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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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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The Almost-Normal Country: Japan and the Use of Force

The enactment of Japan’s new national security bills was a long time in the making.  The bills, already passed by the lower house of the Japanese Diet in July, were approved by its upper house last week.  But ever since Shinzō Abe became Japan’s prime minister in 2012, he had sought legislation that would enable Japan to engage in “collective self-defense,” the ability to aid friendly countries under attack.  While that may seem routine in most countries, it has been anything but in Japan.  Many were unhappy with the legislation’s passage.  Those who opposed it feared that it would lead the country into war; and even some of those who supported it grumbled that it did not go far enough to make Japan a truly “normal” country, one where the use of force is considered as a legitimate tool of international politics.

Japan Collective Self-Defense

Unsurprisingly, China was quick to condemn the legislation’s passage.  China’s Ministry of National Defense declared that Japan’s new security laws ran “counter to the trend of the times that upholds peace, development and cooperation.”  The ministry chastised “Japan’s war mentality, its reinforcement of military alliances and attempts to send more troops abroad.”  Chinese media was less charitable.  Xinhua carried the headlines: “China Voice: Is Japan bound up to battle chariot?” and “News Analysis: Japan’s pacifist ideals stripped as Abe steps closer to resurrecting old war machine.”  One commentator at The People’s Daily blamed the “unyielding spirit of militarism” of Japanese leaders who were “breaking [Japan’s] pacifist promise and getting ready to send its troops to battles again.”[1]

Of course, China rarely passes up an opportunity to remind Japan of its imperial aggression.  Thirty-six years of Japanese economic aid to China—now nearly $1.2 billion per year—has yet to restrain its reflex.  In part, that is because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has often used anti-Japanese sentiment to buttress its own political legitimacy.  (Only recently did the CCP even credit its longtime Chinese rival, the Kuomintang on Taiwan, for its contribution—arguably larger than the CCP’s—to resisting Japan in World War II.)

That it took so long for Japan to pass this sort of legislation is a testament to the strength of Japan’s postwar pacifist sentiment.  While militarist elements may still lurk in Japan, most Japanese are decidedly uncomfortable with the use of force in international politics.  That was clear during Japan’s negotiations with Russia over the Northern Territories (or southern Kuril Islands in Russia) in the 1990s.  Though Japan had already begun its long economic stagnation, its military and political might was still near its peak.  In contrast, Russia, following the fall of the Soviet Union, was at its nadir.  Things were so bad in the Russian Far East that it was questionable whether Moscow could provide enough food or heat for its population on Sakhalin Island, let alone defend it.

Yet, Japan did not try to use its military or political capital to pressure Russia into a settlement.  Rather, Japan solely relied on the persuasive power of its economic assistance.  That tactic ultimately came to nothing.  After Russia’s economy recovered, Japan’s window of opportunity to settle the dispute on favorable terms closed.  Today, Russian leaders act without concern over Japanese reaction.  They cavalierly flout Japanese interests.  This year, a series of senior Russian officials visited the four disputed islands, despite repeated protests from Tokyo.  Russian Prime Minister Dmitry even toured one of them in August.  While there, he underlined that the Kuril Islands “are part of Russia… That is how it is and how it will be.”[2]

Japan’s self-imposed limitation on its use of force has also impacted its ability to secure its place in a changing East Asian geopolitical environment.  China’s economic rise has drawn other Asian countries closer to its orbit, while its seemingly relentless military rise has upset the regional balance of power.  Without the ability to form true security partnerships, Japan has risked becoming isolated.  Hence, Abe has eagerly cultivated new political and economic ties across the Asia-Pacific, from Australia and India to the countries of Southeast Asia.  Japan has certainly become more sensitive to changes in Asia’s geopolitical balance.  Last year, after Thailand’s relations with the United States soured, offering China an opening, Tokyo leapt into the breach with pledges of economic engagement with Bangkok.

Surely, the most immediate beneficiary of Japan’s new security laws is the United States.  For the past half century, the United States has borne the entire security burden of the alliance between the two countries—if Japan is attacked, the United States is obligated to defend Japan; but if the United States is attacked, Japan has no such reciprocal obligation.  Even during the Cold War, that uneven arrangement rankled some Americans.  To make it more equitable, Japan accepted the lion’s share of the financial burden to host American forces in Japan.  But with the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of a substantial portion of American forces from Japan (to Guam and elsewhere), the relationship was about to tilt again.  Thus, it was hardly surprising that Washington welcomed the legislation’s passage.

