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Abe’s Charm Offensive – Is There a Second Act?

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Tokyo Report

Abe’s Charm Offensive – Is There a Second Act?

The Japanese prime minister has put serious effort into diplomacy near and far — but will it pay off?

Abe’s Charm Offensive – Is There a Second Act?
Credit: Flickr / Global Panorama

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s president were not the only ones conducting charm offensives in the past few months. While the leaders of North and South Korea were getting acquainted prior to the Olympics, quietly but methodically Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been conducting his own version of diplomatic enchantment over the past half year. Beginning in earnest with U.S. President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia last fall, Abe has been trying to press all the right buttons to endear himself to both friends and foes in the region. Abe needs to build bridges with as many partners as possible to forge regional stability and Japan’s own security.

Japan faces multiple challenges including a tense and unpredictable situation on the Korean Peninsula, a mercurial American president and, more importantly, an assertive China led by a confident Xi Jinping. To make matters even more complicated, Trump fired U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just as he prepares for a summit with Kim. Abe certainly has his work cut out for him. Despite this dizzying turn of events, Abe must keep his diplomatic outreach to the region steady and, in particular, he must sustain and upgrade his satisfactory yet fragile relations with nearby South Korea.  

International and Domestic Challenges for Abe

Undoubtedly, these past weeks have been turbulent ones for Abe. Domestically, he and Finance Minister Taro Aso are in trouble over a real estate transaction involving public land sold to an Abe acquaintance at a discounted price allegedly facilitated by government bureaucrats in the finance ministry. Internationally, many in Japan are very troubled with Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s offer for a summit and view it as betrayal. Until recently, Abe had been the most vocal among leaders against dialogue with the Kim regime, instead insisting on “maximum pressure” of sanctions until North Korea took concrete steps towards denuclearization. Trump’s similar pronouncements with equal zeal gave Abe the impression that the U.S. and Japan were in lockstep. However, Trump seems to have changed his tune. He will now open negotiations with North Korea even though the Kim regime has offered little in return for the start of these discussions other than a short term freeze on nuclear and missile tests.

The Trump stance has changed from concrete actions on denuclearization as a precondition for talks to plans for denuclearization as the end goal of negotiations. It is entirely possible that Trump will settle for the dismantling or freezing of the North’s ICBM program, which would eliminate the nuclear threat for the United States. In so doing, Trump could declare victory but at the expense of Japan, as it would remain in range of North Korea’s medium range ballistic missiles. North Korea, in exchange, may demand a reduction of U.S. forces in the region. This would also be a major blow to Japan’s security as an increasingly powerful China asserts its interests in the region.

As it stands, Japan has become a wallflower at this nuclear prom dance but it does not have to be this way. There are other opportunities different from solely relying on U.S. security guarantees that currently hinge on a close personal relationship between Abe and Trump. Given Trump’s penchant for changing positions, policies and loyalties, world leaders need to be judicious in their reliance on Trump, particularly when security concerns directly affect the United States. Trump’s zero sum view of the world and his America First philosophy means that U.S. interests will take precedence over any other concern. For Japan, it means the United States will prioritize in negotiations with the North its own security, meaning first and foremost the dismantling of the North’s ICBM capability. Other issues will be secondary, such as an overall deal on regional stability, i.e., a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula buttressed by a peace treaty.

Abe’s Subtle Shift in Foreign and Security Policy

To his credit, Abe has not been completely oblivious to the concerns of overdependence on U.S. security. Indeed, to avert it, Abe has made some modifications to his foreign policy and it is possible to discern a shift since the end of President Obama’s term. These subtle yet important changes, more than anything else, feature an attempt at historical healing. This was first illustrated in his final interactions with the Obama administration. U.S.-Japan relations under Obama culminated in reciprocal visits to Hiroshima and Hawaii to pay respects and state regrets for past tragedies.

Abe’s moves to seek significantly improved regional relations have accelerated further since those events. To be sure, it was not always like this. At the start of his premiership in 2012, Abe’s foreign policy had been based on a nationalist ideology that called for the “normalization” of Japan’s security posture, i.e., the use of military force abroad to protect its borders and to project power against those who are deemed a potential threat, namely China. This nationalist ideology was affirmed through visits to Yasukuni Shrine, unrepentant views of history and a general nostalgia of prewar military Japan. It emphasized strategic policy embodied in a more fully integrated U.S.-Japan security alliance in what Political Scientist Christopher Hughes deemed as a doctrine of “Resentful Realism”.

