In late spring and early summer, the focus of the Japanese media shifted from the G7 and Obama’s visit to Hiroshima to the South China Sea ruling and China’s angry response, followed by intensified pressure on ASEAN. The overall impact was for Japan to strengthen relations with the United States (despite nervousness about Trump) and polarize against China (despite wanting to avoid any confrontation). Meanwhile, improved relations with Russia, continued progress with South Korea, and strong hostility toward North Korea remained largely the same. Despite sharp differences over the constitutional revision, reflected in discussions related to the LDP victory in July’s Upper House elections, the split between the conservatives and progressives was rather muted on foreign policy. Even so, those studying changes in US politics, Japan-Russia relations, or South Korea’s foreign policy found cause to anticipate new conditions favorable to a more assertive Japan.
Despite positive imagery from the G7 summit and Obama’s visit to Hiroshima alongside Abe, there were signs of unease in the Japan-US relationship. The Sochi Abe-Putin summit, to the dissatisfaction of the US government, heightened talk of an “autonomous” foreign policy. Donald Trump’s hold of the Republican Party triggered calls among some in Japan for seizing this opportunity to reassess “unequal” relations. There was no groundswell of anti-Americanism, despite the incidents with American personnel behaving badly in Okinawa; at the same time, there was no celebration of a strengthened bond with high hopes for greater unity
Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was well received, but Yomiuri on May 22 noted the possibility of a “double-edged sword” if the Japan-US history debate were to be rekindled. It pointed to voices in the United States calling for Abe to visit Pearl Harbor at the time of the 75th anniversary of Japan’s attack in December, but indicated that the Kantei had rejected State Department’s exploratory overtures, as it had previously requested that Japan’s prime minister visit Pearl Harbor before a US president venture to Hiroshima. While Obama could couch his visit as future-oriented, a Japanese visit would be seen as an apology, reinforcing the one-sided inimical image of Japan during the war. Abe’s comments before the Congress about US prisoners of war and Obama’s visit to Hiroshima served to boost relations, but Yomiuri warned about going further.
Sankei on May 25 highlighted long-avoided topics among the Japanese, as Trump asserts a US exit from the Asia Pacific. It equated his impact to the arrival of the black ships that had aroused Japan in 1853. On May 24, its headline read, “China will seize the Senkaku Islands right away” if the US troops do as Trump advocates. In Tokyo Shimbun on May 22, Park Cheolhee warned that what Trump was saying is the “hone” of ethnocentrism in the face of the rising influx of Hispanic and Asian migrants, raising the strong possibility of US retreat and isolationism. As a Korean, Park sees the same phenomenon in Japan among the alienated, as right-wing groups champion exclusionism and spread hate speech.
Hosoya Yuichi in Yomiuri on June 20 suggested holding a debate focusing on Japan’s responsibility to contribute to international society, rather than avoiding collective self-defense or ignoring its role in international diplomatic and security efforts. As Japan grows increasingly uneasy about or even critical of the Japan-US alliance, Hosoya finds a lack of debate on how Japan can assume greater responsibility. He observes that diplomacy with China and Russia is now in the forefront. In the run-up to the G20 summit, will China agree to a Xi-Abe summit and then to a Japan-China-ROK trilateral meeting in Japan in the fall? In light of the leadership struggle under way in China as well as the economic slowdown, he fears an escalating danger for the Sino-Japanese relations. Hosoya also appeals for new willingness to compromise with Russia as he believes it is the only way to reach an agreement at a time of uncertainty the United States’ retreat from Asia, particularly in light of Trump’s presidential bid. He concludes that Japan should not overly depend on the United States, and instead strengthen its own defenses, and, although no direct link is declared, strive to improve ties with Russia.
In a Yomiuri editorial of July 5, there was a call to discuss differences in Japan on how to deal with Asian security, noting that all but the Communist Party and Shaminto agree on the Japan-US alliance as its cornerstone. The LDP seeks to strengthen ties based on common values with Australia, India, ASEAN, and Europe. It stresses a maritime order and seeks to build trust with South Korea along with the US in the face of rising China and North Korea. The Komeito seeks closer Japan-ROK relations and trilateral Japan-ROK-China talks for regional stability. The Minshinto seeks to repeal the new security law, while broadening Japan’s peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. The prospects for consensus in addressing China’s militarization of the South China Sea remain unclear. It is this consensus that Yomiuri seems to be seeking. The communists call for a return to the Six-Party Talks for the North Korean nuclear issue, which clearly lacks consensus.
