Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, September 21, 2013

What Drives Putin's Foreign Policy Decisions?

Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

Here, in this blog post, three of CWCP's contributors give their take on an important and interesting question. In short, what drives Vladimir Putin's foreign policy decision-making? In light of the increasingly prominent role played by Russia in today's world politics, as evidenced in the case of Syria, it seems crucial to understand how Russia's leader sees the world and how he makes political calculations. What follows below is an exploratory attempt to discuss and examine the factors and forces that motivate Putin's foreign policy.

Yohanes Sulaiman

A couple of days ago, I had a chat with a Russian attache on the issue of Syria, which largely confirmed the ideas that I have explored in my earlier blog posts on Syria: notably, that Putin's foreign policy in Syria is driven by his fear of contagion, that the fall of Assad could be used by the Islamists to create a base for their operation that creates more instability in the region, especially in the Caucasus Region, where the rugged geographic conditions have made it difficult for Russia to impose a total control on the population.

That's also basically why Putin is so concerned in propping up the rule of the Mullahs in Iran. Putin sees the Shiites as a good counterbalance against Sunni extremism.

What surprised me, though, is the fact that the attache noted that Putin's main concern was not Chechnya, but Dagestan. According to him, Chechnya was basically under control, with one warlord ruling the republic. As Chechnya is a clan-based society and ethnically homogeneous, once Moscow managed to put a leader originated and supported by the strongest clan in Chechnya, with additional some strong measures imposed once in a while, Moscow has been able to assert control over most of the republic. Of course, the ethnic homogeneity in Chechnya is also the reason why the war there back in 1994-6 was a bloody affair.

Dagestan, however, is a different story. Unlike in Chechnya, Dagestan has many ethnic groups, making it difficult for the country to unite against the Russian authority, but at the same time, makes them very difficult to control effectively. And there has been a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in the region, which Moscow fears might be exacerbated should Assad fall from power and the al-Nusra take over Syria.

[It has to be noted that this fear might not be that off, considering that the Boston Marathon Bombers were believed to be radicalized during their visits to Dagestan.]

So what drives Putin overall foreign policy decision making? Mostly the domestic issues. I think Putin has realized that Russia has to be satisfied as a regional power for now. It has neither the capability nor the political will to expand as much as it did during the Cold War, and thus his priority is on maintaining Russia's primacy in the region that he cares most about.

His mocking the United States serves as bones that he can throw once in a while to his nationalist base. There are talks that Putin wants to try to again become an influential power in other important areas, such as Southeast Asia region, but it seems that the interests there are mostly economics, e.g. selling planes. And moreover, I haven't seen an indication that Russia is spending as much attention to Southeast Asia as it used to do during the Cold War.

Brad Nelson

As should be obvious, Vladimir Putin's foreign policy making is driven by more deeper, fundamental issues than Syria or Edward Snowden. I suspect factors like Putin's ego, his sense of legacy, and his geo-strategic vision, as Yohanes alluded to above, are important here. But generally speaking, my working hypothesis is that domestic political calculations are the first and primary motivating factors. At bottom, Putin desires to marginalize any and all domestic political opponents and threats to his power base as well to bolster his grip on power, and it is these motives that are profoundly shaping present-day Russian foreign policy on a wide range of issues.

Over the last few years, Putin has discovered that not all Russians are enamored with his dictatorial ways. Indeed, protests in Russia, mostly though not limited to Moscow, have surfaced, first in response to the 2011 legislative elections, which were seen as rigged, and then subsequently triggered by LGBT policy, corruption, and so on. These protests weren't enough to cause a "Moscow Spring," but they did put Putin on the defensive.

To undercut these domestic opponents Putin and his associates have done two things. One, he has upped the pressure on them, typically through various political persecutions, by banning, bringing charges against, imprisoning, and probably even killing opponents. Authorities issued threats against protesters and demonized them, restricted protest permits, put in place laws regulating demonstrations, and by early 2012, began to make a heavy presence at planned protests; and state media censored coverage of protests. The crackdown, combined with Putin's presidential victory in the spring of 2012, effectively sucked the oxygen out of the air for the entire protest movement. Defeatism set in and the protests petered out.

Two, Putin has resorted to scapegoating. He blamed the protests on the West, America in particular, calling the protesters paid agents from abroad. And in September 2012, Russia kicked out USAID for stirring up the protests. Anti-Americanism still runs high in Russia, and negative appeals to America consistently plays well and is a valuable card to use.

