Reflections on Japan’s Post–Cold War Foreign Policy

An Examination of Japan’s Asia-Pacific Policy


When the Asian economy took off in the 1970s, Japanese diplomats turned their eyes toward the Asia-Pacific region, and when the Cold War ended, the whole world focused on it. With the tripolar relationship among China, Japan, and the United States gaining in importance, how has Japan’s Asia-Pacific policy evolved?

When giving thought to Japan’s Asia-Pacific policy during the post–Cold War period, we need to pay close attention to two issues. First, given that the years since the end of the Cold War form an era with clear global significance, we must ask how Japanese diplomacy positioned the Asia-Pacific region within that era. Second, within the flow of the Japanese people’s consciousness of the external world over a longer period, when a perception of the Asia-Pacific has consistently been present since the start of the Meiji era (1868–1912), or least since Japan’s defeat in World War II, we must ask how the perception has changed in the post–Cold War period.(*1)

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is generally regarded as the event providing the clearest signal of the Cold War’s end. The Diplomatic Bluebook issued by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in that same year begins with this passage: “The international community is undergoing a major transition. The international order which has formed the postwar world is being forced to accommodate to these radically altered circumstances, and various trials and efforts are on the way.” Needless to say, it was the states and peoples forming the international community that found they must adapt to the radically altered circumstances, but even more directly, it was Japanese foreign policy itself.

The termination of the Cold War happened to coincide with the end of the long Shōwa era (1926–89) and the beginning of the Heisei era (1989–). With this transition providing further uplift, feelings of exaltation, as well as hopes for the new age mixed with uneasiness toward it, can be sensed in the pages of the 1989 Diplomatic Bluebook. This tone sets the report apart from the normal documents of officialdom, which tend toward a dry style of merely presenting the facts.

The Shift in Orientation in the Early 1980s

In this context, what specific tasks did Japanese foreign policy seek to address when the new era opened? In particular, what line did Japanese diplomacy adopt toward the Asia-Pacific? The authors of the Bluebook and other such documents do not speak as individuals. Even when looking only at what comes out of the Foreign Ministry, we must understand that a number of bureaus and divisions will be involved in the drafting process, each seeking to get its own message across, and that in theory at least, consideration will also be given to the positions and agendas of political leaders in the cabinet and the National Diet. Because official government documents of this sort become patchworks of multiple viewpoints, we cannot expect any specific theme to stand head and shoulders above the rest.

On reading the 1989 Diplomatic Bluebook with this consideration in mind, one is nonetheless impressed by the emphasis placed on the foreign policy Japan needed to pursue as a member of the Asia-Pacific region. While recognizing that the region was subject to considerable influence from sudden changes in Central and Eastern Europe, where the Berlin Wall was about to fall, and from the rapidly altering relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union in the background, the report made mention of the fact that in 1985, total trans-Pacific trade exceeded total trans-Atlantic trade for the first time. Its authors had not forgotten that even before the winding down of the Cold War in the narrow sense, an assortment of developments had made the rise of the Asia-Pacific plainly visible, as demonstrated by their statement that “one recent international trend worth noting is the increasing importance of the Asia-Pacific region.”

In this light, it would be overly simplistic to argue that the Asia-Pacific’s growing importance gained recognition only when the Cold War came to an end. Within the broader context of globalization, the Asia-Pacific was of course influenced by the situation in Europe, but internal developments peculiar to this region were already underway. Japanese diplomatic initiatives motivated by the region’s rise got their start by the early 1980s at the latest. It was in 1977 that Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo (1976–78) delivered his “Manila Speech,” which enunciated the policy toward Asia known as the Fukuda Doctrine, and in 1980 that Prime Minister Ōhira Masayoshi (1978–80) proposed a “Pacific Ocean Community.”(*2)(*2)This means that in order to trace the evolution of Tokyo’s Asia-Pacific policy over its full breadth, we should not limit our perspective to the last 20 years, or what the political scientist Tanaka Akihiko has termed “the 20 years of the new crisis.” At least 10 extra years need to be added on, extending the perspective to the last three decades. To be sure, this is not to deny that “since the end of the cold war, the problems and prospects of the Asia-Pacific region have drawn increased attention from students of international politics and foreign policy,” as some American scholars have stated.(*3)

What were the reasons for the rise of interest in the Asia-Pacific among intellectuals, especially those in the West, after the Cold War drew to a close? During the conflict many people were focused primarily on US-Soviet relations and the European situation, but this orientation weakened with the thawing of East-West relations. Interest shifted instead to developments in the Asia-Pacific, including the tripolar relationship among China, Japan, and the United States. In the 1970s, with the rapprochement between China and the United States and the restoration of relations between China and Japan, the rise of China in international politics and the world economy became conspicuous. Even before the Cold War ended, accordingly, the importance of the Asia-Pacific was on the increase, and as I have suggested, foreign policymakers and informed persons were already turning their eyes in that direction. Here, I would hasten to add that China’s rise was by no means the only factor behind the region’s growing presence. The Asian NIEs (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, the “newly industrializing economies” of the region) and the members of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) were undergoing rapid economic development, and they were also speaking out more actively in the political arena. (These developments, I might note, got underway in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s.)

