Expert comments on Abe foreign and defense policy

December 27, 2013

Japan's Relations with China, S. Korea Remain Sour despite Prime Minister Abe's Firm Political Footing: Experts

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a firm grip on domestic politics, and this has enabled his administration to actively grapple with diplomatic and national security issues, but Japan's relations with China and South Korea remain at a standstill, according to two university researchers.

Japan's heads of government changed every year in the past six to seven years and as a result, Japan was unable to pursue a systematic diplomatic policy, said Ken Jimbo, an associate professor at the Faculty of Policy Management, the Department of Policy Management, Keio University. Conversely, the Abe administration is expected to remain in power in the years ahead, he said. "Japan has finally entered a stage where it can implement its diplomatic policy," he said.

If the government's political footing becomes solid, its strategies will become more effective, making it unnecessary for it to deal with situations in a haphazard manner, said Makoto Kawashima, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo and a senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies.

The Abe administration has come up with the term "Proactive Contributor to Peace" to describe its diplomatic policy. This amounts to "a major vision" for implementing measures on the foreign policy front while containing moves to lean Japan to the right, and this is also an attempt unseen in the days of the recent administrations of the Democratic Party of Japan, Kawashima said.

Japan had some difficulty keeping in step with the United States on the diplomatic and national security front when the DPJ was in power. Awkwardness between Tokyo and Washington improved toward the end of the last DPJ administration, which was replaced by the Abe administration of the Liberal Democratic Party in December 2012, but it will take a little more time to fully restore mutual confidence between the two countries' governments, Kawashima said.

The two researchers made these remarks during a discussion on the Abe government's first-year performance on the foreign and national security front, which was moderated by Genron NPO President Yasushi Kudo.

In the early days of the Abe administration, the prime minister obviously believed that Japan would be able to rebuild solid relations with the United States if it demonstrates its resolve to work closely again with Washington, Jimbo said. With this in mind, the administration tried to forge relations with Washington, but relations between the two countries had improved to a considerable extent before the inauguration of the Abe administration, he said.

If what amounts to a rightist idea is openly launched in an attempt to strengthen Japan's national security and beef up its defense capabilities, relations with China and South Korea will be further strained, and Japan will fall into "a security policy dilemma," Jimbo said. The Abe administration recognized in the first six months that such an excessive commitment was not necessarily favorable, he said.

A slight difference is believed to have emerged between the administration's initial scenario of laying a foundation for national security and an endeavor to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance in a healthy manner, he said.

Excerpts of their remaining remarks on major diplomatic and national security issues follow:

Japan-U.S. relations and U.S.-China relations

Mr.KawashimaKawashima: In addressing relations with the United States, Japan must think how Washington's China policy should be viewed. China's political presence in the world has become larger when compared to the situation in the days of the DPJ administrations from 2009 to 2012. Therefore, even if Japan demonstrates that it is back working with the United States, confidence between the two countries based on the security alliance, such as seen in the days of the LDP administrations a few decades ago, may not be restored. The United States will have to pay attention to its China policy so as to balance relations with Japan and those with China.

Mr.JimboJimbo: Relations between Japan and China became tense following Japan's nationalization of a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea in September 2012. At a time when fears emerged that a military conflict may occur in the area around the islands, the U.S. government apparently thought that U.S.-China relations must be stabilized while relations between Japan and China became very unstable. In these circumstances, the United States saw an administration that is very tough toward China inaugurated in Japan. The Abe administration is a conservative regime and for the liberal U.S. administration of President Barack Obama, Japan's possible revisionist attempt to restore its national dignity at the risk of increasing tension with China was a matter of concern. The United States is believed to have carefully considered how to deal with Japan in that event.

Relations with China, South Korea

Kawashima: China and South Korea have respectively launched very strong negative campaigns toward Japan amid lingering bilateral territorial disputes, and gaps in historical perceptions about Japan's invasion of Asia. The Abe administration lacks decisive steps to find a way out of the situation, but the government should have done more to improve relations with the two countries. Japan should stress its position in stronger wording to the United States, and European and other countries through leaders' meetings and other occasions. If Japan begins a new initiative to improve relations with China and South Korea, various interpretations may emerge.

Jimbo: Japan and the United States issued a joint statement at the end of the so-called "2-plus-2 consultation" of their foreign and defense ministers in October. The statement included a very important phrase indicating Washington's support for the Abe administration's various security policy initiatives, notably the establishment of a national security headquarters and legislation aimed at better protecting strategically important national secrets, and proposed studies on the possibility of Japan executing a right to collective defense. China and South Korea are believed to have serious interest in this development.

Kawashima: The Abe administration is believed to have received a number of messages from the United States that Japan should properly deal with the series of issues over the historical perceptions of Japan's wartime acts, including proposed compensation for South Korean women forced to serve as "comfort women" for soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army. Of course, the United States also appears to be urging South Korea to deal with the issues in an appropriate manner.

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