Japan acute at diplomatic recalibration
Japan is a stubborn country. From the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, Japanese theorists believed that launching wars was the only way to the country’s survival. In the post-WWII era, Japanese elites took another vital decision – Tokyo has no alternative but to ally with the US. Because of such historical reasons, the nation’s foreign policy is often restrained by fossilized mindsets.
However, Japan can sometimes be keenly aware of historical trends and be in the forefront of changes. After the British defeated China’s Qing government in the Opium Wars in the 1800s, Japan raised its guard. In 1853, when US warships arrived in Japanese waters, demanding a treaty permitting trade and the opening of Japanese ports to American merchant ships, the entire Japanese society went against it and launched the renowned social movement “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”.
It led to the Meiji Restoration, during which nationalism was growing. If nationalism had not developed in Japan ahead of other countries, Japan would not have become a major Asian power in the 19th century.
Today, the Trump administration’s unilateralism has hit Japan hard. Tokyo seems to have noticed a positive path for change in its foreign policy after sensing the crisis. Improving ChinaJapan relations is a crucial signal.
For some time, Japan has been seeking a thaw in ties with China. In the context of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s imminent tour to China, Japanese media commented that this is a strategy of both countries to come closer. But as far as I am concerned, the development of Sino-Japanese relations reflects Tokyo’s need and desire to improve bilateral relations.
To begin with, the US has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partner- ship (TPP) and started imposing fresh tariffs on Japanese products signaling Tokyo’s weakening grip on the US-Japan alliance. TPP is an ambitious trade policy which Japan has not only participated in, but also proactively promoted. It is a vital part of Tokyo’s national strategy. Trump’s withdrawal undermined Japan’s status and influence in Asia.
Since Abe assumed office as Japanese prime minister for the second time, the government had been hoping to follow in US footsteps to maintain a stable international order led by Washington. But Trump’s facile “America first” and his mercurial proclivity to pull out of multilateral deals made Japan wary about toeing the US line in its foreign policy.
Will the Trump administration force Japan to fully comply with US national interest? So far, Tokyo has not yet received exemptions from Trump over the new tariffs. The situation has made Japan aware that its diplomatic path is growing narrower if it keeps following Washington.
Meanwhile, Japan’s understanding of its vaunted security alliance, the leitmotif of Washington-Tokyo relations, has been shaken. Over the past 70 years since the end of WWII, Japanese society has been fantasizing about being shielded by the US in times of need. So when Trump said, “We will defend our country, protect our communities and put the safety of the AMERICAN PEOPLE FIRST”, while repeatedly suggesting that Washington should stop paying to defend countries that can protect themselves, Japan panicked.
Japan’s economy is getting increasingly dependent on the development of Asia. The US is no longer the main driving force behind Asia’s growth. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is currently being negotiated by ASEAN countries and six Asia-Pacific states, including China, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Once a consensus is reached, the deal would mean the creation of a super free trade zone that covers half of the world’s population and 30 percent of global trade. Japan will realize that its own development is increasingly inseparable from extensive cooperation with East Asian nations.
Abe has been advocating value-oriented diplomacy. But Western diplomacy is now experiencing the most severe setback in history. Tokyo now realizes the limitation of its previous value-based foreign policy.
Many politicians still don’t see any options apart from the US-Japan alliance. Abe’s administration is thus showing loyalty to the US while carrying out independent policies in major fields. The pace of Japan’s strategic change is becoming more and more obvious.