Commentary / Japan

Japan’s foreign policy balancing act

by Daniel Hurst

The Diplomat

Japan published its annual Diplomatic Bluebook last Tuesday — the weighty document outlining the country’s current stance toward a wide variety of foreign policy matters. It shows how Tokyo is trying to square its long-standing positions with the shifting winds in the region.

It is clear that Japan still regards its alliance with the United States as central to its security and diplomatic strategy, labeling it as “the foundation of peace, prosperity and freedom not only in Japan but also across the Asia-Pacific region.”

The 2018 bluebook argues that the U.S. alliance has become more important than ever as a result of the region’s more severe security environment — a trend driven by factors including North Korea’s flurry of missile and nuclear tests last year. The Foreign Ministry-produced document specifically refers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to build up rapport with U.S. President Donald Trump, saying the two leaders have developed “a strong relationship of mutual trust.”

Yet there are limits to that personal relationship, as shown in Tokyo’s so-far unsuccessful efforts to win exemptions from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. Washington also continues to prod Japan in the direction of negotiating a U.S.-Japan bilateral free trade agreement, a prospect that Abe has so far resisted. However, Abe needs to keep Trump on side, in part because Japan has a lot riding on the U.S. president’s anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore next month.

“The strengthening of its nuclear and missile capability is an unprecedented, serious and imminent threat to the peace and stability of Japan and the international community,” the bluebook says in the section on North Korea. “Japan will cooperate closely with the United States and South Korea in order to make North Korea change its policies, and work closely with related countries including China and Russia to maximize pressure on North Korea through all kind of means.”

Amid the recent surge in diplomatic engagement with North Korea (and a softening of political will elsewhere for the “maximum pressure” approach), Japan has had to rely on other countries — such as South Korea and the U.S. — to raise issues on its behalf.

The bluebook indicates that Japan is open to normalizing diplomatic relations with North Korea, but this “is impossible without resolution of the abduction issue.” Japan wants the regime to reopen an investigation into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, and return them to Japan. (North Korea regards the issue as “settled” and, in a state media report published a few days ago, accused Japanese politicians of “hyping” the issue.)

Further, Japan has an interest in ensuring that any deal achieves “the disposal of all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of all ranges” — rather than, say, an outcome that merely focuses on intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland. Experts have said that Tokyo is worried about the risk of Trump striking a deal that doesn’t properly address the shorter range missiles that are within range of Japan.

Even as Japan sticks with the centrality of its alliance with the U.S., the government is seeking to improve ties with its close geographical neighbors, including China, South Korea, and Russia. In each case, however, there are challenges to be delicately managed.

As observers have noted for months, Japan and China have set about thawing their previously chilly ties. The bluebook says both countries “share responsibilities for the peace and stability of the region and the international community” and they will “develop friendly cooperative relations steadily from a broader perspective.”

The territorial dispute, however, still lingers as a source of tension. The document says that attempts by China to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea “are absolutely not acceptable.”

Next month’s launch of a maritime and aerial communication mechanism, agreed on during a recent bilateral meeting in Tokyo, is seen as a way to lower the temperature.

South Korea, too, is regarded as a target for improved relations. “Favorable Japan-South Korea relations are indispensable for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” the bluebook says.

The most obvious obstacle here continues to be the fallout from the 2015 deal between the Abe administration and the previous South Korean government regarding the issue of “comfort women” recruited to Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has walked a tightrope on this issue since his election last year. According to a task force that his government established, the deal had been reached without adequate input from victims. Moon has said the agreement is not being torn up but suggested in public statements that further measures — such as a sincere apology from Japan — might help with public acceptance.

It’s not clear whether these public remarks have been followed up in official channels, but in the bluebook Japan holds firmly to its position that the deal stands: “If the South Korean side requests further measures on the Japanese side, it is not accepted at all by Japan. The government of Japan will continue to strongly seek steady implementation of the agreement that South Korea confirmed as the ‘final and irreversible’ resolution. Although there are difficult issues between Japan and South Korea, it is important to appropriately manage these issues while advancing the bilateral relationship in a future-oriented way.”

Japan sees its bilateral relationship with Russia, meanwhile, as the one with the most potential. Abe is due to travel to St. Petersburg for an economic forum and then to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin later this week. The lingering territorial dispute over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido remains to be solved — and Russia has also expressed its strong displeasure over Tokyo’s decision to acquire the Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Japan signals in the bluebook that it will continue to work toward achieving joint economic activities on the disputed islands, with a view to eventually concluding a formal peace treaty with Russia.

In each case, Japan will have to tread carefully to resolve issues of the past so that their relationships can be put on a sound footing for the future.

Daniel Hurst is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo. He writes news and feature articles about Japan for a range of international publications. © 2018, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency