With no end in sight for North Korea to back down from its hardline military stance, and continued worries about Chinese aggression in the region, there is no shortage of concerns that countries across the Asia-Pacific share. The challenge, however, is not identifying the common threats facing the world’s most populous region, or even coming up with potential solutions that could ensure continued growth across Asia. Rather, the biggest hurdle has been to push countries to focus on unity against the common threats, and not to be at loggerheads over their differences on secondary or even tertiary issues. For even as the possibility of outright military conflict in Asia continues to grow, such fears have not deterred East Asia’s most powerful nations from dwelling on the past and politicizing history to further their own positions today. Moreover, the manipulation of historical memory has become only one of many factors driving up nationalist sentiment across Asia, which increasingly destabilizes a region already fraught with tension, both real and perceived. For Japan, facing threats unprecedented since the beginning of the Cold War era and seeking to play an active role in leadership—especially against the background of Donald Trump’s unilateralism—the absence of consensus and urgency about imminent dangers in the region leaves it without a clear path forward.
After all, the very real threats arising from Pyongyang’s ambitions also coincide with the turmoil of establishing a newly defined order in Asia. Some are ready to concede that China is now the region’s superpower. If those who anticipate a G2 world, composed of the United States and China, acknowledge that Beijing is still not as powerful globally as its rival, nonetheless, they are tempted to view China as already Asia’s hegemon, the single most important economic partner for most Asian countries. Attempts to expand its territorial foothold in the South China Sea, coupled with the surge in Beijing’s military expenditure over the past decade, have ensured that China is not just an economic force to be reckoned with, but a military power as well. Moreover, China’s animosity toward Japan’s leadership role and obsession with isolating it and weakening not only its alliance with the United States but also its partnerships in the region put at risk any efforts by Japan to take a more “pro-active” position.
For Japan, the shift in the regional order has been difficult, if not outright impossible, to swallow. In response to China’s growing military aggression, Tokyo has made some fundamental changes to defining itself as a nation. In September 2015, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo succeeded in reinterpreting the Constitution so that Japan could remain a pacifist nation but also engage in military operations overseas as part of its mission of so-called collective self-defense. That move, however, faced formidable opposition from within Japan, exceeding public furor that followed the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, which threatened public health. Protesters resisted the prospect of Japan losing its postwar identity of renouncing war as a means to resolve conflict, and turning away from its seven-decade-long pacifist tradition. Likewise, reinterpretation of article nine of the Japanese Constitution also faced protests from neighboring South Korea and China, which feared that this would be the first step for Tokyo to revert to its militaristic past.
But in recent months, the tide has been turning in Abe’s favor, with growing expectations of a more proactive Japan on the global stage. Hopes for greater Japanese leadership from within as well as outside of the country as a direct result of growing concerns about the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific and more broadly, to foreign policy and to preservation of the liberal democratic order that it had been key to establishing. For while Washington has been the greatest beneficiary of Pax Americana politically and economically, Japan too has undoubtedly benefitted from the Washington-prescribed order for the world and the rules it has prescribed. The Japanese public is intent on sustaining this order, including taking a greater role in keeping US allies and partners in the region working together, which is now viewed as requiring more direct Japanese leadership.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of establishing new trade rules, which has raised expectations for Japanese leadership. With Trump pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement during his first week in office, it has become evident that trade is not seen as a tool for diplomacy for the current administration. While the Obama White House tried desperately to rally support for the TPP deal, emphasizing the security angle of trade relations that would boost ties between the 12 diverse member countries, Washington under Trump has made clear that the single most important factor for trade would be to increase US exports and reduce deficits. With Washington no longer being part of the most ambitious trade deal drafted to date, Japan is the single biggest economy that is pushing for TPP to remain a viable agreement, to promote non-tariff issues including protecting intellectual property rights and improving rules for online commerce, as much as ensuring a coalition of governments in the region that does not include China. Abe has enjoyed as solid a relation with Trump as any global leader can, having ensured that he connected personally with the new president, and has continued to state that Japan wants the United States to reconsider and rejoin TPP. In short, Abe has made clear that he wants to be the custodian of the trade deal and keep it intact until a new administration takes over in Washington. This means that Japan aspires to fill the vacuum left by the US default in 2017.
Unlike China, Japan is not looking to usurp Washington’s position in the Asia Pacific, or to replace Pax Americana with a new regional order over which it would be at the helm. Rather, Tokyo’s aspirations are to preserve the system that has been key to its own success until a new leadership is in place in Washington on the one hand, and to thwart Beijing’s ambitions of a China-led order on the other. In short, Japan would be the interim leader of the global order in Asia, and would continue to press with viable alternatives to China’s grand schemes for regional hegemony. Granted, some analysts would argue that Tokyo’s strategy is actually that of strategic hedging, that is to say it is keeping its options open and looking to work closely with Beijing, given the uncertainties of the Trump administration’s Asia policy. The fact that a close Abe advisor, Nikai Toshiro, who is also a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, went to the annual Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May at the last minute, contrasted sharply with the US decision to be represented by Matthew Pottinger of the National Security Council at a venue where rank speaks volumes about a country’s desire for engagement. Tokyo appears to have broken ranks with the United States concerning the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) too, as it has now suggested that it would consider joining the development bank, albeit with conditions that some doubt China would meet. With the 40th anniversary of the China-Japan friendship treaty looming next year, overtures aimed at further rapprochement between Tokyo and Beijing can be expected. Such moves in mid-2017 suggest hedging by Japan, but they may actually be directed at reassuring other states of Japan’s flexibility.
