Commentary / Japan

Japan can excel at ‘intermediary’ diplomacy

by Ichiro Asahina

The final part of October must have been very busy but quite successful for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in terms of diplomacy. After returning Oct. 20 from a trip to Spain, France and Belgium, Abe paid a visit to China from Oct. 25 to 27. Upon coming back from Beijing, he welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Oct. 28 and 29.

During the first official visit to China by a Japanese prime minister in seven years, Abe held meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Reflecting the improved bilateral relationship, both meetings were reportedly quite friendly in mood and produced many agreements, including a yen-yuan currency swap.

Abe’s subsequent meeting with the leader of India — whose population is forecast to exceed China’s by the early 2030s and which is often noted for its regional rivalry with China — also resulted in a bilateral currency swap and many other agreements.

At least in the short run, Abe’s diplomacy seems to be very strategic and well-balanced. After holding talks with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel among leaders of the developed world, he met with the top leaders of the emerging major powers of Asia. Each meeting was said to have been held in a positive atmosphere and successful.

Abe is one of U.S. President Donald Trump’s best friends among world leaders, although Trump is often criticized and even hated as a destroyer of established world orders such as the global free trade regime. In a news conference held immediately after the Nov. 6 U.S. midterm elections, Trump did not forget to refer to Abe as “one of the people I’m closest with” — even as he blamed Japan for its large trade surplus with the United States.

Abe has also built up a close personal rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin — who is also frequently criticized and even despised by Western citizens as yet another destroyer of the current world order. Abe’s Nov. 14 meeting with Putin in Singapore was their 23rd get-together as the leaders of their respective countries. Thus it seems that diplomatically Abe gets along well with other countries’ leaders, including both the protectors and attackers of the present-day global systems that are based on Western values.

Nevertheless, Abe’s diplomacy has not produced good relations with some other countries, especially Japan’s neighbors, North and South Korea. After threatening the world with a series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un changed his stance and turned to dialogue with the leaders of neighboring nations as well as with the U.S. — probably because he would like to focus on reforming North Korea’s economy.

Kim held a historic summit with Trump in Singapore last June and is said to be exploring another meeting with the U.S. president, possibly next year, to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and an easing of sanctions on his regime. He has also held meetings with Xi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in several times this year and is reportedly preparing for talks with Putin. However, Kim has never tried to meet with Abe — and Japan appears to be isolated among the region’s key players in this respect.

Abe’s diplomacy has also not been successful vis-a-vis South Korea. Since Moon — a former lawyer supported by left-wing voters — took office in May 2017, South Korean’s stance toward Japan has become much more severe than it was under his conservative predecessor, as predicted.

It might be too tough for Abe to try to change the Moon administration and its supporters’ hard-core, anti-Japanese sentiment. At the same time, Abe’s hope to drive North Korea into a corner will not work if South Korea prefers to work with North Korea by diplomatically attacking Japan, which ruled Korea as a colony from 1910 to 1945.

On top of the difficult relations with North and South Korea, the intensifying hostility between the U.S. and China — as represented by their escalating trade war — also sways Abe’s diplomacy.

Japan relies on the U.S. for its own defense under the bilateral security alliance. If, then, the U.S. calls on Japan to curb its trade with China in the future, would Japan be able to rebuff it? At the same time, the total trade between Japan and China is already 1.5 times larger than the amount between Japan and the U.S. Restricting Japan’s trade with China would deal a heavy blow to the Japanese economy. Some may say this is an unrealistic premise, but look at what’s happening as a result of the U.S. sanctions against Iran — with Washington requiring U.S. allies, including Japan, to cut off their import of crude oil from Iran (Japan has been granted an 180-day grace period).

Given the unstable and difficult diplomatic climate surrounding Japan, I hope the Abe administration will declare Japan to be an intermediary state. Since Japan historically adopted elements from both Eastern (especially Chinese) and Western cultures, it can understand both Eastern and Western positions at a relatively deep level.

Furthermore, since Japan rapidly made the transition from an undeveloped country to an advanced nation, it can understand the positions of both developing and developed countries. Japan, I believe, would potentially be one of the best intermediary countries in the world, not only with regard to economic and political disputes between the U.S. and China — which threaten to become increasingly fierce — but also in other serious conflicts around the world.

We, of course, have to consider some negative aspects of being an intermediary state. The Japanese government would have to spend more time, money and resources on international issues, while the nation would also be exposed to the potential risk of terror attacks by putting its nose where some may think it doesn’t belong.

It may not benefit Japan to play such a role in the short run. Still, I strongly believe that such a posture is important for the world and for Japan itself. Furthermore, if being an intermediary state improves the world’s view of Japan, some countries would have less leverage to criticize Japan for the negative aspects of its past.

Ichiro Asahina is the chief executive officer of the Tokyo-based think tank Aoyama Shachu Corp.