Prime Minister Abe and Japan’s foreign policy choice

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

Increased uncertainty and risk in the political and security environment in Northeast Asia are threatening the stability on which Asia’s rise and growing prosperity have depended over the past few decades and are a challenge to global system stability.

Currently, heightened concerns are focused on North Korea’s response to the tightening of UN sanctions following its February nuclear test.

The North Korean media reported last week that Kim Jong-un visited military units that launched the 2010 artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island where he is said to have called on troops to be ready for a confrontation with the enemy. Kim is reported to have visited the front-line units on Mu and Jangjae islets in the early hours of last Thursday and told soldiers to be ready to destroy enemy targets at a moment’s notice if the order is given. The islets are just a few kilometres north of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) that acts as the sea demarcation line between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea. The North Korean leader, who is commander of the Korean People’s Army, said that the country’s army, navy, air force and anti-aircraft units are ready to carry out an all-out war. He added that if the South engaged in any form of provocation in ‘sensitive waters’ along the NLL, the North will use the opportunity to begin the struggle to secure national unification.

This may just be North Korean rhetoric. But these new circumstances have led China to effect a decisive shift in posture on North Korea, aligning itself with the United States on intensification of sanctions against North Korea and, this weekend, making a very public appeal to calm the situation in Pyongyang.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was clear, at a press conference at the Chinese Peoples’ Congress, on why China supported the United States on new sanctions. He added: ‘We always believe that sanctions are not the end of the Security Council actions, nor are sanctions the fundamental way to resolve the relevant issues’. Yang’s response to Chinese and foreign journalists sit in the context of unparalleled plain-speaking by Chinese officials and analysts about the diminishing value of supporting North Korea as it continues to develop nuclear weapons and unleashes new threats to attack the United States and South Korea. It also comes in the context of elevated strategic emphasis on the relationship with Washington and China’s role as a responsible player in global political affairs. In his press conference, Yang said that the United States and China had more converging interests and interaction in Asia and the Pacific than anywhere else in the world.

North Korea is only one of Northeast Asia’s current security problems. The tension between China and Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands is another.

As Yoshihide Soeya explains in this week’s lead essay, this territorial dispute between Japan and China re-erupted in September last year when the previous Japanese government decided to terminate the lease agreement that had been in effect since 2002, purchasing three of the main islands from their Japanese private owner. The idea was to prevent Japanese nationalist politician and then governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, from buying the islands and potentially causing havoc by building and other activity on the islands that would substantially change the status quo. The Japanese government hoped that direct control of the islands would make it easier to limit the impact of the dispute on Japan’s relationship with China. It seemed a good idea at the time to the foreign ministry bureaucrats who had carriage of the matter. It should have been blindingly obvious that putting the Japanese government into centre stage on the islands in this way would seriously offend Chinese sensibilities over China’s claims to ownership and tensions have spiralled upward in subsequent months.

The Japanese side says that a total of 83 Chinese government vessels have probed the waters around the islands as many as 25 times between September 2012 and last month. The interaction of Chinese and Japanese naval and maritime vessels in these waters poses dangerous risks of accidental escalation. In December 2012, the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force scrambled a Chinese State Oceanic Administration aircraft that flew over the islands. In late January, Japanese authorities claim a Chinese navy vessel locked fire-guiding radar on to a Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force escort ship, although the Chinese have flatly denied that this happened at all and the United States has been extremely cautious in its commentary on the incident.

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, comes to managing the China relationship with form, as ‘self-confessed conservative patriot’. In Washington on 22 February Abe said: ‘We simply cannot tolerate any challenge [against the Senkakus] now, and in the future. No nation should make any miscalculation about the firmness of our resolve. No one should ever doubt the robustness of the Japan-U.S. Alliance’, as Soeya notes. He added: ‘I have absolutely no intention to climb up the escalation ladder … For me, Japan’s relations with China stand out, as among the most important. I have never ceased to pursue what I called [a] ‘Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests’ with China. The doors are always open on my side for the Chinese leaders’.

But, as Soeya correctly observes, Abe’s US alliance-first strategy, makes it harder for China to open those doors. And the United States has no wish to be dragged into this affray.

In managing this aspect of Abe’s visit to Washington, the Obama administration handled this test of its Asia Pacific diplomacy with subtlety and considerable firmness, keeping the pressure on the new Japanese administration to sort this problem with China. There are in fact two main strands in United States commitment to its alliance relationship with Japan. One is the base it provides for managing its security interests in the region, including with China. But another deep strand is its interest in constraining the adventurist right in Japan firmly within its embrace. It knows what it is dealing with extremely well, including the pedigree of Mr Abe’s political allies and close advisors.

While Japan’s and China’s foreign ministries have managed the spat with restraint and within established diplomatic bounds, there is deep concern that, in a moment of crisis, political instinct might dominate rational calculation of all the national and international interests. There is evidence that the new Chinese leadership is reaching out for a solution to the problems that will save the national dignity. The truth is that for Abe, coming from where he does in the Japanese political spectrum, with unimpeachable conservative credentials, a grand bargain breakthrough towards resolution of the Senkaku islands issue with China is entirely within his grasp.

To those who know him well, taking such initiative is not within Mr Abe’s DNA and he has surrounded himself with the like-minded. Meanwhile rational calculation of all the interests at stake as well as hard-nosed American restraint is likely to keep the peace. But like Soeya, one can also dare to hope that Prime Minister Abe might come to make a different foreign policy choice for Japan, abandoning the obstacles of historical baggage, and defining a surer future for Japan in Asia in cooperation with its partners, and with China.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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