Japan is clearly apprehensive about a China-led regional order, and is taking steps to provide alternative visions. Its partnership with India, for instance, to develop a strategy for military as well as economic and political engagement in the Indo-Pacific region certainly provides an option for countries in Southeast Asia and beyond, seeking aid that is not dependent on China. Japan has also boosted capitalization for the Asia Development Bank, which it leads, in direct response to the establishment of the AIIB. Few states in the Indo-Pacific region are ready to join against China at this stage; Japan is wise to combine such countermeasures with signs of flexibility, as it operates in lieu of its ally while the mechanics of the struggle over regional order play out.
Yet, there are two major hurdles for Japanese leadership of the liberal order, even in an interim, caretaker capacity. Firstly, public support for Japan to take on a greater role is tepid, while Abe’s own power is faltering, with Japanese tabloids rife with speculation as to when, not if, Abe will be forced out of office. Of course, the prime minister’s unshakable legacy will remain that he ended the revolving door of Japanese leaders since he assumed office for the second time in December 2012. Abe himself, however, has been far more ambitious for what he wants his administration’s legacy to be, namely to build even more on his conservative security agenda, and allow Japan to revise its pacifist Constitution.
When public support for his leadership seemed unshakeable, that goal seemed within reach. In fact, when Abe declared his intention to make constitutional change a reality by 2020 earlier this year, few had doubted that he could in spite of public wariness of such a move. Now, though, there is enough disgruntlement against him that skepticism is growing about his ability to remain leader of the LDP beyond September 2018, when his second term expires. Granted, opposition parties have failed to capitalize on Abe’s unpopular policies, and it is highly unlikely that any would be able to win against the LDP outright. Nevertheless, with Abe’s hold on his party weakening, the possibility of a new LDP leader emerging is growing. Certainly, there is more discussion about a post-Abe Japan, albeit one that would remain under the rule of the same political party. But the question then becomes whether Abe’s ambitions for Japan to enhance its military capabilities and play a greater role as a regional leader will remain a core policy of the LDP, or whether that will go away with his departure. Even if there were a consensus within the LDP to adhere to Abe’s directives and pursue constitutional change, such a move would not be easy. A formal amendment to the Constitution will require two-thirds approval from both houses of the Diet in addition to voter support from a public referendum.
The second, and more constraining hurdle for Japanese leadership in the region in the long term is the lack of appetite within Asia, especially in neighboring South Korea, to encourage a stronger, more decisive Japan. It would seem reasonable that relations between Tokyo and Seoul would become stronger now than ever, given the very real and pressing threat of North Korea. Yet even the possibility of war triggered by Pyongyang has failed to dampen the continued fervor to politicize historical memory. As recently as mid-August, days after Kim Jong-un threatened to attack Guam via Japanese airspace, statues symbolizing the Korean sex slaves forced to work in military brothels under Japanese occupation were placed on five buses in central Seoul. The Japanese foreign ministry stated in response that placing the statues on buses that are popular with Japanese tourists visiting Korea is detrimental to bilateral relations at a time when Japan and South Korea are trying to work together to counter common threats.
The latest campaign to highlight the plight of the so-called comfort women during World War II exemplifies the seemingly unshakeable hurdle of history and the steady rise of nationalism that continues to hinder a Northeast Asian stance on critical issues affecting the region, which is not limited to concerns about North Korea and China, but also economic growth prospects and trade relations. According to the Japanese public opinion research group Genron’s latest survey on Japan-Korea relations released in July, 48 percent of Japanese polled said they view South Korea unfavorably, even as over 70 percent of those surveyed in both countries said that finding a solution to deal with North Korea will be difficult.
Such distrust continues to prevail in the media and public forums, and remains a stumbling block to promoting a united front in the face of grave common threats, posed by Kim Jong-un’s regime. Coupled with the fact that Abe is facing considerable challenges at home to be seen as a leader in command, it is unlikely that Japan will be able to step up to become the regional leader that it aspires to be at a time when strong leadership promoting regional cooperation across Asia is clearly in need.
Complicating Japan’s troubled quest for a greater regional leadership role is the continued uncertainty about the Trump administration: its mixed messages including threats to take military action against North Korea, signals of a tougher trade posture against China but not right away, and more frequent freedom of navigation operations without explaining as to how it will deal with China in the South China Sea. It is not easy to be a surrogate for the United States, when Washington’s inward-looking policies are far from that and its coordination with allies is at an all-time low since 1945. Abe may try to work around South Korea, keep China ties from slipping further, and cope with a diminished mandate at home while further pursuing partners in Asia. Yet, the shadow of uncertainty leaves little room for more than a holding operation.