The emergence of Trump gave rise to reassessments of US policy in Asia, highlighting concerns about US isolationism as Japan seeks more independent policies in the lingering aftermath of the Iraq War. Undervaluing allies and showing softness toward China are signs of trouble, Sankei on June 10 notes, blaming Obama’s refusal to let the United States be the world’s policeman. Yet, it does recognize that Trump is far from Obama in forming allies. The article explains Abe’s pursuit of Russia as a sign of unwillingness to rely solely on the United States.
The G7 Summit
Hosoya Yuichi in Yomiuri Shimbun on May 23 wrote about the resurgence of the G7 since its eclipse by the G20 in 2008—Japan hosted the former and China will be hosting the latter just five months later. This comeback reflects the economic uncertainty around the world and growing awareness about the need to bolster international order in the face of challenges from Russia and China. On May 26, Yomiuri described a time of awakening for Japanese diplomacy, praising Abe’s leadership in reviving the G7 as a pillar of the free world and responding to China in the South China Sea, while also preparing for the day when Russia would return to the fold and, subsequently, China.
The next day, it went further to argue that Russia’s absence in G7 had rendered agreements ineffective and cast doubt on how the G7 can deal with major global problems, such as sanctions on Russia and cooperation with it. On May 26, it had also expressed fear that Putin would negatively react to Japan if the G7 targeted Russia, but it claimed success in separating the G7 from the Japan-Russia talks, while the United States was placated by continued sanctions. Tokyo Shimbun on May 28 saw limits to the G7’s effectiveness, highlighting European states’ refusal to name China in their South China Sea statement and claims that Tokyo and Washington had exercised restraint to avoid friction with them. Sankei on that same day noted Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s claim that the G20 takes precedence over the G7, since the former includes developed and developing states; simultaneously, Wang expressed dissatisfaction with Japan and the April G7 foreign ministers’ stance on the South China Sea as not helpful for regional stability. No notice was given to the fact that in the 1990s Japan lost interest in the G7, setting its sights on regionalism.
Togo Kazuhiko in Gekkan Nihon, No. 6, called the Abe-Putin Sochi summit a success. It was in defiance of Obama, who in February had appealed to Abe not to go forward with this summit; according to Togo, it also reflects Japan’s consideration about becoming autonomous from the United States in the long run. Building ties with Putin is not primarily about the balance of power, readers will understand, but about the long-buried problem of historical consciousness in Japan-Russia relations.
The great significance of the May 6 summit for Togo was boosting trust between the two leaders, notably demonstrated by Putin’s delight at Abe’s eight-point economic cooperation plan. Togo describes this as part of an ongoing search by the leaders of Japan and Russia to achieve a breakthrough: 1) it is very similar to the 1997 “Hashimoto-Yeltsin plan,” when Japan used economic incentives to entice Russia; and 2) it bears resemblance to the 2007 Abe-Putin talks in Germany about initiating closer cooperation in the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia. As before, there are reports of building an LNG plant for Sakhalin natural gas, increasing exports via a pipeline to Japan, or constructing electrical lines as an “energy bridge,” and finally, interest in these projects by Japanese firms. Togo finds such ambitious plans difficult to realize in the face of financing issues and sanctions, but if Abe’s eight themes were to materialize, he anticipates a positive impact on Russia’s economy. Putin’s invitation to Abe to attend the September Vladivostok Eastern Economic Forum is proof that Putin takes seriously what Abe seeks to accomplish.
As for resolving the territorial issue, Togo recalls jointly publishing in 2013 with former ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov a “2 islands plus alpha” plan. This would lead to the return of the two islands, in accordance with the 1956 agreement, and a special economic zone on the other two islands, as Yeltsin agreed in 1998 in relation to all four islands. Togo acknowledges that circumstances have changed. He compares the current talks to those of 1991, when Russia was at its weakest and Japan was under the illusion of the peak of its “bubble economy”—Russia saw Japan as a partner in reconstruction. A second window of opportunity in 2001 already narrowed the prospects for parallel negotiations on the two large islands. By 2012, when the third window of opportunity was opened, talks began again, but they were interrupted in 2014 by the Ukraine crisis.