Putin has also called for a "resurrection" of Russia, an awakening of a strong Russia on the world stage. Russia is set, according to the logic coming out of Moscow, to overcome past humiliations, all of which have been committed or abetted by the West: NATO expansion, the 1990s bombings in the former Yugoslavia, the color revolutions, and, more recently, the grievous snub on Libya. Russia is primed to enter an "imperial rebirth," as best exemplified in Putin's Eurasian Union, exactly at the ripe time of America's decline. This is a moment of national pride.

This rhetoric has impacted Putin in two ways. On the one hand, it has given Putin and his supporters a tool to shout down and attack his critics and the demonstrators, squarely putting them on the defensive. On the other hand, it has bled into actual Russian foreign policy, which has worked out well for Putin. It has led him to stand up to the U.S. on various issues, just like in the good ole days of the Cold War, back when the Soviets were powerful and resolute. It's why Russia has taken obstructionist and non-cooperative positions on issues key to U.S. interests and values. All of this, in turn, has enhanced his and Russia's standing in the world, to the point that Moscow--not Beijing--is now often portrayed by analysts and pundits as the main counterweight to Washington.

Anthony Rinna

The media have touched upon, to an extent, Russia’s desire to be seen as a major player once again and an important actor on the world stage. This is seen most often is what has been portrayed as a Russian tendency to “be difficult” or stubborn regarding international politics, to stand up against the US and the West at almost any conceivable opportunity. Yet the reasons for Putin’s foreign policy actions are not limited to the personality of Putin himself or simply the realities of modern Russia, but also have deep historic reasons.

Without a small background in the events which have shaped the Russian mentality, it can be difficult to understand the reasoning behind Putin’s recent actions. In essence, the driving force behind his foreign policy is to make it clear to the West that they are not to intervene in Russia’s internal affairs, nor does the West have the right to trample on Russia’s international position. If Russia does not show itself to be a strong nation in international politics, it may open itself up to direct outside intervention later.

Much of Putin’s foreign policy is driven by a sense of vulnerability toward the outside world. Russia has no natural barriers allowing for its security, and has felt like it is wide open to outside intervention and interference. This, by the way, is nothing new. One of the most notable cases of Western intervention in Russia is the case of “False Dmitry,” a Pole who pretended to be the new Czar Dmitry of Russia from 1610-1612. He was actually planted in Moscow by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the purpose of exploiting Muscovy for Poland’s interests. When he was discovered as a fraud he was promptly executed and, in true Russian fashion, his ashes were stuffed into cannon and fired back over the Polish border. Somewhat more recently, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the Belarussian SSR (now Belarus) was created on loose historic grounds to serve as a buffer between Russia and Poland and Germany.

Russians also feel the need to play catch-up with the West, especially in terms of technology. This is part of the reason we have seen so many cases of espionage by Russia against the US lately. Most notably, in the case of the technology and innovation gap between Russia and the West, is the arrest of Texas-based businessman Alexander Fishenko, who was caught transferring nanotechnologies to the Russian military.

Putin realizes that his country is not the great power it once was, and is seeking every opportunity he can to make one thing very clear to the outside world: don’t mess with Russia. If Russia’s conventional military forces are poor, its economy is not as great as those of its G8 peers, and its soft power appeal to the rest of the world is lacking, then what other recourse does Russia have to demonstrate its national greatness? It’s to try and stand up to the West as much as it can in order to show its strength and leverage to the rest of the world.  I don’t want my readers to take that statement as my own apologetic for Russia’s behavior, but simply to help others put the country’s behavior into context.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Armenia’s Geopolitical Orientation: Going West or Calling Russia’s Bluff?

Photo from President of Armenia's web site. It captures Presidents Sarkissian and Putin, in Moscow, earlier this month.

There has been speculation among scholars and analysts that Russia’s main ally in the Transcaucasus region, Armenia, has been moving away from Russia and gravitating toward the EU in its geopolitical orientation. Armenian President Serzh Sarkissian’s announcement earlier this month that Armenia intended to join the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia came as a surprise to some, who previously believed Armenia was moving toward an Association Agreement with the EU's Eastern Partnership.

