Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he will pursue a more assertive foreign policy. That won’t be easy, report the authors of this comprehensive survey of Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors. Domestic political inertia, Chinese dynamism and a focus on relations with the United States pose powerful obstacles for Japanese policymakers, conclude the contributors to this study, professors at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, a U.S. Department of Defense school in Honolulu.
Japan’s postwar foreign policy has rested on three pillars: the security alliance with the U.S., support for multilateral international institutions and relations with Asia. There has often been a tension between the first and the last as policymakers in Washington feared that Japan would create a bloc that would lock the U.S. out of a vital sphere of interest.
As editor Satu Limaye notes, “United States’ opposition . . . likely inhibited Japan from making Asia an equal ‘third stool’ of its foreign and security policies.” Difficulties were compounded by uncertainty among Japan’s foreign policymakers: They were often divided on the question of whether all three deserved equal weight and attention.
In his introduction, editor Yoichiro Sato explains how the Cold War limited Tokyo’s room for maneuver in foreign policy, leading to U.S.-imposed real constraints on Japan’s options in dealing with the region. All the blame does not belong on Washington, however.
In his assessment of Japan’s historical relations with Asia, John Miller explains that the country has long been ambivalent about its relations with the region, a feeling that dates back to Yukichi Fukuzawa. Ultimately, Meiji leaders cast their lot with the West to acquire the technology that preserved Japan’s independence and give it the means to dominate the region itself.
That policy culminated in war, and the studies in this book — eight in all — trace the evolution of Tokyo’s relations with the region since 1945. Perhaps the greatest success — at least until a decade ago — concerned relations with Southeast Asia. Japan’s generous investment and aid programs “helped drive Southeast Asia’s industrialization,” argues Anthony Smith. Of course, Japan was not motivated by mere benevolence and the desire to make up for the horrors inflicted during the war. Southeast Asia was the main source of Japanese raw materials; it sits astride Japan’s major trade route and is a vital market for Japanese products.
Japan was, until the 1990s, seen as the natural economic leader of the region. (Security issues were still sensitive, both in Tokyo and elsewhere, and the U.S. provided stability for the region.) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad adopted a “look East” policy that focused firmly on Japan. But the stagnation of the ’90s battered Tokyo’s image while China’s stunning rise provided another orientation for the region. Since then, as several contributors to the book point out, Japan’s economy has recovered, but the country has struggled to respond to Chinese initiatives aimed at buying good will in the region. Fortunately, Southeast Asian leaders see Japan as an important counterbalance to China and “a valuable regional actor in future decades,” writes Smith — if it gets its economic house in order.
Relations in Northeast Asia are more tangled. The end of dictatorship in Taiwan and the rise to power of Japan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have given Tokyo the chance to build a new relationship with Taipei. Taiwanese officials now reach out to Japan and it is Tokyo that hesitates out of concern about antagonizing China, despite the urgings of some strategists to use Taiwan to “contain” Beijing.
Seongho Sheen sees the ground being laid for improved ties between Japan and South Korea as well. There is every logical reason to anticipate a better relationship between the two countries, but domestic politics in both countries have added to frictions rather than reduced them. Historical controversies and territorial disputes have proven difficult to overcome and the broader diplomatic context — the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China, historical insecurities in South Korea and the continuing division of the Korean Peninsula — means that “relations will remain vulnerable to challenges from geopolitics in the region and will continue to be largely influenced by U.S. alliance strategy.”
Relations with China are equally problematic. Japan’s search for a new strategic role in Asia troubles Chinese leaders, who are willing to let Tokyo lead on economic matters, while their country retains political and strategic pre-eminence. But, argues Denny Roy, “divergent and deep-seated assumptions” between Tokyo and Beijing are the source of profound tensions. Ultimately, says Roy, the problem is structural: Both countries aspire to regional leadership. Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China and South Korea are valuable first steps in changing the diplomatic momentum, but other issues — especially that of “history” — will demand constant attention. There are no quick and easy fixes for Japan’s relations with Beijing and Seoul.
Unfortunately for Japan, Tokyo also has troubled relations with North Korea and Russia. In short, it faces serious diplomatic constraints when dealing with the major powers of the region. Abe’s ambition to rebuild relations with Asia is a laudable aim. But the new prime minister may yet be frustrated as he sets out to rebuild relations with Asian governments and reclaim what he sees as Japan’s rightful place in the region.