issue of Kokusai mondai explore what kind of order is now emerging in East Asia. Setting the stage is Fujiwara Kiichi’s contrast of the Cold War order and what followed. He explains that over four decades Southeast Asia served as the centerpiece in Japan’s Asian diplomacy. While the US alliance was foremost in security, Japan saw Asia through an economic prism, which presumed rivalry with Japan’s ally even if the exports from the flying geese model into which Japan had organized the area were heavily US-bound. Anticipating rising political influence in these countries, Japan feared that market liberalization at home would undercut its competitive power and after the Cold War continued to see its tolerance for political and cultural diversity as giving it an advantage in the region and with ASEAN over the United States. Yet, these hopes were unrealized after China broke the mode, by delinking ODA support from political cooperation and Japan lost much of its economic edge even in Southeast Asia. Now its Asian diplomacy has shifted from economics to military security. Along with the United States, it is embracing democracy and capitalism opposed to the unfair trade practices of China. There is no going back, Fujiwara concludes. Other articles follow, pointing to ASEAN as the focus in Asia. Japan is the champion of a strong ASEAN, although the absence of Cambodia and Laos from Abe’s itinerary suggests the limits of this agenda.

Another article in Kokusai mondai by Katsumata Hiro calls on Japan to support ASEAN from behind, in light of China’s opposition to Japanese leadership, in encouraging ARF by inserting liberal elements into regional identity. As a “constructivist” approach, this is consistent with other appeals for combining security and values, strengthening the Asia-Pacific region as the basis of community, and boosting multilateralism in contrast to the priority in China on bilateralism. Southeast Asia is being highlighted in media sources.

Reading Japanese sources, we would look in vain for clarity about the strategy that would confirm Japan’s great power aspirations in Asia. While Japanese hesitate to acknowledge it, claims to an independent Asia policy and even multilateralism are overblown. In most bilateral relations, Japan is riding the coattails of the United States with no differentiation on security policy (the alliance as the foundation), values (opposed to China’s values), and economics (support for TPP). This contrasts with Japan’s distinct approach, notably to Southeast Asia, prior to recent years. The one country that some Japanese perceive as offering the most room for a separate approach is India, whose relations with the United States on all three of the above dimensions are ambivalent. When Prime Minister Singh visited Abe in May, it drew considerable attention. Yachi singles out India for its pro-Japanese feelings and sees it as a pillar of Japan’s strategic diplomacy, emphasizing the need to deepen bilateral relations. Abe’s visit to India during his prior stint as prime minister saw him raise the theme of the Tokyo Tribunal through recognition of the Indian judge Pal who opposed the verdict; so Abe may have historical memory in mind in choosing India as a way to express Asianism distinct from the United States, but with little to show for it. Australia is another regional partner, albeit one with closer US ties.

Emphasis is put on Japan’s distinctive ties to countries, not on piggybacking on Obama’s “rebalance.” If this gives Japan a higher profile than before, it does not rise to the level of “Asianism” or a great power breakthrough apart from the US Asian strategy. The opening Japan sees in maritime Asia is in a region polarized between the United States and China. Yet, Abe’s aspirations in Asia hardly seem to be contained in this restricted framework.