Reflections on Japan’s Post–Cold War Foreign Policy

Eurasian Diplomacy in Japan, 1997–2001


With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China in the 1990s, Japan’s leaders recognized the need for a more independent foreign policy adapted to the realities of the post–Cold War era. “Eurasian diplomacy” played a crucial role in this transition, as related by a former top Foreign Ministry official closely involved in the policy’s development and implementation under three successive LDP prime ministers.

Eurasia is the vast landmass lying to the west of Japan. It includes the Indian subcontinent to the south and Europe to the west, as well as the Middle East, which links Europe and Asia. However, in the context of Japanese foreign policy, Eurasian diplomacy refers specifically to a strategy that seeks to deepen ties with Russia and Central Asia—which cover the bulk of the Eurasian continent—while striving for balanced relations with nearby China and South Korea, at the continent’s eastern edge.

Has Japan ever pursued such a diplomatic agenda? I think we can say with confidence that it did, during the four-year period between the NATO Summit of July 1997, which heralded a new era in European security following the end of the Cold War, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which ushered in another paradigm shift in international relations. This was the period corresponding to the Liberal Democratic administrations of Hashimoto Ryūtarō (January 1996–July 1998), Obuchi Keizō (July 1998–April 2000), and Mori Yoshirō (April 2000–April 2001).

In the following, I survey the evolution and implementation of Japan’s Eurasia diplomacy during those four years. After analyzing the international and domestic context that gave rise to the policy, I examine more closely the manner in which it developed under the government of Prime Minister Hashimoto and continued under the Obuchi and Mori cabinets, before offering a few concluding observations.

International Environment

From 1990 to 1997, the main focus of international politics was meeting the daunting challenges posed by the collapse of the Cold War system between 1989 and 1991: dealing with the two Germanys and rebuilding the European international order in such a way as to incorporate Russia. The shape of the post–Cold War European order emerged gradually during this time, with the reunification of Germany (October 1990), Russia’s entry into the NATO Partnership for Peace program (June 1994), and the conclusion of the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation (May 1997). The shape of the new order came into full view at the NATO Madrid Summit of July 1997, when Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic were invited to join the alliance.

The political vacuum emerging from this process opened up room for Japanese diplomatic efforts, also providing an opportunity for Japan to develop its own independent foreign policy in East Asia.

In East Asia, the same period dawned with a serious setback for rising China. As communism was crumbling in Eastern Europe, China’s own democracy movement climaxed tragically with the Tiananmen Square incident of June 1989. It was a major blow to the “reform and opening up” campaign Deng Xiaoping had launched in 1978. But before retiring from politics, Deng used his 1992 southern tour to reassert the importance of market-based economic reforms, and from that time on the Communist Party of China adhered consistently to a policy of advancing economic liberalization without yielding political control.

The policy toward the United States that Beijing adopted in wake of the Tiananmen Square incident and made public in 1995—summed up in the motto “lie low while building our strength”—demanded a truly subtle response. However, US policy toward China during the period vacillated wildly, from the deployment of an aircraft to Taiwan in 1996 to the major expansion of trade ties agreed on during President Bill Clinton’s trip to Beijing in 1998.

The alternately testy and cooperative tenor of the US-China relationship during this era provided Japan the space in which to exercise a new level of initiative in the diplomatic arena.(*1)

Domestic Political Context

In Japan, the end of the Cold War ushered in historic changes in party politics. For close to four decades, the pro-US, anti-Soviet Liberal Democratic Party had held the reins of government, easily resisting challenges from the Japan Socialist Party (since renamed the Social Democratic Party). In 1993, this scheme collapsed for the first time since 1955 when a group of dissidents led Ozawa Ichirō bolted the LDP and joined forces with seven other parties to form an anti-LDP coalition led by Hosokawa Morihiro. The aim was to reform outdated political, economic, and legal systems to build a strong and independent Japan adapted to new international realities.

