By Yukio Okamoto, a foreign policy critic
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has built up more diplomatic achievements than any other prime minister in Japan by making use of the relationships of trust he has forsterd with the leaders of other nations during his long rule. The most recent example is the G20 summit, which was held in Osaka this past June. As chairman of the meeting, he coordinated conflicting opinions between the U.S. and European leaders over issues such as climate change and free trade and successfully produced the G20 Osaka Leaders’ declaration. He did a fairly good job.
Abe also played a significant role in creating a new 11-nation trade mechanism and in building a consensus after the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. On Japan’s policy with China, he improved the Japan-China relationship without making concessions to the Xi Jinping government. On Japan’s withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in June, international criticism was contained to some extent while Europe and Australia were stepping up their anti-whaling position. This was because Prime Minister Abe has fostered trust with EU Council President Donald Tusk and built up personal ties with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as well.
Nonetheless, there are a mountain of international challenges that need to be addressed. Under such circumstances, he will face a crucial test in handling diplomatic issues.
One of the most fundamental challenges that Japan needs to address is how to deal with a U.S.-led maritime security vision, which is aimed at securing the safety in places such as the Strait of Hormuz. The crisis involving the Persian Gulf was from the beginning a political creation of U.S. President Donald Trump. It is truly an annoyance for Japan, but how should Japan respond if other countries dispatch warships to the waterway?
President Trump argues that “countries should be responsible for protecting their own ships,” so we don’t have to anticipate any collective self-defense action. If Japan sends Self-Defense Force patrol ships to the Strait of Hormuz, the action will constitute a “maritime policing action” based on the SDF Act, and the SDF mission will be to protect Japanese ships. It’s important not to get aligned with the U.S. as an ally but to ensure other nations won’t shoulder Japan’s risk and the burden of protecting its ships. Japan needs to make a decision in a careful but resolute fashion by gauging how other countries will act.
With regards to the Japan-U.S. alliance, President Trump reverted to his original stance and argued that the “Japan-U.S. security deal is unequal” after talented personnel who are knowledgeable about Japan, such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, left his administration. Japan already shoulders 70% of the cost of stationing U.S. forces in Japan based on the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces agreement. His call for upping the ante simply means that the U.S. Forces Japan will become Japan’s “mercenary force.” Prime Minister Abe will have to continue to explain in plain language to President Trump Japan’s position.
I would like Prime Minister Abe to be wary of becoming complacent after staying in power for an extended period of time.
I think the government took a rather rough approach in imposing tougher export controls on South Korea. Japan should have reviewed the overall “Group A (the list of white countries)” list and considered replacing countries in the list before delisting South Korea. That would have deflected international criticism.
The Japanese government said that it introduced tougher export controls because the “Japan-ROK relationship was damaged due to the requisitioned worker issue.” It should not have said that. If it wanted to pick a fight with President Moon Jae-in, an agitator, it should have acted with greater discretion and wisdom to achieve the same effect as achieved by sanctions. We must pull ourselves together again to look for an exit strategy.
The world is dominated by autocratic leaders, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, DPRK Workers Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Trump. The world is divided and these leaders are giving top priority to their countries’ interests. The global postwar order has collapsed, turning the world into a far different place.
Japan should play a role in advancing “international public goods,” such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Since Prime Minister Abe has established a solid presence in the international community, he should strengthen Japan’s partnerships with Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and other Asian partners, as well as Europe, and take the initiative in creating a new mechanism. I want to see him leading the international community in pursuing global ideals.
(Interviewed by Nobuha Endo)