Commentary / Japan

South Korea, Africa and the EU: A strategy for the Abe Cabinet

by Valerie Niquet

Contributing Writer

From the Korean Peninsula to Africa, from the United States to Europe, Japanese diplomacy faces challenges and expectations that require a long-term vision of strategic issues. This is what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new Cabinet started to tackle with a series of high profile discussions and visits.

On the Korean Peninsula, while North Korea resumed its missile launches during the summer, South Korea paradoxically chose a strategy of tension that seems to have few limits as demonstrated in recent discussions. Despite regional tensions, Seoul has chosen to terminate — against its own interests — the defense intelligence-sharing agreement it signed with Tokyo in 2016.

Of course, the historical question raised last year by South Korea’s Supreme Court concerning Korean workers mobilized for wartime labor in Japanese companies during the colonial era, is not totally unfounded.

The 1965 agreement normalizing bilateral relations was signed at a time when South Korea was under military rule and issues involving the past remained buried. But this issue is also closely linked to domestic political issues in South Korea, which never solved its own historical problems and is politically deeply divided at a time when it is facing a severe economic slowdown and fear of marginalization from North Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been known for his long-standing nationalist and rather hostile positions regarding the U.S. However, the mediatory role Seoul still hopes to play between Pyongyang and Washington, and vital defense relations contribute to moderation. Under these conditions, Japan is once again becoming a scapegoat. This mostly explains the current tensions. However, in doing so, a question of trust has been raised between two powers that are supposed to share the same interests.

Tokyo, for its part, has international law on its side, particularly when South Korea threatened to seize the assets of Japanese companies that used the Korean wartime labor. In 1965, an international agreement was signed and significant compensation funds were paid to the South Korean government.

However, Japan’s initial management of communication on the issue — particularly in the media — seemed to link export control measures for sensitive products to the decision of the Korean Supreme Court, was counterproductive.

This question of communication on the global scene, which is particularly delicate for any former colonial power, just like the United Kingdom or France, is one of the challenges facing Japanese diplomacy.

Japan’s strength lies in its soft power, support of universal values and an increasingly broad strategic engagement that is desired by the vast majority of countries except China and South Korea. It is at this level that answers must be found.

The Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), initiated by Japan in 1993 at a time when many other powers had lost interest in the African continent with the end of the Cold War, is a good example of these successful initiatives and communication skills from Japan. Bringing together more than 50 countries in Yokohama at the end of August, the seventh TICAD conference demonstrated that Japan’s African policy remains a priority.

The principles of TICAD 7 — support for private investors, sustainable development, climate change, human security — are very similar to those expressed in the Group of 20 summit chaired by Japan and the Group of Seven summit hosted by France, meetings where Africa and the reduction of inequalities were also a priority topic.

In the face of apparently overwhelming Chinese projects related to its “Belt and Road” initiative, the discourse on quality, human security and good governance put forward in Tokyo is in line with that of the European Union and more particularly with that of France, opening up a field of cooperation and complementarities regarding stability in the region.

At the same time, relations with the U.S. remain essential, and the need not to disappoint a complex American ally is a factor that all of Tokyo’s partners can understand.

As for China, Chinese President Xi Jinping — who is facing considerable challenges despite the show of force in the great military parade organized for the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China last week, including trade tensions with Washington and a major crisis in Hong Kong — has for the time being chosen to re-engage with Japan.

By doing so, the Chinese leader is meeting the expectations of Japanese business circles and the bureaucracy, which are more focused on economic concerns rather than on long-term strategic affairs.

The impetus provided by Abe’s government since 2012 has been essential to the restoration of Japan’s significant position on the international scene.

This position entails responsibilities, and sometimes uncomfortable risk-taking choices. This complex but more open strategy should be pursued, against any temptation to withdraw.

The recent visit by Abe to the EU, and the new agreement on Japan-EU cooperation on infrastructure cooperation, based on shared values, quality and transparency, is one more important move in the right direction to balance China’s challenges to the international system and the U.S. trend toward isolationism and unilateralism.

Valerie Niquet is head of the Asia Department of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and a non-resident research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. She teaches a course on “Sino-Japanese Relations in Perspective” at Keio University.