25.11.2018 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan’s Foreign Policy at Crossroads


It is worth noting at this point that the entire world order is at a crossroads nowadays, including its chief “architects” as is, unquestionably, Japan with its third largest economy in the world. Or fourth, if we view the European Union as a single player in Europe.

Notably, in this post-Cold War era a nation’s economy size and its resilience play an almost decisive role in determining the hierarchy on the world stage, and, in turn, the player’s political clout. It is China’s economy (and not its infamous military base in Djibouti) that has guaranteed PRC its leading position in Africa, and that brings the prospect of it winning a similar position in Latin America closer to reality.

Japan has also been using its economic clout worldwide, especially successfully in Southeast Asian countries, a region of growing importance not only for Japan but also for its main regional rival, China. It suffices to say that three quarters of all fossil fuels imported by China and Japan are supplied via a route that traverses the South China Sea.

Overlapping interests in key regions (the Indian Ocean territory can be added to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea at this point); the military and political alliance between Japan and the USA against their key geopolitical rival, PRC; territorial issues in East China Sea; tit-for-tat development of military capability, and a number of other factors have all contributed towards growing tensions in the Sino-Japanese relations.

Only a motive for severing bilateral diplomatic relations was missing from the equation. In autumn of 2012 the Japanese government bought three of the five uninhabited islands from a “private owner”. China also lays claims to these islands, located in East China Sea and referred to as Diaoyudao in PRC. And this development served as an excuse to sever ties between the two nations.

Since that time, the Sino-Japanese relations have come to epitomize the so-called “Asian Paradox”, a term coined by the former President of South Korea Park Geun-hye. The paradox amounts to weakening political cooperation in relations among most Asian countries in an environment of deepening economic ties among them.

The US administration’s long-established tendency to decrease its involvement in various international squabbles has encouraged various attempts to re-establish trust in the Asian political sphere.

This, in turn, led to fractures in the existing post Cold War era world order as well as realization by other key players that “something needed to be done, as watching and waiting was no longer an option”. Having set aside their relatively minor differences, China and Japan began to feel their way towards each other along the “political path”.

These moves were prompted by the distaste, felt by both countries, towards the neo-isolationist and protectionist stance exuded by the US administration. After all both of these leading Asian nations are in charge of the largest integration initiatives (the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and it seems only natural to try to align the two projects.

This topic has already been the subject of discussions at the highest levels during various international events. The parties involved then decided that it was time to re-establish full diplomatic ties and discuss all the issues plaguing their bilateral relations.

In May of this year, China’s Premier Li Keqiang paid his first visit to Tokyo in years. The Chinese politician, together with his Japanese colleague Shinzō Abe and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, discussed the prospects of reviving the initiative to create a trilateral free trade zone. It is worth noting that this project has been put on the backburner for quite some time due to political concerns.

At the end of August Beijing and Tokyo exchanged messages of congratulations (worded in a noticeably similar manner) on the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries 40 years earlier.

Hence, by the time the first official visit in the last seven years of the Japanese Prime Minister to PRC began (25-27 October), the Sino-Japanese relations had taken a positive turn. The focus of the visit became the meeting between Shinzō Abe and China’s leader Xi Jinping.

Formal negotiations between the nations’ prime ministers resulted in signing of approximately 500 agreements worth a combined total of 18 billion US dollars; in a decision to arrange a bilateral currency swap equivalent to 50 billion US dollars, and in reaching of an agreement on cooperation (and not rivalry as had been the case) to implement infrastructure projects in third-party countries.

Political issues discussed during the negotiations primarily focused on the problems on the Korean Peninsula. Thus far the two sides’ approaches to solving these issues have differed considerably.

The overall reaction towards the outcomes of this visit was fairly measured both in Japan as well as China. The op-ed, aptly entitled “Unraveling thorny knot of China-Japan ties worth doing” and published by China’s Global Times, states that Shinzō Abe’s visit “laid a crucial and positive foundation for the future improvement of bilateral ties”.

At the same time, the editorial poses a rhetorical question “Does the visit indicate that the two nations avoided reaching the point-of-no-return” in their previously turbulent relations?”

As for outside opinion, the US channel CNBC, for instance, focused on “the shadow of Trump” looming over the Sino-Japanese negotiations. There is also talk about the tariff war, already waged against China, ostensibly engulfing Japan too.

Notably, India’s shadow was not looming over the negotiation table as yet but was instead lurking in the vicinity of any processes taking place in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions.

We have written about the complex and ever-changing nature of the relationship between India and China on numerous occasions, which contrasts with the unwaveringly positive developments in Indo-Japanese ties. The assurance to this effect came in yet another (12th) meeting between Shinzō Abe and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two met in Tokyo one day after the former’s visit to PRC.

Overall, it was a fairly routine event. But in contrast to the Sino-Japanese meeting, the visit (in the author’s subjective opinion) took place in a different environment, emotionally speaking. In Tokyo the smiles and handshakes were genuine, and not seemingly ceremonial, in nature. Still it is worth reiterating that the latest meeting in Tokyo did not result in any new developments in the already established bilateral ties

The Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun highlighted the influence of “China’s factor” on the reasons behind yet another Indo-Japanese summit and its agenda.

Curious comments were made in the article entitled “East meets east” published by the Indian Express. It is difficult not to discern certain allusions in the article to the propaganda and ideology-driven Japanese military expansion in Asia during World War II. It is notable that, in those years, India perceived the signals, sent its way by the Japanese forces drawing near, in a nuanced manner.

In China, it is widely thought (with reference to Shinzō Abe’s own words) that the latest round of negotiations between the Japanese leader and his counterparts in PRC and India lends further credence to the theory that Japan is striving to find a balance in its relations with both Asian giants.

However, it is worth mentioning that similar assessments had been made before the visit, scheduled for November, of the Japanese Prime Minister to Australia, a country Japan is actively developing defense capabilities with on a bilateral basis.

If we keep in mind the fact that, not long ago, New Delhi and Canberra were part of various regional initiatives aimed against China, PRC’s wary reaction towards the news of the upcoming visit by Shinzō Abe to, this time around, Australia, is readily understandable.

These reservations probably stem from China’s concerns that Japan can abandon the previously mentioned balancing act in favor of establishing the anti-Chinese triangle “India-Japan-Australia” that the US can potentially join at a later date.

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

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