Jonathan B. Miller on Japan’s Foreign and Defense Policies Under Shinzo Abe

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Jonathan B. Miller on Japan’s Foreign and Defense Policies Under Shinzo Abe

The Diplomat speaks with Jonathan B. Miller on the future direction of Japan’s foreign and defense policies.

Jonathan B. Miller on Japan’s Foreign and Defense Policies Under Shinzo Abe
Credit: Jonathan Berkshire Miller

The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady talks with Jonathan Berkshire Miller, an international affairs professional with expertise on security, defense and intelligence issues in Northeast Asia, about Japan’s foreign and defense policies under the incumbent Japanese government headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Miller has held a variety of positions in the private and public sector. Currently, he is a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA). He is also a Distinguished Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada. Additionally, he is the director and co-founder of the Ottawa-based Council on International Policy. He is also a Senior Fellow on East Asia for the Asian Forum Japan, based in Tokyo.

The Diplomat: How would rank the foreign policy priorities of the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the remaining years of his administration?

Jonathan Berkshire Miller: The Abe administration has a number of important foreign policy areas to focus on during this third and final term. After Abe was re-elected this past fall as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, he set the course to become the longest serving Japanese prime minister. On the foreign policy side, he has made big strides with key trade deals – such as the CPTPP [Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership] and Japan-EU EPA [Economic Partnership Agreement] – and also a host of important security and defense reforms. Abe has also been the most-travelled Japanese leader by far and continues to have an adept hand at pursuing Tokyo’s interests in the diplomatic arena.

In his final term, there are no “new” priorities per say – but Abe must continue to manage a series of complex relations and potentially challenging issues. The alliance with the U.S., which I’ll discuss a bit more below, obviously remains a crucial area for Abe and he will need to manage two critical junctures in the coming two years with looming trade negotiations and also burden-sharing discussions in 2020. Abe also will continue to keep focus on the regional security environment, including the evolving situation on the Korean Peninsula and ties with China, which have stabilized but remain mired in mistrust. The Abe administration is also focused on finalizing a peace treaty with Russia with hopes for a compromise on their decades-long dispute over the Northern Territories. And finally, Abe must manage a challenging international economic environment – starting as host of the G-20 this year – amidst rising protectionist policies and the potential for more trade wars.

Has the election of U.S. President Donald Trump fundamentally altered the U.S.-Japan alliance? Do you think Shinzo Abe is going to shift his engagement strategy with the U.S. president and the United States in general?

The foundation and strategic rationale for the U.S.-Japan alliance has not changed under the Trump administration. The alliance remains resilient both through its multilayers (economic, security, people to people, etc.) but also its ability to evolve over time (as evidenced by the significant 2015 U.S.-Japan revised bilateral defense guidelines, which aimed to evolve the alliance to ensure a more seamless and forward-looking posture). But while the alliance – and its trajectory – remains more or less solid, there have been some growing concerns in Tokyo on weakening U.S. credibility both on the regional and global stage. This started with the decision from Washington to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has been followed on with a series of other concerning moves, including an increasingly harsh tone on the value of U.S. alliances. Tokyo was also blindsided by the decision by the Trump administration to apply tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminum products – under the guise of national security.

But, despite taking some criticism at home and abroad for being too deferential to Trump, Abe has managed the alliance adeptly under a dynamic and unpredictable environment. During Abe’s first official meeting with Trump in 2016, Japan managed to secure a strong commitment to the U.S.-Japan security treaty and its application to the Senkaku islands (reaffirming earlier commitments from previous administrations). Tokyo has also been largely pleased with the tougher stance on China, although it is growing increasingly concerned about damage to the global economy from tensions between Washington and Beijing on trade. But despite this largely positive picture, there are two big challenges to the alliance coming up before 2021 (when Abe’s third term is slated to expire): the negotiations on a trade agreement on goods; and burden-sharing negotiations.

Do you think Japan is receptive to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’ idea of an “alliance of multilateralists,” a group of middle-sized powers that on occasion could challenge U.S. leadership and policy on certain issues, e.g. pertaining to climate change, trade policies etc.? 

The Abe administration has been investing deeply on a multilateral agenda. On the trade front, obviously the Abe administration has made big strides by finalizing two enormous trade pacts: the CPTPP – or TPP-11 – and the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement. Getting these deals over the finish line was not easy, especially in the current climate on trade – but the emphasis on passing high ambition trade deals demonstrates how Japan realized the need to take a lead absent U.S. leadership. With these deals in hand, Abe also has staked out higher leverage as he begrudgingly enters into bilateral negotiations with Washington on trade.

Japan has also been looking more multilaterally – and perhaps “minilaterally” – when approaching security matters. From a multilateral perspective, Japan has focused on its leadership in key forums – including the G-20, which it hosts this year. Tokyo has also looked at playing a bigger role in regional bodies such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Shangri-la Dialogue. Minilaterally, Japan has continued to impress upon the U.S. the importance of networked security in the Indo-Pacific and Tokyo remains engaged in a web of trilaterals (in addition to the tepid resurgence of the Quad) including growing partnerships with Australia and India (among others). Much of these relationships form the back bone of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.