In the end, the coup failed to establish a functioning two-party system, the first step toward meaningful reform. The coalition soon crumbled in the face of a fierce counteroffensive from the LDP and allegations of financial improprieties against Hosokawa. In 1994, the LDP forged an unprecedented coalition with the Social Democratic Party and the New Party Sakigake, with SDP leader Murayama Tomiichi as prime minister. With the advent of the Hashimoto cabinet in January 1996, the LDP seized leadership of the coalition, and in November the same year it regained a majority in the House of Representatives and demoted its two coalition partners to parliamentary allies.

During the years of unstable coalition government between 1993 and 1996, Japan was in no position to exercise leadership in international affairs. But under the next three LDP cabinets, Tokyo began in one way or another to display a new degree of initiative and independence in its foreign policy. This was made possible by strong leadership at the top and the support provided by a smart team of officials inside the Foreign Ministry.

Such were the external and internal conditions that spawned Japan’s foray into Eurasian diplomacy.

Hashimoto’s Strategy

Born in 1937, Hashimoto Ryūtarō was elected to the Diet for the first time in 1963. From the late 1970s on, he served in successive LDP cabinets as minister of health, transportation, finance, and international trade and industry. As chairman of the LDP’s Policy Affairs Research Council during the 1993-94 interregnum, he established himself as a “policy wonk” with a special interest in defense policy.(*2)

The biggest foreign policy challenge facing the new Hashimoto cabinet was to chart a viable path for Japan in the face of China’s rising power and America’s determination to use its Pacific strategy to keep China in check. Eurasian diplomacy was in essence Hashimoto’s answer to this dilemma.

Hashimoto had only been in office a matter of weeks when a regional crisis impressed on him the perilous nature of Japan’s position in the middle of a volatile US-China relationship. With Taiwan gearing up for its 1996 presidential election, China had conducted a series of missiles tests off the coast. In March 1996, the United States responded by dispatching two carrier battle groups, centered on the USS Independence and the USS Nimitz, to the international waters around Taiwan. As Funabashi Yōichi’s relates, “Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō passed several sleepless nights after the crisis broke out.”(*3) Of course, his immediate concern at the time was crisis management, including coastal security and protection of Japanese nationals overseas and refugees, but the incident also forced him to confront the dangers facing Japan and ask himself how Japan should adjust its foreign policy to ensure its survival in the event of a clash of titans.

The issue was not which side Japan would ultimately take in the event of such a clash. The prime minister was quite certain that the only realistic choice for Japan in such a situation was to side with the United States.(*4) But in view of China’s rapidly growing power, it no longer seemed wise to remain so wholly dependent on the Japan-US alliance. As Hashimoto saw it, the best strategy was to work tirelessly to improve bilateral relations with China and to ensure that, in the event of a clash between China and the United States, Japan would not be in the position of exacerbating the situation. Japan needed to avoid the appearance of ganging up with the United States against China.

By his own account, Hashimoto treated President Clinton to an in-depth explanation of his ideas about China during the Japan-US summit in April 1996. While agreeing on the need to strengthen the Japan-US alliance, Hashimoto insisted that Japan pursue its own independent China policy. “The Chinese won’t listen to anything we say jointly,” he argued. “So, while Japan and America need to coordinate, we also need to pursue our own independent efforts.”(*5)

On this occasion, Hashimoto’s emphasis on “independent efforts” clearly signaled Japan’s determination to take responsibility for its own policy when it came to relations with China. But Hashimoto’s strength lay in his sweeping view of strategic issues. Rather than restrict the principle to bilateral relations between Japan and China, he decided to apply it as broadly as possible and strengthen Japan’s foreign policy across the board. The outcome was the initiative known as Eurasian diplomacy.

Getting Russia Involved

Hashimoto’s Eurasian diplomacy can be boiled down to a single strategic principle: to draw Russia into the Asia Pacific and introduce a new regional dynamic that would give Japan more room to maneuver vis-à-vis China and the United States. In the process, he meant to resolve the single biggest outstanding issue in Japanese international relations: the territorial dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories, four islands north of Hokkaidō seized by the Soviet forces in the final days of World War II.

