The Big Chill: Domestic Insecurities and Sino-Japanese Relations

China and Japan sparred once again, this time at the United Nations.  Last week, China’s ambassador for disarmament affairs charged Japan with amassing excessive amounts of sensitive nuclear materials, notably 1,200 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium and 48 tons of separated plutonium (of which about a quarter is stored on Japanese territory).  That is sufficient, he claimed, for Japan to make 1,350 nuclear warheads.  Japan’s disarmament envoy shot back that his country’s nuclear program has safely operated under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards for more than 50 years.  He added that over that time Japan has consistently demonstrated its peaceful intentions and would not pose a threat to other countries.[1]  Given that he directed his response at China’s ambassador, one may have also taken it as a reminder of China’s recent aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas.

Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping at APEC 2014

The pointed exchange marked another episode in the downward path of relations between China and Japan.  It was not so long ago both countries got along.  Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, they enjoyed ever closer economic ties.  Many blame the current deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations on the tensions that arose over Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in 2010 or Tokyo’s purchase of them from private Japanese owners in 2012.  Certainly trade between the two countries has fallen ever since then.  (See table.)  But the dispute over the islands was just the spark.  China and Japan have substantially changed over the last two decades, both in absolute and relative terms.  Both countries have developed domestic insecurities that led them to view each other with greater concern.

On the surface, China does not seem to have any cause for insecurity.  Its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is ostensibly at the pinnacle of its power.  The government at which it is the head has presided over a 35-year economic expansion that has made China the envy of the developing world.  It is even doling out largesse under the auspices of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that will likely expand its influence across Asia and Africa.

Yet the CCP has reason to be anxious.  In its headlong push for economic growth, it often ignored public ire over government land grabs, pollution, and workers’ rights.  The party’s widespread corruption further dented its credibility.  Hence, despite the CCP’s best efforts to eliminate organized dissent, the number of public protests has recently risen.[2]  Meanwhile, China’s fast-rising economy, once the CCP’s shining achievement, is losing its luster amid sagging exports, bursting property bubbles, and rapidly mounting debts.  Seen in that light, China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and AIIB begin to look more like a worried search for growth abroad (and work for its infrastructure-building companies) than a coherent strategy to connect Eurasia’s economies.

Adding to the CCP’s unease is the ever-smaller number of true believers in its Marxist-Leninist ideology.  Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to promote Marxism have fallen flat.  So, the CCP has returned to nationalism to bolster its popular appeal.  A big part of that has always been showcasing the CCP as China’s savior from Japanese occupation (while largely omitting the role of Taiwan’s Kuomintang).  The CCP seems to believe that its ceaseless criticism of Japan proves that it still faithfully stands watch against any revival of Japanese militarism that could threaten China.

Linked to that narrative, the CCP has tried to show how much stronger China has become under its rule.  That was made clear in September when China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (and China’s victory over Japan) with a massive military parade in Beijing.  The martial display conveyed the message to the Chinese people that they should be confident in the ability of the CCP to not only defend China, but also govern it.  On the other hand, that Beijing felt the need to use such demonstrations of strength to dispel doubts about its political legitimacy probably worried its neighbors.

Meanwhile, across the Yellow Sea, Japan has grown insecure too.  It can no longer rest easy as Asia’s dominant economic power, a title that it lost to China a decade ago.  It is increasingly aware of its national vulnerabilities.  Japan’s population is ageing fast and shrinking.  That demographic shift not only has implications for every aspect of Japanese society, but also will make economic growth harder to achieve.  That is doubly concerning for Japan, which is still struggling to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.

Japanese leaders are all too well aware that China’s rise is remaking the regional hierarchy in Asia.  They realize that Japan cannot afford to remain forever quiescent, if it is to avoid being consigned to a subordinate role in the new order.  That has compounded Japan’s sense of unease, because Japan knows that it must keep the power gap between China and Japan from growing wider, even though it now has fewer resources with which to do so.  Fortunately for Japan, other Asian countries have begun to feel the same way.  India, the Philippines, and Vietnam have all embraced Japan.