As the geopolitical battle for Eurasia continues between Russia and the West, the latter may have perceived an ostensible decline in Armenia-Russia relations, and as a result, an opportunity to grab Armenia’s geopolitical loyalty. Yet closer observation reveals that Armenia has not been trying to leave Russia’s orbit, but rather has been playing politics with Russia, and is simply trying to assert its national sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia while still remaining within the Russian Federation’s geopolitical sphere.

Sure, since 2012, relations between Russia and Armenia have not been especially warm. The most recent manifestation of these strained ties is Armenian President Serzh Sarkissian’s refusal to participate in the latest summit held by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

And It’s not out of the question that a country with a strong Russophile history, such as Armenia, ultimately joins a Western- and European-oriented bloc. A classic example is Bulgaria, which historically had strong ties to Russia due to the latter’s role in helping it secure independence from the Ottoman Turks. (Bulgaria’s longtime communist ruler, Todor Zhikov, even toyed with the idea of making Bulgaria the sixteenth Soviet republic in the late 1980’s). Yet Bulgaria is now a part of the EU and NATO.

But anyone who excitably jumps to the conclusion that Armenia will switch course and become a Western protégé should remember that neighboring Georgia was not protected by NATO during the 2008 war with Russia, and that the EU’s Eastern Partnership does not seem bent on absorbing more members. Armenia most likely sees this and wonders what the true benefits of aligning with Europe and the West will be.

As I argued in a previous blog post, the election of Bidzina Ivanishvili in Georgia was not necessarily a full-fledged turning away from the West by Georgia, but an understanding that Ivanishvili’s foreign policy was a much-needed application of realpolitik, which requires the need to strike a balance between Russia and the West. While in the case of Armenia it is not so much the issue of having to strike a delicate balance, the political commonality is that actions taken for or against one of the major geopolitical poles should not indicate a plenipotentiary shift in orientation.

The real issue at hand is that Armenia seemingly seeks to assert its independence from Russia only up to the point that Russia is reminded that Armenia is a sovereign nation and not an exclave, as Armenia was described by former Russian Minister of Industry Viktor Khristenko (a statement made in response to Sarkissian’s accusations at a CTSO summit that Russia had sold weapons to Azerbaijan). Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, describes Armenia as enacting a “strategic vision” to try to break Moscow’s grip on the country, but not of trying to switch sides completely. "When Armenia does challenge Russia's preference, the end result is usually more respect, given the Russian reliance on Armenia” Giragosian says.

Some other CIS states have remained generally pro-Russian in their geopolitical orientation, yet have not been afraid to throw their weight around in regards to their relationship with Russia. Both Belarus and Ukraine have taken measures to assert their sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia. For instance, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who has consistently received Russian support, has thus far refused Russian overtures to join the Russian-led Customs Union or its desired outgrowth, the Eurasian Union. Some Russian policy analysts have even asserted that downgrading the official status of the Russian language in Tajikistan was a move by Tajik officials to “blackmail” Moscow in order to gain economic concessions. Yet overall Tajikistan remains a strong partner for Russia.

Armenia-Russia trade relations are strong, with a 20 percent commodity turnover in trade between the two countries, according to Rossiskaya Gazeta. (Russian government statistics indicate that this volume of commodity turnover saw a 71 million dollar decline between 2008 and 2010. The volume of exports between the two countries fell by 48 million dollars during that same period. This, however, may have had more to do with the global financial crisis than a politically-induced shift in trade priorities). Armenia’s trade relationship with Russia can only have been strengthened by the closure of the Armenian-Turkish border since 1993.

Despite these strong economic links, according to Russian academic Alexei Portanski, President Sarkissian and his ministers had previously shied away from establishing a firm position on joining either the Customs Union or the Eurasian Union (its proposed outgrowth). This was most likely for the same reasons that Ukraine has been skeptical about the Union: joining may ultimately lead to a loss of sovereignty, something which no state naturally wants. Moscow’s application of pressure on Armenia, however, seems to have convinced the latter that closer association with Russia is better for Armenia.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Benefits of the Russian Chemical Weapons Plan