Japan's Northern Territories (in red).

On July 30, 1998, the day Hashimoto stepped down as prime minister, Funabashi Yōichi published an article in the Asahi Shimbun recounting his interview with the outgoing prime minister. The article had this to say about Hashimoto’s Russia policy.

Hashimoto is proud of the signature strategic approach he brought to bear on international relations, as seen in his initiative to cultivate ties with Russia. As he sees it, there is much more at stake here than the Northern Territories. “We’ve got to make Russia a player in Asia—to get Russia on Japan’s side. We can’t have China and India vying for hegemony over the region in the twenty-first century. That’s why we’ve got to get Russia in the picture.” . . . Getting involved in a love-hate triangle with China and the United States? . . . That would be playing with fire, says Hashimoto. “That’s why Russia is so important.” With Russia in the picture, the triangle becomes a square, which is apparently less tricky to manage.(*6)

Hashimoto took the first step during a phone call from Bill Clinton prior to the March 1997 US-Russia Summit in Helsinki. Clinton told Hashimoto that he wanted to add Russia to the Group of Seven in order to get Russia to accept NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. Hashimoto agreed with the idea and added, “Please tell President Yeltsin that I seriously want to talk with Russia.”

Hashimoto and Yeltsin had the opportunity to converse face to face at the G8 summit in Denver the following June. The two leaders hit it off immediately and agreed to hold a bilateral summit in the Russian Far East later that year.

But it was Hashimoto’s landmark speech to the Keizai Dōyūkai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives) on July 24, 1997, that brought the ideological and policy outlines of the new policy into clear focus.(*7) Rather than invite misunderstanding by calling the policy a Russia-centered strategy, the speech emphasized the concept of a new, Japanese brand of “Eurasian diplomacy.” From then on, the concept and the term became firmly associated with Prime Minister Hashimoto’s foreign policy.

The development of the speech can be traced as follows. First the prime minister jotted down his ideas and sent the outline to Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Tanba Minoru, who forwarded it to the ministry’s European and Oceanic Affairs Bureau to be fleshed out. (At that time I was the bureau’s deputy director-general.) The bureau’s draft was built around four basic concepts: (1) “a Eurasian diplomacy viewed from the Pacific” as the basis of Japanese foreign policy in the wake of the Madrid NATO summit; (2) trust, mutual benefit, and a long-range perspective as the three basic principles of Japan-Russia relations, including resolution of the Northern Territories issue; and (3) cultivation of closer ties in the so-called Silk Road region, or Central Asia, as an adjunct to Japan’s diplomacy with China and Russia. To this, Tanba added a passage stressing the need to focus on the Japan-Russia relationship as the weakest link among the four key regional powers (Japan, China, Russia, and the United States) before sending the finished speech to Hashimoto, who gave it his unqualified approval.

There can be no doubt that the speech had a major impact in Russia. Proof of its efficacy came at the November 1997 summit in Krasnoyarsk, where Hashimoto and Yeltsin agreed to “make every effort to conclude a peace treaty by the year 2000.”

President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Hashimoto at the April 19, 1998, Japan-Russia Summit held in Kanawa, Shizuoka Prefecture (photograph courtesy of Fujifotos/Aflo).

From this point on, the Foreign Ministry was occupied with a range of Russian initiatives. In the economic sphere, the centerpiece of the new policy was the so-called Hashimoto-Yeltsin Plan for economic cooperation. At Hashimoto’s initiative, the member states of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum reached a decision at their November 1997 meeting in Vancouver to admit Russia as a member beginning the following year. It was a high point for Eurasian diplomacy in Japan.

At the April 1998 Japan-Russia summit in Kawana, Shizuoka Prefecture, the Japanese government took its first concrete step toward resolution of the territorial issue with the so-called Kawana proposal calling for conclusion of a peace treaty through resolution of the territorial issue. Unfortunately, this was the end of the road for Hashimoto’s Russian diplomacy. By summer Russia was reeling from a financial crisis, and Yeltsin’s health was in decline. In Japan, the LDP suffered a major setback in the July House of Councillors election, as voters rejected the government’s economic policies. Hashimoto was obliged to resign.

