Summit agenda laden with difficult international issues

by Kiichi Fujiwara

Special To The Japan Times

The G7 Ise-Shima Summit in Mie Prefecture is expected to be a major opportunity to present Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a key member of the international community.

Abe has been consistent in expressing his desire to end decades of Japan’s economic and political decline, and to put Japan back on the map, or to have Japan recognized as a major economic, military and political power. Therefore, the summit provides an opportunity to advance Japan’s global reputation, a sort of effort at public relations at the international level. The summit is expected to work as public relations at the domestic level as well, an event that shows Abe as a global leader to the Japanese public in an election year, with the forthcoming Upper House elections.

This will be the last summit with U.S. President Barack Obama, and it is quite appropriate that Obama chose to visit Hiroshima on this occasion. We must not, however, forget that this summit takes place in our global winter of discontent. The eurozone has suffered from economic setbacks, a refugee crisis, the revival of strict border regulations and the menace of “Brexit,” the possible exit of Britain from the European Union, hangs over the future of Europe, causing alarms extending over other regions as well. The collapse of governance in the Middle East and northern Africa, with the crisis in Syria and Libya as the most salient cases of state failure and civil war, are no longer regional issues, but have become global concerns, with extremist violence linked with radical Islam breaking out in Paris, Brussels and other cities.

The agenda for the summit meeting, then, will most certainly include international responses to the gradual decline of the global market, with economic contraction in China and the continuing instability crisis in the Eurozone; what is to be done in face of the state failure and civil war in Syria, where the international community failed to protect human lives; and what opportunities recent changes in Iranian foreign policy may provide.

Rare is a G7 summit that carries so much on its agenda. However, there lies an even more important task that relates to the two big players that are absent in the summit: Russia and China.

Russia, of course, is not attending the summit because of the rift that has emerged between the East and the West over Russian annexation of Crimea and military advances in Eastern Ukraine. In spite of the many international denouncements over Russia’s advances, the administration of President Vladimir Putin has remained adamant in its pursuit, raising concerns that Russia may not be a member of the international community that shares common ideas on the normative basis of the international community. As of today, few major powers are eager to invite Russia back to the summit table.

The Abe administration’s approach to Russia, however, has been more accommodating than others. Right before the G7 summit, Abe visited Russia, meeting Putin and agreeing that the territorial disputes between Japan and Russia should be settled before the end of their terms. Here, Japan seems eager to convince the G7 member states to invite Russia back to the table.

Why should this be? For Abe, settling the territorial debate on the Kuril Islands, which have been under Russian control since the end of World War II, was one of the two key points that had been neglected by previous administrations, along with the revision of the Constitution. It is Abe’s determination to confront the unresolved dispute that is pushing Japan to a more accommodating policy toward Russia than Japan’s partners in the West. Strengthening ties with Moscow might also increase Japan’s leverage in foreign relations, especially because, aside from the U.S., Japan lacks partners to face a rising China. Approaching Russia, therefore, is a rational choice for Abe both in terms of domestic politics and foreign policy.

Whether G7 members will share Abe’s conciliatory approach to Russia is unclear at this moment. On the one hand, Russia’s relationship with the West has further deteriorated after Russian airstrikes in Syria. The U.S. and EU, however, have also sought Russia’s participation in the cease-fire talks in Syria. At the moment, the balance seems to have shifted from accelerating tension to a search for reconciliation; it will be a major achievement for Abe if he can convince the U.S. and EU to invite Russia to future summits.

Regarding China, all Western nations are divided in their approach. China’s maritime adventures, what with the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and the Chinese navy increasing activity in waters proclaimed to be Filipino, Vietnamese or Japanese territories, has caused much alarm among the East and Southeast Asian nations, casting doubt on previous engagement policy. On the other hand, China’s economy, which has provided economic opportunities for the West, has been declining in recent years, causing anxiety that a crash in the Chinese market may lead the global economy into further decline, if not a financial crisis.

The dilemma here is that geopolitics tells us to be cautious about engagement policy, while economics tells us that further engagement and cooperation with China is crucial in the prevention of a global crisis. Generally speaking, EU nations have tended to take China more as an opportunity than as a military threat, while Japan has taken the military challenge from China more seriously, mainly because of geographical proximity, with the U.S. placed in an uncomfortable middle role.

Abe has been known to be skeptical about engaging China, paying more attention to the military aspect of China’s rise. Although it would be unfair to illustrate Abe’s policy as an attempt to isolate China from the world, there is no question that Japan consistently took the lead in addressing China’s challenges to maritime security. After meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in late 2014, however, bilateral relations between Beijing and Tokyo are more stable than before. This G7 summit is being held precisely at the moment when Japan’s policy toward China may or may not become more accommodating. Will Japan continue its effort to address the danger of China’s military expansion as a threat to maritime security? Will Japan soften its approach and try to show common ground that both China and the rest of the world share? If Japan turns to the second alternative, there is even a possibility that Japan might suggest inviting China to the summit table. It is ironic that the Abe administration, known for an alarmist policy toward China, may call for engagement.

All this shows that Abe’s administration is not a mere supporter of the U.S. Of course Japan is a member of the Western alliance, with Abe showing no inclination to leave, but Abe belongs to a relatively small number of Japanese prime ministers who have worked to show initiative and leadership outside of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The big question that remains to be answered is whether Abe’s initiative will further strengthen Japan’s position in the G7, or invite reluctance to accept Japan’s active diplomacy.

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Kiichi Fujiwara is director of Security Studies at the Policy Alternative Research Institute and professor of International Politics at the University of Tokyo.