Originally Published 2013-01-28 00:00:00 Published on Jan 28, 2013
Japan's new Prime Minister understands very well that peace and strategic stability in East Asia would depend on how effectively Japan and the US maintain their security alliance. And the Obama administration is supportive of Abe's moves and would be interested in initiating regular triangular security talks with Tokyo and Seoul.
Japan's new Asian diplomacy: Is it China-driven?
It is slightly more than five weeks since the Liberal Democratic Party ( LDP ) won a massive victory in the House of Representatives election that led to the formation of its government under the leadership of Shinzo Abe. To become the prime minister of Japan a second time within five years is a rare distinction. One can see a clear difference this time in the circumstances that catapulted him to power. In 2006 when he became the prime minister, it was more or less a normal way of succeeding the incumbent prime minister who had already served as party president for the years prescribed by the LDP rules. In 2006 one question that weighed heavily on the mind of Abe was how to put bilateral relations with China on a normal basis. During the long administration of Junichiro Koizumi, Sino-Japanese ties had sharply declined to reach one of the lowest levels thanks mainly to his regular annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. When Abe succeeded him, one of his major foreign policy objectives was to restore normal relations with Beijing and it was with that aim that he undertook his first official overseas visit to China. His joint press statement with the Chinese government in October 2006, that underscored the need to maintain mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests became a benchmark for the succeeding Japanese governments. This was followed by some favourable developments in their relations; however, the Abe administration was too short-lived to produce more tangible results.

Abe’s successor Yasuo Fukuda also continued to promote deeper ties with China, but his government too came to a sudden and abrupt end. Taro Aso who succeeded Fukuda was suspected by Beijing to be too hawkish to be interested in promoting friendly relations with China. In 2009 there was a dramatic political change in Japan and the LDP regime was replaced by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) with a thumping majority in the Lower House. But that did not really mean better understanding between Japan and China despite certain DPJ leaders, like Ichiro Ozawa, maintaining very close relations with Beijing. In fact, the territorial question on the Senkaku Islands became a burning problem only during the DPJ administration particularly following the purchase of the islands by the Japanese government under Yoshihiko Noda in September 2012. Since then Beijing has been relentlessly disputing Japan’s sovereignty over the islands by sending its surveillance ships to the waters close to the islands almost on a daily basis. It has also violated the Japanese air space by sending its reconnaissance aircraft. The Chinese administration has also whipped up widespread anti-Japanese agitations within the country causing enormous damage to Japanese properties. It is estimated that following these anti-Japanese agitations, their bilateral trade during the second half of 2012 had decreased by about 30%. It is also reported that Japanese investment in China has suffered and a large number of Japanese investors are inclined to shift their business interests to other regions like Southeast Asia and India.

The question of protecting the country’s security and territorial sovereignty figured quite prominently in the Lower House election campaign in December 2012 and Abe as the principal opposition leader underlined the need for taking effective steps such as constitutional amendments that would help Japan assume collective self-defence responsibilities, strengthening the security alliance with the US and ensuring the freedom of navigation in the oceans surrounding Japan. The Korean Peninsula is another area that posed serious security challenges to Japan. North Korea’s intransigence on nuclear issues and its continuous missile tests including the latest one in December 2012 could not but be viewed with grim prospects for the future Northeast Asian security. In addition, the souring of relations with even South Korea following President Lee’s visit to the Takeshima Island in August 2012, reminded Japan of its dire situation in the region. After the election, Abe started off well trying to take steps to strengthen Japan’s position in the surrounding region.

He understands very well that peace and strategic stability in East Asia would depend on how effectively Japan and the US maintain their security alliance. A strong believer in the alliance, Abe underscores the need for ensuring the continued and unflinching commitment of the US to the alliance. He also believes that in the broader interests of regional security and stability, it is unwise to blow out of proportions such issues as Takeshima Island which has seriously undermined Japan-South Korean relations. One of his early moves not to observe the Takeshima Day of the Shimane Prefecture clearly indicated his keenness to restore an element of normalcy to bilateral ties with South Korea. Another swift action he took was to send a special envoy, Fukushiro Nukaga, -- a senior LDP leader and former finance minister -- to Seoul to convey his goodwill to the new South Korean administration. He rightly believes that the two new administrations in Tokyo and Seoul should jointly explore possibilities for cooperation and understanding so that they could strengthen their broader objectives of regional peace and prosperity.

The Obama administration is supportive of Abe’s moves and would be interested in initiating regular triangular security talks with Tokyo and Seoul. Even when the Takeshima Island question blew up in September 2012, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed American concerns and called upon both Japan and South Korea to rise above their bilateral bickering and address the broader questions of regional peace and security. Even now, the US expects both Japan and South Korea to sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement that was expected to be signed in June last year, but suspended at the last minute due to Seoul’s refusal. Since both Prime Minister Abe and the newly elected South Korean President Park Geun Hye are expected to visit Washington within a month from now, the US administration will impress upon them the need to look beyond their bilateral problems and to pursue policies of cooperation rather than confrontation.

Prime Minister Abe has also taken significant initiatives to strengthen Japan’s relations with the ASEAN group and Australia in a bid to demonstrate Japan’s keenness to project a new emphasis on its Asian policy. Many in the Japanese foreign policy establishment feel that a renewed Japanese orientation to Asia would greatly supplement America’s efforts centered on its Asian pivot policy and also counter the growing Chinese influence. Moreover many in the business world also feel that closer relations with countries like ASEAN, India and Australia would be essential for Abe’s policy of revitalizing Japanese economy since too much dependence on the Chinese market would be a political risk. Fumio Kishida, Japan’s new foreign minister, made his first overseas visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Australia during early January, 2013 to have an exchange of views with his counterparts. Their discussions were centered on how to strengthen their bilateral security cooperation in the midst of the growing maritime assertiveness of China in the East and South China Seas, and North Korea’s intransigence on the nuclear and missile issues.

Of equal importance was the visit made by Taro Aso, the new Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, to Myanmar in the first week of January, 2013. The previous DPJ government had reversed Japan’s earlier Myanmar policy and sent two of its senior ministers to convey its readiness to engage actively with Yangon by extending economic assistance. As part of its new policy, it also decided to write off a major portion of Myanmar’s aid debts. The new Abe Government pursues that policy and Aso said," Myanmar is heavily in debt and has been unable to attract investment. Japan will remove these obstacles and support the country." When Aso met the top leaders of Myanmar, he confirmed that his government would waive 300 billion of the total 500 billion yen debt in two stages in 2013. Once the major part of the debt is cleared, then Japan can extend a fresh loan of 50 billion yen for developing a special economic zone in Thilawa. The Thilawa project is likely to attract major Japanese business houses including the Mitsubishi, Marubeni and Sumitomo corporations.

Last, but not the least, Prime Minister Abe himself undertook a trip to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia during 15-18 January, to round off his Southeast Asian diplomacy. In each one of these countries, Abe promised to ensure the flow of Japanese investment as well as official aid. Japan is the biggest investor as well as aid donor to ASEAN. In a major speech delivered in Jakarta on 18 January, he stated that Japan’s national interest lies in keeping the Asia’s seas open, free and peaceful. In order to ensure this , Japan has pursued a two pronged policy- maintaining and supporting American policies in Asia and strengthening Japan’s ties with maritime Asia including ASEAN, India and Australia. To quote Abe, "For me there is no greater joy than seeing the EAS grow and bind the two oceans more tightly together." Freedom of ocean navigation sounds music to most ASEAN countries, yet not all of them may fully share Japan’s concerns about China.

(Prof. K.V. Kesavan, a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, is presently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C.)

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K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

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