We should note here that Eurasian diplomacy during this period had its somber side as well. In July 1998, just before Hashimoto stepped down, Akino Yutaka was killed in Tajikistan while in active service as a political advisor to the United Nations Mission of Observers in Tajikistan. The government had sent him there as part of its new policy of engagement with Central Asia.

Obuchi’s Fruitful Asian Diplomacy

Like Hashimoto, Obuchi Keizō was born in 1937 and elected to the Diet for the first time in 1963. Admired for his upstanding character and easy-going personality, he built up an extensive network of personal connections within the LDP. After serving in the key cabinet posts of chief cabinet secretary and foreign minister, he replaced Hashimoto as prime minister upon the latter’s resignation in July 1998.(*8)

Like Hashimoto, Obuchi felt the need of a strategy to prevent Japan from becoming a casualty of the US-China rivalry. According to a Foreign Ministry official close to the prime minister, “Obuchi was aware at all times of the need to proceed tactfully, so as not to jeopardize the Japan-US alliance. Whether we were proposing a G8 summit in Okinawa or calling for an increase in the number of seats on the UN Security Council, it always had to be cleared with Washington first; that was an ironclad rule.”(*9) [The quotations that follow in this section are from the same source.]

Operating from this premise, Obuchi continued to develop the Eurasian policy that had taken shape under Hashimoto. But within that Eurasian context, Obuchi’s own biggest strategic innovation was his focus on East Asia.

According to my Foreign Ministry source, “Prime Minister Obuchi himself believed that the number-one achievement of his Asian diplomacy was the groundbreaking visit by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in October 1998, which allowed the two countries to set aside their historical differences and embark on a new era in Japan-ROK relations.” The Japan–Republic of Korea Joint Declaration(*10) adopted at the time of Kim’s visit became the starting point for a true efflorescence in bilateral relations. Although, unfortunately, the Joint Declaration did not lead to a revision of the history curriculum in Japanese schools, the two countries did grow closer than ever before during his administration. South Korea ended its longtime ban on cultural imports from Japan, and the stage was set for the “Korean wave” that swept Japan shortly thereafter.

The second major achievement of Obuchi’s Asian diplomacy was the 1999 Japan-China-ROK trilateral summit. The trilateral summit grew out of the ASEAN Plus Three (the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan, and South Korea), which took shape in December 1997 against the background of the East Asian financial crisis, but it was largely thanks to Obuchi’s persistence that the first meeting was finally held in 1999. “Prime Minister Obuchi was determined to make the trilateral summit a reality. The Chinese hung back, but he eventually persuaded them to take part by promising to keep political issues off the agenda.”

The third accomplishment was China. “Prime Minister Obuchi’s attitude toward China was pragmatic and businesslike. It wasn’t that he felt particularly close to China. In fact, on a purely emotional level, he felt close to Taiwan. Before he became prime minister, he chaired a parliamentary group formed to encourage visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Diet members and other officials. But as prime minister, he knew he would only antagonize the Chinese by visiting the shrine, and he decided that wasn’t a smart move. When President Jiang Zemin visited Japan in November 1998, Obuchi took a very pragmatic, balanced stance. He adopted a conciliatory tone on the historical issue, but since Jiang refused to meet him halfway, he stopped short of the kind of outright apology he had offered Kim Dae-jung. He was very positive about promoting practical cooperation, as seen in the joint statement on cooperation in thirty-three areas, issued at that time. But where Taiwan was concerned, he stuck to his principles and refused to endorse Clinton’s ‘three no’s’(*11) policy.”

Diplomatic progress centered on practical cooperation continued with Obuchi’s visit to China in July 1999 and Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit to Japan in October 2000.

Prime Minister Obuchi meets President Yeltsin on November 16, 1998, at the Japan-Russia Summit in Moscow (photograph courtesy of Sankei Shimbun).

