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.