WASHINGTON – It has been a busy few months of international contacts for Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After kicking off the new Reiwa Era with a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump in late May to meet new Emperor Naruhito, Japan hosted the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka at the end of June. It then announced a pending trade deal with the United States at the Group of Seven summit in France last week, which is to be concluded at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meetings later this month in New York.
Upon his return, Abe opened the seventh annual Tokyo International Conference of African Development (TICAD), where he pledged to the assembled African leaders to go beyond development to further encourage Japanese investment across the continent, before meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in advance of another round of discussions with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Given the backdrop of strained U.S. relations with China, Iran, and even major European countries, each of these encounters required deft diplomacy, and Japan has come away with accomplishments it can be proud of.
Abe’s role as both a friend of Trump and a champion of the international rules-based system that the U.S. president is challenging with his “America First” agenda has given Japan a privileged position within today’s global order.
Providing a bridge for communication between the leaders of the world’s traditionally stable democracies and populist figures such as the U.S. president and Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, as well as with the autocrats of China, the Middle East and Russia, has become an important job for the Japanese prime minister.
Unlike in the recent past when Japan was more of a marginal international player, it has now taken a leading role on everything in its neighborhood including engagement with Russia, China, North Korea and now even South Korea.
While the simmering dispute with South Korea has dominated the headlines recently and there is little hope of a quick resolution, Japan has expanded its diplomatic engagement to a whole new area of the world with the TICAD conference. Virtually unnoticed by anyone in Washington, the event brought to Tokyo nearly all Africa’s leaders, even more than those who attended China’s Belt and Road summit earlier this summer.
In one of the most understated and overlooked initiatives of Japanese foreign policy, Tokyo is presenting a clear alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative by enlarging its vision for the Indo-Pacific to encompass the African continent.
In contrast to the U.S.’s decreasing focus on development, Japan is ramping up its efforts to address the core industrialization, infrastructure and social stability of regions such as Africa. It is aware these issues will affect global security in the 21st century. Given the centrality of Africa’s demographic, economic, and natural resources for the future global order, TICAD is a rare opportunity for Japan to reach beyond its immediate neighborhood to emphasize its outsized international role.
And given that TICAD is a collaborative effort — with key partnerships with the African Union, the U.N., the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, among other institutions — Japan is leading by example with its multilateral approach.
Many observers overlook TICAD as being just about development, which highlights Japan’s low-key approach. At the last TICAD held in Kenya in 2016, Abe took the opportunity to paint a broader picture of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” that included Africa in this critical arena of geopolitical competition that has continued to guide Japan’s engagement with the world.
Especially after another contentious G7 summit that for the first time did not adopt a comprehensive joint statement of the leaders, Japan’s hosting of the TICAD signals a stark contrast with the geopolitical retrenchment of many of the world’s other powers. Even as its own neighborhood grows more dangerous, Tokyo continues to look outward and will get no break from its diplomatic efforts.
This fall will bring the formal accession ceremony of the new emperor as well as the Rugby World Cup, which will attract a long list of world leaders ahead of the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. As a divisive electoral season gets underway in the U.S., more harmonious politics in Japan — highlighted by elections earlier this summer and an expected Cabinet shuffle this month — stand in sharp contrast and enable the unity and single-minded global focus the country is bringing to international affairs.
While summers in both capitals were unseasonably hot, Tokyo’s autumn looks poised to offer a rare respite for an advanced industrial democracy successfully navigating the moment’s geopolitical challenges.
Joshua W. Walker is global head of strategic initiatives and Japan at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm.