Country Report: Japan (August 2019)

Editorial Staff

All roads ran through Washington in the late spring and early summer of 2019, even as Abe strove for a more autonomous role through hosting the G20, improving relations with China, and aggressively targeting South Korea. Intense media coverage ranged from the Abe-Trump relationship and Trump’s pressure tactics, the Trump-Kim relationship and diplomatic showmanship, the Trump-Xi Jinping relationship and the trade war, and Trump’s demands for isolating Iran and Japan’s distinct ties to that oil-producing country. Separate treatment of the Abe-Moon-Trump triangle can be found in the Special Forum. Here Japan’s other foreign policy themes are addressed, reporting on media coverage of these issues before and after the G20.

Hosoya Yuichi in the June 25 Yomiuri noted that Japan is hosting a G20 summit at an extremely important historical transition for the world while having good relations with all of the principal countries. Beyond furthering a positive global agenda, Abe could serve as a bridge, he said. Yet that other world leaders, notably Trump, were overshadowing Abe could not be ignored in the Japanese press. Abe only recaptured the spotlight by taking the initiative against Moon Jae-in.

The G20 Osaka summit left the cohesion and will of Western democracies in doubt, even as it gave new confidence to China and Russia, Sankei reported on July 8. Yomiuri’s takeaway on July 1 was the urgency of returning to what had brought success to the world economy, wondering how the US bilateral approach could be translated into a multilateral one. It gave big coverage that day to Jinbo Ken’s claim of summit success in the face of a splintering world as well as of Abe’s leadership role in building relations of trust and of positioning Japan to speak to both the US and China, as their conflict intensifies. The situation was bad, but Abe made the most of it. Along with this message, Japanese papers criticized protectionism (US mainly), and threats to security (China mainly, but also Trump’s sharpening complaints about Japan). Unusual was the degree of criticism of the US side (using the security card in trade negotiations with Japan, as seen in Tokyo Shimbun on June 30), and the relative restraint on China (Xi being hosted by Abe at last) and even North Korea (given Trump’s looming meeting with Kim and Abe’s aim to follow suit). The key question was whether the G20 would narrow the Sino-US gulf and assuage alarm over the slowing world economy, and there was scant confidence in the results, as new tensions over Iran and Hong Kong further fueled divisive responses at the G20.

The verdict on the left about the G20 was negative. As Asahi editorialized on June 20, Japan had had to tone down its anti-protectionism. Even as Trump was shaking up the international order (casting aspersions on the alliance), Abe kept up the claim of a “honeymoon” with Trump at the cost of avoiding difficult themes; relations of trust between Japan and the US had to be affected. The idea that Abe could be a go-between on issues such as US-Iran relations was also far-fetched. Given Abe’s relationship with Moon Jae-in, it was hard to say that Japan was managing ties to its neighbors well, and moving the G20 before the G7 summit for electoral benefit was not a sign of a long-term strategy. Yet, Asahi put the blame on both Washington and Beijing for disrupting world stability and considered the two too interdependent to enter a cold war. Japan had room to act.

Publication of a new book reinterpreting the world map by Kitaoka Shinichi prompted articles in both Sankei (May 26) and Yomiuri (July 8).Having served as head of JICA, leading to travel to 108 countries, he asserted that Japan could not be the sort of pole the US, China, and Russia were, instead it should meet the expectations of small and middle-level countries. It could capitalize on shared values and the construction of a system to peacefully resolve disputes and promote free trade. Diplomatic success would come less from ties to these three poles than from Japan’s record of non-Western economic development, of a free and democratic society, and of a big contributor to development through cooperation in human security. This role does not come from consistently opposing BRI, but from a balanced approach. Enjoying a positive image for reasons such as not buying lots of weapons, Japan can capitalize on it, Kitaoka clearly advised.

The Sino-US Trade War

The trade war theme had been aired on and off for at least a year, but in July it took on a more serious tone. Some in Japan lined up firmly with the US, seeing the fate of Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Senkaku Islands at stake and worried that if Japan stood by, China would see its weakness as a reason to be more aggressive (Sankei, July 13). After all, the Americans had realized the need for a paradigm shift from what had endured since 1972 (Sankei, June 8). Some wrung their hands after a painful year (Yomiuri, July 6) after finding a ray of hope in the Trump-Xi summit at the G20 (Yomiuri, June 30). Yet, the unmistakable message was that China is the source of the conflict, putting development over other goals, becoming uncompromising through the nationalist arousal of public opinion (Yomiuri, June 16), and posing an expansionist danger to which Japan, despite its new friendly mood on a political level, is responding with tighter security ties to China’s neighbors (Yomiuri, June 2).  Progressives called it a struggle for hegemony and appealed for coexistence (Tokyo Shimbun, June 30). As the G20 host, advocating a platform against protectionism and claiming a uniquely warm relationship with Trump and hard-fought success in ties with Xi, Abe lacked any easy answer. Some posted statements from Americans such as Stapleton Roy saying that the US has no strategy and from Chinese such as Jia Qingguo saying that the economies of the two countries could not be separated; they found hope in pointing to critics of a new cold war in both countries and calling for a calm, conciliatory response where attention to each other’s concerns is shown (Asahi, May 24). There will be no winner, progressives warned, faulting the US for going on the attack (Asahi, May 12). On the right, digital economic polarization was assumed, Chinese structural reform was put as the first priority, and the calls for strengthening international rules by the left were viewed as far from a solution. Yet, the right was worried about Trump’s methods and their application also to Japan in a separate trade dispute. Support for the US was qualified, seeking a way for China to save face in current talks even if the trade war is but one battle in a long-term confrontation, as seen in the May 16 Sankei summary of the editorial positions recently posted in the six national newspapers.

Japanese firms will be deeply affected by the trade war, as seen in the case of smartphones (Yomiuri, May 15). Supply chains across Asia are vulnerable as US imports of Iphones fall from $5 billion in 2018, given that 900 Japanese firms supply parts to Apple (Yomiuri, May 15).
Yomiuri editorialized that day on the need for both sides to prevent a lasting cycle of sanctions and retaliation by making concessions and avoiding a big downturn in the world economy, but it raised concern that Trump is using this to boost his support level for next year’s election. As Japanese firms in the supply chain are in a difficult situation, Japan should become a bridge at the G20 summit, appealing for self-restraint from both sides. This was the overall mood in June.

Asahi on August 8, warned that the constant chain of pressure and retaliation can endanger the world economy, including both the US and China, which should sit calmly to find a clue to the solution. Japan too faces a serious situation. It called on both sides to refrain from using customs duties and currency exchange as “weapons” in their economic dispute, while calling the US charge of currency manipulation “one-sided.” Long after the G20 summit worries had only risen.

Japan-China relations

How should Japan balance rapprochement with China and wariness toward it? This was often the object of debate in Japan’s media during the spring of 2019. The Sankei message was to be wary: Do not forget the lessons of the Heisei era in the new era (May 9), and do not misunderstand the meaning of the “Japan boom” now under way in China (April 18). Mistakes cited are Japan’s lead in ending sanctions in 1991 after the Tiananmen repression, easing the path for others; the decision to send the Emperor to China not long before China launched the “patriotic education campaign” and then defiled the Emperor with criticism of Japan in front of him and for over a decade aroused anti-Japanese sentiments even as it used Japan for its rise. Thus, good feelings are meaningless when Xi Jinping is just trying to use Japan again due to a troubled relationship with the United States and problems with BRI. Sankei appealed for avoiding any revival of past illusions. It also reported on the April boom in Chinese reporting on “Reiwa” as a name coming from Chinese tradition and on the continuing “cherry blossom” boom for Chinese tourists—it was said that 1,000,000 Chinese tourists would visit Japan during this season. It is just Japanese culture, traditions, and beauty that draws Chinese amid “anti-Japan education,” Sankei warned.

