Japan has navigated 2019 with adroitness despite geopolitical challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, a United States as partner that has become more volatile at the leadership level and lingering social challenges that will take a generation to resolve.

On the security front, North Korea and China have been at the forefront of Japan’s challenges in the region. Underlying those long-standing concerns, though, is how the U.S. is behaving and assailing the post-World War II international order in which Japan has prospered.

Denuclearization negotiations have stalled following the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Pyongyang has responded by returning to testing a plethora of missile and engine systems. These tests strongly suggest that it is refining its projection capabilities and associated technologies to retain an effective strategic nuclear deterrent. This includes an assortment of conventional weapons to deter any kind of pre-emptive strike to decapitate the regime.

Japan remains on the front line of Pyongyang’s conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological and chemical). The cessation in negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea and the escalation in provocative rhetoric from Kim’s regime have increased concerns in Tokyo.

Consternation over North Korea’s provocations are intermeshed with disquietude that the Trump administration may make a politically motivated deal with North Korea, a deal that would only focus on intercontinental ballistic missiles, leaving Japan at the mercy of weapon systems that can reach the Japanese archipelago.

Despite Pyongyang’s provocations and the incoherence in U.S. policy, Japan has remained wedded to solving the North Korea problem through diplomacy buttressed by its alliance with Washington.

Placing the denuclearization of North Korea front and center of the trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea on Tuesday illustrates Tokyo’s preference for resolving the North Korean nuclear conundrum through multilateral diplomacy.

Unfortunately, results have been mixed for Tokyo as Pyongyang’s missile development by all expert accounts continues unabated. 2020 will further test policymakers in Tokyo as Pyongyang elevates its nuclear brinksmanship to push the Trump administration to some concession.

Aside from the intractable problem of denuclearizing North Korea, China’s re-emergence as the largest, although contradictory, power in the region has kept Tokyo on its toes with regular incursions into the contiguous waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, the building and militarization of islands in the South China Sea, and the reconfiguring of the Indo-Pacific’s regionalization through President Xi Jinping’s signature initiative, the Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

These outer projections of military and economic power threaten to destabilize the post-WWII rules-based international order that has brought peace and prosperity to Japan and surrounding countries. Policymakers in Tokyo and other capitals worry that a new order in which “might is right” will be the order of the day if China’s actions continue without pushback.

To combat this reconfiguration, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invested heavily in multilateralism in 2019 with a special focus on infrastructure and the digital economy. The Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan aims to provide an alternative to the BRI in terms of the provider of infrastructure, while the “data free flow with trust” plan advocated by Abe at the June Group of 20 summit in Osaka aims to ensure that the world’s digital infrastructure does not bifurcate into an open, U.S.-led system and a China-led closed system.

More coordination needs to be done to ensure that both initiatives have broader buy-in, especially by the Trump administration, such that they have enough critical mass to surpass the BRI and the Chinese digital platform or induce them to develop common standards, including transparency and fiscal and environmental sustainability, while remaining devoid of geopolitical considerations.

Japan has had less success in dealing with China’s assertive behavior both in the East and South China seas. China continues to reject the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 2016 decision against all of its claims in the South China Sea. China continues to build up its maritime assets in the region and use its merchant fleet in the East China Sea in an attempt to delegitimize Japan’s sovereignty claims over the Senkakus.

Notwithstanding, 2019 brought growing support by states such as Australia, Canada, the U.S. and others for the key pillars of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, such as rules-based maritime behavior, infrastructure and connectivity, and trade. This is evidence that Tokyo made progress in 2019 on pushing forward its strategic agenda to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region is neither shaped by China’s BRI or negatively defined by a U.S.-China strategic competition that would put many states in the region in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between their economic partner and their comprehensive partner, the U.S.

Abe’s visit to Beijing in October for a bilateral summit with Xi and their agreement to cooperate in building infrastructure in third countries is further evidence that despite the problems in the relationship, Tokyo seeks ways to shape the BRI along lines that provide tangible benefits for Japan’s economic interests and its long-term interests of preventing a strategic competition between the U.S. and China that securitizes the Indo-Pacific and places Tokyo in the impossible position of choosing between China and the U.S.

Questions remain on how much Tokyo can do to resist a return to a Sino-centric East Asia without stalwart support and commitment from its main defense ally, the U.S.

The answer to this question in 2019 is mixed. On the one hand, Abe has strengthened Japan’s relationship with the U.S. at the leadership level with numerous important tete-a-tete bilateral meetings with Trump while maintaining continuous and frequent communication. Cleverly, Abe incorporated into and in some ways made Trump central to Japan’s historical events in 2019, such as being the first foreign leader to meet the newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito and Trump’s visit to the Kaga, Japan’s newest Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel.

These play well to Trump’s personality while at the same time strengthen bilateral ties symbolically and institutionally.

Japan-U.S. institutional ties also became more robust in 2019 with an increase in the number and quality of joint training exercises, and visits by SDF officials, politicians, scholars and businesses to the U.S.

On the other hand, though, Abe was not able to push back against the “mini” trade deal and to remove tariffs on steel and aluminium. 2020 promises to be difficult as well, as the U.S. has demanded that Tokyo quadruple payments for stationing troops in Japan.

Trump’s transactional approach to alliances, Twitter diplomacy and “America First” unilateralism have raised old concerns that the U.S. will abandon Japan if a real security challenge surface.

While Abe’s score card for 2019 in dealing with security challenges in the region was mixed, his leadership in promoting multilateralism, efforts to ensure the U.S. remains wedded to the region and attempts to stabilize Japan-China relations have been notable.

Arguably, the willingness to speak directly to Xi about the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and to state explicitly that Japan has deep concerns about China’s behavior in the maritime domain in tandem with Abe’s willingness to push back against South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s politicization of bilateral relations, suggests that in 2019 Abe brought a steady confidence to diplomacy in the region that embraces cooperation and rules-based behavior while also rejecting politicized diplomacy.

Going into 2020, his leadership will be faced with numerous challenges that will be complicated by elections in the U.S. and South Korea and deepening strategic competition between the U.S. and China. Japan will need partners to successfully navigate this increasingly complex geopolitical environment. Ideal candidates should include like-minded middle powers such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, India and South Korea, to name a few. At the same time, Abe should continue to actively encourage the U.S. to return to multilateralism while finding ways to work with China.

Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.

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