Tokyo has taken advantage of that sentiment and become far more diplomatically active across the region, if only to prevent China from consolidating its power there.  As Xi has pushed China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has never been far away.  Abe has travelled to Southeast Asia numerous times to ink economic, political, and even a few military cooperation agreements.  Last week, Abe began a five-country tour through Central Asia, which lies at the heart of China’s “One Road.”  A week earlier, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force dispatched a destroyer to participate in naval drills with India and the United States in the Indian Ocean for the first time.

Meanwhile, there has been a generational change in Japan.  Older Japanese who had been willing to accept Japan’s diminished international stature as penance for its militarist past are passing from the scene.  Younger Japanese who have no connection with that past believe that their country has proven itself to be a responsible actor in world affairs.  Today, a majority of Japanese believe that Japan has sufficiently apologized for its military actions during the 1930s and 1940s, which China relishes reminding Japan of at every turn.  Unsurprisingly, recent polls showed that only 7 percent of Japanese viewed China favorably (down from 55 percent in 2002).  Even more telling, China’s very unfavorable rating in Japan climbed to 48 percent.[3]

The domestic insecurities of China and Japan are unlikely to abate soon.  China’s insecurities, bound up with those of the CCP, will grow if the Chinese economy continues to slow.  Japan’s insecurities are tied to its long-term demographic trends.  Both sets of insecurities continue to drive a wedge between the two countries.  Even the non-governmental Beijing-Tokyo Forum, whose primary purpose is to improve Sino-Japanese relations, has found it harder to reach a consensus.  The forum, which invites high-level former government officials from both countries, has always managed to eke out a joint statement, even during particularly testy times in Sino-Japanese relations like 2012.  This week it concluded without managing even that.  For the moment, relations between China and Japan are on ice.  The region should be grateful that the latest row between the two countries occurred inside the United Nations and not out in the East China Sea.

[1] “China Slams Japan’s Plutonium Stockpile, Frets About Nuke Armament,” Japan Bullet, October 21, 2015.

[2] See China Labor Bulletin.

[3] Pew Research Center, “Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image,” July 2014; Pew Research Center, “America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s,” July 2013.

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U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?

At times, it seemed as though the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would go on interminably.  Begun in 2010, the TPP evolved from the four-country Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement to encompass twelve Asia-Pacific countries, including the United States.  It would eventually take five years for the trade representatives from those countries to hammer out an agreement, the final terms of which were settled on Monday morning.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Member Countries

Over the coming months, much will be said, both for and against, the possible economic and social implications of the TPP as it is debated in the legislatures of its twelve member countries before it can be enacted.  But the TPP also carries with it strategic implications—not only for its smaller members, but also for its largest, the United States.  American interest in the TPP began during the last year of President George W. Bush’s tenure.  But it was the administration of President Barack Obama that moved the TPP to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.  So important has the TPP become that Obama persuaded his political opponents in the U.S. Congress to award him “fast-track” trade promotion authority, so that American trade representatives could assure their counterparts from other countries that the U.S. legislative body would not tinker with the specific terms of the trade agreement once it was reached.

Strategically, the United States has come to see the TPP as critical to its long-term security in the Asia-Pacific.  It helps to ensure that, even with China’s rise, countries around the rim of the Pacific Ocean would have economic incentives to pursue strong relationships with the United States.  As that line of thinking goes, the more closely the trade interests of the TPP’s twelve member countries are aligned, the more closely their economies will integrate and, ultimately, the more likely their political outlooks will align.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States is also pursuing a trade agreement similar to the TPP with the countries of Europe called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP.

That line of thinking is not lost on either China or Russia.  While China chose not to participate in the TPP to avoid more pressure to remove its many trade barriers, it pushed for another (less onerous) trade agreement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, which did not include the United States.  China has also championed its own form of economic integration, called the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (tying together China’s land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and sea-based “Maritime Silk Road” efforts).  That initiative has sought to knit together the various economies along the ancient Silk Road between China and Europe.  Beijing even created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year, in part, to support the construction of the trade infrastructure needed to facilitate that integration.