The April 16 Yomiuri editorialized on the need to proceed with improving Japan-China ties. It praised the high-level economic dialogue, which had been restarted in April 2018 after a hiatus of eight years attributed to China’s increased self-confidence as well as the fallout over the Senkaku nationalization. Suddenly, in the Sino-US trade dispute, Japan’s importance has risen again. While the US is applying tariffs to pressure China to alter its economic model, Japan is described as seeking some similar goals, such as stopping the forced transfer of technology by Japanese firms, through increased trade and dialogue. It is offering positive participation in the BRI plans too. Looking ahead to Xi’s visit to Osaka, the paper also noted divergent approaches to North Korea, asking China to tighten sanctions enforcement. The gap with Trump is ignored.

Yomiuri was quite upbeat about warming Sino-Japanese ties, carrying on April 24 an exchange between Nikai Toshihiro, secretary general of the LDP and widely recognized as Abe’s “pipe” to improve ties with China, and Cheng Yonghua, the outgoing 9-year Chinese ambassador. Both saw goodwill and exchanges as vital for a new era, as Nikai went once more to the BRI forum to boost economic cooperation. On May 1 Yomiuri reported on Nikai’s visit and Xi’s statement that bilateral relations have returned to a normal track. It noted that Abe has tempered his warnings about China due to concerns about Trump and Xi’s change of direction toward Abe, while Japan needs China’s market. Yet, even as Japan’s view of China has fundamentally changed, the paper warned that there is still a need to be on guard over digital data and military tensions at sea. One commentary by Kawashima Shin said that relations have returned to “zero,” but there is still a gap in consciousness between the two without China being flexible on territory and security.
Much attention was given to Kong Xuanyou, China’s new ambassador in May, regarded as part of the “pro-Japan faction.” Yomiuri on May 11 praised his knowledge of Japanese, networks in Japan through three stints working there, and assignment by Xi to advance relations at a time of difficult Sino-US relations. The upbeat mood was notable in the progressive press, e.g. in the April 26 Tokyo Shimbun commentary on the new ambassador, comparing Kong to Wang Yi, who served as ambassador in 2004-07 and was not a hard-liner although he had to be careful not to appear soft on Japan. There was a stark contrast with US articles on China.

Asahi Shimbun editorialized on April 17 that finally we can expect real mutuality in relations with an opportunity for a big leap forward, pointing both to Xi’s upcoming visit and Trump’s impact in stimulating this dialogue. It called for maintaining relations with the US while forging constructive ties to China. In a scissors due to Trump’s “America First,” Japan should support multilateralism based on law and deal with expansionism and human rights in China even as it improves economic relations. Adroit Japanese diplomacy can respond to this challenge, one reads. Sankei on April 16 editorialized differently, urging a sober approach and warning of the danger lurking in talks with a China seeking economic and military hegemony. It feared sending the wrong message to the international society, yielding to China’s pleas on 5G and BRI, and failing to lead a coalition at the G20 to press China to make essential reforms. Japan needed the right consciousness in facing China, but Sankei seemed concerned that its strategy was not sufficient. Sankei stressed what Japan is asking of Chinaand Yomiuri highlighted that agreement has been reached at a time when China is the pursuer in hope of restraining tougher US policies toward it.

Were relations with China to remain nearly frozen as they were for several years after Abe and Xi took office almost simultaneously, Abe would have no option but to remain in the US shadow. Yet there is no prospect of a return to the decade or so around 1990 when Japan’s leaders looked to China as the gateway to Asianism. On security and ideology, that way of thinking is dead. We would be remiss, however, if we overlooked Abe’s interest in strengthening an economic bond with China that gives Japan some autonomy and in exploring forms of regionalism that allow the two economic powers of East Asia to reach beyond economics. No doubt, Trump has driven Xi to repair relations with Abe, as troubles with BRI in Southeast Asia have given Abe an opening to try to steer it onto a track acceptable to it. Cooperation between the Chinese-led AIIB and the Japanese-led ADB is going forward. Still, it would be a stretch to say that Japan is hedging between the United States and China even if its ties to China are helpful to remind Washington about the limits of how far it can be pressed.

