The year 2015 closed with hope. International representatives defied the naysayers and concluded an agreement that could lay the foundation for an effective response to climate change. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise stop in Pakistan on the way home from Afghanistan, meeting his counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to boost long-stalled peace talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. In Iraq, the beleaguered army won an important victory by retaking the city of Ramadi, lost seven months ago to Islamic State militants.
Those promising developments followed the conclusion of a nuclear deal with Iran earlier in the year, agreement by 12 nations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, signals that Russia seeks to play a positive role in the Middle East, and steps toward peace talks in Afghanistan. Myanmar appears to be on the path toward a political transition that heralds the arrival of democracy in that country. Even China, which concluded the year by reportedly sending an armed vessel into Japanese waters, has demonstrated in several ways — its stance at the climate talks, diplomatic activism in the Middle East and Central Asia — that it is ready to act as a “responsible stakeholder.”
None of these processes are concluded; they are all works in progress, and as such they constitute the primary challenges of the year ahead. In addition to demanding hard work, patience and creativity, they also require a vision since the successful implementation of these deals and processes will restructure in important ways the architecture of the international order.
Take, for example, the nuclear deal with Iran. This agreement could — if honored — cap a genuine threat to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its supporting regime as well as offer a new framework for international engagement in the Middle East. Some will not be happy with the rehabilitation of Iran as a regional political force, but the exclusion of Tehran is neither viable nor wise. Iran has been a regional power for hundreds of years and the failure to include it in deliberations of issues with which it has national interests has left it to play the role of spoiler, an assignment that it has taken up with relish.
Similarly, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is a disgruntled autocrat who yearns for a bygone era, he nevertheless is the leader of a country that spans two continents, possesses a formidable military with nuclear weapons and has the capacity to impede the resolution of global problems. There must be a way to bring Moscow into decision-making councils and provide it the respect and status it craves.
China poses a similar challenge. Beijing insists that it is not a revisionist power, that it respects the institutions and norms that have girded an international order that allowed China to become wealthy and powerful. Yet China, like many other countries, has complaints about the way it has been treated, and demands redress. In this case, like the others, political leaders must devise ways to address those grievances without undermining the structure of the larger order. Failure to do so risks unleashing a great destructive force on regional and global politics.
Dealing with China is especially problematic for Japan. Not only is there the long and often troubled history between the two countries, but there is a competition for regional leadership that animates not only the relationship between Tokyo and Beijing but between those two countries and other governments around the world. Japan must also acknowledge that China’s sheer size and potential impact on so many different issues means that it will generate a special relationship with the United States, and yet Japan must not be threatened by this. China is an important country and the U.S.-China relationship is critical to global politics, but the Japan-U.S. relationship is an alliance that has withstood many challenges; this is just one more on that list.
The best role Japan can play in the year to come is to use the skills of its diplomats, the goodwill of its people and the political capital that it has accumulated in the last 70 years to help ensure that the processes identified above — and others — sustain their momentum. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been a tireless diplomat, traveling the globe and making the case for a renewed Japan that engages with and seeks solution to international problems. He must continue to do so — and do so in the name of a larger international good, not the mere “vanity” of ensuring that Japan retains a seat at the table.
Success in that effort depends on two things. The first is winning the trust of the Japanese people and ensuring that they remain engaged in politics and international affairs. The prime minister must overcome the growing apathy that taints domestic politics and the hostility that greets many of his policies. In short, he must articulate a national strategy that wins widespread popular support. Second, he must use that support to forge new, enduring, future-oriented relationships with Japan’s neighbors. In fact, these are two mutually supportive objectives, and ones that will remain priorities long after 2016.