In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, wrote in Foreign Affairs that if Japan were caught between the United States and China without a certainty of allegiance and mission, it “would be like a beached whale, thrashing helplessly but dangerously.” According to Brzezinski, such a situation could spell the end to Japan’s peaceful political and economic development. Japan would be faced with the unpalatable choice of unilateral rearmament or a new submissive relationship with China.
Brzezinski believed a Japan caught between China and the United States without clarity in its global role would undermine the emergence of a stable relationship among America, Japan, and China. It would lead, he thought, to insecurity and instability or, even worse, a conflict throughout Asia. Fast forward two decades and this scenario outlined by Brzezinski has become now plausible with the election of Donald Trump.
The good news is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe receives high marks in his dealings with Trump so far. The big question, however, is whether Abe can contain his inner conservatism and maintain a pragmatic path. This is an important question as war and peace in East Asia could be hanging in the balance. Ian Bremmer, the head of the political risk assessment firm Eurasia Group, recently opined on CNN that the previously unthinkable is now indeed possible – a great power war in the years of Trump’s presidency.
The uncertain and unpredictable aims of the new president’s foreign policy worry leaders, diplomats and policymakers alike. Trump’s heated rhetoric toward China and seemingly friendly attitude toward Russia would suggest that Bremmer was referring to a confrontation between the United States and China. For Japan, such an event would be catastrophic as Japan would no doubt be expected to participate as an active combatant obliged by treaty, domestic guidelines, and loyalty.
The challenge for Abe is to finesse a role for Japan within this new and precarious security environment, and to mesh it with his own goal of a reinvigorated and globally relevant Japan. Before suggesting a strategy, it is important to consider some history. The early years of Abe’s current term resembled his turbulent stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007. The first two years of this administration, like his first term, focused on returning Japan to a position of leadership in Asia, not only as an economic power, but also as a political and military one. Former British diplomat Hugh Cortazzi has fittingly described Abe’s aims as harboring “grand illusions of past history.”
This new muscular agenda upended decades of low profile diplomacy that began in 1946 under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. Since the end of the war, almost all Japanese prime ministers have followed the Yoshida doctrine, which consists of Japan relying on America’s security umbrella while concentrating on developing the domestic economy. It also emphasizes improved economic relations with East Asia.
In contrast, the aim of Abe’s new diplomacy is to ‘make Japan great again’ in politico-military terms in Asia and beyond. More simply put, the objective is to establish Japan as an independent power in Asia and internationally. To this end, upon regaining the post of prime minister in 2012, Abe moved quickly to revise Japan’s overall security and defense posture. In his quest to reinsert Japan into global geo-politics, Abe established a National Security Council, passed a state secrecy law and, finally, his biggest and most controversial achievement, overhauled legislation to permit the exercise of collective self-defense. The latter enables the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to take part in overseas conflicts to defend allies even if Japan is not directly under attack. This reinterpretation of article 9 of the Japanese constitution which prohibits the use of force to resolve international disputes amounts to a wholesale break with a “defense-only” policy.
Indeed, the prime minister has openly remarked that the constitution should be amended to overcome the inconsistency between the new legislation and the constitution. To leave no doubt about his policy direction, in 2013, Abe made a controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine where the ashes of Class A war criminals are enshrined. He went to the Shrine ignoring the wishes of the Obama administration, expressed in an hour-long phone call from then-Vice President Joe Biden. The U.S. administration knew the visit would enrage China, Korea, and other Asian nations, a prediction that later came true.
In the first two years, Abe’s hawkish foreign policy did not gain much traction as it faced challenges from China, South Korea, and the domestic economy. China stepped up patrols and incursions into the Senkaku Islands, which it also claims, and Chinese President Xi Jinping refused to meet with Abe for the first two years of his premiership. South Korea, in turn, raised the heat and rhetoric on the comfort women issue. On the economy, the Japanese people raised concerns about the lack of progress on his three arrows strategy. Abe knew his electoral success would depend on an improving economy, not his defense strategy.
