Japan’s Diplomatic Agenda for the Asia-Pacific


The year 2012 marks the start of efforts to build a new order in the Asia-Pacific region. The world faces a number of difficult issues and situations whose outcome is in doubt: the Arab Spring, the European crisis, Iran’s nuclear program, and the outlook for North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il. Now is the time for writing new rules and formulating new frameworks for an era of change. Things are already beginning to stir on the political stage, with changes of government, scheduled or otherwise, likely in a number of countries in the near future.

A Test for Japanese Diplomacy

The struggle for hegemony between the United States and China is intensifying in the Asia-Pacific. What is required of Japanese diplomacy in this context? What are the foreign policy aims of the Japanese government over the coming year?

The Japan-US alliance is the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy. Accordingly, it is trends in China that are the biggest variable affecting Japan. Given that Washington’s defense budget is likely to remain under constraint for some time to come, Tokyo needs to ask itself how it can sustain and strengthen the deterrent effect of the alliance, while acting to back up the United States. This is perhaps the single most important long-term task for Japan’s national security policy.

Japanese support for the Philippines, for instance, is a major factor in this context. For the US armed forces stationed in Japan, the Philippines represents the midway point between the vital bases in Okinawa and Australia; its location puts it at the center of a region where a military power vacuum might develop. In the early 1990s the United States withdrew from the Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, where they had been in a position to respond to a crisis in Taiwan. Now that China has begun to flex its maritime muscles, the US military has become painfully aware of the importance of the Philippines as a key stronghold in the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States has sought to reestablish a military foothold in the Philippines by securing the use of certain Philippine military facilities, but its presence is not even close to a level that would exert a deterrent force against China. According to a source in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tokyo “stands ready to cooperate with Manila in upgrading the Philippine Coast Guard. Relaxing Japan’s three principles on arms exports(*1) should make a major contribution in the context of Japanese aid to the Philippines.”

Establishing a Presence in the Indian Ocean

Government officials are also considering a policy for securing a position in the Indian Ocean. Tokyo’s hope is to counter Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy, designed to enhance its military presence in the Indian Ocean. In response, Tokyo will look to beef up its own presence in such countries as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, sending Naval Self-Defense Force vessels to distant waters, where they will make goodwill tours and participate in joint exercises. In addition, Tokyo wants to move closer to Myanmar, which had been squarely in China’s camp but is now seeking a better balance by improving its ties with the United States. It is likely that Japan will also look to establish a foothold in ports on the Indian Ocean.

A top MOFA official characterized the agenda for 2012 in this way: “This will be a year for completing tasks that have previously been postponed, and clearing the way for new initiatives in 2013 and the years that follow.” At the end of 2011, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko made a visit to China and India. A key point of interest during the prime minister’s trip to these two regional giants, which share a border, was whether Tokyo and New Delhi would regularize annual reciprocal visits by their heads of government. The ties between Japan and India are approaching a point where they might be used as a check against China.

On January 9 Ichikawa Yasuo, then the Japanese defense minister, began a visit to Mongolia, where he and his Mongolian counterpart signed a memorandum on stronger defense cooperation. This was a strategic move devised primarily with China and Russia in mind. Japan has thus sent a high-ranking official into “China’s backyard.” But can strategic diplomatic moves like this be developed more fully, with points extended into lines and lines broadened into surfaces? After all, Japanese politics is still adrift, after a long succession of short-lived prime ministers that stretches all the way back to Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s resignation in 2006. This year will also be a time for watching to see whether these seeds that have been sown will bear fruit from 2013 on. (January 16, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ These principles prohibit arms deals with communist countries, countries subject to UN Security Council sanctions, and countries engaged in or likely to become engaged in international conflicts. Now in the process of being relaxed, they have previously been interpreted as outlawing the export of virtually all arms and military technology.

diplomacy China India foreign policy Myanmar Japan-US Alliance Philippines Ministry of Foreign Affairs Indian Ocean Japan-China relations Mongolia Suzuki Yoshikatsu