Country Report: Japan (February 2021)
The end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 saw Japan in a wait-and-see mood: knowing that Joe Biden would be the US president and that Suga Yoshihide would sustain the legacy of Abe Shinzo, but unsure what Biden’s approach would be on the most sensitive issues or whether there would be the right kind of personal chemistry between the two leaders, which is viewed as vital in Japan. Fear of abandonment was felt—over US prioritizing deals with China as on climate change on the one hand, and over US weakness on the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan on the other. But even more concern was mounting over the prospect of entrapment by the US demanding Japan to take a harder line against China, which would entail disastrous economic implications. Many in the administration were familiar figures, and statements were largely reassuring, but that did not stop anxieties—from the right of abandonment and from the left of entrapment.
On February 7 in Yomiuri Hosoya Yuichi explained today’s historical crossroads. Looking back to the optimism about building one world prevailing in early 2001, he points to the entry into the WTO and economic reform under “China’s Gorbachev,” Zhu Rongji. Twenty years later the world is being split apart after the 2008 financial crisis, the retreat of democratization, and populism rising on the back of widening economic gaps. The vector of globalization has been reversed. Fragmentation is also occurring within democratic states. Biden, with a summit of democracies, seeks to restore cohesion. Even with lofty political ideals, Biden alone cannot accomplish this goal. As host of the G7 in June, Boris Johnson wants to expand the body into a D10 of democracies. Two overlapping forces need to be invoked to pursue these US-UK goals. An ideological conflict is dividing the world between the democracies and the authoritarian states of China and Russia and others. Given the developments of 2020, it is now estimated that China’s GDP will surpass that of the US in 2028. On the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021, it is possible that China will launch military conflicts over Taiwan, the South China Sea islands, and even the Senkakus. Recalling how 90 years ago, Japan’s army caused the Manchurian incident, Hosoya could not rule out the risk that China would find a pretext in the East and South China seas to proceed without a formal declaration of war. Especially the Taiwan Strait has significance as a reminder of historical geopolitics. It could again become the front lines of a power struggle between a maritime and a continental great power. The power balance was rapidly changing at the end of the 19th century, too.
For Japan, the Senkakus are where tensions are high. China’s leadership thinks Japan’s national power is weakening. If US influence is seen as receding in this region, it is highly likely China could try to change the situation around these islands, perhaps using an accident as a chance to seize control and gain exclusive control over the entire East China Sea. Suga’s mission is to prevent this. In economic disorder and social unrest over the pandemic, war could easily occur. Policy toward China should be based on that reality.
The Suga-Biden phone call
A Yomiuri editorial on January 29 commented on the Biden-Suga phone conversation, noting the agreement on cooperating to realize a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” While Biden had used words such as “stable and prosperous” for his Indo-Pacific policy, it is significant that the two leaders joined in the concept of “free and open.” China is accelerating its one-sided maritime advance, adding to the importance of embedding the “rule of law” and “freedom of navigation.” The linkages through the Quad are deepening, and the main countries of Europe have great interest. As China and North Korea continue to build up their military power, Japan’s security environment further deteriorates. Biden expressed his determination to defend Japan through “extended deterrence.” Japan should increase the role of its Self-Defense Forces and deepen the alliance. China has decided to allow the use of weapons by its maritime security forces, moving more to integrating them with its navy, leading to the fear that activity around the Senkakus will be exacerbated. Biden again declared that these islands are an object in the defense of Japan. In dealing with North Korea, trilateral cooperation is indispensable, and a resolute attitude is needed to resolve the issue of Japanese abductees. Biden stresses multilateralism and sought Suga’s participation in the April climate change summit, which may be virtual. Trump left TPP, and Biden is for now prioritizing the protection of US manufacturing. It is important for Japan to encourage the US to return to the agreement in the mid to long term, concludes the editorial.