Facing these headwinds, we have seen something of an about face by Abe. He has become Abe the pragmatist, albeit with lingering streaks of neo-conservatism. In order to curry favor with China and Korea, he has not revisited Yasukuni Shrine. He also reaffirmed, although in a diluted form, statements of peace and repentance. Abe has done impressive diplomatic work to repair relations with South Korea over the comfort women issue. In December 2015, the two governments concluded an agreement to end the dispute, although the issue has flared up again over a tit-for-tat feud. An Abe cabinet minister, apparently with tacit consent, visited Yaskuni Shrine, followed by anti-Japanese groups placing a comfort woman statue in front of a Japanese diplomatic mission in Korea, to match the one already erected outside Japan’s embassy in Seoul.
Abe has also done well in handling the Trump administration. He was the first leader to visit Trump after his election and the second to do so after Trump was sworn in as president. Abe wisely ignored recommendations by his policy advisers to confront Trump on issues ranging from trade to security. Instead, he sensibly pursued a strategy of cordiality and a strengthening of relations between the countries.
It appears that Abe has accomplished his short-term goal of reaffirming the U.S.-Japan alliance but what is next? Abe is faced with two choices: he can continue to pay court to Trump in the hope that the president’s erratic policy pronouncements and postures will eventually be tempered, and that his policy will return to a traditional, albeit more unilateral, American foreign policy. Alternatively, Abe could follow his emerging pragmatism and embark on the construction of a new security architecture for the region that would engender an updated version of the globalist foreign policy espoused by Brzezinski two decades ago.
The first option, banking on a traditional U.S.-Japan alliance, would seem tempting for Abe since Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric conforms to Abe’s ongoing security-focused balance of power strategy. Abe’s objective is to use American defense guarantees to leverage a more assertive Japan in Asia vis-a-vis China. Despite his appeals for future-oriented relationships in Asia, China does not view these calls in a positive light. This will increasingly be the case given a more bellicose Trump administration. A balance of power system with Trump at the helm will make the U.S.-China-Japan security relationship more competitive and unstable, and is likely to lead to a more intense arms race. Any slight miscalculation and there could be conflict.
Under a Trump presidency, however, the more conceivable scenario within a balance of power context is a withdrawal from or weakened support for the alliance by his administration. Trump may conclude that American blood and treasure is not worth the cause as he pursues his America first policy. Alternatively, if he determines that Japan has not sufficiently acquiesced on the trade and currency file, he may not feel obliged to come to Japan’s assistance in the event of a conflict with China. There is no doubt Trump will extract a high price from Japan for its defense guarantees. As political scientist Jeff Kingston has noted, Japan could end up indirectly paying for the border wall with Mexico.
Finally, there is also the possibility that with Trump’s inclination to view diplomacy in transactional terms, alliances with both Taiwan and Japan could be used as negotiating chips in some grand bargain between the United States and China. If any of these three scenarios were to come true, combined with a continuation of Abe’s pursuit of an assertive foreign policy, he could be exposed as the emperor with no clothes as Japan is left in a weakened security position.
Abe’s second option is a hedging strategy in which Japan would seek true historical reconciliation with its neighbors while focusing on mutual economic and political interests to underpin regional stability and security. Simultaneously, Japan would retain its close alliance with the United States. This would flip Abe’s current diplomacy on its head. For Abe, presently “balancing” is the main policy while “engagement” is the hedge with China. The new policy should be the opposite. The priority would be to cultivate a full-fledged historically honest political and economic relationship with its neighbors. At the same time, Japan would maintain close ties with the United States for insurance purposes.
Brzezinski’s words of yesteryear still ring true. He explained that unlike China, Japan can gain global influence only if it first eschews the quest for regional power. Ironically, pursuing a balance of power in Asia as a main policy will perennially put Japan in a vassal role to the United States, which is precisely what Abe is trying to avoid. Ideally, he would like to see a Japan with an autonomous foreign policy acting in concert with Washington. However, Japan on its own cannot win in a power rivalry competition with China without the backing and support of American military muscle.
So, what would a global strategy for Japan based on a new relationship of mutual interest and respect with China and Asia look like? It would first need to resolve regional disputes as a stepping stone toward a larger role for Japan in global affairs. This strategy would need to be built on two tracks — an economic and a political one. The economic aspect of the strategy would be the easier of the two to implement as there are many complementary interests in this area among countries of the region.
