Behind the New Abe Diplomacy: An Interview with Cabinet Advisor Yachi Shōtarō (Part One)


Abe Shinzō’s whirlwind diplomacy has covered most of Southeast Asia and Oceania—not to mention the United States—in the past seven months. But can it repair badly frayed ties between Japan and its closest neighbors? In an exclusive interview, veteran foreign affairs official and government insider Yachi Shōtarō offers his candid views on the essence and efficacy of Abe’s “bird’s eye” approach to foreign policy.

Yachi Shōtarō

Special advisor to the cabinet of Abe Shinzō. Born in 1944. Received his master’s degree from the Graduate School of Law and Politics at the University of Tokyo in 1969. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he served as vice-minister for foreign affairs from January 2005 to January 2008. Now teaches at Waseda University, Keiō University, and the University of Tokyo. Began his current position in December 2012.

Just over seven months have passed since Abe Shinzō formed his second government last December, but already a distinctive “Abe diplomacy” is beginning to take shape. In an exclusive two-part interview, Special Cabinet Advisor Yachi Shōtarō provided an insider’s take on the state of Japan’s relations with the United States, China, South Korea, and Russia while shedding light on the Abe cabinet’s diplomatic agenda for Europe, Africa, and other regions. In part one, we focus on Asia—particularly the Japan-China relationship, which has been badly strained by the Senkaku Islands row and other issues. Regarding the possibility of a bilateral summit to turn the situation around, Yachi notes that Prime Minister Abe is aware of the need for dialogue but that he also understands the need to proceed step by step, given the stark differences currently dividing our two governments. “I think the goal now is to deepen dialogue at many different levels,” he says, “nurture a constructive, forward-looking atmosphere, and in the process, lay the groundwork for a bilateral summit.”

The Abe Doctrines

INTERVIEWER After a series of diplomatic setbacks under the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has ushered in a new and very proactive era of diplomacy. I know Abe has stressed “value-oriented diplomacy,” but what’s his administration’s basic strategy?

YACHI SHŌTARŌ The basic principles of foreign policy in the second Abe era are no different from those in the first Abe era [September 2006–September 2007]. In the conduct of that policy, however, the current administration has tried to learn from the DPJ’s missteps. Above all, this means maintaining a focus on the Japan-US alliance as the linchpin of Japanese foreign policy—something Prime Minister Abe has always emphasized—even while pursuing increasingly multifaceted, strategic diplomatic relations. Prime Minister Abe has also spoken of approaching foreign policy from a “panoramic perspective of the world map” —in other words, a bird’s-eye view of global affairs. 

INTERVIEWER What does that mean?

YACHI It means laying the groundwork for a balanced, multifaceted foreign policy. For example, given our uncertainty regarding the future balance of power between the United States and China, we have stressed the need for China to behave like a nation that respects universal values in its own conduct of foreign affairs. “Value-oriented diplomacy” denotes a commitment to such universal values as freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. At the same time, the Abe government wants the Japanese to value their own special history, traditions, and culture, as well as the kind of character traits that we saw on display in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

INTERVIEWER The current government also seems to have embraced the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” concept advocated by Deputy Prime Minister Asō Tarō from the time he served as minister for foreign affairs in the first Abe cabinet. Of course, there’s no question that Japan has many friends and supporters clustered along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent. But during the first Abe administration, and later under the cabinet of Asō Tarō [September 2008–September 2009], the initiative was labeled as a blatant move to encircle China, and it never really got off the ground.

YACHI Some people did interpret the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity as an encirclement strategy, but they were mistaken. Even supposing it were in Japan’s power to encircle China, that has never been Prime Minister Abe’s intent. As we see it, the countries along the arc are like racers running a marathon, all in pursuit of freedom and prosperity. Japan simply wants to run alongside, and provide support through peaceful means, such as official development assistance and people-to-people exchange. We aren’t trying to exclude China; to the contrary, we would welcome China’s approval and cooperation. The government doesn’t call the policy by that name any more, but I think the underlying concept is still operative.

China: Moving with All Deliberate Speed

INTERVIEWER Meanwhile, tensions between Tokyo and Beijing remain high. I understand you were in Beijing from June 15 to June 18 trying to smooth the way for some constructive dialogue. On June 19, speaking from London, the prime minister himself said that he was “fully prepared to resume the dialogue” with Chinese President Xi Jinping. So, what’s the outlook for a summit, in your view?

YACHI Japan-China relations were also suffering back when Prime Minister Abe took office for the first time, as a consequence of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine. On that occasion he responded immediately, arranging a visit to Beijing barely two weeks after he took office. The result of the October 2006 summit was an agreement to promote a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.” Unfortunately, the situation is much worse now, owing to developments over the Senkaku Islands that exacerbated tensions.