The 100th anniversary of the May 4th movement brought a spate of Japanese articles on China from a Yomiuri series on 70 years of the PRC, noting positive developments such as poverty relief and negative ones such as inequality and dissatisfaction over health care, to a Yomiuri article on youth thought control 30 years after Tiananmen and one on new alarm over military expansion threatening to seize Taiwan by force. The BRI summit a week earlier witnessed a rash of coverage also, showcasing two key themes: Xi Jinping’s broad appeal to the 150 countries that participated and stress on following international rules by revising the strategy of BRI—expecting cooperative planning by Tokyo and Beijing in third country markets (Asahi, April 27); and Japan’s positive attitude expressed by Abe’s emissary Nikai, based on its support for adjustments in BRI and its willingness to act independently of the US while being seen in China as making an important contribution and helping to increase the broad appeal of BRI (Sankei, April 25).

The Abe-Xi summit on June 28 raised optimism from the progressive media. On June 22 Tokyo Shimbun reported on local governments in China turning to Japan for economic projects to avoid the risk of dealing with the US. On the 29th it editorialized on the June 27 summit of the “eternal neighbors” that building trust is more important than claiming diplomatic success and that such an atmosphere is being restored. Japan’s shift toward BRI in 2017 was a turning point as is the Chinese response to the Sino-US trade frictions. Japan is drawing closer to get help with North Korea on the abductions issue, but the paper calls on Abe to discuss with Xi Hong Kong and Chinese ships intruding into Japanese waters in the East China Sea for constructive dialogue. Xi had agreed to pay a state visit to Japan when the cherry blossoms are out in 2020, a possible sign that he now values Japan, Asahi asked on June 25 and 28, before editorializing on June 29 that a step had been taken toward a “new era.” It added that Japan, as a country of peace, can assume a new role between the US and China, explaining to China that it should develop peacefully with a fair market and dissuading the US from “America First.” Xi’s visit has invigorated Japan’s left.

Abe in May had asserted that relations with China had returned to a completely normal track. The pace of summitry is intensifying: Abe is expected to go to China later in 2019 for a trilateral with South Korea and Xi to come for a state visit in 2020 (Sankei, May 18). Yet, on the territorial issue and security, warnings continued about China’s activities, as its gas exploration in Japan’s EEZ (Yomiuri, May 22). Meanwhile, the impact of US sanctions on China was driving Japanese firms from China to Southeast Asia (Yomiuri, June 1) and China’s “debt trap” expansionism drew rebukes (Yomiuri, June 12). Amidst praise for Xi, in an unusual way agreeing to a second visit to Japan in the near future, and for Xi in the face of conflict with the US urgently drawing closer to Japan, there were warnings about no resolution of the Senkaku and Huawei issues (Yomiuri, June 28), while Xi was credited with transmitting Japan’s position on the abductees to Kim Jong-un. The upbeat mood was raised to a higher pedestal with mention of Japan entering the Reiwa era and China celebrating the 70th anniversary of the PRC—a bilateral turning point. Yet, Sankei on June 28 headlined the rapprochement as risky, warning that talk of concluding RCEP in 2019 fails to recognize the impasse of Japan’s insistence on intellectual property rights and that some in the LDP are voicing concern about hosting Xi in the same manner as Trump.

Sino-North Korean relations

On July 11 Tokyo Shimbun reported on an internal North Korean document after the Security Council imposed sanctions in August 2017 on its exports of coal and marine products, blaming China and Russia for caving to US pressure, severely criticizing them for serving the interests of capitalism and imperialism. The worldview is clear: The Cold War has not ended, the North’s two old allies owe it continued support; if they yielded in this case, they may return to the fold.

