Japanese foreign policy in the Trump era

TOKYO • December will be a month of reconciliation for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as he meets leaders from two countries that fought Japan in World War II: the United States and Russia.

It might seem promising that Mr Abe is hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin and then being hosted by US President Barack Obama in such short order. But these events actually presage an uncomfortable, potentially destabilising, time for Japan - and all of East Asia.

On Dec 26, Mr Abe will shake hands with Mr Obama at Pearl Harbor - weeks after the US marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack there - to reciprocate Mr Obama's visit to Hiroshima's atomic bomb site in May. The mutual demonstration of forgiveness is meant to emphasise the values that Japan and the US now share.

But this gesture will come just 10 days after Mr Abe hosts Mr Putin in his Yamaguchi prefecture home town; and theirs will be a rather different sort of reconciliation. Russia is one of the few countries with which Japan never signed a peace treaty after 1945 because, in the war's final days, the Soviet Union occupied four then Japanese islands just north of Hokkaido, the country's northern-most main island.

The four islands sit at the southern tip of the Kuril Islands chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. While they are not of any particular economic value beyond providing some fishing grounds, they do have sentimental significance for Japan - as is often the case with lost territories. And for Russia, which is never keen to cede territory, the islands are strategically valuable - the Kremlin recently decided to install missile defence systems on two of them.

While the dispute over the islands has prevented Japan and Russia from formalising a peace agreement, both countries now seem to want to cuddle somewhat closer. Mr Putin's trip will be his first official visit to Japan in a decade and Mr Abe plans to honour him with personalised treatment - their discussions will take place in the manly environment of an onsen (hot spring), rather than in dull offices.

Above: Police officers on patrol near the resort where the two leaders are holding discussions. PHOTO: REUTERS

These overtures reflect Russia and Japan's respective concerns about China. While Russia has warmed up to China in recent years, not least by entering into a big natural gas deal and engaging in joint military exercises, it has largely done so as a gesture of defiance against the US and the European Union. In the long term, Russia does not want to look as though it is dependent on its increasingly powerful southern neighbour. Japan, for its part, fears Chinese domination of East Asia, and is more than happy to be Russia's new Asian friend.

Mr Putin and Mr Abe during their meeting at a hot spring resort in Nagato yesterday. The Japanese Prime Minister is hosting the Russian leader in his Yamaguchi prefecture home town. PHOTO: REUTERS

Previously, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Japan to invest in Russia's Far East, owing to its participation in Western sanctions against Russia, imposed in response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine. But now that Mr Donald Trump has been elected US president, those sanctions might be eased or eliminated. Indeed, this could explain why Mr Abe broke protocol to become the first foreign leader to meet President-elect Trump in New York last month.

Mr Obama and Mr Abe at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in May this year. The Japanese Prime Minister will meet Mr Obama at Pearl Harbor on Dec 26. PHOTO: REUTERS

Had Mrs Hillary Clinton won the election, Mr Abe would have been forced to downplay expectations for his summit with Mr Putin. Now, Mr Putin and Mr Abe will have more room to negotiate the contested islands' status and to develop a future framework for economic cooperation, which will likely include regular bilateral summits.

But this will only be a consolation prize for Mr Abe. Mr Trump's victory has sounded a death knell for the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr Obama had made the centrepiece of his Asia strategy. Mr Abe supported the TPP, and saw it as a means to prevent China from becoming the rule-setter in Asian trade. Without the TPP, it is now increasingly likely that China will step into that role.

That will be a big loss for Japan, and the country will lose out even more if Mr Trump follows through on his campaign promise to make allies such as Japan and South Korea pay more for their own defence. And if Mr Trump continues to provoke China by communicating with Taiwan and questioning America's "one China" policy, regional tensions will escalate. This, in turn, will only increase Japan's defence needs, especially with respect to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claims as its own.

So, Mr Abe faces political danger, but he also has an opportunity. Mr Trump's election and escalating regional tensions have created the perfect pretext for Mr Abe to push for his ultimate political goal: to abolish Article Nine - the pacifist clause in Japan's post-war, US-imposed Constitution, which limits the Japanese military to a "self-defence force" and has generally kept Japanese defence spending at 1 per cent of gross domestic product.

Mr Abe already has enough parliamentary backing to achieve this, and he could garner more with a snap election for the Lower House early next year. But beyond a two-thirds majority in both parliamentary bodies, constitutional reforms also require a simple majority in a national referendum. Achieving that could be harder because pacifism runs deep in the only country to have been attacked with atomic bombs.

By shaking Mr Obama's hand in Hawaii, Mr Abe will give a nod to the country's modern pacifist creed and signal that, despite his reputation as a nationalist, he also harbours deep feelings about the dangers of war. Such peaceful assurances, against the backdrop of growing tensions in East Asia, may or may not be enough to persuade Japanese voters that it is time to expand their country's armed forces - 75 years after their great but fateful triumph in Pearl Harbor.

This will be one of the central questions in Asian politics over the next few turbulent years.


•The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Economist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2016, with the headline 'Japanese foreign policy in the Trump era'. Print Edition | Subscribe