The last part of 2018 was marked by the hopeful aftermath of the Abe-Xi summit and the new push by Abe and Putin to resolve the long-lingering dispute between Tokyo and Moscow. These themes are covered separately in an Open Forum article. Below, attention is directed at the less positive coverage of Japan’s relations with North and South Korea and at the efforts by Abe to bring to fruition his idea, joined by the United States, of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” The shadow of Trump’s (and Pence’s) increasingly stark vision of Sino-US relations was clearly seen in media coverage as well. This was a time when Japanese media searched for a silver-lining even as the behavior of Trump grew more ominous, the Korean Peninsula appeared more problematic, and the annual meetings of the East Asian Summit and ASEAN lacked their past promise of the presence of the US president and trade liberalism apart from Japan’s reconstituted TPP-2.
In October there were already forebodings of a rough stretch ahead. Yomiuri on October 4 reported on the Armitage-Nye warning of risk to the US-Japan alliance. It discussed Trump’s readiness to risk US alliances and trade pressure on Japan as management of North Korea was put in doubt. On October 7 Hosoya Yuichi in Yomiuri warned of threats to democracy from the distortion of public opinion, with China and Russia strengthening and Great Britain and the US in crisis. He cited the existence of prior examples of democracies dying. Increasingly, US policies in the Indo-Pacific were seen through the prism of troubles inside the United States and its political system. The end of the year was more problematic, as Trump pulled troops from two countries, casting “America First” in more isolationist terms, and Mattis’ departure in protest rattled Japan.
Japan-South Korea relations
The last quarter of 2018 was a rocky period for relations between Tokyo and Seoul, especially seen in Japanese frustration and anger directed against Seoul. The forced labor issue rose to the surface, the comfort women issue was rekindled, and even the 1965 normalization treaty was put in doubt, according to Japanese thinking. Instead of arrangements that signified full resolution of the historical remuneration issues, Japanese saw a Pandora’s box opening with interminable court cases ahead and no trust in any further talks between the two governments. Emotions on both sides would be heightened, partnership in dealing with North Korea would be undermined, trust as trade partners would be damaged at a critical time, and cooperation as leaders in international society would be lost, as Mainichi editorialized on November 30. The next step was up to Seoul as a parliamentary delegation holding an annual meeting with ROK counterparts on December 2 indicated, awaiting the report of the new ROK joint committee under the prime minister.
Sankei on December 7 warned that cases could be brought over the next three years regarding compensation for forced labor, involving as many as about 210,000 workers or descendants and 300 Japanese companies. It reported on how Korean newspapers were covering the story, warning of the strong reaction in Japan, as did Yomiuri on December 6, which showcased criticisms from three papers, especially Chosun Ilbo. Yomiuri had editorialized on November 30 that the very legal foundation of Japan-ROK relations had been damaged, as new cases would multiply and Japanese companies would pull their property out of South Korea. It complained of the one-sided opinion on which the court rulings are based that Japan’s colonial rule was illegal, while noting that successive Korean administrations had accepted that the issue of forced labor had been settled. It blamed Moon Jae-in for his silence and called on the Japanese government to make its case quickly to the international community unlike its earlier slow response on the “comfort women” issue. The two court rulings on October 30 and November 29 had left an already troubled bilateral relationship in much more damaged shape,
Sankei summarized the responses of Japanese newspapers on November 7 in addition to posting an editorial strongly condemning Seoul. It argued that Seoul had deeply shaken the foundation of bilateral relations, saw Yomiuri agreeing and Nihon Keizai Shimbun warning of big economic consequences, while blaming Asahi and Mainichi for fretting about avoiding damaging relations and essentially repeating the views of the Korean Supreme Court. Sankei sought to capitalize on Japan’s anger at Seoul to confirm its worldview about history and widen the divide with Seoul.