I am delighted to present below a guest post by Yuli Yeliseyev. Mr. Yeliseyev is a native of Saint Petersburg, Russia, and currently lives and works in the Washington, DC, area. He is a financial professional with strong personal interests in Russian and international politics.
President Obama's address to the nation on Tuesday night was timed to help build momentum for an ambitious and potentially brilliant two-pronged diplomatic and military strategy that emerged as the most promising alternative to a U.S. military strike on Syria. According to senior administration officials as well as Mr. Obama himself, he and Secretary of State John Kerry have had a number of discussions with Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov on a proposed plan to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control and eventually destroy the entire arsenal with United Nations supervision.
This is a great opportunity for Russia to shine on the global stage. If Putin's foreign policy team can play a leading role in resolving the current crisis, they may achieve a much more significant improvement of Russia's image abroad than can be expected from next year's Olympics and the 2018 World Cup combined, at a much lower cost to the Russian government budget. After all, grand publicity stunts and Potemkin-style Olympic villages probably will not count as much in the eyes of the global community as important and timely deeds in the name of international peace and security.
Given the choice, the Obama administration clearly prefers not to launch an attack on Syria and instead pursue a diplomatic solution along the lines of the plan that has been discussed with the Russians. At the same time, the credible threat to use military force is what made the diplomatic solution possible in the first place. If the United States were not poised to strike Syria right now, neither Russia nor Syria would be eager to negotiate a UN plan without delay and implement it in the near future. It remains to be seen if the diplomatic efforts will ultimately be successful, but a skeptical view of Obama's handling of the situation in Syria is certainly less justified now than it was a week ago.

How Obama Bungled Syria - Badly

Calvin Coolidge makes a comeback in the 21st Century

In my last post on Syria, I made an assertion that, as a risk-averse leader, Barack Obama would sit still and do nothing about Syria. Now, his "Calvin Coolidge" moment has arrived, with Russian President Vladimir Putin coming to the rescue, proposing that Syria's Bashar al-Assad place his chemical weapons under "international control."

I ask you to quickly vote to bomb Syria and at the same time
 to postpone the vote so we can pursue this diplomatic path.

Putin's proposal came after a very bizarre spectacle earlier this week, when on September 10, Obama gave a panned speech on Syria, in which he gave the impression that he didn't even know what he was trying to do about Syria. On one hand, Obama justified his non-intervention stance, declaring that the United States "cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan," in spite of more than a hundred of thousands people killed in the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, he made the case to the American people to intervene in Syria after a chemical weapon attack that killed "over a thousand people." Then again, he also asked the Congress "to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while [the United States] pursue this diplomatic path."

This capped a very confusing two weeks after the revelations of a major gas attack in Syria, in which Obama had already painted himself in the corner, then tried so hard to escape responsibility from his infamous "red line" statement, notably by arguing that it was not HIS red line. While this is technically correct, he previously said he would get the U.S. act to punish any violation of his red line, though today he grounds the case for military force on affirming and upholding international norms, and... oh well, you get the point.

So what went wrong?  Here's how Obama bungled the Syrian issue badly.

First, he loss precious momentum by dithering since the beginning of the uprising. Despite reports that tens of thousands people were killed already, Obama decided to do nothing, which made his later case for military intervention--that the United States had to get involved after a chemical weapon attack that only killed a couple hundreds of people--difficult to swallow. Yes, there's a global taboo against the use of chemical weapon. Still, the fact that the deaths from chemical weapons is only a small fraction of the total number of deaths in Syria already made Obama's too late case for intervention simply unpersuasive.

No wonder Nick Kristoff remarked in Twitter:

Second, in the time he dithered and did nothing, the situation on the ground got worse. Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, has gotten involved in the civil war and actually now plays a major role in the rebellion, muddling the entire situation. At this point, there is actually genuine concern whether keeping Assad on the top is actually the lesser of two evils, considering one alternative is an Al-Qaeda run Syria, where minorities get persecuted.

So simple!

With the situation unclear whether the rebels are the good guys or not, considering the presence of Al-Nusra, it is not surprising that Senator Ted Cruz would declare, in his opposition to the intervention in Syria, that "the United States is not Al Qaeda's air force."

Granted, hindsight is 20/20. There was actually a real chance that Assad could be toppled in the beginning of the uprising, a chance that made intervention seem rather unnecessary. And there was of course a sense of war fatigue after the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan adventures that made Obama hesitate from intervening in Syria.

Yet it is mind boggling the Obama Administration has responded so reactively--rather than pro-actively--to the developing situation minute-by-minute events in Syria. It is evident that the administration does not have any plans or strategies on what it would do should the United States actually intervene with force.

