Belt and Road initiative
The Prime Minister’s Office is taking the initiative in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomacy. It is also worthy to note that not only does the prime minister exercise strong leadership, but his aides also carry a lot of weight.
At a Japan-China summit held in Osaka City on June 27, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was asked by Abe to visit Japan, said, “It’s a good idea to visit your country as a state guest next spring.” Takaya Imai, Abe’s executive secretary, sat across from Xi and listened to the Chinese leader with deep emotion.
The bilateral relationship had deteriorated after Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in 2012 and Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013. But it reached a turning point in 2017, when Abe made a policy shift and decided to cooperate in China’s “Belt and Road” initiative to build a giant economic bloc.
The policy shift was led by Imai, who serves as “executive secretary to the prime minister for political affairs.” The person in the post is accountable for “political affairs,” such as managing Abe’s schedule and making adjustments with the party, and serves as the prime minister’s adviser as his closest aide. Imai, a former bureaucrat of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, suggested Abe shift to a policy of cooperation, saying, “The Belt and Road initiative is an economic policy.” He made the suggestion against the background of the business community’s strong expectations for improved bilateral ties.
But National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi, an aide to the prime minister who manages foreign and security policies, squarely objected, telling Abe, “It’ll negatively affect security cooperation with the U.S. and India.”
Back then, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense in particular were especially wary of the Chinese project, as they saw it as a move by China to expand its hegemony by using its economic strength as the driving force. So the government opted for a basic strategy of opposing the project by strengthening cooperation among Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India.
Amid conflicting opinions by the two aides, Abe eventually adopted “Imai’s proposal.” Abe let Imai accompany Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai to an international forum on the initiative held in Beijing in May 2017. Abe informed Xi of his policy shift in a personal letter to the Chinese leader, telling him, “We commend you on the Belt and Road initiative and will deepen dialogue and cooperation between the two countries.”
Imai served in the post of executive secretary to the prime minister for administrative affairs, which is filled by someone sent from a government agency, in Abe’s first cabinet. He was assigned to the current post when Abe launched his second cabinet in 2012. Imai now sits closer to the prime minister than foreign ministry bureaucrats do at summit meetings and exerts the most influence over key diplomatic issues.
Imai also suggested the promotion of economic cooperation between Japan and Russia, which President Vladimir Putin cares about the most, prior to negotiations on the return of the Northern Territories.
This faced objections from then-Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki, who said, “The territorial issue will be left unattended.” Saiki was Abe’s aide and tackled the North Korean abduction issue with the prime minister. But Imai overcame Saiki’s opposition, insisting, “We’ll only provide economic cooperation beneficial to Japan.”
Frustration over concession
MOFA tends to be bound by the continuity of policy. An aide who sees eye to eye with the prime minister should be allowed to seek ideas for ways to settle a problem without regard to “diplomatic norms.” In fact, the improvement in Japan’s ties with China is a successful example.
Imai was involved in trade negotiations when he was an economy ministry bureaucrat. So he prefers the negotiating technique of “thinking from his counterpart’s perspective for a successful deal.”
But in diplomacy, where national interests clash, Japan’s position is weakened once it makes a concession. In fact, Russia does not seem to have not toned down its claim to the Northern Territories after responding to discussions on joint economic activities there.
Dissatisfaction is brewing within MOFA, with many saying, “All instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office (given by Imai) subscribe to counterparts’ claims.” Japan could be cheated if it seeks results in the short term. It needs to cautiously conduct diplomacy from a long-term perspective.