From Moscow’s point of view, talks have now been halted three times due to Japan’s refusals. Togo claims that this leaves Japan in a less favorable position. Russia has been developing the islands and mobilizing labor from neighboring countries with the possibility of attracting tourists there, while the Japanese, in principle, are not permitted to go there by the Japanese government. Visa-free travel, which many Japanese take for granted, may not enjoy permanence once Russia considers it no longer worthwhile, as it keeps extending the period of its effective control. Togo calls for agreeing to two islands and joint development of the other two, cultivating peace and cooperation in the Northern Territories islands, attracting tourists and allowing the Japanese to live there.
While some Japanese, including Sankei Shimbun, argue that Putin will not make a deal, Togo offers three reasons why he would: 1) to balance against China, whose future expansion is unpredictable; 2) for economic reasons since Putin recognizes that a strong economy is necessary for the consolidation of national power; and 3) to finalize border demarcation with the last remaining territorial disputant, a matter more important for Russia than the Japanese are aware,. Statements by Putin and Lavrov in April, which contradict hardline statements by Russian officials in late 2015, renew hope that the frameworks of 1956 and 2001 have been revived, Togo adds.
One final theme in the Togo article draws an unexpected historical linkage at a time when Obama’s plan to visit Hiroshima was not yet finalized. He contrasts the need for Japan to apologize to South Korea and China with the way it should deal with the United States, a fellow imperialist power, whose past interests clashed with those of Japan in China. Pearl Harbor, he argues, resulted from the inability to resolve these clashing interests through diplomacy and Japan’s recognition that America had no intention to avoid war as demonstrated by the Hull note. Togo sees a complete split of views not only in public perception but also in the scholarship of the two countries.
Togo also raises questions about whether use of the atomic bomb was necessary, arguing that if the United States had been willing to accept Japan’s “kokutai” (national essence) the Emperor was ready to end the war quickly, as was well known by top American Japan-hands of this period. Truman at Potsdam removed acceptance of this at the last stage. Togo acknowledges that in the broad national consciousness there is a deep split although at the scholarly level serious efforts from both sides are continuing to study the end of war period. Togo makes it clear that positive US-Japanese trust built in the course of the past 70 years should not be broken by issues of historical consciousness, and, therefore, they should not be raised to the level of politics. But he considers continued dialogue at the scholarly level to bridge the gap on historical consciousness to be important. By linking this bilateral historical consciousness theme with Washington and Abe’s pursuit of Putin, Togo describes two sets of issues, which intimate a growing path for Japan to gain a more autonomous position in its relations with the United States.
On May 18 and 21, Asahi carried two upbeat articles on Russian overtures to Japan. Citing Yuri Ushakov, an aide to Putin, it evaluated the Russian response to Abe’s economic cooperation proposal on May 6 as indicating a big jump in Japanese investment in Russia. Investment had peaked at $7-8 billion in 2012 and fallen to $3 billion in 2014 and $4 billion in 2015 as Japanese companies’ interest was waning. Asahi added that as Russian interest in peace talks flagged, Japan realized that its priority for the economy presented the only way forward. Putin’s remarks on May 20 that Russia will discuss the islands as part of peace treaty talks was also seen as softening their 2015 stance that the islands were a separate matter. Yet, Mainichi on May 31 detected a more negative message, reporting that Lavrov, while accepting the 1956 agreement and implying the return of two islands, had insisted that Japan recognize that Russia had gained all of the islands as a result of the war—a stance directly at odds with Japan’s view. On May 26 Yomiuri contrasted the mood in the fall of 2015 in Japan-Russia relations, as Moscow took a harder line and Washington pressed Tokyo to exercise caution at a time of Russian assertiveness in Ukraine, to the atmosphere in spring of 2016 with Russia holding to the ceasefire and Abe taking charge with his new overtures.