That said, Japan and China both play an important role in the region and in the world, and we have deep ties that have existed for centuries. Ongoing tension between our two countries can only be a destabilizing factor in the region and the world. So, the world is counting on us to avoid any further escalation and begin moving toward rapprochement. Prime Minister Abe knows that there is a need for dialogue. But I don’t think the time is ripe for top-level talks, given the huge gap separating our governments on the Senkaku Islands issue. I think the goal now is to deepen dialogue at many different levels, nurture a constructive, forward-looking atmosphere, and in the process, lay the groundwork for a bilateral summit.

INTERVIEWER So, you’re taking it slow, one step at a time.

YACHI I think we have to proceed with caution and yet move with all deliberate speed to initiate dialogue at every level.

INTERVIEWER What’s your idea of speed? Autumn or later? Is the government hoping to set things in motion immediately after the House of Councillors Election?

YACHI It means as soon as possible, but not before all the necessary preparations are in place. No one is saying that slow is better. But even in 2006, Abe’s visit to China required many hours of advance planning and consultation. China is a very big, unwieldy country, and the government can’t just reverse its policy overnight. The Abe government is determined to proceed as expeditiously as possible, but these things inevitably take time.

INTERVIEWER What changes are you most anxious to see from China? I suppose one would be respect for the rule of law, including the law of the sea?

YACHI I think we need to continue pursuing track 2 and track 1.5 diplomacy(*1) to make sure the Chinese fully understand the laws and the rules governing international affairs. With all due respect, China has a very long history as a regional superpower prior to the modern era, but as a modern state, it’s still an emerging power. I hope the Chinese begin to show a better understanding of the rules and laws of international society soon. Because frankly, if the statements put out by the Chinese government are any indication, they have a long way to go.

INTERVIEWER During his visit to the United States in June, Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted as saying, “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough room to accommodate both the United States and China.” President Barack Obama, on the other hand, made a point of emphasizing America’s commitment to the Japan-US alliance in a remark that seemed like a clear reference to the Senkaku Islands issue. What did you think of his statement?

YACHI China is now the world’s second largest economic power, and it’s a major military power as well. In US foreign policy circles, the idea of an informal “Group of Two” framework has been gaining currency, and some are suggesting that China should be America’s number one global and regional partner. But the roots of the Japan-US relationship run so much deeper. We’ve been partners in security under the Japan-US alliance since the end of the US occupation, and we’ve cooperated on economic matters for years as two of the world’s largest economies. More important, the Japan-US relationship is built on a firm foundation of shared democratic values, and no amount of rhetoric from China can bridge that gap. I think President Obama’s statement reflects an understanding of the history we share.

INTERVIEWER With all the intense activity and tension surrounding the Senkaku Islands, aren’t you worried about the possibility of a crisis precipitated by some incident, such as the seizure of a Japanese fishing vessel or a collision at sea?

YACHI There are certainly some hardliners in China who would like to see that happen. But I don’t think China’s top leadership does. In terms of basic policy orientation, I think China’s leaders recognize that healthy relations with Japan are important to China’s own long-term development. But basic policy orientation notwithstanding, there’s no guarantee that hardline elements won’t gain the upper hand. There is certainly a real danger of a collision at sea given the situation in the waters around the Senkaku Islands right now. And history offers countless examples throughout the world of small incidents that escalated into major ones. We need to hedge against that risk by boosting the capabilities of the Japan Coast Guard and the Maritime Self-Defense Force and by strengthening the Japan-US alliance.

South Korea: Time to Turn Down the Heat

INTERVIEWER Relations between Japan and South Korea have hit a new low as well, what with flare-ups over the interpretation of historical events and the disputed Takeshima islets. This relationship seems to be caught in a vicious circle. What can we do to break out of it?

YACHI Just as with China, we need to engage in dialogue to defuse tensions. We need to work patiently to repair bilateral ties by promoting deeper people-to-people and cultural interchange. China and South Korea both have a tendency to freeze relations across the board as soon as a problem arises in one area. Even though both of these relationships are of long standing, I’m afraid that neither could be called mature. Differences of opinion are inevitable, and it seems to me that we need to keep our core diplomatic efforts on track regardless of such spats.

INTERVIEWER Some American observers have expressed serious concerns about worsening ties between Tokyo and Seoul.

YACHI I realize there’s been some talk along those lines in the United States. But it’s not as if the Japanese government wants relations with South Korea to deteriorate. From a security standpoint, South Korea is extremely important to Japan. But the atmosphere there is like a tinderbox. Certainly there are pockets of anti–South Korean sentiment in Japan, but in South Korea, there’s a constant stream of anti-Japanese rhetoric in the media and the National Assembly, and it creates an atmosphere in which the smallest event can touch off a huge outcry. It’s not going to be easy rebuilding relations under these circumstances, but we do need to try to cool things down.

