Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, October 17, 2013

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

As you might expect, given that my last post on Japan discussed the sunny side of Tokyo’s security policies, this piece explores their downside, particularly from the perspective of American interests and values.  Let’s start with the least serious and move toward the gravest danger of Japan’s foreign and defense policy.

First, there is the risk that Japan’s shift in security policy might turn off the U.S. The logic is that the U.S. could grow concerned that Japan’s foreign and defense policy appears too assertive, too aggressive to its neighbors, thereby unnecessarily dialing up the hostilities and tensions in the region, especially in East Asia. All of which would place the U.S. in a precarious situation, on a number of levels. There is evidence that some American officials already harbor, at least to a limited extent, these concerns.
As pointed out by Zachary Keck in The Diplomat:
U.S. officials have expressed concern to their Japanese counterparts over Tokyo’s plans to develop the capability to conduct offensive assault operations against other countries in the region.
“One of the American officials attending bilateral talks on foreign and defense policy cooperation late last month in Tokyo asked the Japanese side to consider the possible negative fallout on neighboring countries if the Abe administration embarks on such a policy shift,” Kyodo quoted an unidentified Japanese official as saying.
The report went out to say that U.S. officials asked for clarification on which countries Japan would develop the capability to attack, and asked Japan to not worsen tensions with China and South Korea.

All of that said, however, fears of souring U.S.-Japan ties are a long way off. The U.S. views Japan as a useful bulwark against the rise of China, really, a key pillar of the so-called Pivot. And the U.S. seems fairly enthusiastic about Japan’s intention to move toward more muscular security policies. As outlined in my last post, Team Obama has strengthened its cooperation with the supposedly hawkish Abe government, arguably rewarding Tokyo for taking measures to create a more equal security partnership.

Second, Japan’s security policies could fracture the U.S.-led alliance in Asia. Most notably, there is the chance that changes in Japanese foreign and defense policy might create huge rifts between Tokyo and Seoul, which could hamper the ability of the liberal, Washington-leaning coalition to balance and contain China’s moves throughout the region.  
Yes, there are historical factors that make relations between Toyko and Seoul sometimes complicated and difficult.  For instance, the two sides have failed to resolve the issues arising from Japanese colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula. And both sides are engaged in a longstanding territorial dispute over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan.

But there are contemporary factors in play as well. Since Shinzo Abe re-entered office, Japanese-South Korean ties have been frayed. There is the perception within the Park Geun-hye administration that Japan, under Abe, is veering to the hard right, that it’s hawkish, increasingly nationalistic, and insensitive to the extent of its oppression of its former colonial subjects.  In fact, according to Via Meadia, “The legacy of the women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers has been a difficult sticking point in relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Several Japanese politicians and Abe himself have wondered what the fuss is all about, and the mayor of Osaka even said that comfort women were ‘necessary.’”

All of this has taken its toll on political and strategic cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Consider these things: while new South Korean leaders usually head to Japan on their first overseas trip, Park travelled to China instead. “Later she proposed building a monument in China to the South Korean soldier who assassinated former Japanese Prime Minister and then-Resident General of Korea Ito Hirobumi in 1909.” It seems Abe was unwelcome in Seoul for Park’s inauguration, so his deputy, Taro Aso, went in his place. The almost agreed upon security-intelligence pact of 2012 remains stalled, with no final deal in sight. An upcoming trilateral meeting between Japan, China, and South Korea looks like it won't be held because of "strained ties." And it doesn't look like Abe will meet his counterpart in either country anytime soon. According to a Japanese government source, "Taking into account the Chinese and South Korean attitudes, and the schedules of the leaders of the three countries, it will be difficult to arrange a Japan-China-South Korea summit by the end of this year."

Of course, as many international relations scholars, particularly realist academics, would expect, it's very possible that the exigencies of balance of power politics will override any rough patches between Japan and South Korea. In other words, fears of a rising, dominant China might well force Tokyo and Seoul to push aside their differences to work together to balance against Beijing. But even if this does happen--something that's likely, but not guaranteed, by the way--both sides will have to swallow their pride. This is definitely something to watch.

Third, as suggested above, Japan's foreign and defense policy could trigger an escalation of tensions and tit-for-tat actions that proves unmanageable and difficult to contain.

We already know that China is concerned about Japan's muscular security policies, as various officials have made on- and off-the-record comments expressing such sentiments. Just check out the Global Times for a healthy dose of these views. China is fully aware that a beefed up, more assertive Japan makes life more difficult for it within Asia--tougher to expand its influence, get its way on maritime issues, and pressure neighbors or local institutions, among other things.

With this in mind, it's possible that China might try to consolidate various gains sometime soon, before Japan fully implements all parts of the planned changes in its foreign and defense policy--in short, the point at which Japan would be better equipped to challenge China. So as one example, China could attempt to press further, perhaps more aggressively, its claims in the South and East China Seas. But already, China has made a few recent moves that have, in my view, taken the wind out of Abe's sails.

It has strengthened its relationship with South Korea, which, combined with its good ties to North Korea and improving relations with Taiwan, squarely backs Japan into a corner, maybe even laying the groundwork to isolate Japan in the future. The recent trips by Xi and Li Keqiang to southeast Asia is an example of China wooing countries on the sideline like Indonesia and entrenching its influence over institutions like Asean and Apec. Given these moves by China, perhaps it's not surprising that Japan has sought to bolster its military ties to the U.S.

So what we are seeing is a cycle of retaliatory moves by China and Japan. Sure, we've seen such moves in the East China Sea, where both sides have engaged in a game of chicken with their patrols, vessels, and aircraft. But in a broader sense, on strategic matters, both China and Japan have engaged in tit-for-tat moves. For now, this hasn't led to too much danger. But keep in mind that neither side is backing down. And the longer this continues unabated, with cycle likely escalating in intensity over time, the likelihood of something bad happening increases.

And adding to the complexity of this relationship is the rise of Chinese and Japanese nationalism.  Political activists in Japan and China have criticized, engaged in protests, and even dabbled in hate mongering and criminal activity against the other side. But hard feelings aren't restricted just to the small class of activists. As stated in Walter Russell Mead's blog: "According to a poll in August, an astonishing 93 percent of Chinese and 90 percent of Japanese have negative opinions of the other country." It is these pervasive attitudes that could make it difficult for Japan and China to de-escalate their words and actions if tensions spiral out of control. Even worse, as the riots and protests last year in China illustrate, nationalists--on either side--could directly contribute to hostilities.

All of this suggests a worrisome caldron of toxic forces between China and Japan, and they require the U.S. to walk a fine line in its relations with both states. Certainly, Washington wants to support Japan's security and encourage efforts--whether by Japan or others in Asia--to hem in a Chinese bid for regional hegemony.  At the same time, though, the U.S. can't push Japan too hard to contain China, for that would only antagonize Beijing and prompt China, feeling encircled and threatened, to resist more vigorously the coalition aligned against it. After all, China could attempt to squeeze the U.S. out of the region entirely. All of this would put Team Obama (and its successors in the White House) in the unenviable position of having to defend American interests in Asia while managing heightened tensions in East Asia with a very formidable rival. 

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