The Asahi editorial following the Biden-Suga conversation stressed agreement to work toward international coordination against unilateralism and authoritarianism. The two leaders agreed on strengthening the alliance, containing China, and realizing FOIP. Critical of Trump, despite his personal “honeymoon” with Abe, for distorting Japan’s defense budget with large purchases of American weapons, turning his back on multilateralism, and willfully disrupting the international order, the paper says that Suga wants to build a different alliance relationship to contribute to regional stability. It praises Biden’s return to international agreements, but warns of difficulties in dealing with China, noting that Biden has not changed the severe policies toward China, even if in some areas cooperation is possible. The US is indispensable for responding to China’s maritime military expansion. Not only should the alliance support deterrence, it must nurture trust among countries and the lessening of regional tensions. Japan is a neighbor of China with deep historical relations. It can develop an approach that contributes to healthy US-China ties. In this viewpoint from the left, the danger of entrapment is implied, but Suga will work against it.
With China more aggressive about Taiwan, fear that Biden would pull back from Trump’s more assertive support for Taiwan could be seen in conservative circles, including in the government.
In Wedge on January 19, Japan-Taiwan relations were discussed in the context of Biden’s approach to Taiwan. It noted the December 28 remarks of Deputy Minister Nakayama Yasuhide, who told Reuters reporters, "I want to know Biden’s policy toward Taiwan quickly," "then I can prepare accordingly," and "if China crosses the line, Biden. How will he deal with it?" The piece agreed with an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, which held that if Taiwan loses its independence, the balance of power in the Pacific Ocean will be greatly disrupted, giving China a decisive advantage. The United States first needs to support Taiwan’s defense and let China know how expensive it would be to attack Taiwan. If Biden wants to reassure Asian allies, he should clearly set out the goals of Taiwan’s defense. The article adds that Taiwan is worried that the United States may return to the "reconciliation route" with China of the Obama administration due to pressure from China. On another theme, Biden used the term "safe and prosperous Indo-Pacific" instead of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific," used by the Abe and Trump administrations. This may be a sign of the Biden administration’s reconciliation with China, it was said. Inappropriate relations with Chinese companies have been reported over Biden’s son Hunter. Thus, it is unclear if the administration could eventually be subject to some pressure or restraint from China.
In Yomiuri on January 27, China’s threat to Taiwan is editorialized as a naked challenge to the Biden administration. It notes that in the two days immediately after the inauguration of the US administration, China brought a total of 28 aircraft, including fighters and bombers, into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. It showed off its military power on an unprecedented scale, and, it is only reasonable that the Biden administration has launched a hard line with China following the approach of the Trump administration. The inauguration ceremony of Biden was attended by a representative from Taiwan, officially invited for the first time since the 1979 US-Taiwan relations act. China’s threat to Taiwan is an act that shakes the security of East Asia as a whole, and it is irrational for China to claim "intervention in domestic affairs" about the US move to deal with this. China’s threat to Taiwan is not a fire on the opposite bank, according to the article. Taiwan shares the values of democracy. It is important that US allies such as Japan work closely together to strengthen relations with Taiwan.
On December 18, President Online carried Miura Lully’s article on China hating Biden more than Trump. Although under Obama and Biden, the US government misunderstood Russia and China and promoted policies based on misunderstandings, Biden’s approach to China is not expected to be much different from Trump’s except for human rights, which will make it less welcome.
On December 21, Bunshun Online asked what will happen to Japan as a result of US-China relations under Biden, drawing on a roundtable of university professors with Taiwan a central topic. China-Taiwan unification is the justification for Xi Jinping’s continued authority, and as China’s economy stagnates in the next five or six years Xi will seek a breakthrough on Taiwan. The term “peaceful unification” has been dropped; coercion is looming in line with the announced accelerated “shift from passive war adaptation to active war planning.” The US will decide it is not worth the cost to fight with China over Taiwan. Biden will have to make a tough decision, and Japan cannot be irrelevant. It must explore ways to avoid war, the article asserts.