For its part, Russia has tried to cobble together the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) from the countries that were once parts of the Soviet Union.  Russia has pursued the economic integration of the former Soviet republics as a way to not only expand its market space, but also strengthen its sphere of influence over them.  While most of the former Soviet republics could not ignore the economic potential of the EEU, they have been cautious about their participation in it.  Even Kazakhstan, an early supporter of the EEU, has repeatedly stressed that the EEU should remain an economic, rather than a political, grouping.  As can be expected, most former Soviet republics are protective of their new-found sovereignty.  And so, they are keenly sensitive to any Russian scheme that may absorb them into a reconstituted empire, particularly in light of what has happened to Ukraine’s Crimea and Donetsk provinces.

But lest we are to believe that closer trade and economic ties will inevitably lead to closer political alignment, history provides plenty of examples where that failed to happen.  One cannot say that closer economic integration between the European Union and Russia has brought the two to a more closely aligned political outlook.  Instead, they have used their respective trade dependencies on one another as weapons against one another in their political clash over Ukraine.

In the Asia-Pacific, one needs to look no further than the experience of China and Japan.  In the 1990s, Japanese companies led the multinational charge to set up outsourced factories and develop new markets in China.  In 1999 the two countries did $66 billion in bilateral trade.  By 2011 that figure climbed to $345 billion.  The two economies became increasingly integrated, with China more reliant on Japan for industrial machinery and Japan more reliant on China for consumer goods.  But then tensions over the Senkaku Islands, which began in late 2010, boiled over in 2012 and sparked anti-Japanese riots in China.  Tensions have run high ever since, cooling their economic relationship.  Every year after 2011 trade between the two countries has fallen.  Last year their bilateral trade slipped to $309 billion; the trade figures for August 2015 suggest that this year’s total will be lower still (indeed it is on track for a steep decline).  Rising costs in China and a stagnant Japanese economy surely contributed too, but they cannot fully explain the drop, given China’s continued, albeit slower, economic growth.

China Japan Bilateral Trade in Goods

The causal logic that closer trade and economic ties will lead to closer political alignment could be turned on its head.  One could argue that it is when political outlooks are aligned that closer economic integration often seems desirable (and also that when political outlooks are in conflict that economic integration often seems dangerous).  That is not to say that the TPP is not a worthy accomplishment; it is.  But the United States should be wary of relying too heavily on the TPP to ensure its security in the Asia-Pacific.  Even if the U.S. Senate ratifies the trade agreement, the United States should continue to actively pursue other strategic initiatives in the region with equal verve.

[1] Japan External Trade Organization, Japanese Trade and Investment Statistics, 1999-2015.

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Friends in Many Places: Vietnam’s Diplomacy

Last Wednesday, Vietnam feted the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu.  But earlier that week, Hanoi lodged a protest against Beijing for allowing a Chinese offshore oil rig to drill in the waters near the Paracel Islands, which are disputed between China and Vietnam.  Hanoi also complained that Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese coast guard vessels which were dispatched to the oil rig site on Sunday.  Several Vietnamese sailors suffered minor injuries.[1]  Fortunately, the outcome of the incident was far less severe than Vietnam’s March 1988 naval clash with China in which 70 Vietnamese personnel were killed and three ships lost after Chinese forces fired on them near Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands.

That China and Vietnam have had a long history of mistrust, reaching far before the 20th century, is well known.  The fact that both countries eventually became single-party states with a common communist ideology did not make them comrades.  During the Cold War, Vietnam allied itself with the Soviet Union, not China.  And in 1979 China and Vietnam fought a short, but intense war, in which Beijing sought to “teach Vietnam a lesson” for its invasion and occupation of Chinese-backed Cambodia.  But by the end of the conflict, China, after losing over 30,000 troops, learned that Vietnam was no walkover.  What Vietnam learned was the rarity of reliable friends.  Despite a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that Hanoi signed with Moscow a year earlier, the Soviet Union did not come to Vietnam’s aid when China invaded.  Unfortunately for Hanoi, after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, it had even fewer friends than before.