Abe’s Fall Summit Diplomacy

Abe has slowly moved away from this position, his foreign policy has become more nuanced — conferring the importance of balance of power principles that includes Japan’s military normalization. Yet it equally views multilateralism, via active participation in organizations and trade pacts, and respectful dialogue that acknowledges historical disputes with its regional partners as important components to Japan’s foreign and security policy. Pragmatically, since last fall after cementing his relationship with Trump after two visits to the United States, Abe has been making the rounds to shore up friendships with allies and to mend ties with more problematic partners. In addition, Abe has also spent an enormous amounts of time and energy on finalizing international trade pacts to secure economic and political gains.

Starting in India in September 2017, Abe met with his counterpart Narendra Modi to advance his efforts of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. During their talks, contracts for the construction of bullet trains using Japanese technology were signed together with deals to share security intelligence and defense technology. Both Abe and Modi are concerned with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). They agreed to continue to cooperate and expand their political, economic and security partnership

Abe’s most notable successes came later in the fall. Beginning with Trump’s visit to Japan in November, Abe sought and obtained American affirmations of the alliance and adherence to a united front on North Korea. At the summit, Trump muted his usual economic complaints. This was also viewed as a victory for Abe. But, most importantly, it appeared that Trump’s vociferous and belligerent hardline stance towards North Korea in many ways was being shaped by Abe attesting to the influence he seemingly had on the president.

Outreach to China

Abe followed Trump to Vietnam for the APEC Summit, where he switched gears and held an important summit with China’s President Xi Jinping agreeing to a fresh start in relations and paving the way for mutual visits to each other’s countries. As pointed out in one  editorial, “No top Chinese leader has come to Japan for bilateral talks since 2008 — an extraordinary situation given the importance of the Japan-China relationship.” This was followed by a flurry of meetings and discussions between the countries.

These included meetings between Abe and Premier Li Keqiang in Manila at the ASEAN Summit the following week, then a meeting between LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing in December, a meeting between Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his counterpart Wang in January and, most recently in February, discussions between Abe’s top security advisor Shotaro Yachi and China State Councilor Yang Jiechi in which they agreed to have close consultations on the North Korea issue.

The results of these talks have ranged from Abe agreeing to consider working with China on the BRI, Japan’s inclusion in China’s regional infrastructure bank (AIIB), further negotiation on a regional trade pact (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – RCEP) and to the establishment of a hotline to avert clashes in the East China Sea. These meetings will culminate in a trilateral summit this spring in Japan involving the two Premiers from Japan and China as well as President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

Trade Accords Finalized

Also at the APEC Summit, Abe pushed forcefully for an accord on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact. Trump withdrew the United States from the negotiations in late 2016. Abe’s efforts were rewarded with an announcement at the summit on an agreement to finalize negotiations in 2018. An accord was signed in Chile on March 8, a huge victory for Abe as it solidifies Western-style trade standards and practices in the region. But, Abe was not finished. In December 2018, Japan and the European Union concluded their own trade pact creating the world’s largest open economic area. Both of these deals represented for Abe a step away from Trump’s protectionist stance on trade as well as opening some much needed space between them on foreign and trade policy issues. Abe must be given his due for almost singlehandedly salvaging the global trade system from Trump’s attempts to sabotage it.

Japan- South Korea Relations

Abe continued his diplomatic whirlwind by reaching out to South Korea. South Korea should be by far the most important piece in Abe’s foreign policy puzzle. The importance of this cannot be understated as each nation will be key as a partner for checking both China’s rise and North Korea’s belligerency. Japan’s future interactions with South Korea will also determine whether Abe has made a clear and definitive break with his previous security-heavy and nationalist/revisionist foreign policy and whether it has been replaced by a more nuanced Realist foreign policy.