Most of these moves are not meant to push back on the U.S., but rather stand up and lead on rules and principles, in both economic and security terms, that other like-minded liberal states agree on. If anything, Tokyo’s multilateral and minilateral push is more focused on keeping the U.S. engaged with the region and these rules (which serve U.S. national interests) rather than hitting back at Washington.

How would you explain the current diplomatic fallout between South Korea and Japan over a Republic of Korea Navy destroyer reportedly targeting a fire control radar system toward a Japanese military surveillance aircraft? Do you foresee a worsening of South Korea-Japan tensions?

The building tensions between Seoul and Tokyo – a cycle now familiar to Asia watchers – is one of the most vexing problems. Relations between Japan and South Korea, long strained over historical and territorial disputes, have plummeted in recent months over a series of disagreements, including a public feud over the fire-control radar incident last December in the Sea of Japan. At that time, Japan launched a public protest that the decision of the South Korean navy was dangerous and unprofessional. The row has worsened since that point and both sides have now released conflicting videos of the incident with conflicting narratives. Both countries have also called on each other to apologize for the incident – along with South Korea’s new claims that Japan’s patrol planes have been harassing South Korean naval vessels.

The radar feud is unfortunately just the latest in a string of tense exchanges between Japan and South Korea in recent months. The two sides are also locked in a nasty dispute over compensation for wartime laborers, with South Korean Supreme Court ruling that Japan is still liable for additional compensation. Tokyo and Seoul also continue to spar over the resolution of the comfort women issue (and Seoul’s backtracking on their 2015 agreement) and their lingering territorial dispute over Takeshima/Dokdo along with other historical matters.

Unfortunately, there appears to be little light at the end of the tunnel. The trust deficit between the two sides remains cavernous and the focus in Japan is now on damage control in its relations with South Korea rather than repair. These tensions are compounded by Japanese concerns on South Korea’s engagement-first approach with North Korea, prompting alarm in Tokyo that the Moon administration is acting more like a broker rather than ally to the U.S.-led efforts to push for denuclearization in North Korea.

Do you expect Japan and Russia to make any headway in the perennial territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, located off Hokkaido in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Northwest Pacific? Also, what is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rationale behind his repeated offers of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia?

Abe has few options to pursue as he tries to cement a lasting foreign policy legacy. Two areas he has long coveted was a resolution — of some kind — to the abductions saga with North Korea and a longstanding desire to revise Japan’s constitution. Both of these issues remain incredibly difficult to move forward and breakthroughs remain unlikely in the remaining years of Abe’s third term. This leaves a potential deal on the Northern Territories as the key opportunity for Abe to create a legacy – essentially achieving something his predecessors could not (including his own father as foreign minister).

With this in mind, Abe had made a full court press and has now met Russian President Vladimir Putin on a bewildering 25 occasions over the past six years. Yet, despite some positive takeaways from the last summit in Moscow, including a reiteration of a previous agreement made last year that both sides would accelerate a resolution to the territorial row, the meeting has dimmed any hopes from the Abe administration that a deal might be possible in the coming months.

Despite Abe’s persistent efforts however, there still does not appear to be a willingness from Russia to resolve the territorial row. Just a week before the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that the first step before any resolution would begin with a Japanese admission of Russian sovereignty over the disputed isles. This has diminished the chances that there might be a compromise deal involving the reversion to Japan of two of the smaller islands (four in total are in dispute). This model for a deal would be in line with a 1956 Soviet-Japan joint declaration that outlined the return of the two smaller islands (Shikotan and Habomai) in exchange for a peace treaty between both sides to formally end diplomatic hostilities begun in World War II.

The pledge to keep negotiating is important but the potential for an imminent resolution appears out of reach. The Abe administration continues to hope that a deal might be struck this coming June, when it hosts the G-20 Summit in Osaka. The timing is crucial as the event will immediately be followed by a critical upper house election in July – in which Abe hopes progress on his Russian approach may lead to dividends at the poll.

How popular is the current rearmament program in Japan? Do you detect any shifts in the general pacifist attitude of the Japanese public to perhaps supporting a more robust Japanese defense policy?

It is important to keep everything in perspective on changes in Japan’s defense and security posture. As Adam Liff, among others, have argued in recent years – there is often more “heat than light” on discussions of Japan’s security changes and it is more appropriate to frame reforms under the Abe administration as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This is not to downplay the significant moves that Abe has been able to progress on – such as setting up a National Security Council, a first-ever National Security Strategy, revised bilateral defense guidelines with the U.S. and new security legislation. But it would be a stretch to overly inflate our expectations or understanding of these changes.

Publicly, there continues to be significant concern on the regional security environment – which peaked last year as a result of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the specter of a potential conflict (including the overflight of Japanese airspace by two North Korean ballistic missile tests). The strategic challenge of managing China’s rise continues to be the most critical test for the Abe administration and the Japanese public remains wary despite some return to stability in bilateral relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Recent polls show that Japanese with favorable views of China remain below 15 percent  and nearly 60 percent view China as a military threat (largely due to tensions over the Senkaku islands).

Yet despite these concerns, there has not been a dramatic shift on public opinion with regard to constitutional revision and even seemingly low-hanging fruit, such as an insertion of the Japan Self-Defense Force’s role specifically in Article 9, appear to be risky at best for the Abe administration going forward.