INTERVIEWER Right now China and South Korea are both waiting to see whether Prime Minister Abe goes to pay his respects at Yasukuni Shrine. The last time he was prime minister, he took the path of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to say whether he was going or not.

YACHI Prime Minister Abe’s stance on Yasukuni Shrine has been that he won’t say whether he intends to go or not to go, and he won’t confirm whether he has gone or not, and I don’t expect that stance to change.

North Korea: Taking the Long View

INTERVIEWER South Korea has begun placing more emphasis on relations with China, and it sometimes gives the appearance of teaming up with China against Japan. I think Seoul’s bid for stronger ties with the Chinese is oriented mainly to the North Korean problem, but not everyone in Japan sees it that way.

YACHI Certainly North Korea is a big part of it. Besides that, China is extremely important to the South economically. It’s South Korea’s biggest trading partner, and it’s a growth market. True, the Chinese economy shows signs of slowing, but government is still aiming for 7.5 percent GDP growth this year. I think security and economic considerations are behind South Korea’s efforts to improve relations with China.

INTERVIEWER North Korea, meanwhile, continues to resort to brinkmanship in its foreign policy. But recently the government has begun to tone down its hardline rhetoric. And last May, Special Cabinet Adviser Iijima Isao surprised everyone by making an unannounced visit to North Korea, presumably to discuss the issue of abducted Japanese citizens. How would you assess recent trends in North Korea?

YACHI At this early stage, the Kim Jong-un regime still needs to consolidate its power. It is therefore still working out how to define its position vis-à-vis the international community. It took a very hardline stance at the outset, and now, having seen the reaction of other countries, it’s making adjustments and shifting to a slightly more flexible stance. I think the regime is testing the waters to see how this shift will sit with Kim Jong-un’s power base. There’s no point in our overreacting every time the wind shifts a little.

With regard to the abduction issue, the official policy is to deal with it in the context of comprehensive negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations, together with the nuclear weapons issue. But since the two issues are fundamentally unrelated, there’s no logical reason to rule out progress on one just because we’re not making progress on the other. And particularly given the advanced age of the abductees’ families, we do need to resolve the abduction issue as soon as possible. The Japanese government needs to explore every available avenue.

 Asian Diplomacy: His Grandfather's Footsteps?

INTERVIEWER Prime Minister Abe has demonstrated that he intends to place high priority on relations with other countries in East and Southeast Asia. His first overseas trip as prime minister this time around was to three Southeast Asian countries [Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia], which he visited in mid-January this year. He also traveled to Mongolia in March and to Myanmar in May. Have the fruits of Abe’s Asian diplomacy met expectations?

YACHI They’ve exceeded expectations, and I think the public approves of these efforts as well. The DPJ administration of Hatoyama Yukio gave the impression that it wanted to shift the axis of Japan’s foreign policy from the Japan-US alliance to Asia, but the Abe cabinet has made it clear that its Asian diplomatic initiative is premised on the centrality of the Japan-US alliance. In fact, the prime minister’s original plan was to visit the United States first to reaffirm the government’s unshakable commitment to the bilateral alliance, and then travel to Asia. As it happened, he ended up going to Southeast Asia first because of scheduling problems on the US side.

INTERVIEWER I understand he intends to visit all ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

YACHI Deputy Prime Minister Asō paid a visit to India recently, and Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio has visited the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, and Australia. So, between the three of them, they’ve managed to cover most of Southeast Asia and Oceania, and it’s gone very well overall.

Former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather, also placed high priority on Japan’s relations with the countries of South and Southeast Asia. When he took office, his first step was to visit Southeast Asia and build support for Japan there before visiting the United States to discuss revision of the old Japan-US security treaty, the top item on his administration’s agenda. It’s just possible that Prime Minister Abe has developed his diplomatic agenda with Kishi’s strategy in mind. (Continued in part two for further discussion on Japan-US and Japan-Russia relations and other issues.) 

(Based on a June 27, 2013, interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Photographs by Hanai Tomoko.)

(*1) ^ Track 2 and track 1.5 are informal diplomatic channels involving dialogue among non-officials. In track 1.5, government figures attend the meetings in a private capacity, permitting them to speak freely as individuals.—Ed.

diplomacy value-oriented diplomacy China politics Abe Shinzō South Korea Senkaku Islands Yasukuni Shrine Aso Taro Takeshima Yachi Shōtarō second Abe cabinet Arc of Freedom and Prosperity