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Commentary: Evaluating Abe’s diplomacy in 3 ways

  • January 15, 2020
  • , The Japan News , 2:07 p.m.
  • English Press

By Akihiko Tanaka / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun


For many Japanese people, Japan’s diplomacy is Shinzo Abe’s. Past foreign ministers of the current administration, Fumio Kishida and Taro Kono, earnestly carried out their duties, and their current successor, Toshimitsu Motegi, is doing so as well. Nevertheless, their presence has been no match for the overwhelming figure that Abe cuts on the diplomatic stage. At some point in the future, when looking back on Japan’s foreign policy developments, the period between 2012 and 2020 will be remembered as the “era of Abe diplomacy.”


If so, how should we evaluate Abe’s diplomatic endeavors over the past seven years? The issues of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals and of the Russian-held northern territories remain unresolved despite his having consistently attached importance to them. There is a harsh assessment that his administration has attained almost no palpable diplomatic achievements in seven years.


However, we need to ask in the first place how diplomacy in today’s world should be evaluated. Diplomacy is the management of international relations by nonmilitary means in order to maximize the country’s national interests. Without clarifying what national interests are, then, it would be impossible to assess diplomatic developments. So, we need to clarify first what Japan’s national interests are in the contemporary era.


To put it in abstract terms, the national interests of a democracy are nothing but the various goals explicitly or implicitly defined by its democratic process. In other words, its national interests are what its populace regards as important. When this is specifically applied to Japan, its national interests are relatively clear.


First, peace. The Japanese people seek to ensure peace, keeping Japan’s security from being breached.


Second, prosperity. The Japanese people seek to stay prosperous, maintaining and raising their standard of living.


Third, values. The Japanese people want various values they regard as important, such as freedom, equality and the rule of law, maintained and even improved.


Needless to say, there may be a number of disagreements in Japanese society on the details, but it does not seem that there is much discord with regard to the broad direction of its national interests. If this holds true, the seven years of Abe’s diplomacy should be evaluated in the context of the three broad goals of Japan’s national interests.


Let’s make an evaluation in light of the first goal — peace. In the past seven years, Japan has not been subject to foreign invasion or involvement in any war. Obviously, it is difficult to evaluate — and prove — in strict terms whether Japan’s peace has been achieved thanks largely to Abe’s diplomacy.


Even so, it is clear that his efforts to build and maintain relatively good relations with U.S. President Donald Trump have contributed to the continued stability of the Japan-U.S. security relationship. Further, in parallel with the passage of security-related legislation, the government made a new constitutional interpretation to open the way to the limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense, developments that were greatly instrumental in persuading Trump of the values of the alliance, further strengthening Japan-U.S. defense cooperation.


A subordinate goal in support of peace is reducing the number of countries that are antagonistic and increasing the number that are friendly.


At the time when the current Abe administration was inaugurated in late 2012, Japan’s relations with both China and South Korea were experiencing serious strain. While Japan-South Korea ties cannot be said to be in a good state yet, relations between Japan and China have improved as far as top-level exchanges between the governments and the rhetoric between them are concerned. Relations between Japan and other foreign countries, meanwhile, have stayed good owing to Abe’s proactive diplomacy — he has visited numerous countries and attended and hosted various international conferences. Should Japan-South Korea relations improve, North Korea would be left as the only foreign country that is openly hostile to Japan.


Let’s take a look at Abe’s diplomacy from the perspective of the second national goal — prosperity. On this matter, given that whether the standard of living in Japan improves depends largely on domestic economic conditions, it should be noted that it is hard to precisely gauge the extent of diplomatic contributions to prosperity.


But the successful conclusion of the TPP11 (essentially the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the United States) and the Japan-European Union Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) are great achievements of Japan’s economic diplomacy in the context of growing protectionist tendencies globally.


The new Japan-U.S. trade agreement, although a less desirable arrangement than the complete TPP, causes no actual harm to Japan because its contents are largely on a par with the TPP pact. In the area of multilateral diplomacy, the Abe administration has hosted international meetings, such as the Group of 20’s Osaka Summit and the Seventh Summit of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD7) in Yokohama, through which it has laid the groundwork for the future by proposing and gaining support for spreading the concepts of quality infrastructure and “data free flow with trust.”


How can Abe’s diplomacy be evaluated relative to the third national goal of upholding the various values the Japanese populace regards as important? The role diplomacy plays in attaining this goal is not as big as in the cases of peace and prosperity because its achievement basically requires greater domestic efforts. For example, democracy and freedom are things that must be protected and fostered by the people themselves. But certain values connected with the reputation or self-esteem of Japanese people often involve diplomacy. Among the most typical cases are issues related to views of history.


When the current Abe administration was launched in late 2012, China and South Korea were vehemently criticizing Japan for the way it viewed history. Today, China hardly mentions the issue of historical views. True, history remains a thorn in the side of Japan-South Korea relations, as the biggest contentious issue between Tokyo and Seoul is the issue of former wartime requisitioned workers. But the possibility that the South Korean government will continue using issues of history as a lever against Japan is getting significantly lower. This is because Abe issued a statement in the summer of 2015, marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, that was acceptable to many in Japan as well as many in East Asia, and concluded a Japan-South Korea agreement on so-called comfort women in December of the same year.


To many in Japan, the currently deteriorated state of Japan-South Korea relations is a situation that has stemmed from the South Korean government’s unilateral measures regarding Japan. In addition, there is a major difference from the past on the South Korean side — almost all opposition members in the country’s National Assembly hold the South Korean government responsible for the deterioration of relations with Japan.


Scrutinizing the seven years of Abe’s diplomacy in this way leads to the conclusion that the Abe administration has attained significant achievements regarding each of the three national interest goals. Of course, there has been no progress on the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals nor on the issue of the northern territories. However, lack of progress on these two issues should not be overstated because relations with Pyongyang and Moscow involve fundamental difficulties. Also, the Japanese government needs to keep in mind that it must not seek to solve a particular issue at the cost of harming other important national interests. Therefore, in dealing with North Korea, the government must not make any compromise that would jeopardize the security of Japan. Likewise, it must not compromise without good reason with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has little concern for the variety of values prized by Japanese people.


Yet, doesn’t Abe’s diplomacy face an array of challenges? Of course it does. One of the challenges is related to Japan-China relations. Japan continues to face the issue of activities of Chinese government vessels in waters around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and the detention in China of a number of Japanese nationals.


Chinese President Xi Jinping’s forthcoming state visit to Japan is reported to be an event that will definitely happen in the spring of 2020 as planned. If so, the Abe administration needs to be extremely careful in dealing with what news outlets occasionally refer to as the “fifth political document” that may be issued by the Japanese and Chinese governments during Xi’s visit, to outline the future of Japan-China relations. It must not allow such a document to include wording that will impair the security and values on which Japan depends.


Another challenge is the future of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an East Asian trade deal. Japan, for its part, maintains that the participation of India in the RCEP is essential for a desirable trade order in the region. But now that India’s withdrawal is becoming more likely, Japan needs to devise a new strategy. If India is not comfortable with the current RCEP members, Japan may be advised to propose a framework in which India can join. An Indo-Pacific economic partnership that would group Japan, India, East African coastal countries and Australia, among other countries, might be one such idea.


Tanaka is president of the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), a post he assumed in April 2017. Previously, he was a University of Tokyo professor specializing in international politics. He was president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency from 2012 to 2015 and vice president of the University of Tokyo from 2009 to 2012.

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