Given Hashimoto’s acknowledged achievements in Russian diplomacy, there is a tendency to forget that Obuchi himself was very keen on strengthening ties with Moscow.(*12) Obuchi visited Russia as early as November 1998, but by that time Yeltsin’s health was clearly failing and his leadership faltering. The Russians did put forward a proposal drawn up by Russian Ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov, that would have divided the peace process in two stages (negotiation of an interim treaty to allow common legislation, followed by a treaty setting territorial boundaries), but the Japanese rejected the idea. In the end, Obuchi was unable to make any substantive progress on the Russian front.

On the other hand, Japan’s Silk Road diplomacy made definite inroads during this period. This was an area of special interest to Obuchi, who had headed a mission to Central Asia in 1997 to promote dialogue with the region. Under his administration, Foreign Minister Kōmura Masahiko visited Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan in May 1999, and Japan opened its first embassy in the Caucasus region, in Azerbaijan, in January 2000.

Rapid Progress Under Mori and Putin

Mori Yoshirō was born in 1937 (the same year as Hashimoto and Obuchi), and he was first elected to the Diet in 1969. He was appointed LDP chief cabinet secretary twice and held key positions in a number of LDP cabinets, including minister of education, international trade and industry, and transportation. He succeeded Obuchi as prime minister in April 2000, when Obuchi suffered a fatal stroke. He came under attack almost immediately from the media, which complained about a lack of transparency in the selection process, and his often-controversial tenure lasted only one year.(*13) Still, this brief period prior to the dawn of the Koizumi Jun’ichirō era was an important one from the standpoint of Eurasian diplomacy—specifically, Japan’s relations with Russia.(*14)

In Russia, a new administration had cast anchor the previous March under Vladimir Putin, who had seized the helm and captured the popular imagination while still in his 40s. Putin’s foreign policy concerns during his first year included the United States, where a presidential election was to take place; France and Germany, which were increasingly concerned about Russia’s handling of Chechnya; and China, with whom bilateral tensions had eased markedly in recent years. Amidst all this, he found time to pursue a growing interest in relations with Japan.

President Putin and Prime Minister Mori at the Japan-Russia Summit in Irkhutsk, held on March 25, 2001 (photograph courtesy of Reuters/Aflo).

Russia’s working-level Japan team was well suited to the task. In Japan, the Russian embassy was headed by the Foreign Ministry’s top “Japan hand,” Alexander Panov, who had already built an extensive network in Japan; in Moscow, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Losyukov, known for his flexibility, was in charge of drafting policy.

Mori’s interest in Russia had been passed down to him by his father, who had devoted himself to fostering Japan-Russia relations as mayor of Neagari, Ishikawa Prefecture, and had gone so far as to have some of his remains interred outside of Irkhutsk in Siberia. As prime minister, Mori was ready and willing to make Russian diplomacy the centerpiece of his administration’s foreign policy.

Between April 2000 and March 2001, Mori and Putin met five times for summit talks. Negotiations progressed especially rapidly in the seven months after Putin’s state visit to Japan in September 2000. The culmination of this progress was the Irkhutsk summit of March 25, 2001, at which (1) both sides confirmed in writing (for the first time) the legality of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which calls for the return of the Habomai Islands and Shikotan to Japan, and the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, which calls for early negotiation of a treaty through resolution of the dispute over the four contested islands; (2) Putin did not reject Mori’s proposal for separate and parallel talks to deal with the Habomai Islands and Shikotan on the one hand and Kunashiri and Etorofu on the other; and (3) both parties agreed to begin preparations for such talks following the summit and to enter into talks as soon as preparations were concluded.


Eurasian diplomacy continued to play an important and well-defined role in Japanese foreign policy right up until the birth of the Koizumi cabinet in April 2001.

Born amid an acute consciousness of China’s growing power, Eurasian diplomacy was never about devaluing the Japan-US alliance. However, it did seek to build economic ties and promote practical cooperation with China, political tensions notwithstanding. At the same time, it was moving toward a quantum leap in relations with Russia, including resolution of the territorial dispute, while building friendly ties with our South Korean neighbors and reaching out to the countries of Central Asia. This was the thrust of Japan’s Eurasian diplomacy.