On June 8 Asahi reported on a Keidanren delegation to Russia, following up Abe’s 8-point plan and discussing concrete areas of cooperation in the Russian Far East. It noted the delegation’s efforts to get Russia’s commitment to transparent administration, while clarifying Abe’s new approach of treating closer economic ties as a plus for resolving the territorial dispute. Tokyo Shimbun observed on May 20 that Putin at the Russia-ASEAN summit, while insisting that Russia was not selling its land, had drawn a connection between the economic and territorial talks with Japan, noting that economic cooperation changes the atmosphere for talks on territory. Putin also raised the possibility of an EEU-ASEAN FTA along with closer security ties that will be welcome to ASEAN as a way to increase stability in the region, the paper noted.
On June 27 Sankei described Putin as welcoming the Brexit decision, seeing it as the end of the movement east of the EU. It warned about Putin’s plan for a Greater Eurasian Economy (EEU-ASEAN), as he uses the collapse of the EU as a platform for Russia’s rise as a world power. It concluded that Russia was the loser in the Cold War, but Great Britain and the EU must not be the losers in the post-cold war. In contrast, Yomiuri on July 6 wrote of the revival of the Japan-Russia security cooperation talks on information exchanges, mutual trust, and peace treaty negotiations. Halted in 2014, they offer an opportunity, it asserts, for Japan to explain its new security laws and to ask Russia for explanations of the ongoing military build-up in the Russian Far East.
Australia’s decision to buy French rather than Japanese submarines in late May was seen in Sankei as a victory for the pro-China faction, strengthened by the high dependence on China for trade. On May 26, Sankei contrasted Turnbull with Abbott, who it calls pro-Japan with close ties to Abe, and warned that regional security cooperation is at stake. In Toa, No. 6, Ito Tsutomu emphasized Turnbull’s concern for boosting employment in advance of the July elections, putting a premium on building the new submarines at home, while Japan was too confident about its superior technology even as it lacked experience in the realities of arms exports. Japan rested its hopes too much on the significance of forging a new defense relationship and the idea that Obama behind the scenes favored Japan as a way to boost trilateralism against China. Ito is unambiguous in claiming that the result was a victory for Chinese diplomacy, noting the indirect warning by Wang Yi that Japan’s arms exports are limited by its constitution and laws. Ito said that Australia did not want to risk its relationship with China, on which it is heavily dependent economically.
Understanding of South Korea has grown in recent coverage, but it is tempered. On May 30, Yomiuri reported on Park’s visits in Africa, stressing her goal of breaking the North Korean trade/military networks there. Tokyo Shimbun on June 8 underlined growing trilateral defense cooperation, as indicated when officials met in Singapore, but it cautioned that South Korea remains wary of intelligence sharing directly with Japan. Sankei was most critical, on June 1, asserting that many in South Korea see the national honor as damaged by the December 28 agreement regarding the “comfort woman” issue,. The article added that even as Park established the committee for the disbursement of funds to come from Japan, as promised, and keeps defending the deal, South Korea has a record of reconsidering agreements after new presidents are elected; so it cannot be trusted. Asahi on June 1 also discussed the launching of the committee and noted that an internal battle was brewing on how to use the money. Some suggested building a memorial hall. The committee called on the Japanese government to help Park by creating an atmosphere for removing the statue, not imposing conditions for the use of the $1 billion yen before transferring it. On June 5, Sankei observed that in the US-ROK naval exercises, Japanese naval vessels were not allowed near the ROK ones, as Hankyoreh warned about Japan’s flag there, symbolizing militarism.
On June 7, a Yomiuri editorial praised the establishment of the committee preparing to allocate the “comfort women” fund, but warned about increased pressure on Park in the aftermath of the April National Assembly elections. Two opposition parties are opposed to the December 28 deal, insisting that Japan must take legal responsibility, as well as to the new committee, calling for renegotiating the issue. Given a lack of public support for the agreement (73 percent opposed), Yomiuri calls on Park to resist the opposition as the process unfolds, and reminds that the statue must be removed. On June 5, Asahi went further in warning against some in the LDP who insist on removal of the statue before Japan releases the funds, which would only harden the South Korean public’s opposition. On the other hand, it also objected to those in South Korea who are insistent on reparations, which also would not be helpful in carrying out this agreement. Noting the recent effort of NGOs in China, Japan, and South Korea to have UNESCO collect materials on the “comfort women,” Asahi called on the South Korean government to restrain UNESCO, while also reminding the Japanese government, which is blocking registration with UNESCO, the importance of closure on this issue. . The main thrust is how to carry the agreement forward. Sankei on June 2 put the blame for the UNESCO movement on the Chinese, contending that the December 28 deal was a blow to its efforts to join forces with South Korea in using the “history card” against Japan, but now it sees an opportunity to use a new strategy with NGOs to constrain Park’s opening to Japan.