The Xi-Putin summit just after Putin met Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok drew Japanese concern about a joint tilt to North Korea, as did the Xi-Kim summit in June. On April 27 Tokyo Shimbun referred to the Xi-Putin meeting as strengthening their effort to contain the US by deepening their joint relations with North Korea. That same day Asahi posted the same message: Putin on the 25th had offered backing to Kim Jong-un, China and Russia were showing understanding for it; China had agreed to excessive sanctions on the North to avoid arousing the US; and China and Russia were enjoying a honeymoon. Yomiuri on July 10 after Xi had visited Pyongyang and Trump had met Kim on the DMZ in a “show,” picked up the same theme. To Trump, Kim had appealed for a US guarantee of the security of his system, abandoning antagonistic policies, and he would not need nuclear weapons. Xi had agreed with that, promising to work together with Kim to that end and firmly opposing the collapse of the system, while hinting at readiness for China to intervene should there be a military clash or effort to topple the system. The article saw talks floundering on North Korean demands for the removal of US troops from South Korea. In a separate article that day, Yomiuri asserted that when Xi met Kim he offered assurance that China as well as Russia had his back. It explained the danger for the US in guaranteeing the system’s security since it included latent threats and demands: a declaration of no first use of nuclear weapons; removal of sanctions and a green light for North-South economic ties; removal from the list of terror-sponsoring countries; and eventually normalization without denuclearization.

Whereas Xi is clear in his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, Trump is not, Japanese media report. Tokyo Shimbun faulted Abe on July 2 for being alone on the sidelines as Trump and others are meeting with Kim and having no influence on Trump. On July 1 it paired articles on how Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow responded, as if support for North Korea’s position of gradually moving toward denuclearization accompanied by sanctions relief was mounting. Sankei on July 1 called the Trump-Kim summit a “political show that stirs distrust,” noting Moon’s high appraisal of it as “historical.” Yomiuri on July 12 appeared nervous about Kim giving a speech at the fall UN General Assembly. Mostly, Japan assumed that Trump would not yield to the Sino-Russian-ROK calls for a softer diplomatic stance to North Korea, but nervousness about Trump was visible.

Japan-Russia relations

Putin’s visit to Japan for the G20—once envisioned as the time for a breakthrough—passed with finger-pointing from the Japanese side and also at the false hopes generated by Abe. As Asahi noted on June 1, a day after the fourth round of talks to conclude a peace treaty had reaffirmed that Abe’s gamble on agreeing to the return of two islands in accord with the 1956 statement had failed. Sankei stood firmest on national identity grounds, rejecting, as on May 14, when it disputed the administration’s dropping of the phrase “inherent” Japanese territory, and tracing back the history of the four islands to the 1855 treaty with Russia. The 2+2 talks at the end of May brought only weak recognition of how much Russian views of regional security clashed with Japanese ones. The pretense of a common position on North Korea was echoed in Yomiuri on May 31 before mention was made of differences over a staged approach as well as relaxation of the sanctions. Tokyo Shimbun that day stressed the clashing criticisms over Aegis Ashore and militarization of the Northern Territories, while also parroting the line that on North Korea there is agreement before noting that Russia insists on a comprehensive agreement on the North and on a collective security system rather than a “closed alliance” framework in the Indo-Pacific. Asahi editorialized the next day that Lavrov in January at a press conference after his meeting with Kono had rejected the view that Japan and Russia share opposition to China as a latent threat, undercutting the rationale for Japan’s wooing of Russia. Sankei that day warned that Russia’s position is to delay talks on demarcation until after a peace treaty, totally against the Japanese approach. The mood was pessimistic, but it grew more so when Putin met Abe.

