Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has signaled that the goal of Japanese diplomacy under his leadership is to bring stability to the region and world.
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Abe reaffirmed his intention to stand up strongly for the rules-based international order and free trade, noting that his country had been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that system during its post-war boom.
He also took the opportunity to promote his Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy: “What must control our sea and air spaces that are broad and wide is the rule of law, and the rules-based order, which are in turn backed by solid institutions.”
Abe’s address to the General Assembly in New York on Tuesday was his first opportunity to project a foreign policy vision after his victory in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership vote last week. Abe secured a third three-year term, putting him on track to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
At the outset of the speech, Abe said it was his sixth consecutive year addressing the General Assembly and he did so “with a feeling of renewed resolve.” In the three years to come, he intended to strengthen the free trade system and to “clear the postwar structure from Northeast Asia,” including settling long-running disputes with some of Japan’s neighbors.
Expanding first on the issue of trade, Abe said he believed the Japanese people wanted their leaders to serve as flag bearers for free trade, because an open economic system had underpinned remarkable growth in Japan after World War II.
Abe made his argument in rhetorical terms: “Should Japan, the country that reaped the greatest benefits of all under this system, ever fail to support maintaining and strengthening that system, who else should we wait for to rise in support of it? Japan’s responsibility is tremendous indeed.”
He pointed to some of his trade achievements, including the recent signing of a huge economic partnership agreement between Japan and the European Union. Abe also said he had experienced no greater joy than when the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, better known as TPP-11, took shape and was quickly approved by Japan’s Diet (the parliament). The 12th country in the original TPP deal, the United States, pulled out after President Donald Trump took office; Japan was credited with helping to marshal support from the remaining members to push ahead anyway.
But Abe said there was no room for complacency. He promised that Japan would make all-out efforts to successfully negotiate the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and would also continue trade talks with the United States.
The latter is a delicate issue as Trump is intent on reducing the U.S. trade deficit with Japan. At a summit meeting on Wednesday – the day after Abe’s speech – Trump and the Japanese prime minister agreed to enter into negotiations for a bilateral trade agreement on goods as well as on other key areas including services. They left the door open to trade and investment-related negotiations at some point in the future.
“We’re going to have a really great relationship, better than ever before on trade,” Trump said at the beginning of the summit meeting, a few days after hosting Abe for dinner at Trump Tower.
The subsequent joint statement emphasized that the talks were designed to be “mutually beneficial” and would respect several key positions. For its part, the American side indicated it would seek to increase motor vehicle production and jobs in the United States. The Japanese side signaled that when it came to market access for agricultural, forestry and fishery products, “outcomes related to market access as reflected in Japan’s previous economic partnership agreements constitute the maximum level.”
In the meantime, both sides would refrain from taking actions contrary to the spirit of their agreement – a key commitment at a time when Japan has been worried about the potential economic impact of Trump’s threatened tariffs on the automotive sector.
The United States and Japan also plan to work together on reform of the World Trade Organization and action to address unfair trading practices – understood to be a reference to China.
Abe is currently focused on improving relations with China and other countries in the region. In the section of his UN speech dealing with clearing “the postwar structure,” Abe foreshadowed a trip to China in October as part of mutual visits. Improved bilateral relations between Tokyo and Beijing, he said, would give “entire region another definitive axle for stability.”
Abe also argued conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia would improve the prospects for peace and prosperity in East Asia. However, he did not give any indication of a shift in Japan’s position that the territorial dispute over four islands seized by the Soviet Union in the closing stages of World War II must be resolved before the peace treaty is signed.
Abe reaffirmed Japan’s willingness to normalize relations with North Korea, so long as the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues were resolved. Abe argued that North Korea was “at a crossroads at which it will either seize, or fail to seize, the historic opportunity it was afforded.”
“In order to resolve the abductions issue,” Abe said, in reference to the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, “I am also ready to break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea, get off to a new start, and meet face to face with Chairman Kim Jong Un.” No decisions have been reached regarding a potential Japan-North Korea summit meeting, Abe said, “but if we are going to hold one, then I am determined it must be a meeting that contributes to the resolution of the abductions issue.”
More broadly, Abe summed up his approach as follows: “The goal of Japanese diplomacy, which I conveyed to you to some extent today, is to make the future of the world and the region something that is certain.”
The speech indicates that, although Abe intends to step up efforts to resolve certain outstanding issues, his re-endorsement as leader is set to deliver continuity in Japanese diplomacy.