09.02.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan’s Foreign Policy Messages of Early 2016

shinzo-abe-1451902408606The changing face of Japan’s foreign policy—a many-year process—has been marked by several notable messages sent to the outside world in 2016 that has just begun.

Firstly, it was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response to the request of the members of Japanese Parliament representing opposition parties to send the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to the Greater Middle East (GME) for participating in the military operations under way there are now. In his speech dedicated to the Japanese foreign policy delivered to the Parliament on January 26 of this year, PM Abe responded to this request in an unequivocally negative tone.

According to the Prime Minister, “for the foreseeable future the government absolutely refuses to consider” even the logistic support to the Western military coalition led by the US, a key ally of Japan, let alone the possibility of JSDF’s participation in the war with Islamist radical forces in the GME. The only concession ​​Abe agreed to make was the provision of the “humanitarian aid” (e.g., food supply) to the victims of the ongoing hostilities in the region.

This rather remarkable statement may be interpreted from several perspectives. Firstly, it can be assumed with high degree of probability that Katsuya Okada, the current leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, the main opposition force to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, LDP) who lodged the request, was well aware of the fact that the US is probing for Japanese government’s position on the issue. This assumption seems quite reasonable since Washington’s attempts to engage the JSDF in Pentagon’s “overseas” operations can dated as far back as the so-called “Gulf War” of 1991, which Japan had to literally pay its way out of by covering the financial costs of its Western allies.

Actually, it was the first time that clearly demonstrated the growing dissatisfaction of the “Big Brother” with the Japan’s persistent non-participation in various types of collective military actions led by its Western allies.

This situation can hardly be mended by a couple of episodes of participation (in 2004) of the (unarmed) JSDF Engineer Battalion in the rear units of the Western coalition in Iraq and the provision of a logistic support (in 2007) by the Japanese tanker and destroyer to the naval military Western allies’ group involved in the Afghan operation.

Growing “Big Brother’s” impatience in this regard can be expressed in a maxim that sounds approximately like that: “You, people, got too comfortable there. We are shedding our blood for the common cause, and you are living an untroubled life there participating only with your checkbook! You say it is against your Constitution? Well, abolish the current one (we had written for you) and adopt a new one with new wording of your own.”

By the way, PM Abe’s recent statement in which he urged to finally adopt “Japan’s own” Constitution is also a reaction to the “tender reminders” of its key ally.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that Japanese ordinary citizens are not particularly in a hurry to show “patriotism” by supporting this appeal, as the current high economic (as well as the growing political) status of Japan on the global stage is in many ways a result of the post-war (“post-occupation”) Constitution.

From standpoint of an ordinary Japanese, so far the country has been doing just fine on the global stage: “The world likes us, not without an exception, of course. As for the wrongdoings of the Imperial Army during World War II, only few remember them today.” Japan is perhaps the number one candidate to the future reformed UN Security Council. And the “Big Brother,” if it gets too annoying with its ally commitment issue, it can be rubbed its nose in the same Constitution it itself wrote.” What else would an ordinary Japanese need to continue watching from a distance the world getting increasingly insane?

It is noteworthy that lately Japanese government had to address the prospects of JSDF’s participation in the hostilities in the GME region on two occasions. Early last year the issue was raised in the Parliament in response to the USA’s urgings to join the bombing of Iraqi Islamists.

By a peculiar coincidence, at the time of the discussion two Japanese journalists were publicly executed somewhere in the GME. Apparently, the execution was meant to coincide with the tour of PM Abe to a number of countries of the region. The Prime Minister addressed the request for a potential engagement of JSDF in the military action in the GME region lodged by the US as well as the expectations of the plotters of the provocation with the execution of the two Japanese citizens supposedly by some “jihadists” (with highly unlikely Middle Eastern origin) in the Parliament upon his urgent return to the country.

PM Abe stated then that Japan was not going to bomb anyone and will limit its involvement exclusively to the provision of humanitarian assistance to the affected GME population. Actually, it turns out that Tokyo’s position on this issue, expressed on December 26, had been first formulated a year earlier.

It seems quite logical from both domestic and foreign policy perspectives. As noted above, Japanese public is not yet ready for a drastic change in the image of the peaceful Japan. Even the above-mentioned (very limited in form and content) armless JSDF’s participation in Iraq and Afghanistan was not supported by the Japan’s population.

As for the foreign policy issues, despite the growing interest of Japan in the Indian Ocean Region (encircling a part of the GME), the military presence of JSDF in the area will be of a rather symbolic nature in the coming years. At least as long as there are no visible signs of significant expansion of military presence of China — the main geopolitical opponent of Japan — in the region.