What the ending of the Cold War did was to provide additional momentum to this global tide dating from the 1970s. In the process, what new fronts opened up in Japan’s Asia-Pacific policy? Let us consider that next.

APEC’s Development on Multiple Tiers

The tide was probably at its strongest during 1993–95, between the meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Seattle and Osaka. Brought into being under an Australian initiative as a government-level organization, APEC held its first meeting in Canberra in November 1989, which by a curious coincidence was the same month as the Berlin Wall’s fall. Its birth was preceded by the foundation several years earlier of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, a private-level organization. The initial impetus behind the creation of PECC was the call for a Pacific Ocean Community by policy advisors serving under Prime Minister Ōhira.

While there is probably no direct cause-and-effect relationship between the Berlin Wall’s collapse in the West and APEC’s formation in the East, the forum subsequently enjoyed smooth growth, holding its second annual meeting in Singapore, third in Seoul, and fourth in Bangkok. The 1993 meeting hosted by the United States in Seattle was thus the fifth in the series. Initially the annual gatherings were ministerial-level events, but an informal meeting of heads of government took place alongside the Seattle forum, marking the start of the APEC summits. This development is symbolic of the shift in the United States toward full-fledged implementation of an Asia-Pacific policy. Behind the shift lay the release from the tensions of the Cold War and the recognition in Washington that economic affairs were just as important as security affairs, if not more so. The new current of giving priority to economic concerns proved to be a boon to the development of APEC.

One year after the Seattle gathering, the Bogor Declaration on achieving free and open trade and investment was adopted at the APEC meeting hosted by Indonesia. With Osaka set to be the site of the next meeting in 1995, Tokyo naturally put special effort into preparations for the event. It is likely that this three-year period, in which the role of host passed from the United States to Indonesia (one of the leading Southeast Asian countries) to Japan, will go down in history as the time of the most energetic APEC activities. Seattle saw the start of talk about an Asia-Pacific community of economies cooperating in a regional setting; Bogor was marked by the declaration there, called an APEC Economic Leaders’ Declaration of Common Resolve; and in Osaka, where the Japanese government promoted its Partners for Progress proposal, the Osaka Action Agenda was adopted. This agenda provided a strategic framework for achieving the Bogor goals of freeing and facilitating trade and investment with the help of the Partners for Progress aims of enhancing economic and technical cooperation.

Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi (second from right) with other APEC leaders at Bogor, Indonesia, in 1994. (Photo: AFP/Jiji Press)

The 1996 Diplomatic Bluebook was written at the end of this period of energetic APEC activities. This edition of the bluebook is memorable for its subtitle, which spoke of the “multitiered architecture” of the new international order Japan was helping to bring into being. (Normally MOFA’s bluebooks are not supplied with such subtitles.) A section titled “Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)” contained this laudatory statement: “This Asia-Pacific development is of historic significance in that it represents a departure from the old pattern of North-South relations, and APEC, regional cooperation among diverse economies seeking to sustain their development, can serve as a new model of international cooperation.” The text went on to enumerate seven areas in which APEC has significance for Japan: (1) facilitating long-term development of the Japanese economy; (2) strengthening relations of trust with Asian partners; (3) contributing to regional political stability by assuring the Asia-Pacific’s economic growth; (4) providing an environment for active participation by the United States in Asia-Pacific affairs; (5) offering China a way to participate smoothly in frameworks for international cooperation; 6) strengthening relations between Australia and New Zealand and the economies of East Asia; and (7) strengthening relations between Japan and Central and South American countries. In the light of these points, the passage concluded, “promoting cooperation within APEC constitutes a major pillar in Japan’s Asia-Pacific foreign policy.”(*4)

The East Asian Miracle as the Driving Force

While all seven points are worthy subjects for analysis, of special note are points (4) involving the United States and (5) involving China. The way in which Japan pursued its Asia-Pacific policy in subsequent years was greatly influenced by the relations between these two superpowers and the respective actions they engaged in. Before I say more on this, it may be helpful to refresh our recognition of one fact. This is that the driving force persuading countries across the Asia-Pacific region to climb aboard the PECC and APEC bandwagons came more from economic affairs than from anything else. The “miraculous development” of the East Asian economy from 1987 through 1996 was the primary factor energizing Japan’s Asia-Pacific diplomacy during this period. Further evidence of the driving power of economic affairs can be seen in the United States, where the administration of President Bill Clinton (1993–2001), which moved the economy to the top of its agenda, began to take part in Asia-Pacific regionalism with unusual vigor. It was at the urging of Clinton that heads of government met on the occasion of the 1993 APEC meeting in Seattle, and the result was that APEC summits became annual affairs.

