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Commentary: Explaining Japan’s ‘astute diplomacy”



Speaking at the opening of the current session of Parliament on Jan. 17, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida asserted: “Amid an increasingly severe and complex international situation, this is a year that will test how astute Japanese diplomacy can be.”


He continued: “I will stand at the fore, firmly holding aloft the flag of ideals for the future, and, looking squarely at the actual situation, pursue ‘realism diplomacy for a new era.’” Tellingly, in subsequent weeks the English version of Kishida’s speech underwent some revisions.


While the initial English translation released by the Cabinet Office rendered Kishida’s vision of Japanese diplomacy as “tough but adaptable,” this was recently changed to “astute,” as in “astute diplomacy” (shitatakana gaikō), presumably in an effort to dispel any negative connotation inherent to the original Japanese. The administration’s struggle to convey to the world a diplomatic position that is realistic, persistent and flexible is understandable given an international environment that has been roiled by U.S-China tensions, changes to the international order and geoeconomic conflicts that weaponize economies.


The greatest diplomatic challenge facing Japan is the confrontation between the U.S. and China.


U.S. President Joe Biden’s America is less an extension of the United States under former President Donald than the flip side of the same coin. While stressing the importance of alliances, the Biden administration nevertheless abruptly announced the new trilateral AUKUS security pact with Australia and the U.K. before informing another U.S. ally, France. Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class,” moreover, sounds like just another name for Trump’s “America First” agenda. The U.S. dismissed the idea of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) as a foregone conclusion and is now calling for an “Indo-Pacific economic framework.”


Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government is more than willing to make full use of the existing international order if it serves China’s interests. If those interests are not served, however, Beijing will attempt to weaken a particular structure or create a parallel one. When it comes to the international order and rule-making, China does its utmost to apply its own form of governance (in other words, one that reflects its own “Chinese characteristics”). If rules do not reflect national conditions, or comply with the interests of “national safety,” China demands special treatment — and uses economic coercion to deal with any countries that object. Beijing’s ultimate concern is expanding its own sphere of influence.


Domestic chaos in the U.S. and the lack of a consistent U.S. foreign policy are grave concerns for the Kishida administration. Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” consists of such disconnected ideas as denouncing China’s “state capitalism,” using AUKUS as a one-shot response to China’s nuclear missile build-up and convening a “democracy summit” to play a leading role in raising the morale of the world’s freedom camp.


The world, however, is paying closer attention to where the U.S. has been absent (its omissions) than to these fresh pledges (or commissions). It was precisely because China calculated that domestic political factors would prevent the U.S. from joining the CPTPP that it put forward its own application for membership. The rest of the world will no longer wait upon the U.S. to act. Washington is not yet fully aware of this fact — and lacks the resolve to delegate its leadership role to a trusted ally.


Furthermore, the U.S. decision to exclude Vietnam and Singapore from the democracy summit — at a time when the U.S. ought to be rallying as many like-minded countries as possible to stand against China — was a meaningless distinction that has ended up dividing Asia.


The more that American foreign policy is held hostage by domestic politics, the less the U.S. will be able to respond to developments in the Asia Pacific. This may be the “new normal.” Yet Japan risks being isolated from the rest of Asia if a retreating U.S. pulls its ally along with it.

The U.S. is an ally that Japan cannot abandon. China knows this — and is waiting for Japan to exhaust its remaining affection for the U.S.

This is why Japan’s foreign policy must be astute. This also means deploying the type of imaginative and dextrous diplomacy needed to play a constructive role by forcing the U.S. to engage with Asia rather than divide it and pressing China to observe international rules rather than expand its sphere of influence.


Incidentally, words like “astute” and “tough but adaptable” were once used to describe Chinese foreign policy. They even appear in the title of a 1975 book by Takehiko Tadokoro, “Shitatakana Rinjin: Chūgoku” (“China: Our Astute Neighbor”). Once China establishes a goal, it relentlessly pursues its realization. Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping were both master practitioners of “astute diplomacy.”


Today, however, Beijing’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” lashes out at anyone who criticizes China or withholds praise. This new posture is the product of a Chinese nationalism in which pride and humiliation are inextricably linked. It was because both Zhou and Deng had the political strength to suppress this strain of patriotism that they were able to achieve an “astute foreign policy.”


The evolving translation of Kishida’s address to the country’s Parliament begs the question of why the prime minister felt the need to deliberately characterize Japan’s diplomatic stance as “astute” in the first place. Might it not be more “astute,” in fact, to silently pursue Japan’s diplomatic goals?


Nevertheless, we should place our hopes in Kishida’s “tough but adaptable” foreign policy. This will require an equally astute handling of domestic politics: Japan’s leaders must listen carefully to the voices of the people while skillfully containing the more violent passions (nationalism) of the nation.


Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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