The two major Asian powers thus far have been adhering to the military strategy of self-containment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), refraining from actions that could trigger the opponent’s military acceleration in the IOR. A similar argument (to avoid provoking China) was almost certainly brought up by the Japanese party during the discussions with its US allies on the involvement of JSDF in the military operations in the GME region.

Both main Asian competitors are gaining ground in the region applying the economic lever, which was demonstrated during the recent tour of President Xi Jinping to the three leading GME countries. Japan’s lifting of the sanctions against Iran, and the statement that accompanied it, made by the Head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry Fumio Kishida on January 22, where he expressed the desire of his country to develop multifaceted relations with Tehran, especially in the field of energy, is yet another testimony to the progression of the situation in this direction.

China and Japan have enough points of confrontation in the East China and South China Seas, where situation is developing in accordance with a certain intrinsic logic that hardly depends on the intentions and wills of the leadership of both countries.

In this context, the five-day visit of the Japanese imperial couple to the Philippines, undertaken in late January, looks rather peculiar. It should be noted, that the Philippines are one of the key elements of the “political funnel,” rotating now in the SCS, sucking in other global players (despite of their unwillingness), and Japan in particular.

In a conflict situation unravelling in the SCS, the Philippines have been demonstrating the position of the toughest opponent to China that is claiming over 80% of the sea area. Among China’s southern neighbors, which disagree with these claims, the Philippines turned out to be the only country that appealed The Hague Arbitration Court in 2009 with a request to give a legal assessment of the PRC’s conduct in the SCS. This move has further escalated the tension in Sino-Philippine relations. Since there is a huge gap in the potentials of the sides of the conflict, it was quite predictable that the weaker party (the Philippines) would seek help of China’s geopolitical opponents.

Although, according to the effective Constitution the status of the Emperor of Japan is reduced to mere personification of the “symbol of the Japanese nation and the unity of the Japanese people,” the moral authority of Emperor Akihito is very strong not only in Japan, but also on the international arena.

This factor must be kept in mind since the implicit purpose of his seemingly ceremonial visit to the Philippines (to commemorate those killed in the massacre, which continued for four years during the Pacific War was to demonstrate his support for a country that found itself at the forefront of the confrontation with China in the SCS. And that is just how China interpreted the visit of the Japanese Imperial couple to the Philippines.

This visit can also be analyzed in the context of general elections in the Philippines, scheduled for the coming May. China cherishes hopes that new political forces with a more favorable attitude towards Beijing would come to power in the country, which means that in three months’ time we will be watching Japan (US) versus China electoral “battle over the Philippines.”

Another noteworthy current development is the appeal of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to the Government of Japan, made on January 26, where it raised the question of the leadership of the Republic of Korea (RK) removal of the sculpture of “a teenage girl sitting on a chair,” installed in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul. The role of this sculpture (symbolizing the problem of “comfort women”) in the context of the current Japanese-South Korean relation has been repeatedly discussed in the NEO.

This appeal demonstrated that the issue of the statue’s removal (as one of the aspects of the “final and irreversible” decision reached in Seoul on December 28 with regards to the overall problem of “comfort women”) has ascended to the highest level in both countries.

However, it will be extremely difficult for the RK’s leadership to implement this request due to internal political reasons. The case of the prosecution of the professor of the Seoul Sejong University, Park Yuha, who published a book in 2013, which questioned the very foundation of the problem of “comfort women“, is a vivid testimony to that.

On January 13th, 2016, Seoul District Court ordered Professor Park to pay $8,300 to each of the nine former sex slaves, whose reputations were tarnished over the content of the book. The total amount came to $75 thousand. That is a large amount for a modestly paid university professor.

This and similar cases in other countries lead to believe that there might be some sort of an international sect of self-appointed upholders of the “statement of faith” about the nature of the largest manslaughter in the history of mankind. Apparently, this sect believes that the integrity of its basic mythologemes is immeasurably more important than the resolution of pressing international problems (for example, in the Northeast Asia) or the revelation of the historical truth.

In conclusion it should be noted that the messages sent by Japan to the outside world at the beginning of this year clearly demonstrated Japan’s priorities in respect to the regions of its global political activities, which had been redefined in the recent years, with the sub-region of East Asia (including the East China and South China Seas) remaining the undisputed top choice.

Since the reappearance of Japan as a new global power, its influence have been spreading to other regions of the world where Japan continues to operate (so far, and chiefly) its main instrument—the lever of the world’s third economy.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook


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