On December 21, in President Online, it was argued that Nikai Toshihiro, secretary general of the LDP and the kingmaker of the Suga administration, has crossed a line on China policy from the US point of view. In October when the Quad foreign ministers met in Tokyo, Teshima Ryuichi warned that the US is aiming for an alliance with Japan that is not soft on China, putting new pressure on Suga’s foreign policy toward China. This article is abridged from a joint book by Teshima and Sato Masaru, which observes that Suga is being sandwiched between Greater China and the Quad and must feel anxious about diplomacy. Whether Republicans or Democrats had won the presidential election, a harsher US stance toward China was on the horizon with calls for Japan to join. Suga made his diplomatic debut at the Quad, where Pompeo made clear the US aim to prevent China using its great military and economic power to dominate the Indo-Pacific, rallying the other countries behind the keyword FOIP. India had already come to the position of opposing China’s hegemony, shifting with the Himalayan clash in the summer of 2020 away from not joining US containment efforts.
Nikai is identified as part of the faction catering to China. Rumor has spread that the US side is wondering whether Suga’s incorporation of this faction into his administration is compatible with the desired joint policy toward China. It is said that China policy has become a dangerous landmine for the Suga administration and that Nikai on BRI had already crossed a red line in May 2017, carrying a personal letter from Abe to the BRI summit, accepting this notion of a greater China sphere. Imai Takaya, special advisor to the cabinet, had revealed the contents earlier, and China had not been satisfied because it had not made clear what Abe’s posture on BRI was. Then Japan rewrote the letter clarifying its support for BRI, which deepened the rift between Imai and Yachi Shotaro, the national security advisor, who later resigned, fearing the message that Japan could be pushed around. This letter became the basis for Abe-Xi summit in China and the planned state visit of Xi to Japan. Because the US saw the Trump-Abe relationship as good, it did not criticize Abe’s letter, but problems have festered as Suga must navigate diplomacy with the US in 2021. China policy is now seen as a challenge for Japan-US relations.
On December 23, Sankei discussed the new revelations about Japan’s response to the Tiananmen massacre, revealing the strong desire not to isolate China and opposition to joining the sanctions of the US and Europe. The paper traces China’s current repression in Hong Kong and elsewhere to Japan’s stance then. The archival source shows Japan’s attitude toward non-interference in internal affairs, which enables China to legitimize its human rights violations. If Japan did temporarily impose some sanctions, they were being lifted within months. Optimism about how China would evolve has been belied by reality since 1989, concludes the article.
On the same day in Yukan Fuji there was a warning about a security crisis in Japan due to a shift in US policy toward China. Kawakami Tadashi warns that the return to the Obama era will not bode well for Japan. Acknowledging that the US has left a “power vacuum” allowing China and Russia to enter and form a new world order and that it lacks the financial power to restore its former order, the article raises alarm that the US will demand that its allies fill the gap; and it will move toward trade cooperation with China followed by security reconciliation. Biden’s picks so far are not Asia experts; Asia will again be secondary to Europe and the Middle East. US military spending will be cut. Whereas Trump was prepared to defend Taiwan, Biden’s position is in doubt—most worrisome to Japan. Chinese ships and submarines would be able to pass through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, and the first island chain would be breached. Okinawa Prefecture and the Senkaku Islands are the next targets is the warning.
Wedge on December 24 warned that more attention should be paid to the PLA’s advance into universities and research institutes, and companies expanding into Japan should also be scrutinized for their relationship with the PLA while exchanging information with the United States. We also need to think carefully about the battles in cyberspace, space, and information.
Economic security issues are complex and there are many issues, such as the military application of new technologies and confidentiality. How to respond to new threats is a big issue, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is now strengthening its control through a system centered on the Trade and Economic Cooperation Bureau.
In Japan In-depth on December 26, policy toward China is branded a miserable failure. Newly released diplomatic documents are proof of “subordination to China” and Japan’s ODA was the “biggest diplomatic blunder” since the war. China was not blamed for the mass murders in 1989 nor did Japan side with the other democracies and show the same understanding of these events. Komori Yoshihisa writes that ODA was of no use to China’s friendship with Japan. The Chinese government did not inform its people of it. Also, Japan’s ODA did not promote China’s democratization. The actual effect was rather the opposite. The aid from Japan was provided to the government, not the private sector, helping to strengthen its authority and contributing to China’s arms build-up.