Upbeat stories in June centered on agreements that would be forthcoming in which Japan was making concessions. Yomiuri on June 7 anticipated closer energy cooperation in the Arctic with Japan taking a stake in Yamal LNG, and on June 29 it indicated that Japan would only be getting 8.1 percent of its LNG from Russia, serving its goal of diversification of supplies. Yet, the paper editorialized on July 1 that cooperation on energy and resolution of the island issue must be taken together as parallel steps, despite Russia’s unreasonableness that has scuttled progress. It had referred on June 30 to the “long war” ahead on the islands. The message in Yomiuri on June 30 was that Russia will need Japan since Russia is isolated and intent on investments in its Asian areas, but that was precisely the opposite of the Russian view that Japan is isolated in its region and in increasing need of Russia. A similar discrepancy in the 1960s-80 led to a prolonged delay in putting bilateral diplomacy onto a sustainable track. Yomiuri was losing credibility on this.

Sato Masaru in Tokyo Shimbun was more positive, praising the energy deal as something in which Putin is very interested, while noting that Japan is distancing itself from the US on Iran. Kimura Hiroshi in Sankei on June 21 attacked it as a present to Putin incomprehensible to the Japanese people. Another Russia goal was to agree on visa-free travel between Sakhalin and Hokkaido, which was pitched to Japan, according to Sankei on June 8, as a precondition to activate joint economic activities on the disputed islands after a stalemate had ensued. Eventually, they would agree on this and on two specific island projects.  Yet, even upbeat Yomiuri acknowledged that gaps on history introduced by the Russian side were insurmountable and that the essence of an agreement is, as over the past three decades or more, territory for investment (May 14). At the time of the summit on June 30 Asahi was explicit that Russia had put preconditions regarding history and security on entering into talks. Its progressive twist was that Japan had failed to address ROK history (annexation as coercion) and Chinese history (the majority of Japanese were free of guilt, a group of militarists were responsible), leading to lingering trouble. Yet it put the onus on Russia too for threatening its neighbors and not developing constructive relations with the US. It also on July 2 recalled had Japan had been cheated of half of its stake in Sakhalin-2 and argued that Japan has other sources of LNG, including US shale gas, instead of taking this economic and political risk with Russia.

Sankei on July 5 complained that Abe had changed Japanese policy to two islands without any explanation to the Japanese people, while reporting Foreign Minister Kono’s objection that this is a serious fabrication. Not only had Japan caved to the Russians, it had received nothing back for this concession. In contrast, on that day in Tokyo Shimbun Sato Masaru blamed the foreign ministry of Japan for botching the negotiations in Moscow on June 20, leading former prime minister Mori Yoshiro and Suzuki Muneo as well as the Kantei to sense danger and pressure the ministry, resulting in secret talks in Tokyo on June 28, salvaging a positive outcome. Asahi found no such outcome on July 2, arguing that there was a success for Putin, as he blocked language in the G20 statement on the islands, and Japan could get nothing for switching to two islands. In stark terms, Sankei on June 30 saw no progress on the territorial issue and complained that just as Japan agrees to loosening visa restrictions for Sakhalin-Hokkaido travel to build trust, Putin’s position hardens. Now it is dangerous to push for a deal on returning territory during the two years remaining in Abe’s term. As Putin drops in popularity, he cannot appear weak in dealing with Japan. Russia is siding with China and views Japan as a US ally, no longer seeing the same need to boost relations with Japan to avoid excessive dependence on China, Sankei says. Tokyo Shimbun drove this point home with a June 25 interview with Fyodor Lyukanov on why there would be no movement on the territorial issue, making clear that the security treaty with the US is key (as it was 60 years earlier when Moscow repudiated the 1956 agreement, as it was doing again). He conveys a cold war atmosphere, citing Ukraine and the Sino-US trade war with China and Russia drawing together. Tokyo may see a chance for multipolarity, but not Moscow. Indeed, a June 25 Sankei article conveyed Moscow’s thinking about Japan in the Heisei era. At first, it saw Japan as No. 1, but in the 2010s, as Korean smart phones and China’s Huawei came into the country, Japan’s image declined. Yet Russia’s economy is only on the same scale as South Korea’s, readers are told, and for the Reiwa era Japan needs to take advantage of its comprehensive national power to seize a new opportunity to restart talks with Russia.