A November 15 opinion piece in Mainichi argued that the emotional clash of Tokyo had Seoul has worsened and is rooted in Korean thinking that Japan’s occupation was illegal, while Japan asserts that, according to international law of the time, it was not. In 1965 the two sides agreed that the annexation treaty is not operative, but with the October court ruling the debate has flared anew, and Japan is fearful that all of the conduct during its occupation will be subject to court scrutiny. Meanwhile, Koreans since 1987 have established two “rival” courts competing to show which is more zealous in defense of human rights in the context of an ongoing, fierce split between conservatives and progressives, who blame the “shinilpa” (pro-Japan faction) for fueling the postwar military dictatorships. With the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, readers are told, progressive values have spread through all of Korean society at the expense of Japan.
Yomiuri on November 16 reported on the commission of about 20 persons, including academics seen as “shinilpa” and former diplomats, established in Seoul on November 13 and set to report by year-end, citing the possibility that no money would be sought from Japan and the Korean government would create its own fund to aid the former forced laborers. On November 30 it warned that if the Korean government took an insufficient response to the forced labor issue Japan could take the matter to the International Court of Justice. There was concern that a statement of Prime Minister Kan in August 2010 could be used against Japan, acknowledging that Japan had deeply wounded the Korean nation, seizing its country and culture. The paper made clear its opposition to any suggestion that Japan’s conduct in Korea was illegal and called for the Japanese government to take corresponding measures toward Korea if Seoul proceeds—e.g., with sanctions against Seoul that could be in response to its assistance to Pyongyang.
Gong Ro-myung, former ambassador to Japan and foreign minister in the 1990s and now a member of the commission formed on November 13, explained in Asahi on November 15 that even if the court decision is a resolution more political than legal, the court decision must be respected. Now politicians must find an answer, preferably without arousing popular emotions and through a fund of the Korean government and companies together. That day Tokyo Shimbun’s observer focused on the treatment of foreign workers in Japan past and present, suggesting that this should be discussed in Japan. The next day Asahi added a note that on November 6 Japan had taken Korea to the WTO dispute resolution for excessive assistance to shipbuilders, which damages Japanese shipbuilding companies. On November 16, too, Yomiuri lamented that the absence of a summit between Abe and Moon at the annual meetings serves as a symbol of how bilateral relations have deteriorated due to Moon at a time of urgent need.
On December 5, a Yomiuri commentary by Sakamoto Shigeki argued that citing the illegality of Japan’s occupation is no excuse for violating an international treaty. While Seoul in 1952 had demanded that Japan compensate the forced laborers, in 1965 it accepted resolution of this issue. Sankei on December 4 was clear in insisting that there was no room for Japan to yield now—the Korean side did not abide by its commitments. It noted Diet members who quit the joint parliamentary group before the meeting, asserting that there is no longer any way to advance friendly relations. As Moon insisted that historical issues should not interfere with other areas of Japan-ROK cooperation, Japanese scoffed at his thinking. A rare exception to the monolithic Japanese response was Tokyo Shimbun, as in a December 4 commentary calling for Japan not to overreact by stirring Korean emotions, which the Korean government would not be able to overlook, and blaming Abe for refusing to write a letter of apology to the “comfort women.” Japan had put the pro-Japan faction and ROK diplomats in a difficult position, readers are told. On that same day Sankei had written about the drop in Moon’s popularity for nine weeks in a row to 48 percent and a sense of disappointment among the public over hiring and other economic problems, including a widening income gap. While Moon’s ratings had risen briefly with each of his three summits with Kim Jong-un, there was nothing new there, and the overall trend is downward. Japanese papers painted a gloomy picture of Korea and of relations.