South China Sea - Paracel Islands - Spratly Islands - Vietnam

But with growing unease across the Asia-Pacific over China’s rise (and attendant assertiveness), Vietnam has found other countries receptive to friendlier ties.  Unlike the Philippines, which has sought to maximize its long-time relationship with the United States (and a more recent one with Japan), Vietnam has cast a wider net for friends.  Over the last 15 years, it has made fast friends with a number of external powers, including India, Japan, Russia, and the United States.[2]  These have paid off in different ways.

Like Vietnam, India has become wary of China.  New Delhi has wanted to push back against what it sees as China’s efforts to exert influence into South Asia, in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.  Moreover, India has its own territorial disputes with China over large sections of the Himalayan Mountains.  And so, India has pursued new ties with Southeast Asia through its “Look East” diplomatic strategy, and in doing so found common cause with Vietnam.  So, even as China drilled for oil in waters that Vietnam contests, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation had already agreed to lease exploration blocks from Vietnam in waters that China contests in the southern part of the South China Sea.[3]  India has also extended military support to Vietnam.  Since 2000, the Indian navy has deployed ships into the South China Sea (and on occasion ignored warnings from China’s navy that they were entering Chinese waters).  In 2010, Vietnam signed an agreement that granted the Indian navy access to Vietnamese port facilities.  In turn, India agreed to expand Vietnam’s naval logistics capabilities and, in 2013, offered to help train new Vietnamese submarine crews (since India has long operated the same class of submarine that Vietnam is now acquiring).[4]

Vietnam’s relations with Japan have also grown.  The rift between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu (in China) or Senkaku (in Japan) Islands in the East China Sea has made Tokyo as interested as Hanoi in developing new security ties with its neighbors.  In 2011, Japan and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding that facilitated the creation of bilateral defense ties, ministerial visits, and exchanges between the two countries’ armed forces.  And when Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Tokyo in December 2013, the two sides discussed further collaboration, including providing Japanese-built patrol boats to the Vietnamese coast guard.  (Japan made a similar offer of ten patrol boats to the Philippines in July 2013.)  That was followed up with an accord between Japan and Vietnam to establish an “extensive strategic partnership” during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to Hanoi in March 2014.  The partnership envisions many areas of engagement, most notable among which is Japan’s assistance to enhance Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement capacity.[5]

Of course, Vietnam’s relationship with Russia extends back to the days of the Soviet Union.  But that relationship has been revitalized over the last decade.  Russia is once again doing a brisk business as Vietnam’s principal arms supplier and ranks among Russia’s top five arms export recipients.  In April 2014, Vietnam took delivery of the second of six Kilo-class submarines that it ordered from Russia.  Before that came orders for 32 Su-30MK2 fighters, two batteries of P-800 mobile land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (part of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense system), six Svetlyak-class fast-attack craft, and four Gepard-class frigates.  Vietnam also contracted Russia to upgrade its venerable naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, where Russia maintained a naval presence until 2002.  Meanwhile, Vietnam has tried to broaden its relationship with Moscow by allowing Russian state-owned companies, like Rosneft, to acquire stakes in its energy sector.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Vietnam in late 2013, the two sides agreed to several deals that included a joint investment in a major refinery and a contract for a nuclear power plant.  But more interestingly, Hanoi offered Rosneft concessions in two offshore exploration blocks, both of which sit near or within China’s “nine dash line” that demarcates Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.[6]

