Japan seeks better economic ties with China
Dependent on the US for military security for decades, Japan has been adjusting its security policy since 2010. How will Japan’s move toward an autonomous security policy influence Asian stability? Lionel Fatton (Fatton), fellow at the Charhar Institute, assistant professor of international relations at Webster University Geneva and research collaborator at the Research Institute for the History of Global Arms Transfer at Tokyo-based Meiji University, gave his views on the situation Japan faces in an interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Xu Hailin during the Charhar Institute’s recent seminar on Japan’s security policy and US Asia policy in Beijing. GT: What does Japan’s autonomous security policy mean to Asia, especially Northeast Asia, and how will it affect regional security? Fatton: It is not a full autonomy. Japan is just becoming a bit more autonomous - it is a trend rather than a finality.
Regarding the stability of the region, it will depend on how Japan communicates with other countries. The Japanese government regards itself as purely defensive. But it is understandable that China, South Korea, and North Korea feel threatened by the development of Japanese military power because of the history and territorial tension between South Korea and Japan, as well as between China and Japan.
Therefore, whether this gradual move toward autonomy will be destabilizing depends to a great extent on Tokyo’s ability to communicate properly with Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang to convey that the move is defensive.
Japan doesn’t want to return to its past expansionist ways and put feet on the continent to invade. The credibility of US commitment to defend Japan has been declining. So, Japan must take more responsibility for its own defense, but it doesn’t mean it will be aggressive.
The problem is that the rightist Japanese government has not formulated this narrative. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his regime have not accompanied their development of military power with the right narrative to reassure other countries. So, if Japan cannot formulate this narrative, it can trigger instabilities in the region. GT: If Japan’s security policy is defensive, why is Abe bent on revising Article 9 of the Japanese constitution that renounces war and prohibits Japan from maintain armed forces for offensive reasons? Fatton: Article 9 is respected and cherished by the Japanese. That’s why it’s very difficult for Abe to revise the constitution. Abe wants to revise it because in the first place he has to fulfill the pledge of his own party. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan was created in 1955. Constitutional revision has been mentioned in the founding charter of the party. It’s an objective of the party since 1955 and Abe wants to realize that objective.
Abe is somehow a prime minister that is pretty hawkish, but he is not the worst. There are some people in the LDP who are even more on the right than Abe. He also wants to satisfy them. Therefore, by revising the constitution and including the existence of the Selfdefense Forces in the constitution, Abe would gain greater internal party support. GT: Abe reportedly wanted to mediate in the Korean Peninsula standoff. After the G20 summit, US President Donald Trump visited South Korea and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the Demilitarized Zone. What will be the changes to Japan’s role in the denuclearization issue? Fatton: Japan lags behind on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. It doesn’t have a place at the table. The only tool Japan has used to get involved in the talks between the US and North Korea are economic sanctions.
Japan is much more hawkish than the US in implementing UN sanctions on North Korea, and they thought that by being tough with the sanctions, North Korea would agree to talk. But it doesn’t seem to work.
Abe recently said he is willing to meet with Kim without any preconditions. But before, he said there should be progress on the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s before he and Kim met.
Now, Abe really wants to meet with Kim, but he doesn’t have a lot of things to offer. Because those dictating the tempo of the issue are Trump and Kim. Even South Korean President Moon Jaein doesn’t really dictate the tempo. The only thing Abe could offer North Korea would be to ease sanctions. To ease sanctions, the approval of the UN Security Council is
needed, but Japan is not a permanent member. GT: After Trump’s recent trip to Japan and South Korea, will the alliance between these three countries be reinforced, especially between South Korea and Japan? Fatton: The trilateral relationship is in a bad shape. The relationship between Japan and the US has weakened, because Trump has put a lot of pressure on Japan to negotiate a new free trade agreement. It’s not a trade war like the one the US launched against China. But still, Trump has said he would impose 25 percent tariffs on Japanese car imports to the US. It’s a big threat.
The worst is between Japan and South Korea. This is the biggest deterioration in bilateral relations since the end of the Pacific War. Not only is there the “comfort women” issue, but also the issue of forced labor. The South Korean court has ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate, but Japan has refused because of the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea that supposedly solved this problem. Besides, there’s also the radar dispute last year when a South Korean warship allegedly locked its radar on a Japanese surveillance plane. GT: Why does Japan talk less about the Indo-pacific Strategy and say it will consider the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? Fatton: Japan feels the need to come closer to China economically, because Japan is also under pressure by the US on trade. By getting closer, both countries can reinforce their position vis-àvis the US. And to get closer to China, Japan needs to make concessions.
One was the agreement on joint investments in infrastructure for third countries reached during Abe’s visit to Beijing in October 2018, which can be seen as a first for Japan to participate in the BRI. Japan knows China does not like the “free and open” Indo-pacific because it sounds like containment. So, Japan avoids mentioning it in order not to offend China.