In the December Voice, Kimura Kan explained why South Korea’s policy toward Japan has become messy, while disagreeing with some existing interpretations found in classic “hate Korea” arguments—being manipulated by Kim Jong-un, facing economic troubles, cozying up to China, and turning away from the United States. Since 1981, only in 1998 did ROK economic growth rates fall below those of Japan. Further, ROK-US relations have not been disrupted by progressive leaders as predicted, anti-Japan policies do not work well in raising the popularity of Korea’s presidents, and Moon has had high ratings, so that has not been his motive. Kan adds, Japan was barely mentioned in the 2017 elections. While Lee Myung-bak had a 5 percent boost in 2012, that lasted for only one month after his visit to Takeshima (Dokdo), similar to the effect from Roh Moo-hyun’s 2005 hardline stance on that issue. Kimura adds that interest in issues related to Japan has fallen, while economics and security are more important than history and territorial issues. Yet, there is little incentive to resolve the troubling issues, because Japan is not a priority. For Moon, North-South and ROK-US relations matter most, followed by ROK-China relations. Moon only went to Japan once as president in May for the China-Japan-South Korea summit and then hurried back in a day trip. Japan’s share of South Korean trade has fallen from 40 percent to 7 percent. Within 5 years ROK defense expenditures are set to catch Japan’s, as the ROK ranks 10th, Germany 9th, and Japan 8th in this measure. Meanwhile, Japanese “hate Korea” rhetoric understates Korea’s stature as a major country, reflecting Japan’s myopia. Koreans have lost interest in Japan, and it is important for Japan to deliver a message that it is sees the importance of Seoul, restoring a certain order to its policy toward Japan. Kan clearly opposes the mood to blame only Seoul.
In the December issue of Bungei Shunju, former ambassador to Korea Muto Masatoshi noted that many Japanese are now ready to wash their hands of South Korea after the October 30 forced labor ruling. He notes that when POSCO was set up in its original form, global banks did not want to lend to it, and Korean diplomats strove to improve ties to Japan to secure the funds that were needed and to build the infrastructure for the “miracle on the Han River.” Despite Moon’s August 15 speech calling for forward-looking relations with Japan, he is going beyond Roh Moo-hyun, who despite his historical revisionism, treated the forced labor issue as off limits. Muto charges that Korean courts have lots of progressives who put popular emotions above the law. As Moon’s popularity among young people is falling, playing on anti-Japanese feelings has gradually become more apparent, seen in the October 10 Jeju Island exclusion of an SDF vessel flying a Japanese flag (at odds with prior displays of Japan’s flag on SDF ships in Korea) and in the October 22 visit to Takeshima (Dokdo) of the parliamentary education committee. Muto concludes with two observations: Japan has indulged (amae) South Korea too much; and we should study the real lessons of popular interest growing on both sides through tourism and enthusiasm about each other’s culture, seen in Japanese interest in Korean music and drama.
Yu Heung-su, who presided over the “comfort women” agreement as the ROK ambassador to Japan in 2014-16, was interviewed by Kuroda Katsuhiro in the January 2019 Bungei Shunju after the two court rulings on forced labor and the November 21 dissolution of the “comfort women” foundation. Known as “shinilpa,” Yu (now 81) is the last of a generation; he was in Japan from age 2 to fifth grade, then served under Chun Doo-hwan before entering the National Assembly and heading the Japan-ROK joint parliamentary group, and then at age 76 being asked to serve as ambassador. Yu had viewed the 2015 agreement as the start of a new era in bilateral relations and explains the important role of diplomacy to arrange parallel appearances of Abe and Park at receptions in their capitals on June 22, 2015 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the normalization agreement. In Pusan in the 1980s he had gone drinking with Abe’s father as the son was nearby. Yu expresses sympathy for the disbelief in Japan over what has transpired in light of three major concessions Abe made in 2015: accepting the military’s role; apologizing for the first time in the name of the prime minister; and using the state budget for a one-billion-yen fund. With more than 70 percent of the fund distributed and just 10 of the 37 women refusing the money, the process was nearly complete, but Moon halted it on procedural grounds with little reference to its contents, allowing citizens’ groups to dictate policy in clear violation of diplomatic principles. Kuroda interceded that NGOs from the 1990s had become too powerful in Korean society. Yu noted that progressives and conservatives differ on economics, North-South ties, and US relations, and regrets the loss of trust in Japan and the loss in Korea of trust in the courts. Kuroda adding that idealists from the 1980s movements are now the staff at the Blue House. Yu concludes by proposing that the Korean government pay the forced labor funds in order to avoid further setbacks to bilateral ties, and since Koreans are too emotional, Japanese should take care to avoid talk that would arouse their emotions anew.