Third, Obama and his surrogates badly managed the domestic politics of striking Syria. Some of his supporters badly politicized the issue. When Obama asked the congress for authorization to intervene in Syria, Obama hand David Axelrood tweeted:

My former colleague, Bob Kelly, might disagree with my assertion here, as he wrote in his Twitter account back then:

We might disagree on whether it is a constitutional requirement for the president to ask permission from Congress (the debate on War Powers Act is still ongoing), but then again, Obama didn't even bother to ask for permission when he intervened in Libya before. Even John Kerry made the claim that Obama could still bomb Syria even if the Congress votes no.  Not surprisingly, many on the right suspected that Obama simply wanted to avoid blame should things go wrong with America's intervention in Syria, as James Taranto noted:
President Obama has confirmed the suspicion that his decision to ask Congress for authorization before using force in Syria was a political ploy. "I'll repeat something that I said in Sweden," he said this morning (U.S. time) at a press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. "I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism."

Our credibility in this case is "unbelievably small."

As expected, there's little enthusiasm from the Republicans to support Obama's adventure in Syria. Worse, not only was Obama unable to persuade the Republicans, he could not even persuade the doubters in his own party, which in turn, makes it very difficult for Obama to get any authorization (if it comes to that) from Congress.

Fourth, the sad thing is, had Obama decided to simply shoot some missiles at Syria after the revelations of the chemical attacks, he probably could have avoided much of this mess. His critics might cry foul and both Russia and Iran might lodge protests, but all of that wouldn't lead to very much. The international norms against using chemical weapons would have been upheld. Putin might seethe, but maybe eventually shrug it off as a tit-for-tat move in response to the Snowden Affair.

Now, however, with Obama seemingly open to Putin's proposal of having Assad's chemical weapons under international supervision, which has almost no chance to work, he is squandering more and more political capital and weakening his already weak case on intervention. At the same time, he looks beholden to Putin. Putin, on the other hand, managed to use this opportunity to lecture the United States on the folly of intervention, which led to this observation:

Japan's Foreign and Defense Policy Under Abe, Part I

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe addresses the media on July 22 after his party's success in Upper House elections.

One of the most interesting things in Asia right now is the transformation that’s underway in Japan’s foreign and defense policy. Over the last few decades, Japan has been viewed through the lens of its economy. It’s usually seen as an important actor in the world because of the size and productivity of its economy. Additionally, because of constitutional constraints and the rather large security umbrella of the United States, Japan has prioritized economic success over security affairs.

All of the above mostly holds true today. Currently, Japan has heft in the international arena largely because it has the third largest economy in the world, ranking behind only the U.S. and China. And Japan still probably prioritizes its economic welfare and interests. Reviving Japan’s sluggish, low-growth economy is job one for the Abe government.

And toward that end, as Japan expert Sheila Smith points out, in the short time he’s been back in the Prime Ministerial seat, Shinzo Abe has been very active on the economic front.

He has sought to marry his economic policy goals with his diplomacy. Nowhere is this more important than in Southeast Asia where Japan has long had deep economic ties. Abe has made repeated visits there since he came back into office. Economic diplomacy was also at the top of his agenda when he visited Washington in February to announce Japan’s interest in joining TPP. In Russia and the Middle East, Abe argued for new economic and diplomatic cooperation, including many initiatives related to energy. With President Putin, Abe sought to reopen discussions on the disputed Northern Territories while announcing Japan’s interest in a long-term deal over LNG and oil. In the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Japan’s prime minister turned his attention to nuclear deals, oil and gas, and the potential for expanding Japanese medical services.
So what's changed? Where is the transformation?

It is begins with these observations: Japanese officials are keenly aware that their county is located in an increasingly volatile and dangerous region and are concerned about the viability of America’s security commitments to Japan. Specifically, China looks primed to dominate the region, and has been increasingly aggressive in the South and East China Seas. North Korea is an unpredictable and brazen state, one prone to lashing out at its neighbors, and led by a very young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un. Moreover, America’s still-flagging economy and a resurgent streak of isolationism create serious questions: Can Tokyo continue to count on Washington to have Japan’s back in a security crisis? Does the U.S. have the will and resources to do so over the long-term?