Calm management of Japan-ROK relations continues, but Asahi on July 16 warned that tenacious voices in the LDP are pushing for the removal of the statue and it is possible that Abe will shift his position to press for this. Sankei also noted the Abe-Park meeting at the ASEM summit in Ulan Bator, and said they did not touch on this issue as they discussed sincerely carrying out the December agreement and THAAD.
Two articles on South Korea explored cultural themes. On July 4, Sankei focused on the tourism boom, noting that in 2015, 4 million South Koreans (multiple trips by the same person are included) came to Japan, a 45% increase from the prior year and second only to 5 million Chinese arrivals. It was an example of how individual level contacts lead to positive images of Japan. On July 6, Asahi found a more negative theme, discussing a court case about a temple in Tsushima, regarding Japan’s attempt to recover a statue of Buddha stolen and taken to South Korea. South Korea claims that it was originally made in 1330 for a Korean temple, but taken by Japanese pirates who preyed along the coasts of China and the South Korea in the 13th-16th centuries.
On June 1, Sankei reported that despite the sanctions, firms in Japan were selling goods produced by North Korean workers. It blamed Zainichi Koreans operating in Dandong China for arranging for the goods to go to Japanese companies. On June 12 Yomiuri noted that Kim Jong-un, six years after rising to power, may follow his father’s path by turning outward, perhaps with a moratorium on nuclear tests. After succeeding in this area, it may begin with dialogue with China and take advantage of US and South Korean elections. To meet this challenge, the article calls for closer ROK-US-Japan linkages. The same day, the paper carried an article on the arrest of a North Korean official in Dandong and the confiscation of a large sum of money, explaining that cracking down on smuggling was meant to pressure the North. Reacting to the visit of a high North Korean official to China, Asahi on June 1 was uncertain as to whether the North would be successful, as it was in May 2013, when its official met with Xi Jinping only two months after a nuclear test. It would most likely attempt to convince China to break the sanctions regime, maintain the trade volume, and even prepare for a visit by Kim Jong-un. The paper noted China’s unhappiness with Kim, even though it left open the possibility that, at some point, Kim Jong-un would change course and be more successful with China.
On July 21 Asahi reported that China cancelled a North Korean trade fair in Dandong, which had opened annually from 2012. In 2014, it had involved more than 100 North Korean companies, leading to investments and trade of $1.3 billion. Moreover, tax-free markets and visa free day trips by North Koreans have ended.
Despite the calming intentions of Foreign Minister Kishida’s visit to Beijing at the end of April, coverage of China accentuated the negative developments in May and June. On May 19, after the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution on May 16, Yomiuri equated the cult personality of Xi Jinping with that of Mao Zedong, while reminding readers of the ten million Chinese dead or victimized during the movement. Sankei went further on June 9, questioning if the Cultural Revolution is only a matter of the past, as Xi increasingly relies on fear to arouse the Chinese public. Asahi on June 5 reported that Japanese bookstores, unlike those in Europe and the United States, have an abundance of books on the collapse of the Chinese economy. However, it observed that Japanese firms in China are split with some still seeing good business opportunities in the vast Chinese market and the ongoing technological developments in the country. On the same day, Asahi explained that Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s repeated hardline statements should not be taken at face value since he is campaigning to replace Yang Jiechi in 2017 as Xi’s top foreign policy advisor. Asahi on July 23 focused on Wang’s recent position too, arguing that after he served as ambassador to Japan, he is being careful not to be seen as soft on Japan, just as those who serve in China from Japan fear being mischaracterized as the “pro-China faction.” Wang will face significant competition when Yang Jiechi steps down next fall and may be seeking pursuing stronger rhetoric in his statements. Sankei had the most negative takeon July 6, recalling that in the second quarter of 2016 Japanese planes scrambled the most ever against Chinese planes, but that the Japanese government is in denial. In Asahi of July 7 there may have been an explanation: Abe seeks to meet with Xi at the G20 and he sees tourism as a pillar of his economic strategy, with a goal of 40 million visitors to Japan in 2020—. Even as China’s response to the South China Sea ruling raised tensions and shifted the blame to Japan and the United States, Asahi on July 16 appealed for calm dialogue between China and Japan.
Sankei on May 18 offered four reasons why Sino-Japanese relations are in decline: 1) Xi is seeking to boost unity at home by showcasing a foreign enemy; 2) China is under the misunderstanding that there is a revival of Japanese militarism; 3) the pro-Japan faction in China and pro-China political faction in Japan have declined; and 4) the power shift from Japan to China means that China no longer needs Japan. On June 7, Nishihara Masashi in Sankei (Seiron) concluded that China’s diplomacy is failing, leaving the country isolated. Xi’s effort to limit US freedom of navigation actions has failed, the December 28 Japan-ROK agreement signified failure to use the history issue to split Seoul and Tokyo, China’s soft posture toward Pyongyang has also split Seoul and Beijing as seen in the progress of US-ROK THAAD talks, Taiwan rejected the framework in PRC-Taiwan relations in May, China is increasingly isolated as witnessed in Obama’s trip to Vietnam, and Abe’s success at the G7 meeting in deepening European consciousness of Chinese activities in Asia is one more blow to Chinese diplomacy. On June 5, Yomiuri also wrote about China’s international isolation, especially with the “diplomatic war” against the United States and Japan. Treating South Korea, Southeast Asia, and major European states as the battlefields in this diplomatic struggle, the Japanese see China isolating itself, although Asahi on June 7 wondered if creative Japanese diplomacy could not rebuild trust.
On June 2, Sankei reported on a conference on Okinawa in Beijing, at which opinions were exchanged on self-determination, independence, and the US military presence. Charging that the PLA was behind the event, the aim of which was to undermine both Japan’s right to defense and sovereignty, the paper noted the presence of Okinawans and the Okinawan media, implying that they were playing into the hands of Chinese maneuvering to split Okinawa from Japan.
After a Chinese naval vessel sailed near a Japanese island (with a Russian ship close by), coverage of China in mid-June stressed its intentional escalation of tensions. On June 9, Yomiuri argued that China’s behavior should be differentiated from that of Russia since China is claiming territory and Russia has not been raising tensions, but Asahi gave higher probability that the actions of the two states were linked.A day later, Yomiuri was less sure, while insisting that Russia was not one-sided on the Senkaku issue since its position is that China and Japan should resolve the matter. Yet, Yomiuri saw increasing Sino-Russian naval cooperation in the Pacific. The paper called for more urgency in talks with China to agree on a mechanism for avoiding accidental contacts at sea. Sankei on June 10 was clearer on Russia’s aim to press Japan to yield on the territorial issue, as it gets more assertive on the Northern Territories. This should be resisted, Sankei wrote, since Russia needs Japan’s economic cooperation and is in a difficult situation.
Yomiuri on July 9 focused on the importance of THAAD in strengthening the US-ROK alliance and constraining North Korea when it comes into operation at the end of 2017. THAAD is seen as having great significance correcting the South Korea’s recent pivot to China. ROK participation in the US-Japan missile defense test in June 2016 for the first time is notable, too. Yet, Asahi on July 20 argued that North Korea is trying to take advantage of the division in South Korea over THAAD and policy toward it with new missile tests. Responding to the same tests, Sankei on the same day asked if such violations of UN resolutions will be overlooked, questioning China’s intent.
The inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen in late May drew coverage about the troubled state of relations under Ma Ying-jeou and the dim prospects of closer ties. Asahi on May 21 wrote of Tsai’s intention to reduce Taiwan’s dependency on China and advance a “New South” policy prioritizing Southeast Asia and India. For security in both the East and South China seas, Tsai’s impact would be positive for Japan, it concluded. In Yomiuri, the same day, there was a critique of Ma’s softness toward China and new optimism about Japan-Taiwan relations based on shared values, close economic ties, and people-to-people ties. For economic reasons and as China is focusing on the South China Sea, the paper argued that both Taipei and Beijing would seek to keep the Taiwan Strait issue quiet. Yet, it expected Beijing to increase pressure on Tsai and called for closer Japan-US cooperation to support her and strengthen ties.