On December 12 in Tokyo Shimbun Park Cheol-hee asked if Japan-ROK relations are hopeless as talks spread that they are worse than in the past, and some in Japan say that the 1965 legal framework is being overturned. Yet, this is the recurrent pattern since 1965 of ups and downs, in which crises keep being overcome, he added. Park does not see the situation as hopeless because: in South Korea public opinion is not monolithic with many informed people viewing the Supreme Court decision on forced labor as in violation of the spirit of the 1965 treaty, unlike the “comfort women” case; a joint committee headed by South Korea’s prime minister is intent on sustaining future-oriented ties; economic circles in both countries are cooperative, having been unsettled by the court decision; big Japanese companies in anticipation of the ruling have already reduced their capital inside South Korea; and issues are accumulating for Tokyo and Seoul to combine forces to address together (whether North Korea, the US alliances, the free trade system, or China). Indeed, Japanese need to focus on South Korean wariness about China after THAAD sanctions were imposed and given the accelerating departure of Korean companies from China, more of which are seeking closer cooperation with Japan. That more than 8 million Koreans will visit Japan this year is proof of a mature spirit of exchange between the two peoples, concludes Park in his rather hopeful commentary. In the same vein, Yomiuri on October 12 before the brouhaha had noted on the 20th anniversary of the Obuchi-Kim declaration that exchange of young people has accelerated-in Japan with a third “Korea boom” in Japan with youth in the forefront in contrast to the first boom affecting housewives, and a surge in Koreans seeking jobs in Japan such as at a Pusan job fair where 51 Japanese firms were represented and visited by 850 Korean youth. In one year, the numbers had doubled.
Japan-North Korea relations
There was considerable continuity in the way Japanese viewed diplomacy over North Korea.
Sankei on July 19 carried articles on North Korea stressing North Korea’s need for assistance and the importance of CVID as well as putting the abduction issue in the forefront and talking with Pyongyang. It recognized that ties with China are improving little by little and Japan’s ties to Russia are also part of its Northeast Asia diplomacy, adding North Korea but omitting South Korea from the list. In an interview with recent ambassador to the United States Sasae, Northeast Asia was mentioned as standing on the brink of structural change and the question was raised how Japan could lead international cooperation economically and militarily. Sasae noted that the world system centered on the United States has been shaken and that the US-North Korean summit has posed a danger, omitting substantive issues, including the abductees, and only changing the mood, leading to less than ideal timing for relaxing sanctions, which three countries support in agreement with North Korea’s stage-by-stage approach. Yet, Sasae called for talks with North Korea aware that it will not yield to all demands and its demands, too, must be taken into consideration. Through most of the summer Japanese were stumbling around in the wake of Trump’s diplomacy unable to figure out how to activate their own talks with Kim Jong-un and doubtful that Trump had a promising strategy, and even more about other states.
On July 18 Yomiuri carried an article calling for strengthening missile defense, given that North Korea has no intention of denuclearization (unless world nuclear disarmament occurs) and had made no compromises in its April 27 and June 12 summits, while China wants to preserve it as another socialist country and is proceeding with assistance to it. With Trump contemplating pulling US troops from South Korea, Japan must strengthen its missile defenses; North Korea is likely to use its nuclear weapons as a diplomatic pressure device and may use limited military force. The best option would be trilateral missile defenses with the United States and South Korea to prepare for this threat, argues Watanabe Takeshi in this warning about Japan’s vulnerability.