In Yukan Fuji on December 26, the newly released archives from 1987-89 were taken as proof that Japan had failed in its China policy, strengthening the CCP, which has come back to haunt it. The paper calls this a strong lesson for Suga’s administration, where the influence of “pro-Chinese” officials is strong. Deputy Prime Minister Wu Xueqian attended the coronation of the emperor just a year after the Tiananmen “incident” and invited the Emperor to visit China, conveying a deceptive impression. It is time to recognize that Japan’s diplomacy has failed.
In Bunshun On-line on December 26, impressions of Biden by the former SDF chief-of-staff are noted. Biden was gracious to him, asserted that their meeting would send a strong message to China, and appeared well-informed. While it notes the Japanese conservative view that Biden is not good for US-Japan relations and that relations were better in the Trump era, the officer disagreed, saying Biden attaches great importance to the alliance.
Toyo Keizai On-line on December 28 assessed Biden’s Asia policy, noting that the US intends to maintain its presence in the Asia-Pacific and will not undermine its ability of power projection based in the Western Pacific. Biden will make an appearance at ASEAN meetings and appoint
an Asian director at the National Security Council, dividing Asia into three divisions, including China, India, and Japan, and controlling all of them. Previous US rebalancing failed, and there have been drastic changes in Asia’s new strategic environment. Successful rebalancing should switch China-focused Asian policies to Japan-focused. Obama erred in seeking to create a
framework for US-China relations before formulating a strategy for Asia as a whole, and tried to incorporate Asian policy into the framework of policy toward China. A month after the Pentagon’s "pivot" guidance was announced, China proposed a "new style of power relations" between the United States and China. The truth is that the Obama administration had a hidden intention of "new style sphere of influence segregation" in this region between the United States and China, but it temporarily fell into China’s trap, allowing China to occupy territory disputed with the Philippines from 2012. The United States could not stop China’s revisionist actions to build artificial islands and military facilities in the Spratly Islands, which raised questions about America’s deterrence and credibility.
Biden should examine the failure of the Obama administration’s rebalancing and come up with a new rebalancing strategy based on it. The most important thing this time is to establish a comprehensive and multifaceted trade policy in the Asia-Pacific region. The national interest of the United States lies not in tariffs but in the rule of law. Biden emphasized the importance of Japan’s strategic role in the success of its rebalancing policy in a meeting with Abe in Singapore seven years ago and saw TPP negotiations from that perspective. The Biden administration must provide a different narrative in terms of trade policy than union protectionism and Trump’s "America First." It must establish a policy toward China centered on competitive coexistence. The time is ripe. During the Obama administration, Asia was skeptical that rebalancing policy was another name for containment against China. According to the article, Japan and other countries in Asia are waiting for the Biden administration to mount a full-scale rebalancing policy.
On December 29, in Diamond Online, Kamikubo Masato summarized the situation for China and the United States in 2020. China used the measures it took against the pandemic to promote itself as a model and it oppressed Hong Kong. Yet, the reason why it has achieved rapid economic growth and military expansion and threatened the position of the "hegemonic state" of the United States is not because authoritarianism worked effectively. Foreign capital moved its production bases in search of cheap labor. Mass-produced products at factories built by foreign capital were exported to the huge US market and made immense profits. As a result, China was able to achieve high economic growth Using the profits, it became a military power and advanced in the South China Sea and other areas. New companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Huawei emerged in areas in China that can be called "mini-America.” The situation is reviving a communist system reducing productivity and competitiveness and causing the economy to stagnate. Yet the Biden administration could make a deal with China, shifting the international community from "conflict" to "cooperation" centered on the United States and China, leaving Japan in the lurch.
On January 1, Japan in-depth warned that under the Biden administration China would intensify its offensive against Japan, compounding Japan’s troubles due to bungling the epidemic. This is in line with supposition that the worse Sino-US relations are, the more China woos Japan.