But beyond the United States, the legislation also enables Japan to more effectively cooperate with other countries on security matters.  If Japan’s relationships with Australia, India, the Philippines, and recently Vietnam mature into security partnerships, those countries can now count on Japan as a full partner.  In fact, in the days before the upper house vote on the national security bills, Abe met with Vietnam’s communist party secretary to discuss stronger security ties, in light of Vietnam’s dispute with China in the South China Sea.  Abe pledged more patrol boats for Vietnam.  Such promises is partly what worries Japanese opponents of the bills.  Getting Japan entangled in the disputes of other countries could pull it into a conflict, perhaps with China.  On the other hand, the possibility of facing a regional network of security partners might restrain China’s aggressiveness.  After all, China’s own economic prosperity (tenuous as it has become this year) requires peace and stability.

Even with the enactment of its new national security bills, Japan seems unlikely to seek the active use of military force far from home.  After all, Japan’s debt-laden government is in no position to rapidly expand its self-defense forces without hurting its still-weak economy.  Moreover, the conditions under which Japan can use force to support American expeditionary efforts abroad are still narrowly circumscribed.  The new legislation may be a step toward a Japan that is more comfortable with the idea of the use of force.  But the road to an actual use of force remains a long one.  Ironically, China may be the one country that could propel Japan faster down that road.

[1] “China Voice: Is Japan bound up to battle chariot?” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; “News Analysis: Japan’s pacifist ideals stripped as Abe steps closer to resurrecting old war machine,” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; “Japan’s new security bills against trend of the times: defense ministry,” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; Wen Zongduo, “Abe’s win is Japan’s loss,” Chinadaily.com, Sep. 19, 2015.

[2] “Moscow officials ‘have always and will continue to’ visit Russian Kuril Islands – PM,” RT.com, Aug. 23, 2015.

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The Bigger Picture: China’s Energy Exploration in the East China Sea and Japan’s Security Debate

Last week Japan released its annual defense review.  For the first time, it revealed photographs of Chinese offshore drilling rigs operating in the East China Sea.  The images reminded many of the international controversy that China stirred up in May 2014 when it sent the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore drilling rig (pictured below) into waters claimed by Vietnam.  The photographs reinforce the narrative that China is intent on pursuing its own interests, regardless of the consequences for its neighbors.  That, along with its island-building activities in the South China Sea, has made it increasingly difficult for Asian countries, like Indonesia and Malaysia, to set aside their concerns over Chinese actions in the region.

China offshore energy exploration

China’s foreign ministry quickly denounced the Japanese disclosure of the photographs.  It decried them as inflammatory and declared that Japan’s use of the photographs “provokes confrontation between the two countries, and is not constructive at all to the management of the East China Sea situation and the improvement of bilateral relations.”[1]

China maintains that the offshore drilling rigs that it has erected in the East China Sea are on its side of the median line through the two countries’ claims.  Thus, China has every right to develop the energy resources there.  Unfortunately, man-made demarcations cannot so neatly divide the East China Sea’s oil and natural gas deposits.  Rather, they tend to migrate towards areas of lower pressure.  Those occur whenever wells are drilled nearby.  Hence, Japan fears that Chinese wells will siphon off the oil and natural gas deposits under its claim from across the median line.

That prospect was thought to have been put to rest in 2008, when China and Japan agreed to jointly develop energy resources in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.  Neither side would unilaterally drill for oil or natural gas there.  But those were different times.  Since then, China has become not only more powerful, but also more willing to openly assert its power in the region.  Japan (whether consciously or not) antagonized China when Japan’s central government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu in China) from private Japanese owners in 2012.  That prompted a sharp rise in the number of clashes between Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese coast guard around the islands, and China to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the disputed waters in November 2013.  At the same time, China did begin to unilaterally explore for oil and natural gas in those waters, as Japan’s photographs attest.

Even so, China may be correct to discern a political rationale for Japan’s photographic disclosure, though perhaps not the one that its foreign ministry seemed to intimate.  The main reason behind Japan’s disclosure may not have been to embarrass China, but rather to support Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s effort to pass security legislation that will enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective self-defense—or in other words, to fight alongside an ally when either it or Japan is threatened.  Indeed, the photographic disclosure was made only a week before the upper house of the Japanese Diet starts debate on Abe’s new security bills.

The photographs surely boost the argument of Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), that there is a clear and present danger to Japan’s national interests and more must be done to protect them.  But a chorus of Japanese politicians of different political stripes has joined in opposition to Abe’s effort to push through the security legislation without a thorough debate.  Many, including some within the LDP, are concerned about passing the security bills without a clear understanding of the circumstances in which Japanese military forces could be used.  The ultimate vote could be a close one, given that the LDP holds a slim majority in the upper house.  Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but Abe may hope that they are worth a few votes too.

[1] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s Remarks on Japan’s Disclosure of China’s Oil and Gas Exploration in the East China Sea,” China Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release, July 23, 2015, .