In the July Chuo Koron several articles concerned North Korea. Miyamoto Satoru attributed the shift by Pyongyang largely to Moon Jae-in, who altered Seoul’s policy. That led to the January new line, but it was not until March 5, when receiving a South Korean delegation, that Kim Jong-un touched on the possibility of talks with the United States, which led to denuclearization as a goal, reflecting Seoul’s urgings. Yet, what North Korea has in mind in referring only to the denuclearization of the peninsula is removal of US bases and forces—and it is not clear that this has changed or that China and Russia are not supporting a hardline stance. Having ascertained their support, Kim went ahead with diplomacy with the United States. Ishimaru Jiro attributed North Korea’s shift to the sanctions hitting it after ten Security Council resolutions, especially in 2017 when China agreed to get tougher. Ishimaru goes into detail on how they are biting, citing specific localities and firms as well as linkages between the firms and their protecting units in Pyongyang. He noted some changes in China’s enforcement of sanctions after the first Kim-Xi summit in late March, but he argues that they mostly held in the early spring. Should Kim test a nuclear weapon or missile again, there would be a complete ban on oil exports to North Korea and a US-led blockade at sea that would lead to Kim’s ouster, he concludes, since the economy could not stand the stress. Under these circumstances, Kim changed course as Moon persuaded him to undertake a peace offensive. The goal is to keep the Kim family in power, but byungjin is not going to succeed, Ishimaru warns. Both Washington and Beijing will maintain the pressure to abandon nuclear weapons. Yet, claiming that dialogue and pressure together are succeeding is too optimistic, ignoring how Kim is splitting the coalition against him in a process that would not be about denuclearization in the short run but about the right balance of carrots and sticks in diplomacy and the extent to which three countries could get their way geopolitically.
On July 10 Yomiuri carried an article on the latest US-North Korean foreign minister talks, citing optimistic remarks but warning against a lack of transparency and pointing to growing doubts about where dialogue is heading. On July 28 Yomiuri noted the joint desire in Seoul and Beijing for an end-of-the war declaration, a subject seen as helpful for Moon’s September trip to Pyongyang. Little changed in the fall. Japan was hardline, distrusting Moon’s soft line and the quest for sanctions relief from China and Russia, and pushing the US to keep its resolve despite concern over Trump’s Singapore summit and later statements. On September 29 Yomiuri wrote of differences in the Security Council on sanctions relief, noting Japan’s insistence that only by cracking down on smuggling and upholding the sanctions could the Council’s prestige be kept. On October 7 it explained that one reason Moon is so eager to spur economic ties to the North, as seen in his Pyongyang visit, is the absence of a new industrial engine after shipbuilding as China is catching up. Moon’s visit to Mt. Paektu could promote tourism there, which has about the same symbolic importance as Mt. Fuji, and Moon’s 11 percent bump in public opinion over a week earlier was noteworthy. Again on October 11, Yomiuri was focused on divisions in facing the North, this time reporting on Abe versus Moon, despite Abe’s thanks for Moon raising the issue of abductees. The Pyongyang joint statement disturbed Japan and was one more example of Seoul’s disregard of the October 8, 1998 promise in the Japan-ROK joint statement on close cooperation over North Korea. The paper foresaw the possibility of Trump turning to a hardline posture toward the North and bemoaned the lack of contingency planning with Seoul, which insists that there is no need now that talks are proceeding. Given the North’s firm opposition to GSOMIA intelligence sharing between Seoul and Tokyo, there is concern that such sharing is now in jeopardy, as one more sign that Japan-ROK coordination on North Korea is difficult. Nevertheless, occasional stories, as in Tokyo Shimbun on October 27, had Japan exploring behind-the-scenes contacts with the North to see if talks including normalization and the abductees could proceed.
The September/October issue of Kaigai Jijo centered on the new structure of the peninsula, including the shock to Japan if US forces were withdrawn from there, which could follow a declaration of the end of the war being considered at the time and now within the realm of possibility because Trump’s logic differs from traditional security thinking. Pyongyang aims to weaken the US-ROK alliance, has no intention to denuclearize, and is facing serious challenges from sanctions and pressure. China opposes a Tiananmen-type scenario of democratization, viewing an end of war declaration as an opening for itself as it continues to be guided by ideas that drove it into the Korean War. Coverage indicates that Japan is in the worst position of all if US-North Korean ties change. Some Japanese are warning that Japan is missing the boat, acting too slowly, while others assert that Japan must be patient since its funds are essential to plans to reconstruct the North. Yet, much of the coverage appears to be guided by a third viewpoint: Japan is a casualty with no good options in a lengthy process that would best have not begun.