On January 4 Japan in-depth argued that Biden would not take as tough a posture toward China as Trump’s full-scale confrontation, even treating the Chinese Communist Party as illegal. Many differences are listed: reductions in defense spending, which would reduce pressure on China as it threatens Taiwan and Australia among other forms of aggression at Japan’s expense. Also mentioned by Komori Yoshihisa is the notion that China’s “smile diplomacy” toward Japan has not changed anything and is just a reaction to the terrible deterioration in ties to the US, even if anti-Japanese dramas on state television have declined and Xi does not join ceremonies such as over the “Nanjing Massacre.” Biden’s weakness will make China more confrontational. Komori concludes Japan’s postwar policy toward China was “one of the largest historical blunders in Japanese diplomacy.” By providing a huge amount of ODA, it helped China emerge as a military dictatorship that is hostile to Japan.
Daily Shincho on January 21 criticized Nikai Toshihiro, the longest serving secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party at age 81, who is said to have strong pro-Chinese and pro-Korean leanings. Should he get his way and Xi arrive as a state guest to meet the Emperor, that would send a message to the international community that "Japan supports China.” The article says that Nikai blocked a resolution on Hong Kong to keep the state visit alive, compounding the mistake by Japan of consistently providing Japan’s huge ODA to China for many years.
An Asahi editorial on December 21 warned that Moon Jae-in is threatening freedom in South Korea. It pointed to a proposed law that undermines civil liberties and democracy and called on the Moon administration to stand with the international community in defense of universal values. The law threatens imprisonment for spreading leaflets into North Korea, claiming that this would protect the lives and security of residents near the demarcation line. This is only an excuse for an action provoked by threats from North Korea as part of its negotiating tactics. Moon is also threatening the independence of the judiciary, readers are told, and must change his self-righteous approach.
Mainichi on December 28 noted the fifth anniversary of the “comfort women” agreement, editorializing that the aim was to rebuild a future-oriented relationship, but the current situation is far from what was expected. The long-standing conflict between South Korea, which sticks to legal responsibility, and Japan, which wants to be left only morally responsible, was negotiated by simply making it "responsibility." Both countries confirmed that this was a "final and irreversible solution." Also, South Korea announced that it would work toward an "appropriate solution" to the problem of the statue of a girl standing in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, symbolizing the “comfort women.” In the background was the US, pushing strongly for the agreement. Yet Abe’s parliamentary response, which stated that he was "not thinking about sending a letter of apology to the former comfort women," had unnecessarily stimulated the Korean side. The article reminds readers that South Korea is an indispensable equal partner in terms of both security and economy and that the shadow cast by the negative history of Japanese colonial rule still remains. It adds, the lessons learned from the comfort women agreement, which did not make the most of valuable diplomatic achievements, should be properly addressed and used as material for considering future Japanese diplomacy.
Yomiuri also carried an editorial that day on the agreement, criticizing Moon for not respecting its spirit. Abe made a forthright apology, Japan fulfilled its responsibilities, the US and others highly evaluated the agreement, and more than 70 percent of the women accepted the foundation’s money. Yet Moon’s actions mean there is no further prospect for a breakthrough as anti-Japan sentiments have been aroused. Alarm now exists toward the movement in South Korea to erect statues of “comfort women” in various countries. The Moon administration is also not discussing a way to resolve the forced labor issue. Now there is no way to avoid stagnation in diplomacy with a country that breaks its promises. Japan-ROK cooperation is essential for Asian security. Biden valued the 2015 agreement. He will seek a new understanding as important for strengthening the trilateral linkage.
Responding on January 19 to Moon’s press conference the preceding day, a Mainichi editorial said it was a different tune than heard before. First, Moon recognized the 2015 “comfort women” agreement as official. Then, on the forced labor issue Moon expressed a wish that the Japanese companies would not have to pay in cash. The former attitude that nothing could be done due to the separation of three branches of government was omitted. To resolve this issue diplomatically, the Korean government would have to persuade the plaintiffs. Yet the remarks were not specific. The environment for bilateral relations has changed greatly with the US elections. Biden stresses cooperation between allies, and voices in South Korea are now appealing strongly for improved relations with Japan. Given the North Korea situation and the Sino-US friction as well as the pandemic’s impact, