Japan Keeps Its Cool

Why Tokyo's New Government Is More Pragmatic Than Hawkish

Japanese destroyer during a naval fleet review. (Yuriko Nakao / Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past year, as Japan has engaged in ugly territorial tussles with China and South Korea, outside observers have fretted about the country's shift to the right. That trend seemed to be confirmed by the election of the conservative Shinzo Abe, who returned to office as prime minister last December, having previously served in that role in 2006-7. Given Abe's hawkish statements on the campaign trail, some concluded that his return to power meant that Japan would suddenly turn the page on the pacifist strategy it has pursued since World War II, charting a more muscular and nationalistic course. The Economist boldly asserted that Abe's "scarily right-wing" cabinet is full of "radical nationalists," which "bodes ill for the region." According to this narrative, Tokyo will look to further contain China and North Korea and take a tougher diplomatic stance with South Korea and Russia. 

This argument is based on several shaky pillars. First is the fear that Abe's government is revising Japan's treatment of its wartime history, signaling a newly confrontational posture. China and South Korea are concerned that Abe will continue, in spite of their protests, to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan's war dead, including those from World War II. (Abe last visited the shrine last October, as leader of the opposition.) Whether the perception is accurate or not, Yasukuni remains a symbol to South Korea and China that Japan is not interested in coming to grips with its expansionist past. Seoul and Beijing further fear that Abe will repudiate or amend the Murayama and Kono statements -- official apologies that previous Japanese administrations made for the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army before and during World War II.

The second reason outsiders expect Japan to take a hawkish turn is the growing tension in Northeast Asia. During his election campaign, Abe assumed a firm stance on Japan's territorial disputes with China, South Korea, and Russia. The tough talk has been given some teeth after Abe noted in early January that there is "no room for negotiation" over the status of the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China), which both Tokyo and Beijing claim but Japan administers. Moreover, Abe's new cabinet opposes China's effort to change the status quo in the East China Sea through its quasi-occupation of the waters and airspace surrounding the islands there. Others believe that Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party's desire to amend Japan's pacifist constitution would pave the way for its remilitarization and an escalation of hostilities in the region. The China Daily opined in December that "the LDP's manifested foreign and defense policies . . . may destabilize East Asia."

This conclusion, however, is flawed for several reasons. First, vocal opposition to China is hardly a new foreign policy doctrine for Tokyo. The previous prime minister and leader of the dovish Democratic Party of Japan, Yoshihiko Noda, staked out virtually the same position on the territorial disputes. Second, these sweeping judgments about Japan's foreign policy focus only on Tokyo's tumultuous relationships with Beijing and Seoul and overlook Japan's broader diplomatic strategy of seeking to integrate with its region. Indeed, even though China, Japan, and South Korea will maintain their firm stances on the territorial disputes and other sensitive issues, they will likely make progress on economic integration. Abe has made clear that he considers Japan's economic relationships with China and South Korea to be of the utmost importance. Japan continues to support a potential trilateral free trade agreement among the three countries -- a massive undertaking that would combine the world's second- and third-largest economies. To be sure, significant obstacles stand in the way of such an agreement, but it is one from which all parties would surely benefit.

What is more, critics fail to notice Abe's pragmatic side, which has been brought out by the realities of governing. Abe may have made some bold remarks during the campaign, but since taking office, his policies have been moderate and sensible. Abe started his second term by sending signals to both Seoul and Beijing that he wanted to repair Japan's strategic relationships with South Korea and China, even if it would require creative compromises on the territorial disputes. It is important to remember that it was Abe, not South Korea's President-elect Park Geun-hye, who first extended an olive branch by sending a special envoy to Seoul earlier this month. Abe also made the prudent decision to shelve a plan to elevate Takeshima Day -- a holiday in Shimane Prefecture that symbolizes Japan's claim to a group of islets currently controlled by South Korea -- to the status of a national government holiday. And in dealing with Russia, Abe has already made concerted efforts to resolve the dispute over the Northern Territories (which Russia refers to as the South Kuril Islands), tacitly floating the idea that Japan would consider ceding sovereignty over the largest of the isles.

Abe's pragmatic stances should come as no surprise, since the same trend played out last time he was prime minister. Before then, Abe had achieved near-celebrity status in Japan for his hawkish views, particularly toward North Korea. Yet as soon as he became chief cabinet secretary of the Koizumi administration in 2005, the tough rhetoric subsided. Then, one of his first acts as prime minister in 2006 was to mend frayed ties with China and South Korea by visiting their respective capitals.

Aside from Abe's realist approach on these issues, it is important to contextualize Tokyo's foreign policy in Asia as one that addresses a region, rather than one or two specific countries. Shortly after the election, Abe released a foreign policy guide titled "Asia's Democratic Security Diamond." In it, he advocates a strong multilateral effort to promote maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific through enhanced strategic cooperation between Japan and like-minded partners such as the United States, Australia, and India. Some may see the article as provocative toward China, but it should instead be read as a sign of Japan's tempered approach to security in Asia. Although Abe will continue to poke diplomatic sticks at China over the East China Sea disputes, he does not advocate a strategy of military encirclement or containment. Rather, Japan's foreign policy going forward will be to encourage allies in its neighborhood to ensure that Asia's balance of power is not skewed toward any one country.

This pragmatism and regional perspective is further evidenced by Abe's choice to visit Southeast Asia for his first official trip abroad, aimed at further diversifying Japan's strategic relationships in the region. Abe's diplomatic strategy mirrors an underlying economic reality: According to a report from the Japan Research Institute, Japanese trade to China has fallen from 18.4 percent of its total exports in 2000 to 11.2 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, exports to the so-called ASEAN-6 -- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam -- climbed from 9.7 percent to 10.9 percent. In other words, Japan's foreign policy cannot be understood simply by looking at its relationships with China and South Korea. Japan has a diverse set of ties in the region that will continue to guide its foreign policy in a realistic and practical direction.

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