For Abe, the Neighbors Remain Hard to Reach


Prime Minister Abe arrives in Belfast on June 16 to attend the 2013 G8 summit. Photo credit: AP/Aflo

Since he took office in late December 2012, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has been conducting his strategic diplomacy in a manner that seems to show the consistent application of two rules. One is to avoid compromising on issues involving sovereignty or history in handling Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea, which have been in an abysmal state since the time of Abe’s predecessor, Noda Yoshihiko. Particularly with respect to China, this posture fits in with the pursuit of the “value-oriented diplomacy” that Abe espouses. And as a result, the foreign policy that the prime minister has conducted over the first eight months of his term has appeared to the media as being aimed at “containing” China.

The second rule that Abe seems to be observing is to travel abroad at least once a month. Japanese prime ministers have tended to do little international traveling in the first half of the year, when much of their time is tied up dealing with the National Diet, but Abe has broken with this precedent, undertaking diplomatic forays with high frequency. And he has continued to observe both of these rules in his strategic diplomacy since the ruling coalition’s victory in the July upper house election.

China Keeps Japan at Arm's Length

The top issue for Abe’s strategic diplomacy has been and continues to be the handling of relations with three neighboring countries: China, South Korea, and North Korea. The focus for the near-term future is summit diplomacy in September.

As of early June, senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were envisaging a scenario in which Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio would meet with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts while attending the ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei on June 30 and July 1, which would hopefully pave the way to meetings between Prime Minister Abe and the Chinese and South Korean top leaders at the Group of 20 summit on September 5–6.

Thanks to American intermediation, a Japan–South Korea foreign ministers’ meeting was held at the ARF gathering, and it produced a certain amount of forward movement. But the hoped-for progress was not achieved with China. According to one MOFA official, Kishida and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shook hands three times during the course of the two-day ARF session, but apparently they did not speak a single word to each other. This performance highlighted the current iciness of the Japan-China relationship.

Furthermore, the same MOFA official reported that Wang was clearly determined not to let television crews or photographers get shots of him with Kishida. Wang previously served as Chinese ambassador in Tokyo and is familiar with Japan. This is why he must take care not to be “soft” in handling China-Japan relations. Given the elevated state of nationalistic feelings against Japan, the domestic climate for people like Wang is even harsher than one might think.

Given the course of developments to date, there would seem to be no hope at all for a meeting between Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping on the occasion of the upcoming G20 summit in St. Petersburg. As MOFA insiders explain, a bilateral summit cannot possibly occur without being preceded by a foreign ministers’ meeting. And a senior figure at the ministry expresses doubts that it will be possible to arrange even an unofficial exchange of words between Abe and Xi during the G20 session.

Xi faces a pile of social problems at home, and his administration is not yet on a solid footing even inside Zhongnanhai, the seat of power in Beijing, where various rival forces are vying for influence. He is also being forced to maintain a delicate balance in dealing with public opinion, which has been stirred up by the winds of populism and has achieved considerable clout through the Internet. So it is hard to imagine him being ready to soften China’s position with respect to its claim to the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese), where the Chinese have been aiming to build up a record of effective presence by repeatedly violating Japan’s territorial waters.

Abe has repeatedly declared that Japan’s door is open to China for dialogue at any time but that he will not accept preconditions for the holding of a bilateral summit. In other words, Tokyo will not agree to a summit if Beijing demands that it recognize the existence of a territorial dispute regarding the Senkakus (over which Japan claims undisputed sovereignty). So the two sides remain in a frosty standoff with no end in sight.

Unclear Prospects for Relations with the Koreas

In relations with South Korea, the June meeting between Kishida and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se seems to have brought a change in the tide. The July 11–12 visit to Seoul by Vice Foreign Minister Saiki Akitaka aimed to lay the groundwork for a meeting between Abe and President Park Geun-hye; the focus was on the opportunity for a bilateral summit in St. Petersburg this September. But President Park has continued to criticize Japan’s stance on the issues of the comfort women who served the wartime Japanese military and sovereignty over Takeshima (Dokdo to the Koreans). So we must not be overly optimistic about the prospects.

At their summit meeting in June, the leaders of the United States and China agreed that North Korea must be denuclearized, and since then the Chinese have been actively pursuing diplomatic initiatives relating to the Korean Peninsula. Talks have also resumed between Seoul and Pyongyang, initially on the subject of reopening the jointly operated Kaesong industrial complex. With these developments has come the start of progress toward creating conditions conducive to direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington (which are the North Koreans’ top priority) and resumption of the six-party talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Iijima Isao, a special advisor to the cabinet of Prime Minister Abe, made a surprise visit to Pyongyang this May in hopes of restarting the long-stalled process of resolving the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea, but it now seems that he was invited merely as a ploy by the North to show the world that it had shifted to a dialogue mode. Real progress toward normalization of relations with North Korea will probably not come until after Japan and South Korea have a ceremonial reconciliation (a bilateral summit) and Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington are all moving in tandem in their dealings with Pyongyang.

Abe Eager for Tokyo Olympics

Aside from relations with the neighbors, the Abe administration’s international agenda includes participation in the talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a large-scale free-trade initiative in which the United States is the most prominent actor. On the national security front, the administration will be moving toward lifting the ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense so as to permit closer cooperation with US forces. A report on this issue is due in September, and the government is expected to come out with a statement of its new position in October. In addition, the government intends to adopt Japan’s first national security strategy and to come out with a new version of the National Defense Program Guidelines before the end of the year.

Among the international events on Abe’s schedule, one that he is especially enthusiastic about is the International Olympic Committee Session in Buenos Aires, which he is scheduled to attend on September 7, just after the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The IOC will decide on the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. If Tokyo is selected, Japan’s international profile will be elevated, and Abe’s popularity should also get a boost. The prime minister may well also see the Olympics as a source of stimulus to support Abenomics, the set of economic policies on whose success rides the future of his administration.

diplomacy China politics ASEAN North Korea South Korea ARF Abenomics Tokyo Olympics