Russification of the disputed islands, including nearby Shikotan, was intensifying, media noted, as in Asahi on June 29. A Russian crackdown on crab smuggling to Japan and South Korea drew scrutiny on May 30 as a long-delayed measure now leading to the flight of a “crab mafia” chief in Sakhalin and a present to a close ally of Putin, gaining from a new licensing system.

On August 8 Asahi called on Abe to change course on Russia, complaining that while Russia has long asked Japan not to disturb the constructive atmosphere for dialogue, it provokes Japan at will, including the latest, fourth visit by Prime Minister Medvedev to the island of Etorofu with no mention even of the joint economic activities Abe emphasizes, but in June were limited to just trials in tourism and garbage disposal, while Putin is calling for all of Sakhalin to be included. By softening Japan’s stance to two islands in the immediate negotiations, Abe merely invited a Russian offensive, the paper insists. As Abe prepares to visit Russia in September, he should be clear to the Japanese people about the state of diplomacy, which has no prospects, Asahi says. Mainichi followed on August 9 with an editorial on Medvedev’s visit and the follow-up missile drills on Kunashiri, both moves stressing Russian sovereignty and drawing Japan’s protests. The results add to the difficulties of negotiations, which Mainichi blames in part on Japan’s soft line toward Russian moves of this sort and continued concessions. Russia has been applying military pressure on Japan with repeated violations of its airspace and repeated calls to remove US forces from Japan. When Abe goes to Russia next month, he must give attention to Russia’s challenges for a constructive discussion to ensue. The internal outcry grows against Abe’s wooing of Putin.

Mongolia

The odd thing about Foreign Minister Kono’s trip to Mongolia on June 16 was that coverage in Sankei on June 17 made it all about the abductions issue. Since Mongolia traditionally has had close ties to North Korea, the visit was treated as a way to start talks with North Korea, while it also reaffirmed shared values and Japan’s infrastructure support as part of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). Yet, since Abe in May declared his readiness to talk without preconditions with Kim, there has been no diplomacy, while Mongolia’s economic ties through BRI with China have advanced. Thus, this trip appeared to be a last-ditch effort to alter two realities.

On June 14 Yomiuri clarified concern about Mongolia’s ability to continue its “third neighbor” policy. Having been an observer at the SCO since 2004, it is being pressed to formally join by both China and Russia. Given its economic dependence on those countries, there is doubt that Mongolia can retain its balance now that its two great power neighbors have decided to press for inclusion in their camp. The president called for more cooperation with them geopolitically as the only way to get large-scale investment, but the political world is resistant, and the issue is not resolved. Distrust of great power interference remains intense. Japan and the US are the two “third neighbors” mentioned, with which ties have strengthened.

Southeast Asia

On June 1 the Yomiuri evening edition conveyed from Shangri-La the message that the US is intensifying its presence in the Indo-Pacific region and tightening ties to allies and partners. Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan expounded on the FOIP strategy and concern over China’s security challenge, recognizing support for the international order via a multilateral network. On June 2 Asahi also the importance of his speech outlining a new FOIP strategy, but it paid more attention to China’s response and the rising concern about a deepening confrontation. Not only had Shanahan criticized China’s moves in the South China Sea, he had faulted BRI, and altered the tone on the defense of Taiwan, while calling for avoiding going from competition to conflict. On June 3 Yomiuri reviewed statements from ASEAN states toward China’s behavior, noting differences and overall restraint. It editorialized that day on the need to prevent China from changing the regional order, intensifying Japan’s ties to countries in opposition to China’s effort to change the order by force, while simultaneously improving Sino-Japanese relations.

