Japan’s Precarious Position in the Asia

Japanese destroyers in column formation

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.

Shifting Sands

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.

Troublesome Neighbors

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.

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Obama’s Visit to Asia and U.S. Alliances

As foreign trips go, President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia in April 2014 was more important than most.  It was originally scheduled to coincide with the APEC summit in October 2013, but domestic problems prevented him from travelling at that time.  But even then, such a trip was needed.  Many in Asia already had become concerned over his administration’s commitment to its strategic “pivot” or “rebalancing” towards the region.  Both its economic and security legs had come to little.  Despite the administration’s goal to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks in 2013, they were nowhere near a final agreement (and still are far from one).  Meanwhile, doubts emerged about the seriousness of the U.S. military rebalance.  A major part of that rebalance hinged on the U.S. Navy’s shift from a force that was equally balanced between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to one that would be tilted, 60 percent, toward the Pacific.  But given that the administration’s concurrent efforts would reduce the overall size of the U.S. Navy, many wondered whether its tilt would provide any boost to U.S. capabilities in the region.  And, more broadly, the United States still seemed more willing to engage itself in places like Libya and Syria, than in the East or South China Seas.

During the intervening six months, tensions in Asia have climbed even higher: from China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea (November 2013) and its quasi-maritime blockade of the Philippine-held Second Thomas Shoal (March 2014) to Japan’s decision to build a new radar base on Yonaguni Island (April 2014) to North Korea’s artillery barrages and missile tests (March and April 2014).  Layered on top of all that has been the Ukraine crisis, in which the Obama administration has allowed Russia to violate Ukrainian sovereignty without any serious repercussions.  That itself follows Obama’s failure to act in 2013 after Syria crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.  Little wonder that such worrisome events have made U.S. allies in Asia nervous.

Such was the backdrop for Obama’s visit to Asia over the last week.  Without a doubt, his main objective was to reassure U.S. allies in the region.  Obama visited all three U.S. security treaty partners during his trip: Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

In Japan, Obama plainly stated that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty would cover all territories administered by Japan.  That means the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea would be defended, since they are administered by Japan (though his later reply to a press question as to whether his statement represented a “red line” in the East China Sea slightly muddied its impact).  Still, it was the first time that an American president directly addressed the issue.  That must have heartened Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.  And though there was no breakthrough in the bilateral TPP negotiations between Japan and the United States during Obama’s stay, some incremental progress was made in the days afterwards.

Obama then touched down in South Korea, where he warned Pyongyang against further military provocations.  Already this year, North Korea fired artillery into and short-range ballistic missiles over South Korean waters.  Now, there is the prospect of a North Korean nuclear test.  And so, Obama sought to do more warning.  He also worked to coax Japan and South Korea into overcoming their historical animosities.  Given that both countries and the United States must deal with the threat from North Korea (and perhaps China in the future), the administration hoped that America’s two security treaty allies could find a way to work together, rather than against each other.  Lastly, Obama’s presence in Seoul helped South Korean President Park Geun-hye demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to the Korean National Assembly.  That was important, since it soon will consider a major increase in its financial support of U.S. forces in South Korea, as part of a larger agreement reached seven years earlier in which wartime operational control of combined U.S.-South Korean forces would transition from an American general to a South Korean one.

Finally, just before Obama’s arrival in Manila, American and Philippine representatives signed a ten-year accord called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.  Under negotiation for much of the last two years, that agreement was originally dubbed the Increased Rotational Presence Framework Agreement, largely because that was its intent: to enable U.S. forces to more regularly rotate through the Philippines in order to conduct joint exercises with the Philippine armed forces.  The final agreement also allows the United States to keep the equipment that it uses for those exercises at Philippine military bases.  The frequency of those exercises could be increased to the point at which there would be a near-continuous American military presence in the Philippines.  That would represent a meaningful change in U.S. force posture in the region and send a strong signal of American commitment to the Philippines.  The successful conclusion of the agreement was a victory for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who faced domestic opposition to it.  The agreement offers the Philippines some breathing space to rebuild its own external defense forces and pursue greater security cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

While in Southeast Asia, Obama also began to build new economic and security bridges to Malaysia, which had developed somewhat cozier relations with China than the United States since the 1990s.  Hence, it was notable that Obama and Prime Minister Najib Razak elevated their countries’ relationship to one of a “comprehensive partnership.”  (That matched the status which Malaysia conferred on China a year earlier.)  But little more was accomplished for the time being, due to popular resistance in Malaysia to the American-led TPP.

Upon Obama’s return to the United States, he can rightly claim that American allies in the region feel more reassured.  But American reassurances will ultimately need to be matched with American deeds.  Sadly, Obama’s reticence to persuade members of his own party to grant him “fast track” authority to streamline the TPP’s ratification process belies to some degree his own words of commitment.  An even bigger question is whether his words will impress China or North Korea.  No doubt, his words will be tested.  Questions about American commitments to its Asian allies were not fashioned overnight, nor will they be dispelled with a presidential visit.

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