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Japan’s Foreign Policy Balancing Act

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Tokyo Report

Japan’s Foreign Policy Balancing Act

This year’s Diplomacy Bluebook shows Japan scrambling to square long-held positions with rapid changes in the region.

Japan’s Foreign Policy Balancing Act
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Japan on Tuesday published its annual Diplomatic Bluebook – the weighty document outlining the country’s current stance toward a wide variety of foreign policy matters. It shows how Tokyo is trying to square its long-standing positions with the shifting winds in the region.

It is clear that Japan still regards the U.S. alliance as central to its security and diplomatic strategy, labeling it as “the foundation of peace, prosperity and freedom not only in Japan but also across the Asia-Pacific region.” The 2018 bluebook (Japanese link only) argues that the U.S. alliance has become more important than ever as a result of the region’s more severe security environment – a trend driven by factors including North Korea’s flurry of missile and nuclear tests last year. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs-produced document specifically refers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to build up rapport with U.S. President Donald Trump, saying the two leaders have developed “a strong relationship of mutual trust.”

Yet there are limits to that personal relationship, as shown in Tokyo’s so-far unsuccessful efforts to win exemptions from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. Washington also continues to prod Japan in the direction of negotiating a U.S.-Japan bilateral free trade agreement, a prospect that Abe has so far resisted. However, Abe needs to keep Trump on side, in part because Japan has a lot riding on the U.S. president’s anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore next month.

“The strengthening of its nuclear and missile capability is an unprecedented, serious and imminent threat to the peace and stability of Japan and the international community,” the bluebook says, in the section on North Korea. “Japan will cooperate closely with the United States and South Korea in order to make North Korea change its policies, and work closely with related countries including China and Russia to maximize pressure on North Korea through all kind of means.”

Amid the recent surge in diplomatic engagement with North Korea (and a softening of political will elsewhere for the “maximum pressure” approach), Japan has had to rely on other countries – such as South Korea and the United States – to raise issues on its behalf. The bluebook indicates that Japan is open to normalizing diplomatic relations with North Korea, but this “is impossible without resolution of the abduction issue.” Japan wants the regime to reopen an investigation into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, and return them to Japan. (North Korea regards the issue as “settled” and, in a state media report published a few days ago, accused Japanese politicians of “hyping” the issue.)

Further, Japan has an interest in ensuring that any deal achieves “the disposal of all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of all ranges” – rather than, say, an outcome that merely focuses on intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland. Experts have said that Tokyo is worried about the risk of Trump striking a deal that doesn’t properly address the shorter range missiles that are within range of Japan.

Even as Japan sticks with the centrality of its alliance with the United States, the government is seeking to improve ties with its close geographical neighbors, including China, South Korea, and Russia. In each case, however, there are challenges to be delicately managed.

As observers have noted for months, Japan and China have set about thawing their previously chilly ties. The bluebook says both countries “share responsibilities for the peace and stability of the region and the international community” and they will “develop friendly cooperative relations steadily from a broader perspective.” Their territorial dispute, however, still lingers as a source of tension. The document says that attempts by China to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea “are absolutely not acceptable.” Next month’s launch of a maritime and aerial communication mechanism, agreed during a bilateral meeting in Tokyo last week, is seen as a way to lower the temperature.

South Korea, too, is regarded as a target for improved relations. “Favorable Japan-South Korea relations are indispensable for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” the bluebook says. The most obvious obstacle here continues to be the fallout from the 2015 deal between the Abe administration and the previous South Korean government regarding the women forced during World War II to work in Japanese military brothels, known euphemistically as “comfort women.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in has walked a tightrope on this issue since his election last year. According to a task force that his government established, the deal had been reached without adequate input from victims. Moon has said the agreement is not being torn up, but suggested in public statements that further measures – such as a sincere apology from Japan – might help with public acceptance. It’s not clear whether these public remarks have been followed up in official channels, but in the bluebook Japan holds firmly to its position that the deal stands:

“If the South Korean side requests further measures on the Japanese side, it is not accepted at all by Japan. The government of Japan will continue to strongly seek steady implementation of the agreement that South Korea confirmed as the ‘final and irreversible’ resolution. Although there are difficult issues between Japan and South Korea, it is important to appropriately manage these issues while advancing the bilateral relationship in a future-oriented way.”

Japan sees its bilateral relationship with Russia, meanwhile, as the one with the most potential. Abe is due to travel to St. Petersburg for an economic forum and then to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin later this month. The lingering territorial dispute over islands to Japan’s north remains to be solved – and Russia has also expressed its strong displeasure over Tokyo’s decision to acquire the Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Japan signals in the bluebook that it will continue to work toward achieving joint economic activities on the disputed islands, with a view to eventually concluding a peace treaty with Russia.

In each case, Japan will have to tread carefully to resolve issues of the past so that their relationships can be put on a sound footing for the future.