WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe closed out 2019 with a flurry of diplomatic activities that tested his ability as Japan’s diplomat-in-chief. After he hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose visit on Dec. 20-21 marked the first trip to Japan by an Iranian president in 19 years, he traveled to Chengdu to attend the Japan-China-South Korea summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. During his short visit to Chengdu, Abe also met with Moon as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It is fortuitous that Abe has closed out 2019 by engaging in summit diplomacy with these countries as they represent the different types of major foreign policy challenges that Abe will face in 2020.
Iran embodies the delicate balancing act that Abe will have to strike. Since the United States’ withdrawal from the six-party Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under the Trump administration, tensions between Washington and Teheran have continued to rise.
Although U.S. President Donald Trump has not ruled out engaging in summit diplomacy with Rouhani to ease tensions, Washington continues to urge its allies to take a tough stance vis-a-vis Teheran and encourages their participation in Persian Gulf patrol activities.
Tokyo, however, has benefited from its friendly bilateral relationship with Tehran over the years and Iran is Japan’s third-largest supplier of oil. As Abe’s government contemplates the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to the Strait of Hormus as part of its indirect support for the U.S.-led Maritime Security Initiative coalition, to execute such a mission without upsetting Tehran requires careful coordination and consultation with both the U.S. and Iran.
China presents an even more complicated challenge for Japan. The government is gearing up for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit next spring. When Abe met Xi on the sidelines of the Japan-China-South Korea summit on Dec. 23 and met Li on Dec. 25, the two sides agreed to forge “a new era” in bilateral relations.
But given recent developments in Hong Kong in addition to other human rights abuses by Chinese authorities in recent days, Abe came under heavy criticism domestically for not taking a stronger stance against China for its human rights violations and its assertive behavior during his meetings with Chinese leaders.
Moreover, although U.S.-China tensions eased a bit with the conclusion of the preliminary trade agreement on Dec. 13, which halted the tariff war between the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. remains highly critical of China’s behavior in other areas and continues to urge its allies and partners to take a similar stance vis-a-vis Beijing.
Now that calls are growing in Japan for the cancellation of Xi’s state visit, Abe needs to tread extra carefully between his desire to get Japan-China relations back on track and demonstrating his government’s will to uphold the universal values that have shaped Japan’s postwar foreign policy.
South Korea represents a different but equally (if not more) complicated diplomatic challenge for Abe. Since the inauguration of the Moon administration, Japan-South Korea relations have been on a downward spiral, hitting a new low since the bilateral relationship was normalized in 1965.
Although Abe’s summit with Moon on Dec. 24 — the first time in 18 months that the two leaders met — was a good first step toward halting the downward spiral, the two countries’ positions on the issues critical to get relations back on track remain far apart, offering little hope for a positive turnaround in the relationship.
Yet given Japan’s urgent concern over the threat posed by North Korea, South Korea remains a critical partner for Japan. It has long been said that Japan, particularly under the Abe government, has fallen into a state of “Korea fatigue” and given up on engaging Seoul.
With the resurgence of provocative rhetoric and behavior by North Korea, Abe has to find a way to re-engage South Korea without making unwanted compromises on issues such as compensation for Korean laborers who were mobilized to work for Japanese manufacturing companies during World War II.
In addition, 2020 is likely to be a year in which Japan will also face a challenge in the management of its alliance with the United States. On Dec. 25, the Defense Ministry announced that the construction of the replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa will take 12 years, pushing the timing of the relocation of the base to beyond 2030.
The announcement has already draw strong reaction from the Okinawa Prefectural Government, which renewed its demand that the base be relocated outside of the prefecture, and likely to lead it to attempt to stall the relocation process.
Furthermore, Japan will also enter negotiations to renew its host nation support agreement with the U.S. next year, and if the U.S.-South Korea negotiations to renew the special measures agreement serves as any guide, Japan will likely face a ramped up demand from Washington to further increase its support for U.S. forces stationing in Japan.
Abe’s effort to forge a good personal relationship with Trump will likely come under closer scrutiny once again if it is perceived that his rapport with Trump fails to soften the U.S. stance on the host nation support negotiations.
Given these challenges in addition to the responsibilities associated with Tokyo’s hosting the upcoming Summer Olympics, 2020 promises to be a challenging year for Abe as Japan’s top diplomat.
Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.