It is in this context that, under the Abe government, Japan is now seeking to beef up its security and loosen the existing restrictions on how it can defend itself. Some analysts have attributed this to Abe’s hawkish personal philosophy. Perhaps, but it’s also rational response to security exigencies that Japan perceives. Regardless, the changes in foreign and defense policy are real and charting a new course for Japan’s foreign affairs. Let’s take a closer look at them.

1.       Defense spending

Japan will add bump up its defense budget by three percent in 2014, the biggest increase in 22 years. Yes, while it is true that quite a bit of the increase will go to paying salaries that were slashed after the tsunami, Japan does have actual military plans with the funds. In particular, as noted by Walter Russell Mead, Japan “plans to enhance surveillance, namely by adding drones to its forces and basing more troops in the South China Sea area, and maintain a marine defense force that can be deployed to defend or retake far-flung islands.”
2.       New defense unveilings and acquisitions

Japan has been busy enhancing its military capabilities. Japan is expected to roll out F-35 fighter jet. And last month, Japan unveiled the Izumo, an enormous helicopter carrier. It’s Japan’s largest warship in 70 years. Reports indicate that the Izumo will be used in "national defense — particularly in anti-submarine warfare and border-area surveillance missions — and to bolster the nation's ability to transport personnel and supplies in response to large-scale natural disasters, like the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.” The only wrinkle is that it won’t be an operational part of the Japan’s Self-Defense Fleet until 2015.

Japan might also add the Osprey, “a tilt-rotor aircraft that can fly like a helicopter or a conventional fixed-wing airplane”, and the Global Hawk drone, “which is one of the most advanced in the world and would provide Japan with the capability of carrying out longer missions than its manned counterparts”.

3.       More active and assertive presence in the East China Sea

On September 11, 2012, Japan took control over three of the five islands in the Senkaku/Diaoyus/Tiaoyutai chain, which are contested by both China and Taiwan. Since that act, relations between China and Japan have been strained and tense. Eschewing its typically passive and pacific stance on national security issues, Japan has engaged in tit-for-tat shows of force in the East China Sea with China, sending in patrols and fighter jets to surveil and ward off Chinese advances (ships, planes, drones) in the area. And these are ongoing events, with the latest round of confrontations occurring this week. Upping the ante even further, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has stated that Tokyo might station workers on the islands, a proposal that has, predictably, drawn the ire of China.

4.       External balancing

Of course, Japan has good, strong economic, military, and diplomatic relations with the U.S., and Japan benefits greatly from them. On national security matters, Japan and America routinely conduct joint military exercises and trainings, hold all sorts of foreign policy and defense meetings, share intelligence, and much more. In fact, Japan can take some comfort in the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed in 1960, which calls for any attack against Japan or U.S. on Japanese territory to be met with a joint—though not necessarily equal or similar—response to the danger or threat. Additionally, Japan houses some 40,000 American soldiers, including significant U.S. military installations on Okinawa, who help keep Japan safe and maintain peace in the neighborhood.

But given Tokyo's reservations about America's long-term commitment to Japan, it isn’t content with just its American ally as a bulwark against regional threats. Not surprisingly, so as to broaden the coalition of local countries working to guard against China’s bullying and regional dominance, among other things, Japan has spent considerable time cultivating good ties with Asian states, especially those in south and southeast Asia. Indeed, “since returning to office late last year, Abe has visited 16 countries, 7 of them ASEAN members.” His efforts have resulted in trade deals, investment opportunities, and, some have speculated, a degree acceptance of Japan’s new-found assertiveness in East Asia. Tokyo, in particular, has aggressively reached out to Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries involved in their own waterway and territorial disputes with China. It’s a smart move, taking advantage similarly disaffected countries in the region, to further Japan’s national security interests.  

5.       Constitutional changes

It’s been widely reported that Prime Minister Abe seeks a number of constitutional changes for Japan. These changes include turning the country’s Self Defense Forces into a National Defense Force, legitimizing the right to participate in collective defense mechanisms, such as the Japan-U.S. alliance, and, most prominently, revising Article 9, which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” In short, Abe wants Japan to possess the capabilities and expressed constitutional right to defend itself by using military force, if necessary.

In part two of this blog post, I will discuss the implications of Japan’s foreign and defense policy, paying particular attention how both impact America's goals and interests in Asia.