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What Did Japan Accomplish at the UN General Assembly?

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Tokyo Report

What Did Japan Accomplish at the UN General Assembly?

Putin, Park, and peacekeeping: recapping Shinzo Abe’s busy week in New York.

What Did Japan Accomplish at the UN General Assembly?
Credit: United Nations photo

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York is an opportunity for countries around the world to put their best foot forward, and hopefully win accolades as a “peaceful,” “responsible,” and/or “insert-adjective-of-your-choice” power. After wrapping up this weekend, world leaders are headed home now with a scorecard of wins and losses to explain to their domestic publics. For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his stint at UNGA was overall positive, but it is questionable whether any of his diplomatic victories were substantive or are sustainable.

What did Abe accomplish? He had a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, informally talked with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, and caucused with the leaders of Germany, Brazil, and India to push for UN Security Council (UNSC) reforms. Each of these meetings are an important step forward, but really only foreshadow future accomplishments instead of being meaningful in and of themselves. His pledge to increase aid for countries around the world was met with predictable appreciation, while his refusal to take in any refugees elicited predictable cynicism. Perhaps the most important win for Abe, and one that he cannot directly claim credit for, is that the highly controversial security bills that just passed in Japan also survived unscathed.

The meeting between Abe and Putin is important because it led to an agreement to restart peace talks, and Putin accepting an invitation to visit Japan. Though Abe’s willingness to wait for “when the timing is best” for Putin’s visit indicates he is not tied to realizing the visit this year, there is eagerness in Japan to restart negotiations. Protecting Japan’s territorial integrity is an important issue to Abe and his base of conservative supporters, and so progress on the dispute with Russia on the Northern Territories would dovetail nicely with Abe’s overall agenda – if there is progress. From the Russian side, they want to keep peace talks separate from negotiations over the islands; as Russia holds the upper hand, manifested through economic development and political visits to the islands, it is not quite clear what Japan can realistically get from negotiations. So, yes, Abe’s meeting with Putin was critical, as relations had been frosty since the Ukrainian crisis, but it will be an uphill battle from here to achieve Abe’s objective of recovering the Northern Territories. Senior level talks on the territorial issue will resume on October 8, after having been suspended since January 2014.

Abe’s chat with Park in the anteroom before a luncheon also bodes well for the trilateral summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang expected to be held in late October or early November. Both leaders need a successful trilateral summit (as well as a bilateral summit between the two of them) due to domestic worries about deteriorating relations. Much like the conversation with Putin, however, this chat is only the beginning of a long, arduous path to normalize a critical relationship for Japan.

Abe’s meeting with Angela Merkel, Dilma Rousseff, and Narendra Modi was the first time the leaders of the Group of Four (G4) met together to push the UNSC reform agenda in 11 years. They are pushing for concrete moves to make the UNSC a body more reflective of the world’s realities 70 years after it was first set up. Abe continues to stress Japan’s financial contributions to humanitarian efforts and global institutions to argue for Japan’s inclusion. The G4 leaders want to see “concrete results” rather than more “discussions,” and are pushing to increase the number of UNSC permanent members from 5 to 11, and nonpermanent members from 10 to 14 or 15. But if the past is any indication, simply talking about doing things will not accomplish much. At least Abe did secure the support of Jamaica and the Caribbean Community to reform the UNSC shortly after UNGA, when he stopped by Kingston on Wednesday. While many countries believe UNSC reform is important to increase the legitimacy of the body, there will be bitter disputes over which countries should be allowed to join. The P5 states also have their own interests to protect, as expansion of the body would necessarily lead to the dilution of their individual power.

As proof of Japan’s commitment to the UN and the global community, Abe pledged to contribute about $810 million to support refugees from Iraq and Syria, as well as an additional $750 million for peace-building measures in the Middle East and Africa to prevent an exodus of refugees. But Abe coldly rejected the idea of granting asylum to refugees, saying, “As an issue of demography, I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees we need to have more activities by women, by elderly people, and we must raise [the] birthrate. There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants.” That Japan cannot deal with these economic challenges while also accepting refugees shows the limits of creative thinking in the Japanese government.

Sadako Ogata, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees (1991-2000), called out the Abe government for its contradictions. She said in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun:

Accepting refugees is one part of proactive pacifism if it is being done in relation to people who are really in trouble. Another aspect of activism is the extent to which development assistance reaches the lower echelons of a society. Unless Japan becomes more active in accepting refugees, I would have to say there is no proactive pacifism in Japan … Although there is talk about proactive pacifism, we hear nothing about the extent Japan is prepared to make sacrifices for such a purpose. That is why I feel that is only a slogan.

No one is surprised by Abe’s choice, considering Japan’s long history of rejecting asylum seekers, but that doesn’t make anyone happy with it.

As I already mentioned, maybe the most important tally for Abe is that neither Park nor Chinese President Xi Jinping criticized Japan’s security reforms. Park’s speech does not mention Japan at all, and Xi only brings up “Japanese militarism” in the context of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War. Of course, this is the time for leaders to talk about their country’s contributions, and it makes sense for Park and Xi to not waste their time with cheap shots at Japan. But had there been criticism, it could have been devastating. This could reflect Park and Xi’s understanding that the security legislation that just passed is really not as far-reaching or dramatic as opponents claim.

Even Abe seemed to be following the mantra of letting sleeping dogs lie, as all he said on the matter during his speech is that “Japan has also for its part very recently prepared the legal domestic framework enabling it to contribute to Peacekeeping Operations in a broader manner going forward.”

All in all, Abe had a good time in New York. He took some noticeable steps forward on a variety of important initiatives – but seeing these initiatives through to completion will take a lot more work. Furthermore, it exposed again the limits of Japan’s “proactive pacifism.” But at least the furor over the security bills seems to be dying down. Now Abe can return to Japan and focus on the economy, like his constituents want him to.