Going forward, the relationship between the two nations will be crucial. They must show, as democracies, that disputes can be resolved through peaceful discussion. China will be watching closely. A strong Japan-Korea alliance would also act as a counterweight to both China and North Korea’s ambitions. Indeed, it would also act as a counterweight to any extreme ideas hatched by the Trump administration. This could be of existential importance for both countries as an outbreak of war on the peninsula would likely end in a terrible tragedy for both nations.

With fits and starts, Abe has made some, yet very tenuous, progress in improving bilateral ties with the South. The so-called comfort women agreement signed between Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye in 2015 was an impressive effort toward settling historical issues, but has since been bogged down by Moon’s failure to fully accept it. The impasse could be easily solved with some magnanimity on both sides. Abe could unilaterally offer fuller apologies for the past in such a way that would be acceptable to the victims. South Korea in turn could agree that the deal is final but would welcome any official statements from Japan to strengthen it. South Korea could also attempt to negotiate the removal of comfort women statues located in front of Japanese diplomatic compounds with those groups that erected them. These kinds of confidence building measures would go a long way towards reaching a solution to historical disputes.

Abe has previously demonstrated some statesmanship in regards to South Korea. Abe’s decision to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics over the objections of members of his own party proved he can play the role of statesman. Abe probably could have garnered extra credibility and popular support from his base by having rejected the invitation and attributing it to Moon’s intransigence on the comfort women agreement. Instead, he said he would go to seek closer collaboration on the nuclear issue and press for acceptance of the comfort women agreement. But, as Brad Glosserman points, Abe should have gone for a different reason, mainly to signal that the relationship between the two countries is more important than petty domestic politics or vindictive animus. But, alas, the Abe administration still has trouble coming to terms with history.

At present, Abe has been flailing after Trump’s decision to meet with Kim was announced. Abe is now seeking a meeting with Kim himself.  The irony is, of course, if Abe is successful in securing a meeting with Kim the real winner will be Kim since he will be negotiating on three separate tracks with individual meetings with each of his three main opponents: Trump, Moon and Kim. This is precisely the outcome Kim was hoping for – to divide and conquer. If relations with South Korea were better, one could only imagine how much easier it would be for Abe to set a meeting with Kim. Moon who has exhibited sophisticated diplomatic ability in arranging the Trump-Kim summit would likely be able to engineer a meeting between Abe and Kim.

Moon could also act as a good interlocutor on the Japanese abductee issue by urging the North to reopen negotiations. Kim might be more sympathetic to a request from the South for action on this issue as he could expect an extra pay-off of “gratitude” from the South. As it stands, Abe will need to make excessive concessions to win a meeting with the North. Furthermore, a more likely outcome of all these separately organized meetings, if indeed they take place, is that the three nations will be negotiating at cross purposes with only their own interests at heart regardless of the impact on others. The irony again is this will be done knowing full well that a united front would be a much stronger alternative to combating the North’s nuclear threat.

Will There be a Sequel to Abe’s Positive Diplomatic Openings?

The good news, however, according to recent reports, is that Moon and Abe have spoken over the phone and recognize the urgency for historical reconciliation in order to sustain a unified position on North Korea as Trump prepares for his meeting with Kim. Not surprisingly, Abe was quite emphatic about including the abduction issue in any negotiation with the North. This being the case, it would certainly be to Abe and Japan’s benefit to turn up the diplomatic charm a further notch and begin a second round of outreach especially with South Korea. It would signal to the international community that Abe’s earlier illusions of neo-imperial grandeur were just that – illusions and that he is now willing to play a constructive role in building a Liberal international order based on historic honesty, international law and free trade.  

Such a posture would have the added benefit of offsetting Japan’s strategic overreliance on the Trump Administration especially given the president’s unpredictability. Strong partnerships outside the U.S. alliance framework would give Japan alternative foreign policy options. To those of us who have been following his career, however, Abe is well known for his episodes of revisionist recidivism exemplified by his historical amnesia and over-enthusiasm to constitutional change when his election mandate was for economic revitalization. As noted by many observes, Abe’s first round of diplomatic activity has made some progress but it rests on a fragile foundation  especially with China. If Abe is able to weather current domestic tribulations – and that is still an open question – then we will hold our collective breaths wishing for an Abe diplomatic charm sequel while dreading a redux of revisionism.

Carlos Ramirez is an associate professor of international politics in the Faculty of International Studies at Kindai University, Osaka.