Some of the momentum was lost when the Asian currency crisis struck in 1997, but the Asian economy remained in good health on the whole, providing a foundation for further progress toward Asia-Pacific regionalism. Japanese diplomats were able to take pride in the fact that their own country’s development was one of the factors behind the rapid ascent of the Asian economy, and this also provided vitality to Tokyo’s Asia-Pacific policy. At the same time, however, American irritation at Tokyo’s unwillingness to accept liberalization in the fishery and forestry product sectors gradually mounted, and the resulting discord in Japan-US economic relations cast a pall over the prospects for progress. (This issue, which remained unresolved over subsequent years, can be seen today in Japan’s vacillation over whether to take part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free trade agreement.) In more general terms, the psychological distance separating the East (Asia) from the West (Europe and North America) came into clear view from time to time, despite Japan’s strenuous diplomatic efforts to serve as a bridge between East and West, revealing the great difficulties facing efforts to turn APEC into a unified entity.(*5)

In an interview, Nakae Yōsuke, a former ambassador to China and a veteran player in Japan’s Asian diplomacy, spoke bluntly about the weaknesses in the country’s foreign policy. In the final years of the administration of Satō Eisaku (1964–72), he said, Tokyo did not take relations with China into account when planning moves toward the Soviet Union and Vietnam. “Japan’s foreign policy wasn’t sufficiently sophisticated to make such connections. There were neither politicians nor diplomats who had developed a posture and attitude of organically orchestrating regional or global foreign policy to that extent.” But Nakae also acknowledges the progress that has been made. “Long plagued by war, revolution, and poverty,” he has written, “East Asia has become the world’s most economically dynamic region. Because of its economic development and the deepening of interdependence, the concept of an ‘Asia-Pacific region’ has been acquiring more substance.” Coming from the lips of a diplomat who can claim part of the credit for the birth of the Fukuda Doctrine, this observation carries considerable weight.(*6)

The Undercurrent of Policy Toward China

The most fundamental issue affecting Japan’s Asia-Pacific policy was relations with China. The world not only saw the Berlin Wall’s fall and APEC’s birth in 1989 but also witnessed the Tiananmen Square protests. Amid the mounting criticism in the advanced democracies of the undemocratic way in which the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party forcibly suppressed human rights, Tokyo’s diplomats doubted that imposing harsh sanctions against China, which could have pushed Beijing into an isolated position, made much sense. They instead did all they could to smooth over the acrimony, adopting a position midway between China and the West. In a sense, China is a new type of great power in that it has continued to turn a cold shoulder to democracy despite the great strides it has taken in economic development ever since it adopted its reform and opening policy. Tokyo at that point was already wrestling with the thorny issue of how best to deal with such a power, and its difficulties were soon to be complicated, as the Chinese economy was on its way to overtaking the Japanese economy and exerting even greater influence over neighboring countries. The economies of the United States and other industrially advanced countries, meanwhile, had become bogged down. In this context, Japan’s Asia-Pacific policy suffered a loss of vitality.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Washington became preoccupied with the battle against terrorism. With developments in Iraq and Afghanistan consuming much of its energy, it began to neglect Asian affairs. Inevitably this made it more difficult to sustain the balanced Asia-Pacific order then in the process of formation, which used Japan-US cooperation as its foundation. At the time, relations between Japan and China were on the horns of a dilemma. Even as their economic interdependence grew steadily deeper, political tensions, which were exacerbated by such issues as visits by Japanese prime ministers to Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are enshrined, and development of transboundary resources lying beneath the East China Sea, showed no signs of abating. By no means was it easy to achieve a balance between robust Japan-US cooperation and a healthy Japan-China relationship, which was a basic precondition for Japan’s Asia-Pacific policy and also the policy’s desired result.

In this difficult situation, opportunities arose for so-called minilateralism, in which two countries or a small group of countries seek to enhance mutual free trade. Finally rousing itself to action on this front, Japan entered into its first bilateral free trade agreement with Singapore in 2002. Japanese diplomats also sought to realize FTAs on a broader regional basis, although they found themselves groping forward in two directions. Some were advocating arrangements for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, such as APEC and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while others preferred arrangements centered on East Asia, such as ASEAN+3 (ASEAN plus China, Japan, and South Korea) and ARF, the ASEAN Regional Forum. In conceptual terms, this was a contest between those who regarded such values as freedom, human rights, and democracy as universal values for everybody to embrace and those who regarded them as Western-inspired ideals to be cast aside or at least treated with caution. Over the last 10 years, the Japanese government has not staked out an unequivocal position on this issue. When Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–6) delivered a January 2002 address in Singapore, he spoke of a community reaching beyond the Asian region to embrace such countries as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States as core members. But Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo (2007–8) did not follow up on Koizumi’s vision when mentioning his administration’s Asia-Pacific policy. And Prime Minister Hatoyama advanced the concept of an “East Asian community” without defining its scope (although he seems to have been interested in forging closer relations with China and other Asian economies).