On June 24 both Yomiuri and Mainichi carried articles on the ASEAN summit in Bangkok, putting emphasis on the leading role of ASEAN in adopting a distinct Indo-Pacific concept separate from FOIP and BRI. At a time of danger from geopolitical challenges, the meeting stressed the need for peaceful resolution. Whereas in the draft statement of May nothing was said suggesting any concern about China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, but Vietnam and others made known a different view. On the Huawei G2 issue, there were zero supporters of Trump’s appeals, readers were told, in an area where 8 of 10 states have China as their principal trading partner. Mainichi made clear that the heads of all 10 states attended China’s second BRI forum in April, and the mood had changed from 2018 when Malaysia and Myanmar were critical of a debt trap. The impression is left that Trump has been losing ground in policies toward the area. Another theme is that democracy promotion is divisive in Southeast Asia, and Japan treads cautiously. If Asian values are no longer being pushed by any Southeast Asian country, the ASEAN Way embodies some of the same spirit, to which Japan is respectful.
Abe benefits from a contrast with Trump in states seeking to hedge between the US and China.

India

Sankei on June 29 described Modi at the G20 as pursuing balanced diplomacy. He met Trump on June 28, who claimed an unprecedented bilateral honeymoon despite a mini-trade war in which India had just retaliated with tariff increases on 28 US exports, while both strengthening support for FOIP with the US and Japan and deepening ties with China and Russia in back-to-back multilateral summits. Opposing protectionism versus Trump, Modi also gave a boost to the FOIP not long after he had warmly endorsed ASEAN-centrism.

The message on the 29th from Asahi was more pointed. On the one hand, Japan-US-India cooperation was deepening in opposition to China’s security threat, as Trump and Abe sought to boost arms sales to an “arms buyer great power” (Japan’s US2 trainer aircraft). On the other, as India cut back on purchases of such US items as apples and almonds and failed to agree with the US on Iran, from which 10 percent of its oil imports arrive, it continued annual trilateral summits at the G20 with China and Russia only weeks after meeting with them also at the SCO summit. Asahi interpreted that as rapidly strengthening relations in opposition to the policies of Trump, even suggesting that Indo-US relations are in a dangerous situation. On the eve of the Osaka meetings, Yomiuri had written on June 27 about Pompeo’s visit to India in an effort to improve Indo-US ties in the face of alarm about tightening Indo-Sino-Russian relations.

Abe’s unabashed resort to personal chemistry to bring about transformative relationships ranges from Narendra Modi to Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump. All three are strong advocates of great power autonomy and civilizational identities, which Abe covets without having comparable mechanism to propagate and inculcate. Abe did not have similar personal closeness with Barack Obama or Modi’s predecessors although he was eager for close bilateral ties. In particular, Modi opens the door to Asianism with both multipolarity and a values component since India not only is a democracy hesitant about US values diplomacy, but also is a country deemed close to Japan as the origin of Buddhism that spread to Japan and the home of the judge who voted against the verdicts of the Tokyo Tribunal and of others who considered Japan in the war a liberator in Asia.
Yet on June 12 it had treated Modi’s first foreign travel after his reelection to the Maldives and Sri Lanka as a move to contain China in the Indian Ocean despite eagerness for its investments, and on June 2 it had covered Shangri-La talks by stressing India’s expanded military presence through closer ties to Japan, the US, and ASEAN in opposition to China’s advance in the region. In Tokyo Shimbun on June 29 a smiling BRICS photo was posted under the heading of China, Russia, and India containing the United States in support of multilateralism and free trade, before noting the Japan-US-India summit focused on security and infrastructure investment.

Despite a desire shared with the US for a great power useful in balancing China, India represents something different for Japan: an alternate model of a rising state—one that is democratic—and a promising geo-economic force complementary to Japan in Asia. The values affinity is greater for Japan than the US since it extends well beyond democracy. As China’s advance in Asia turns increasingly ideological with Sinocentric demands, Abe appears to anticipate on the frontlines of resistance a Japan-India nexus on the grounds that this is not the history of Asia they prefer to recall. The two states stand as two bookends of maritime Asia resistant to the Chinese narrative of history. Indeed, India offers Abe the best hope for sympathetic understanding of Japan’s past and far-reaching complementarity in the future (demographic, economic, and military).

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