Vietnam has even courted the United States, a country against which it fought a bitter conflict in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  When Russia’s lease on Cam Ranh Bay was about to expire in the early 2000s, Vietnam turned to the United States.  Hanoi informally discussed granting the United States access to the naval base, which it had used during the Vietnam Conflict.  At the time the United States demurred, concerned about China’s reaction.  Even so, Vietnam has welcomed U.S. Navy port visits, which have averaged once per year over the last decade.[7]  Nonetheless, the relationship between Washington and Hanoi only really took off after they began holding annual bilateral defense and security talks in 2008.  Vietnam was particularly pleased in 2010 when the United States declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to be in its “national interest.”  That American assertion was reinforced in late 2013 when Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would provide Vietnam with $18 million and five fast patrol boats to improve its coast guard’s ability to properly police its waters.[8]

Whether Vietnam eventually finds these external powers to be fair-weather friends remains to be seen.  Certainly, China has tried to plant the seeds of doubt, warning Vietnam not to be misled by professions of friendship from other countries.  Of course, a country like Russia must weigh its growing strategic relationship with China against its military and economic ties to Vietnam.  Other countries must also consider how far they are willing to go for Vietnam.  Thus far, these sorts of questions have not hindered Hanoi from pursuing a foreign policy that aggressively makes friends around the globe.  Perhaps one day France may be counted among them too.




[1] “Sea incident not clash: China Vice-Minister,” China Daily Asia, May 8, 2014, http://www.chinadailyasia.com/news/2014-05/08/content_15134173.html; “Chinese vessels deliberately ram Vietnam’s ships in Vietnamese waters: officials,” Tuoi Tre News, May 7, 2014, http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/19513/chinese-vessels-deliberately-rammed-into-vietnamese-boats.

[2] Vietnam also developed closer security ties with Australia, Germany, Italy, and Sweden.  In 2010, Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation with Australia and further strengthened its ties in 2013 with a new joint training program.  In the same year, it contracted with Sweden’s Unmanned Systems Group for unmanned aerial vehicles.  Julian Kerr and James Hardy, “Australia, Vietnam signal closer defence ties,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 21, 2013.

[3] That same region was a zone of contention in the early 1990s when China and Vietnam leased exploration blocks abutting one another to Crestone and Mobil Oil, respectively, both American energy companies.  Philip Bowring, “China Is Getting Help in a Grab at the Sea,” New York Times, May 6, 1994.

[4] Rahul Bedi, “Indian Navy to train Vietnamese submarine crews,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 2, 2013; Hao Zhou, “China warns India against oil exploitation,” Global Times, Dec. 5, 2012, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/748314.shtml; Desikan Thirunarayanpuram, “USA, China frown at Navy’s S China Sea exercise,” The Statesman News Service, May 8, 2000.

[5] “Vietnam-Japan ties lifted to extensive strategic partnership,” Tuoi Tre News, Mar. 19, 2014, http://tuoitrenews.vn/politics/18447/vietnamjapan-ties-lifted-to-extensive-strategic-partnership; Jon Grevatt, “Japan, Vietnam pave way for further defence collaboration,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 19, 2014; “Japan extends patrol ship carrot to Vietnam, plus ¥96 billion loan,” Japan Times, Dec. 15, 2013, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/12/15/national/japan-extends-patrol-ship-carrot-to-vietnam-plus-%C2%A596-billion-loan/#.U2vRp7Stzj4.

[6] Alexei Anishchuk and Ho Binh Minh, “Russia’s Gazprom, Rosneft sign Vietnam energy deals on Putin visit,” Reuters, Nov. 12, 2013 ; “Russia to Deliver 12 Su-30 Fighter Jets to Vietnam – Source,” RIA Novosti, Aug. 21, 2013; Nguyen Pham Muoi, “Vietnamese Defense Minister in Russia to Boost Military Ties,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10, 2013; “Russia Will Help Vietnam Build a Submarine Fleet, Shoygu Says,” RIA Novosti, Mar. 8, 2013.

[7] The most recent U.S. Navy port visit occurred in April 2013 when the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and salvage ship USNS Salvor docked at Da Nang.