On November 15 comments by Kokubun Ryosei and Nishino Junya as part of an international panel on North Korea were reported. Kokubun contrasted the way others were focusing on dialogue with the North, while Japan was not changing, seeing no intention to denuclearize, a possibility that the missile situation would worsen, and China using the North as a foreign policy lever against the United States. Nishino warned of Moon’s goal to construct a peace system on the peninsula, lacking caution and likely to drive a wedge in relations with the United States. On November 16 in reviewing the East Asia Summit, Yomiuri returned to its stress on different thinking about the sanctions on North Korea, contrasting Japan’s desire for tightened inspections with softer views in China and South Korea. It pointed to Moon’s diplomacy with ASEAN states with traditionally friendly ties to the North at odds with Japan’s position and threatening to the Japan-US-ROK triangular coordination. This came as North Korea joined the South China Sea as the key issue.
The January 2019, Seiron combines several themes in Japanese right-wing thinking. Seoul is bending to Pyongyang’s will because of emotional thinking that overpowers pursuit of national interests; similarly, it violates the rule of law in dealings with Tokyo due to a distorted outlook on history and national interests; Seoul has sought to spread in the West a negative image of Japan contrary to the real story; and as the process of reunification unfolds, Seoul is bound to make common cause with Pyongyang in demonizing Japan. Such reasoning rests on doubtful assumptions: refusal to distinguish negative views of Japanese history to 1945 from thinking about postwar Japan; disregard for possibilities of reassuring South Korea through steps that Japan can take; overemphasis on emotionalism in Seoul with insufficient differentiation of the conservatives and progressives; and reluctance to acknowledge the power of the US-ROK nexus. Yet, Moon’s approach to “comfort women,” forced labor, and North Korea have all boosted the right-wing narrative in Japan, especially at a time Japanese feel threatened from the North.
“Free and Open Indo-Pacific”
On October 10 Yomiuri wrote about the Japan-Mekong summit in Tokyo, where Abe stressed high-quality infrastructure. Pointing to Japan’s support for containing China through assistance for both economic development and democracy, the article described the Mekong as a corridor between East and Southeast Asia and a bridge between the Pacific and Indian oceans. To the five countries in attendance, Abe touted the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and longstanding ODA from Japan, while the article pointed out that many countries in the area are pro-Japan. On October 13 Yomiuri noted that intensified assistance is a contribution to stability in these countries, as a three-year “Tokyo strategy 2018” was proclaimed. Its healthy nature contrasts to China’s BRI funding, ignoring states’ financial strength, environment, and human rights. A contrast is drawn between Western treatment of Myanmar and Japan’s further support for it.
Yomiuri on November 14 heralded the Abe-Pence agreement on investment in support of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and in contrast to BRI, as in joint infrastructure cooperation. It noted Japan’s shift away from the word “strategy” with its political overtones to wording on this as a “vision” from concern in small and medium states that this should not be about China. Already on November 1 Yomiuri had editorialized about the Abe-Modi summit strengthening the strategic ties between Japan and India as the foundation of regional order. In their 12th meeting, close ties were symbolized by Abe’s invitation to visit his villa. Coming shortly after Abe’s visit to China, this summit contrasted with shared values and criticism of China’s maritime advances. Also noted was Japan’s assistance for a 500 km high-speed railway linking Mumbai and Ahmedabad and other cooperation seen as important for Japan’s economic development. On October 30 stress was put on closer security cooperation, including a new 2 plus 2 format. The Modi visit has countered any impression that Abe was quickly drawing closer to China.
On November 15 Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported on the ASEAN meeting, which had skipped, leaving an open field to China and Russia to raise their profile. China is viewed as taking a soft posture on the South China Sea despite not concluding the Code of Conduct talks already going on for three years. Meanwhile, Putin made his first appearance at ASEAN with stress on economic issues and an effort to capitalize on Russia in 2013-17 being the biggest seller of arms to these states. Li Keqiang stressed excluding the United States from regional issues, Xi Jinping was set to attend APEC and then visit the Philippines after Wang Yi had just been there, offering a soft approach to joint resource development. The article stresses the warmth shone to Russia as a balancing force in the region and the destabilization of the power balance with the US leader absent. In the coverage on November 11 of the struggle over Singapore’s host statement, Yomiuri points to tensions over a draft critical of China’ militarization of the South China Sea with Japan and the United States looking for support of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and China for the BRI. Three days later Yomiuri wrote of China’s aim to make others get its approval for military exercises in the South China Sea between countries in the region and those outside. Yet, reports of summits with Japan often were tinged with references to cooperation against protectionism, directed at Trump’s policies whether involving Europeans at ASEM in October or Asian states in November. On November 15 Yomiuri depicted Chinese and Russian emphasis on ASEAN, for advancing arms exports in one case and getting a favorable deal on the South China Sea and exclusion of the United States in the other. Each saw an opportunity with Russia benefiting from the Sino-US conflict.
