Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades. No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers. Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation. By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.
A Firmer Footing
While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.” In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security. For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue. After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls. Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.
Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation. He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia. He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders. He also stepped in when Washington stumbled. After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.
Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture. It modestly increased its defense budget. It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims. But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law. Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack. While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan. Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts. But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.
The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid. With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.
However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted. Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms). Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States. Instead, he leaned toward China. Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt. Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way. He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy. On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.
To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia. Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president. Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States. But Abe received no public assurances. The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy. If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.
China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses. Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November. Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.
Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position. When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan). Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands. Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.
The Going Remains Tough
To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation. Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security. Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia. Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long. By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it. Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.
None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way. Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation. But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.