[8] “Kerry announces new US maritime security aid to Vietnam amid China tensions, pushes reforms,” Associated Press, Dec. 16, 2013; Malcolm Moore and Praveen Swami, “Vietnam offers navy base to foil China,” The Telegraph, Nov. 8, 2010; John Pomfret, “Clinton wades into South China Sea territorial dispute,” Washington Post, Jul. 23, 2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/checkpoint-washington/2010/07/clinton_wades_into_south_china.html ; Nayan Chanda, “Cam Ranh Bay manoeuvres,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec. 28, 2000-Jan. 4, 2001, pp. 21-23.

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Fox Hunting: China’s Response to Japan’s Diplomatic Campaign

Last November, I wrote a blog entitled What Does the Fox Say? that outlined once-hesitant Japan’s efforts to raise its stature abroad.  Since then, those efforts have continued at a relentless pace.  Following a multi-country tour through Southeast Asia after the APEC summit, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe capped off his regional efforts with an ASEAN-Japan summit in Tokyo.  Without missing a beat, he then took Japan’s active diplomacy beyond Asia and has taken steps at home to better orchestrate its implementation.

During a well-publicized tour through Africa two weeks ago, Abe visited Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Mozambique.  But wherever he went, he could not escape Chinese criticism of Japan’s Second World War history.  China’s representative to the African Union went as far as holding a press conference to denounce Abe as “the biggest troublemaker in Asia,” while holding up old photographs of Chinese civilians that he said were massacred by Japanese troops.  Chinese ambassadors around the world made sure that that message was pressed home.  In so doing, China has attempted to respond to Japan’s diplomatic campaign with one of its own.

Paying little heed to China’s rebukes, Abe has forged ahead.  In a demonstration of its strategic engagement in Asia, Tokyo made a substantial contribution to the reconstruction efforts in the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan devastated that country’s central islands last year.  Through the Japan International Cooperation Agency, it signed an agreement with Manila to establish a Post-Disaster Stand-by Loan worth about $500 million.  For those in the Philippines, it further distanced Japan’s response to the disaster from China’s meager one.

Still, Japan’s foreign policy coordination has historically been challenging to do.  But in late November, Abe pushed through the Diet a bill that established Japan’s National Security Council (NSC), modeled on similar ones in the U.S. and Europe, to improve that coordination.  (China created its own at about the same time.)  And so, one would assume that going forward, Japan’s foreign policy setting and execution will work more smoothly.

But there are still kinks left to work out.  A month after its NSC was formed, Japan appeared to stumble when Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine without first explaining to Japan’s neighbors and allies the reasons for his visit.  The shrine commemorates all of Japan’s war dead, including—as the Chinese are quick to remind—fourteen “Class A” war criminals from the Second World War.  Abe’s visit drew predictable condemnation from China (and South Korea).  But it also prompted the United States to express its “disappointment” over the visit, which China was all too happy to re-broadcast.  Only afterwards did Abe offer an explanation of his intent “to pay his respects and pray for the souls of the war dead and renew the pledge that Japan shall never again wage war.”  Though the practical damage from his visit was limited, it did appear to take some wind out of Japan’s diplomatic sails.

Is Japan trying to, in the words of China’s ambassador to the United States, “change the verdict” of the Second World War or was Abe using his visit to make it clear that Japan was willing to stand firm, even on contentious issues?  No doubt, there are a few in Japan who would like to whitewash its imperial past, but as time passes a growing number of Japanese have come to view China’s criticisms as a way to push Japan around.  Still, many in China believe that Japan has not yet properly atoned for its wartime record that resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese.  (Though they might also ponder how much the Chinese Communist Party has done to atone for its part in the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution.)  Perhaps, Abe, like earlier West German leaders who visited the sites of German atrocities in neighboring European countries, should consider also paying his respects at places like Camp O’Donnell in the Philippines (the terminus of the Bataan Death March).