On November 16 Yomiuri described the struggle in ASEAN over the intensifying Sino-US clash. In this context, ASEAN seeks to tighten ties and respond as a group, but it can act only on easy matters such as fishing and plastics in the ocean. Faced with calls for BRI versus those for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” it gravitates toward avoidance, even as some countries are more alarmed about China’s behavior. Stress is put on Malaysia’s shift away from BRI, Myanmar’s hesitation about its economic dependency on China, and even Duterte’s rare rebuke of China over island-building. The main emphasis is on the search for ASEAN to assert its autonomy. The November 16 Sankei doubled down on the theme of a Sino-US struggle for leadership. Given Trump’s absence, it said, there was suspicion of Pence’s push for the Indo-Pacific theme, while China pushed quick completion of RCEP and the CJK FTA in the face of US trade pressure. One more division in the Singapore meetings with ASEAN, reported by Asahi on November 15, was the split over sanctions on North Korea, a focal point of the meetings, between Tokyo and Washington on one side, and Seoul with Beijing and Moscow on the other.
On November 15 Sankei described the plan to complete RCEP, entering its final stage, in 2019 with tariff removals and rules on the protection of intellectual property. Abe stresses at a time of rising protectionism the importance of RCEP. Now 7 of the 18 negotiating areas have been settled, but India is reluctant to let in a flood of Chinese imports, and Japan and Australia seek tougher rules on high-level electronics than China. Yet, in the face of Trump, there is more impetus to compromise, the article concludes.
Yomiuri on November 19 described how small countries—with less than one million population—are trying to take advantage of Sino-US competition for leadership. It showcased Xi Jinping’s lavish welcome in Papua-New Guinea with a large photo of Xi and Chinese flags as well as an opening ceremony for the international convention center and airport runway paid for by Chinese aid. At the same time, an expansion is occurring in the Australian-US naval base, while US-Japan-Australian assistance for an electric grid was approved. The article warned about excess debt to China in Tonga, confirming the criticism by Pence and Australia’s prime minister of a debt trap. The paper also noted that for the first time since APEC began in 1993 there was no statement. Premised on free trade, APEC is torn between US demands for change and China’s resistance.
On November 24 Yomiuri focused on China’s great power arrogance in barging into the room where a statement was being drafted after its officials were refused entry, having assumed that its $5 billion promised in assistance since 2011 entitled it. An adjacent article commented on the loss to China and its BRI from Mahathir’s decision to suspend the cross-Malaysian railroad, in line with promises to Anwar, his successor. This suspension has strategic significance since it was a bypass of the Malacca Straits, following the stoppage of construction Sankei reported on November 10 of the “Malacca Gateway” port for trade, tourism, and industry to open in 2025, criticized as an infringement on Malaysia’s sovereignty with possible use by Chinese submarines. A November 6 interview with Mahathir published the following day in Yomiuri drove home his concern about massive debts to China, while noting Malaysia’s place with Japan in the new TPP.
Instead of November serving to solidify US-Japan relations in a regional context, Trump’s choice not to travel to Asia followed by his decisions to double down on the “America First” agenda have left Japanese stunned. Will Trump value alliances and commitments abroad after pulling away from Syria and Afghanistan? Will his protectionism disrupt trade ties further, damaging Japan’s economy? Will personnel changes removing officials most trusted in Tokyo reverberate in poorer bilateral relations? Should Tokyo hedge further against the dangers inherent in these moves by Trump? The year was ending with questions piling up and little reassurance to Japan.