Economic Convergence Versus Political Divergence

Some observers say that the Japanese government’s wavering on this issue is the result of internal factors, such as bureaucratic inertia and weak political leadership. No doubt there is some truth in that, but on a more fundamental level, I would attribute it to the two competing faces of economic convergence and political divergence in the Asian setting, a situation I call “twisted interdependence.”(*7)

There was a time when journalists often spoke of the “economically hot but politically cold” relations between Japan and China. These days the situation has been further exacerbated by the extraordinary energy China has expended on a military buildup (especially a naval buildup) to go along with its growing economic might. The overall relations between China and the other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States included, have become extremely warped, with uneasiness uppermost in security relations even as economic relations become ever stronger. As can be seen in the ties between Japan and Western countries, the handling of economic interdependence is by no means simple even when the parties involved share political ideals. Forging relations befitting what can be called a true community is a far more difficult proposition when there are differences in political values and worries about security, as in the case of Japan and the United States on the one hand and China on the other. In this context, we would be wise to recall the words of the late Kōsaka Masataka, a scholar of international politics: “Bonds formed by common economic interests are surprisingly fragile. For this reason, communities based on economic interests need to be turned into places also sharing culture, political systems, and so forth. The most fundamental requirement of such a community is a consciousness of common security concerns.”(*8)

With the creation of the APEC framework at the end of the Cold War, Japan’s Asia-Pacific policy became something more than a simple bundle of bilateral relationships. The Japan-US partnership also acquired a new significance as an axis on which multilateral regional diplomacy could be pursued. At the same time, a need arose to respond to the spread of interest beyond the economic arena to political relations and security affairs. Despite Japan’s clumsiness at “organically orchestrating regional or global foreign policy,” the weakness Nakae identified, it seems to me that Tokyo’s diplomats have done quite well. In the coming years of the twenty-first century, their skills will be put to the test.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ For an examination of the long-term historical perspective, see my “Taigai ishiki ni okeru ‘senzen’ to ‘sengo’” (The Notions of Prewar and Postwar Periods in Japanese Perceptions of the World), in Satō Seizaburō and others, eds., Kindai Nihon no taigai taido (Attitudes Toward the World in Modern Japan) (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1974). For an analysis of the National Diet speeches of prime ministers using the latest techniques, see Takafumi Suzuki, “Investigating Macroscopic Transitions in Japanese Foreign Policy Using Quantitative Text Analysis,” in International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, vol. 11, no. 3 (2011).

(*2) ^ For more information, see Watanabe Akio, ed., Ajia Taiheiyō rentai kōsō (25 Years After Ōhira’s Initiative for Asia-Pacific Cooperation: History and Prospects) (Tokyo: NTT Publishing, 2005), and Watanabe Akio, ed., Ajia Taiheiyō to atarashii chiiki shugi no tenkai (The Asia-Pacific and the Emergence of a New Regionalism) (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2010).

(*3) ^ G. John Ikenberry and Michael Mastanduno, eds., International Relations Theory and the Asia-Pacific (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

(*4) ^ While the Japanese side took great pride in the results of the Osaka meeting, not all overseas observers were equally enthusiastic. Some even felt that Japanese passivity at the meeting became a brake slowing down APEC’s progress. See John Ravenhill, “A Three Bloc World? The New East Asian Regionalism,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, vol. 2, no. 2 (2002).

(*5) ^ Bridge building between East and West has been a theme in Japan’s foreign policy for years. Back when Japan joined the United Nations, Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru spoke of Japan’s role as such a bridge. Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio (2009–10) quoted his remarks when he addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2009.

(*6) ^ Nakae Yōsuke, Ajia gaikō: Dō to sei (Asian Foreign Policy: Dynamic and Static) (Tokyo: Sōtensha, 2010).

(*7) ^ At present I appear to be the only person using the expression in this sense. For an examination of the slow Japanese diplomatic response to the dramatic changes in the international environment since the Cold War, see William W. Grimes, “Institutionalized Inertia: Japanese Foreign Policy in the Post–Cold War World,” in Ikenberry and Mastanduno, op. cit.

(*8) ^ Kōsaka Masataka, “Keizai anzen hoshō no igi to kadai” (Significance of and Tasks for Economic Security), Kokusai Mondai, April 1978.

TPP APEC ASEAN Asia-Pacific Diplomatic Bluebook Watanabe Akio Manila Speech Asian NIEs Clinton FTA Osaka Action Agenda Tiananmen