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Japan’s Security Role in Southeast Asia (and the South China Sea)

Only a few years ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that Japan would have any security role outside of Japanese territorial waters.  But in a January 2015 interview, Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, related that Washington would welcome Japanese maritime air patrols in the South China Sea.  He said that they could help to stabilize the region by balancing China’s growing naval strength there.  That broke a long-standing taboo in Japan on public discussion of such uses for the Japanese armed forces.  While it still may be some time before Japan mounts maritime air patrols over the South China Sea, yesterday it held an historic naval exercise in those waters.

It was the first time Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force ever conducted a bilateral exercise with the Philippines.  Two Japanese destroyers and a Philippine corvette practiced how to deal with “unplanned encounters at sea.”  They exercised near Subic Bay, a big Philippine (and former U.S.) naval base that is only 260 km from Scarborough Shoal—the spot where Chinese and Philippine patrol boats were locked in a months-long standoff in 2012 and where the Chinese coast guard used a water cannon to drive away Filipino fishermen just last month.[1]

Even before the naval exercise, the Japanese and Philippine coast guards held a smaller drill in Manila Bay a week ago.  Later this year, Japan will deliver the first of ten offshore patrol boats that it promised the Philippines in 2013.  Manila plans to use them to better monitor its territorial waters in the South China Sea and prevent intrusions into them.  Security ties between the two countries have grown substantially.  Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe invited Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to Tokyo to discuss greater security cooperation.  At the time, Aquino went so far as to say that “nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others… especially in the area of collective self-defense,” giving a nod to Abe’s efforts to loosen Japan’s constitutional constraints that prevent his country from defending allies under attack.[2]

South China Sea - Japan

Japan has also expanded its security activities with other Southeast Asian countries.  Early this year, it mended ties with Thailand, whose coup led to a surge of Chinese influence there and strained relations with its longtime ally, the United States.  In March, Japan signed an accord with Indonesia to enhance military exchanges and collaboration on defense equipment development.  And Japan has steadily expanded its military cooperation with Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea dispute.  Japan promised it offshore patrol boats too.  In fact, immediately after the Japanese coast guard finished its drill in the Philippines last week, one of its cutters proceeded to Vietnam to participate in an exercise there.[3]  Japan has clearly sought a greater role in the security of the region.

Nonetheless, there is a question of whether Japan’s military can sustain a wider role.  Contrary to China’s claims, Japan’s defense budget has not grown much.  It rose less than three percent in the last year (and not at all in U.S. dollar terms).  Any real expansion of Japanese military presence in Southeast Asia will have to run on a shoestring until Tokyo can afford a true increase in military spending.  That is not to say Japan is without options.  Its new long-range P-1 maritime patrol aircraft would be useful for patrols over the South China Sea.  Moreover, Japan could enlarge its navy by simply slowing the pace at which it decommissions older warships, many of which are still highly capable.  But there are limits too.  Keeping older warships in service entails higher maintenance costs which may crowd out investment in new weapon systems.

As Japan expands its security role in Southeast Asia, new questions will arise.  Foremost among them is whether Japan’s new role will lead to greater stability or instability?  On the one hand, the absence of an adequately balancing force in Southeast Asia has given China a free hand to assert itself in the South China Sea, as marked by its massive land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands.  Given how grindingly slow America’s rebalance to Asia has been, Japan’s security support could be just what the region needs.

On the other hand, any minor incident between Chinese and Japanese forces in the South China Sea could easily escalate tensions between their two countries.  Anyone who remembers the accidental collision between an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese J-8 fighter in 2001 can imagine how a similar incident between Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and intercepting Chinese fighters could spiral into a major crisis.  Let us hope deterrence prevails.

[1] Mynardo Macaraig, “Philippines and Japan hold historic naval drills in flashpoint waters,” AFP News, May 12, 2015; Manuel Mogato, Adam Rose, and Ben Blanchard, “Philippines, Japan coast guards hold anti-piracy drills,” Reuters, May 6, 2015.

[2] Louis Bacani, “Aquino: Beneficial if Japan can defend allies under attack,” Philstar.com, Jun. 24, 2014, http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2014/06/24/1338501/aquino-beneficial-if-japan-can-defend-allies-under-attack.

[3] Rosemarie Francisco, Manuel Mogato, Linda Sieg, Tim Kelly, and Nobuhiro Kubo, “Japan steps up maritime engagement with Philippines, Vietnam,” Reuters, May 12, 2015; “Japan – Indonesia Joint Statement: Towards Further Strengthening of the Strategic Partnership Underpinned by Sea and Democracy,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Mar. 23, 2015; Mitsuru Obe, “Japan Reaffirms Economic Ties With Thailand,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9, 2015; Bagus BT Saragih, “Indonesia and Japan improve military ties,” Jakarta Post, Jan. 30 2013.

