Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic initiatives were launched with his tour of three Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia last month during which he disclosed his basic foreign policy principles in the form of the “Abe vision.” Its tenet is binding countries that share the three basic principles of democracy, market economy and rule of law.
Abe, who took over the reins of government only last December, has made it clear that he will personally lead the diplomacy — a major departure from the past tradition of letting the foreign and defense ministries take the lead in matters related to diplomacy and security.
The principal figure playing a major behind-the-scenes role in this shift is Shotaro Yachi, a former administrative vice foreign minister who now has the title of counselor at the Cabinet secretariat. Yachi exerts such a strong influence in diplomatic matters that some government officials have called him the “shadow foreign minister.”
In October 2012, before Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party scored a resounding victory in the Lower House election, Yachi instructed a Foreign Ministry official to show options for facilities that would become necessary in the Senkaku Islands if Self-Defense Forces troops were stationed there and this official then contacted the Defense Ministry, according to a high-ranking SDF officer.
Yachi and his most trusted confidant, Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobukatsu Kanehara, had started working on the basic concept of Abe’s diplomacy at an early stage.
The same duo of Yachi and Kanehara had helped Taro Aso, then foreign minister in Abe’s first administration, draw up the concept of strengthening an “arc of freedom and prosperity” stretching from Northern Europe, the Baltic countries and Central Europe to the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. The central aim of this concept was to encircle China with countries sharing the same values.
The cooperation of the duo forced Chikao Kawai, who was Kanehara’s immediate boss, to take a backseat.
Even though Kawai had been promoted to the position of administrative vice foreign minister, the highest position for civil servants at the Foreign Ministry, while the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, he now is isolated in the ministry. This means that Yachi and Kanehara retain much power and initiative.
Yachi became assistant chief Cabinet secretary in 2002 and started working closely with Abe, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, particularly on the issue of the past abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.
It is said that their relations became so solid that some of Abe’s close aides suggested that Yachi be named foreign minister in the new Abe administration but that Yachi declined, saying that being a Cabinet member would deprive him of freedom of action.
In forming his Cabinet, Abe appointed Fumio Kishida as foreign minister and Itsunori Onodera as defense minister. Kishida has almost no experience in diplomacy. Onodera can hardly be called an expert in security matters. Their role is to avoid being conspicuous and to avoid making mistakes. By having Yachi in the prime minister’s office, Abe has consolidated a setup that will ensure that the prime minister’s office will take the initiative in conducting diplomacy.
There is a strong view that Yachi will lead the work to change the government’s traditional interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan will be able to exercise the right to collective self-defense and that the reinterpretation will be done while Abe is in power. During his first administration in 2006-07, Abe attempted to change the constitutional interpretation but failed.
Abe also is expected to increase the defense budget and seek to establish a Japanese version of the National Security Council. Yachi will play a leading role in the establishment of the NSC.
While Yachi’s influences in designing the prime minister’s office-led diplomacy is increasing, the Defense Ministry is filled with complaints that the prime minister’s office is trying to offload the difficult work of relocating the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa Island, on to the ministry.
As the relative positions of the foreign and defense ministries are weakened, where is the diplomacy led by the prime minister’s office heading?
The kernel of Abe’s diplomacy is his posture toward China. Its basic strategy is a mixture of a hard line and a moderate line, which will be to balance dialogue and deterrence. Yachi expresses this strategy with the phrase “engagement and hedging.” (Hedging means taking precautionary measures to avert risks.)
During the time of his first administration, Abe refrained from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead. After becoming prime minister for the second time in December, Abe stated that it was a matter of deep regret that he could not visit the shrine during his previous tenure, hinting at his desire to visit the shrine.
If Abe visits Yasukuni and changes the constitutional interpretation, which currently prohibits the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, an angry reaction from China will be inevitable. A Yasukuni visit will also prompt South Korea to severely criticize Abe.
Abe also faces the delicate issue of whether to participate in negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement. In an agreement between the LDP and Komeito for forming a coalition government, it was agreed that as to the TPP, the government will follow the path deemed most beneficial to the nation. But there is strong opposition within the LDP to the TPP (which some fear would devastate Japan’s agricultural industry).
There is no guarantee that Abe will be able to meet U.S. expectations in connection with the TPP.
The decision on the TPP will impact Japan’s attempt to strengthen the alliance with the United States as well as its efforts to counter China. “The strategic diplomacy” as advocated by Yachi will be much easier said than done.
This is an abridged translation of the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.