Throughout the post-war era, the one theme that united Asia was the pursuit of economic growth and development based on respect for sovereignty. Japan could express its commitment to this philosophy by renewing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations and implementing the trade pact with the remaining 11 countries, despite the U.S. withdrawal. Japan should also offer an invitation for China to join the pact in the future. In exchange, Japan would agree to join the China-lead Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB). The less publicized Japanese infrastructure projects that are currently underway could be integrated with the China-sponsored “One Belt and One Road” projects to the advantage of both countries and the region in general.
On the political side, Abe will need to do a much better job of integrating and engaging China, as he has mostly erred until now on the side of containment. To assuage the concerns of China and other Asian countries regarding the expanded security legislation and the new enhanced role of the SDF, more sincere atonement on historical issues would be appropriate.
The prime minister’s visit to Pearl Harbor together with President Obama demonstrated that past enmity can be overcome and new bonds solidified between former foes if there is political will. In Japan’s case, there are four actions that could go a long way in accomplishing this. First, Abe should deliver a Cabinet-approved statement expressing his administration’s unequivocal acceptance and reaffirmation of the Kono and Murayama peace statements regarding Japan’s responsibility and remorse for the war.
Second, Abe should issue an official declaration prohibiting top Japanese government officials, including the prime minister and Cabinet ministers, from visiting Yasukuni Shrine.
The third action Abe could take to overcome past hostility concerns the comfort women issue. The Abe administration should go above and beyond the letter of the agreement reached with South Korea and offer an official Cabinet-level apology. This would serve not only as a gesture of genuine contrition, but also boost Japan’s own security interests. South Korea is a crucial ally against North Korea, and an important partner in constructing a new security architecture in the region. Thus, a definitive resolution of this issue with South Korea is imperative. In addition, a similar agreement could be offered to China and other Asian countries with women who were affected by imperial army abuse.
Finally, concerning the Senkaku Islands, Japan should offer to return to the status quo ante of mutual recognition of differing stances on sovereignty, i.e., the “shelving of the issue for future generations to solve” as recommended by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
Carrying out such bold diplomacy, Japan would undoubtedly receive better understanding for Abe’s plans of “normalization” of its foreign policy and the SDF. None of these actions would weaken Japan’s security. Indeed, under these new circumstances, it would be difficult for any country, including China, to oppose a more active role for the SDF. Abe’s pronouncements of “active pacifism” in which a peaceful, law-abiding Japan deploys the SDF in security operations around the globe as a force for good would no longer ring hallow. On the contrary, it would likely be welcomed, particularly by the United Nations for peacekeeping operations. Abe must understand that while the projection of military power is one pillar of political leadership, the moral legitimacy underlying the leadership is much more important for long term staying power.
Finally, to further integrate the region, the creation of a new permanent political regional security body along the lines of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would improve regional stability. It would also complement other newly created regional institutions such as TPP and AIIB. The establishment of an OSCE-like institution would be relatively easy to do as a similar security forum already exists in the form of the East Asian Summit. This summit should be converted into a formal organization with a permanent secretariat.
The economic success of East Asia was rooted in the political stability of the post-Vietnam War era. It ensured the expansion of trade and the free flow of investment within the region. The guarantor of this security framework was the United States, but both China and Japan would need to take part in underwriting a new architecture. If Abe were to take the lead in these initiatives, his moves to reinvigorate Japanese diplomacy via an enhanced role for the SDF, would be assessed positively by most and perhaps even by China, as well. If China were to respond antagonistically to the overtures, Japan will surely have gained the good will of the international community, which would help offset some of the threat. It would also act as a hedge against a probable turbulent Trump foreign policy helping to stabilize the region against any headwinds.
So, will we see a further flourishing of Abe’s pragmatic side, and Asia taking responsibility for its security and economic development? Or will we witness the wrath of a beached whale? Abe will play a big part in determining the outcome.
Carlos Ramirez is an associate professor at the Faculty of International Studies, Kindai University, Osaka.