But even without those visits, Southeast Asian countries, which were once occupied by Japan during the Second World War, have already begun to welcome Japan as a balancer in the region.  They seem to have largely set aside their anxieties about Japan’s 73-year old aggression and have made their concerns about China’s current assertiveness a higher priority.

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What Does the Fox Say?: Japan’s Diplomatic Campaign

After North Korea launched seven ballistic missiles into the seas near Japan in July 2006, Japan did something uncharacteristic for a country that seemed inclined to follow than to lead.  It took the diplomatic initiative.  Japan immediately called an emergency meeting of the United Nation’s Security Council and drafted a resolution that not only condemned North Korea’s missile launches, but also called for sanctions backed by force.

At the time, Japan raised eyebrows.  The world had not heard Japan’s diplomatic voice so clearly on the international stage for almost six decades.  But that was one episode.  Early this year, Japan began a sustained, high-profile diplomatic campaign across Asia.  Soon after becoming Japan’s prime minster for a second time, Shinzō Abe kicked off that campaign with a speech in January 2013 that laid out Japan’s five aims for its diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific:

1. Protect the universal values of freedom of thought, expression, and speech

2. Ensure that the seas are governed by laws and rules, not by might

3. Pursue free, open, and interconnected economies

4. Bring about stronger intercultural ties between the peoples of Japan and the region

5. Promote more exchanges among younger generations

The first two aims have direct relevance to how Japan would like the region to deal with China and its new assertiveness.  Helpfully, they are also consistent with the goals of Japan’s principal ally, the United States.  So too one could say of Japan’s third aim, in light of American efforts to create the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The third aim has the added benefit of ensuring that the region’s countries are not drawn solely into China’s economic orbit.  The final two aims have a far longer time horizon.  Japan continues to hope that with greater engagement memories of its imperial past will recede further into history and, in Abe’s hope, that Japan can once again become a “normal country.”

But old ghosts die hard.  Japan’s imperial past still creates barriers in parts of Asia.  Every time a Japanese official (and certainly a prime minister) visits Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates not only Japan’s 2.5 million war dead but also fourteen war criminals among them, there is an international outcry.  Yet the issue increasingly seems to be one that only animates China and South Korea.  A visit by several cabinet ministers in April 2013 derailed a bilateral summit with South Korean leaders; and another by 150 Japanese politicians in August sparked protests and an official rebuke from China.  For whatever the reason, Southeast Asian countries appear to have largely put the issue behind them in their dealings with Japan.  As a result, Abe has overseen an unprecedented expansion in Japanese ties with Southeast Asia.

In fact, soon after Abe’s election, Japan began to signal that it wanted to strengthen its relationships in Southeast Asia.  Abe’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, was dispatched to visit Australia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Singapore.  Meanwhile, Abe himself travelled to Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam at about the same time.  In all, Abe has visited every Southeast Asian country this year at least once (including a swing through Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos in November).  He has tried to build on Japan’s economic links to the region with the development of new security relationships.  Japan has offered ten coast guard vessels to the Philippines and conducted joint counterterrorism exercises with Indonesia.

While President Barack Obama missed the APEC summit in October, Abe surely made his mark there.  During a sidebar meeting, he and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang agreed to greater cooperation in maritime security, given their mutual concern over “unilateral attempts to change the status quo [of maritime disputes] by force”—a not-so veiled reference to China.  Even more ambitious was Japan’s overture to Russia.  In November, the two countries held their first meeting to enhance their maritime security cooperation, a somewhat odd turn of events given their own territorial dispute over in the Kuril Islands chain.  At the meeting’s concluding press conference, Japan reassured that its new security relationship with Russia in no way diminished its ties to the United States.  (Russia said as much regarding its ties to China.)

Unlike America’s seemingly on-again, off-again approach to engagement in Asia (at least to those in the region), Japan’s diplomatic campaign this year appears steadier, if for no other reason the country must live there.  Outside of the economic sphere, the world has not heard much from Japan in a half century.  It will likely hear more of Japan’s voice in the years to come.

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