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Japan’s Constitutional Reinterpretation and Its Pursuit of New Security Relationships

On July 1, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced that his cabinet approved a resolution to reinterpret Article Nine of Japan’s 67-year old constitution.  That article, which stipulates that Japan would forever renounce war as a sovereign right, effectively forbids its military from coming to the aid of allies under attack or, in other words, engaging in what it calls “collective self-defense.”  The new cabinet resolution would remove that restriction.  It would also relax the limits on Japan’s activities in United Nations peacekeeping operations and incidents short of war.  While most outsiders may view the reinterpretation as modest, many Chinese and some South Koreans worry that the change will lead to a more aggressive Japan.  Japanese citizens also worry, but for a different reason.  They worry that Japan could be more easily drawn into conflicts at the behest of its allies, especially the United States.

Abe has had to work hard to get this far.  He had to win over his governing coalition partner, the New Komeito Party.  (New Komeito’s consent may still earn the party a backlash from its pacifist supporters.)  Even now, Abe still faces a full debate in Japan’s Diet before he can make amendments to existing laws that will be needed to implement his cabinet’s decision.  That is Abe’s next hurdle.

But it is a hurdle that Japan will have to overcome, if it wants to not only strengthen its existing security relationship with the United States, but also build new ones with other countries.  Without the ability to take part in collective self-defense, Japan can offer its security partners little more than moral support.  Typically allies expect more than that.  Since Japan, as Abe is keen to stress, sits an in increasingly volatile region, it needs new allies.  To secure them, it is useful for Japan to be able to engage in collective self-defense, which is one of the main reasons why Abe has pushed to have Article Nine reinterpreted.

Not surprisingly, the reinterpretation pleased Japan’s ally, the United States, which has long borne the brunt of the defense burden in their security relationship.  As one senior American official put it, Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation merely “[gets] Japan up to a normal baseline of operations in collective self-defense.”[1]  Under its new guidelines, Japan’s military would have permission to shoot down a North Korean missile heading for the United States or defend American ships under attack in the waters near Japan.

Abe has been working toward this goal ever since his governing coalition’s electoral victory in December 2012.  He has often spoken about how China’s unrelenting assertiveness in the East and South China Seas has raised new concerns in Japan and across the region.  And so, Abe has moved to establish new bilateral security ties with other countries that face similar pressures from China, like the Philippines and Vietnam.  Despite their own wartime experiences with Japanese occupation, both countries have welcomed the new ties.  When Philippine President Benigno Aquino III visited Japan in June 2014, he praised Abe’s efforts to revise Japan’s constitution.  “Nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others,” he argued.[2]  Similarly, Vietnam has supported stronger ties with Japan, signing an agreement to establish an “extensive strategic partnership” in March 2014.  In return, Japan has offered both countries patrol boats to help them better monitor their maritime claims.

Australia has become the latest country to receive Japan’s overtures.  And it too has reciprocated.  In fact, this week Abe is visiting Canberra, where the two countries signed economic partnership pact as well as an agreement on military equipment and technology transfers.  Abe also addressed a joint session of Australia’s parliament and attended a meeting of its national security committee.  Though Australia is a country whose economy has become closely linked to China, it is also increasingly wary of what China’s rise might mean for the region.  Its 2009 strategic defense white paper outlined a need for the country to build a new fleet of a dozen advanced diesel-electric submarines.[3]  On the other hand, Japan is a country with a long history of building such vessels, the latest of which are its Sōryū-class submarines that are equipped with ultra-quiet air-independent propulsion.   After Abe relaxed Japan’s arms export controls in April 2014, the two countries accelerated talks over how Australia could acquire certain defense technologies (and possibly entire submarines) from Japan.  If such acquisitions are eventually made, they would further cement Australia as a true security partner with Japan.

Japan and U.S. Security Relationships in the Asia-Pacific

What has been particularly impressive is the ease with which Japan has developed its new security relationships, all of which were formed in the last year.  (See map.)  A few of these intersect with the many bilateral security ties the United States maintains in the region, whether they are formal treaties (blue) or simply close relationships (green).

Japan is not alone.  Vietnam has extended its search for friends to India and Russia and recently took the step of cooperating with the Philippines, a rival claimant in the South China Sea.  Meanwhile, the Philippines has strengthened its alliance with the United States through a new security pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (formerly known as Increased Rotational Presence).  Other Southeast Asian countries have begun to take precautions too.  Even historically quiescent Indonesia has moved to reaffirm its claim to the exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands, a portion of which overlaps China’s South China Sea claim.  Indeed, as long as China forcefully presses its maritime claims and Abe can move Japan towards collective self-defense, Tokyo may find more Asia-Pacific countries receptive to its offer of new security relationships.



[1] Martin Fackler and David E. Sanger, “Japan Announces a Military Shift to Thwart China,” New York Times, Jul. 2, 2014, p. A1.

[2] Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard, “China says Philippines stirring tensions after Aquino supports Japan,” Reuters, Jun. 25, 2014

[3] Australia, Department of Defence, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2009), p. 70.

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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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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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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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