In Toa, No. 5, Hirano Satoi explained China’s success in winning the high-speed railroad contract from Indonesia over Japan. Hirano stresses the importance of this outcome for China: China regards Indonesia with its 6,000 km archipelago at the juncture of two oceans as critical to the success of “One Belt, One Road” and sees an opportunity to draw the country away from Japan, narrowing Japan’s diplomatic space. Further, it gives China a chance to favor Indonesian state-owned enterprises close to China and the Indonesian Chinese to stabilize their position. Yet, Hirano sees China’s claims to Natuna and fishing intrusions as leaving relations uncertain and calls on the Japanese to keep investing in the country and encouraging exchanges, not giving into feelings of betrayal because the Chinese side won this battle.
Suwa Kazuyuki in Toa, No. 6, traced the history of China’s relations with ASEAN before focusing on how the intensifying Sino-US conflict over the South China Sea and China’s hardline insistence that history trumps law is splitting ASEAN apart. In 1978-89, China focused on economic development, prioritized advanced economies, and showed scant interest in Southeast Asia apart from clashes with Vietnam, taking advantage of the withdrawal of first the United States, then the Soviet Union from the country. In 1989-91, China changed direction, turning to countries in the region to escape international isolation as it focused on normalizing relations with all of its neighbors. Over the next decade Chinese assertiveness was again apparent, stirring unease among ASEAN countries, but the establishment of ASEAN + 3 and then the Declaration on Conduct with ASEAN in 2002 allayed some of their concerns. In the fourth of Suwa’s five periods from 2002 to 2009, the prevailing tone was reassurance, even as Chinese moves in the South China Sea and the gradual departure from taoguang yanghui could have been seen differently. Talk of “peaceful development” and “joint development” lulled some into complacency. Only from 2009 does Suwa find China shifting toward “active” policies abandoning Deng’s dictum with insistence on “core interests,” clear challenges to the US-led order, and moves to split ASEAN to achieve its ends in the South China Sea. Suwa finds Xi to have accelerated the post-2009 approach.
The July court ruling on the South China Sea evoked a slew of responses, none at all sympathetic to China’s thinking. Yomiuri on July 13-14 said it is China’s obligation to follow the court ruling, insisted that the legal basis for historical rights is baseless, and warned China against deepening its international isolation or arousing others to see a “China threat” that would harmChina’s status in international society. Calling this an historic decision, it also expressed concern about how China would use its economic power in bilateral relations and undermine multilateral diplomacy, as it continued its efforts to split ASEAN. Yet, Yomiuri also reported the views of Miyake Kunihiko that conflict was unnecessary, and of China’s Zhu Feng, who despite finding the ruling one-sided, even political against China and a complete denial of “historical rights”—the merits of which others have been debating–, argues that as a beneficiary of the world maritime order China would lose more than it gains by departing from it. Zhu does not see relations with the United States and Japan splitting over this issue; he argues that this struggle is not military but diplomatic, legal, and in the arena of public opinion. Sankei carried another piece by Miyake on July 21, stressing the widening polarization over two conceptions of law, while finding parallels in China’s approach and the 1931 claims of Japan that Manchuria is its “lifeline” and that international organizations did not know Asia or its conditions. Other articles stressed the international society’s need to support the Philippines and Vietnam as wekk as South Korean concern that the ruling could cast doubt on its claims to Takeshima (Dokdo).
Nishihara Masashi on July 14 wrote in Sankei that the ruling undermines China’s critique of US, Japan, Australia, India, and the principle of freedom of navigation or flight operations. China’s claim to pre-1895 historical rights over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands is now undercut. Given China’s goal of strengthening states in ASEAN that support it, Japan should offer more material support to ASEAN states, he concludes. A July 21 article in Sankei supposed that China would be cautious to avoid isolation, a further drop in foreign investment and extreme nationalism in advance of hosting the G20 summit. In Asahi, there were warnings on July 14 that China’s response could be to redirect public dissatisfaction against Japan, arousing more fear of “containment,” and triggering the concern that Japan’s claim to an EEZ around uninhabited Okinotori “island” may be influenced by the court ruling. As demonstrated, the court ruling drew intense discussion.