Prime Minster Abe of Japan recently met with President Obama in Washington and also gave a widely noted speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Please give us your take on the trip. Was it a success for Japan?
Abe’s visit to the U.S. achieved most of the goals that his government set out before leaving for Washington. Namely, Abe wanted to indicate in strong terms that “Japan is back” – not only in the economic sense through his program of quantitative easing and “Abenomics,” but also in geopolitical terms. The CSIS speech indicated this quite clearly. Abe underscored the importance of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) to Japan, but was careful not to acquiesce completely by walking the tightrope on joining based upon conditions and reflection at home. Abe seems to recognize that the TPP is more than mere economic engagement with the U.S. and the region, but also part of the strategic package that bolsters a more comprehensive and forward-looking bilateral partnership. The trip also allowed Abe to reaffirm the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and how it would become increasingly relevant in light of the dynamic security landscape in East Asia. The most important of these issues to Tokyo of course is the dispute in the East China Sea and an intransigent regime in North Korea – both points were addressed during his visit with President Obama. From Abe’s perspective, the trip was mostly successful because he relayed his messages and also emphasized on a big stage that the Japan-U.S. alliance is important and should not be overlooked. However, he may have overstepped in his pre-trip interview with the Washington Post in which he called out China for its “deeply ingrained” need for conflict. Abe was more careful on China during his CSIS speech.
Sticking with Japan for the moment, Tokyo has a number of foreign policy challenges when it comes to disputed territory. These include overlapping island claims with Russia, China and South Korea. Which of these do you view as ripe for possible resolution?
All three are somewhat unique and present different challenges. The dispute with China in the East China Sea clearly has the potential to be the most dangerous, from an economic and geopolitical perspective. Just recently, Kurt Campbell, outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, summed this up pretty clearly in an interview with the Australian: “In four years as assistant secretary I’ve faced many difficult diplomatic situations, but none more difficult than this. I’ve rarely seen diplomats on both sides (Japan and China) more white-knuckled, and on both sides the sense that no retreat or compromise is possible.” The intractability of this row seems deeply ingrained in the political fabric of both governments.
With regard to Dokdo/Takeshima dispute between South Korea and Japan, there has been considerably less bluster of late which is good news after a rocky couple of years that culminated in the short-sighted deterioration of the potential General Security of Military Information Agreement over North Korea’s WMD and missile programs last summer. Since then, both countries have elected new leaders with fresh ideas on strengthening the bilateral relationship. In South Korea, newly inaugurated President Park will most likely heed the lesson of this past summer when Japan and China were at loggerheads over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets: there are costs to the geostrategic posturing in East Asia. Similarly, Abe sent a special envoy to Seoul shortly after his election to signal Japan’s desire to improve the relationship. Seoul and Tokyo are deeply integrated with each other economically and neither side benefits from a prolonged conflict. Allowing this political conflict to worsen hurts the economies of both countries. That said, the sovereignty issue on the atoll has entrenched positions on both sides. While not as volatile or dangerous as the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, it remains highly unlikely that Japan or Korea will progress on this point in the near future.
That leaves the row with Russia which is by no means an easy fix either. Aside from the historical attachment to the islands on both sides, there is a considerable strategic element due to potential natural gas deposits surrounding the Southern Kurils and the maritime access (especially important for Russia). In strategic terms, this is a much more important dispute than Dokdo/Takeshima for example. While it is hard to say that this dispute is “ripe” for a resolution, I do believe it would be fair to say that it is the most plausible of the three. Japan and Russia have tabled compromises on the row before and there are current discussions and efforts to look at new ways to resolve the dispute and finally sign a peace treaty to end World War II. Japan has appointed former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori as a special envoy, due to his personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to engage Moscow on resolving the spat. Both parties have agreed to look for a “mutually acceptable” solution and there seems to be a recognition from Japan, if not yet official policy, that they may need to compromise on their conditions for a complete return of all four islands. Abe is scheduled to visit Russia later this spring to meet with Putin on the dispute and other issues – it will be interesting to follow the lead up.
Mongolia is a country you have written several articles on for The Diplomat. Give us your overall take on the economic situation in the country. Will Mongolia be caught in the resource trap many nations seem to have trouble escaping? Could Mongolia diversify its economy and create a more robust and diverse economic model?
Mongolia has a lot of positive elements that are driving its economy. It has consistently been among the world’s fastest growing economies in recent years. Moreover, it continues to work through some issues of corruption and transparency – which is noteworthy considering its neighborhood. President Tsakhia Elbegdorj has been pretty clear that he wants a diverse economy in Mongolia – both thematically and regionally. Elbegdorj also seems determined to upend the image that Mongolia is a “mineral-state in Asia.” The agricultural sector has traditionally been dominant in Mongolia but has less economic appeal to foreign investors. Unfortunately however, the mining industry, which brings great wealth, provides less in the way of jobs for Mongolians. The Asian Development Bank has emphasized this point repeatedly and stressed that Mongolia faces “severe development challenges.” Indeed, there are serious concerns that arise with any fast growing developing economy (Mongolia being no exception) such as overheating, income disparity, corruption and ill-planned urbanization (as pointed out recently in The Diplomat by Ariunaa Norovsambuu and Tirza Theunissen). That said, Mongolia is working with international agencies and foreign partners to gain expertise on these issues and it is important to remember that the country is still traveling down the uneasy road of reforming its political and economic institutions.
There has been a tremendous amount of news reports concerning China and possible hacking of U.S. companies and government agencies. It would seem overall cyber-security and cyber-espionage is on the rise. In your view, how should nations respond if they are the victim of a cyber-attack?
Cyber-security is a big concern for the U.S. government and many other governments and companies around the world– no question. Companies can respond to cyber-attacks through greater defensive measures and awareness. Governments have similar but slightly different considerations. For example, cyber conflict should follow the same pattern of incremental and proportional decision-making that other forms of conflict take (be it military or diplomatic). Without proportionality, and due to a lack of common standards and regulations, there is a risk that low and mid level cyber-attacks could quickly escalate into something more significant and problematic. Counter measures could include gathering intelligence and information about the attack’s origin; tracking the attacker after he or she is identified and then implementing a full-on counterattack. Ideally the latter is a last resort.