However, the advent of the Koizumi administration in April 2001, together with the paradigm shift triggered by the 9/11 attacks a half a year later, left Japan’s Eurasian diplomacy in tatters. Relations with China deteriorated sharply after Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. In the area of Russian diplomacy, the dramatic progress that had culminated in the Irkhutsk summit was virtually obliterated. In Japan-ROK relations, an era of budding friendship embodied in the “Korean wave” and the jointly hosted World Cup gave way to a “diplomatic war” over the disputed Takeshima islets.

Meanwhile, with his rapid response to the events of 9/11, Koizumi was able to build a strong relationship of trust with US President George W. Bush and, by some estimations, place the Japan-US partnership on a stronger footing than ever before, as the focus of Japanese diplomacy shifted back to the United States.

(Originally written in Japanese; translated by

(*1) ^ Aoyama Rumi, “Reisengo Chūgoku no tai-Bei ninshiki to Bei-Chū kankei” (Chinese Perceptions of America and US-China Relations After the Cold War), in Gendai Higashi Ajia to Nihon 2: Chūgoku seiji to Higashi Ajia (Contemporary East Asia and Japan 2: Chinese Politics and East Asia) ed. Kokubun Ryōsei (Tokyo: Keiō University Press, 2004), p. 250.

(*2) ^ For more on Hashimoto’s foreign policy, see Kazuhiko Togo, “Japan’s Strategic Thinking in the Second Half of the 1990s,” in Japanese Strategic Thought Toward Asia ed. Gilbert Rozman, Kazuhiko Togo, and Joseph Ferguson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 82–92.

(*3) ^ Funabashi Yōichi, Dōmei hyōryū (Alliance Adrift) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1997), p. 422

(*4) ^ Anonymous former Foreign Ministry official in discussion with author, August 3, 2005.

(*5) ^ Funabashi, Dōmei hyōryū, p. 474

(*6) ^ Funabashi Yōichi, “Shushō, Hashimoto gaikō o kataru” (Prime Minister Hashimoto Discusses Diplomacy), Asahi Shimbun, July 30, 1998.

(*7) ^ See “Address by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to the Japan Association of Corporate Executives,” July 24, 1997.

(*8) ^ For more on Obuchi’s foreign policy, see Togo, “Japan’s Strategic Thinking in the Second Half of the 1990s,” pp. 92–98.

(*9) ^ Anonymous former Foreign Ministry official in discussion with author, February 28, 2008.

(*10) ^ The Japan-ROK Joint Declaration of October 8, 1998, states that Prime Minister Obuchi expressed his regret to President Kim Dae-jung for the suffering Japan had caused in the past (adopting the wording of the 1995 Murayama Statement), and that President Kim Dae-jung urged “both countries to overcome their unfortunate history and to build a future-oriented relationship.”

(*11) ^ On the occasion of President Jiang Zemin’s visit to Washington in October 1997, President Clinton announced his “three no’s” policy: (1) no support for an independent Taiwan; (2) no recognition of “two Chinas” or of one China and a separate Taiwan; and (3) no support for Taiwan’s admission to any international organization that requires statehood as a condition for membership.

(*12) ^ For more on Obuchi’s Russia diplomacy, see Tōgō Kazuhiko, Hoppō Ryōdo kōshō hiroku: ushinawareta godo no kikai (Secret Record of the Northern Territories Negotiations: Five Lost Opportunities) (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2007), pp. 332–49.

(*13) ^ For more on Mori’s foreign policy, see Togo, “Japan’s Strategic Thinking in the Second Half of the 1990s,” pp. 98–102.

(*14) ^ For more on Mori’s Russia diplomacy, see Tōgō, Hoppō Ryōdo kōshō hiroku, pp. 380–476.

United States China politics Russia Hashimoto Ryutaro South Korea Soviet Union Obuchi Keizo Tōgō Kazuhiko Mori Yoshirō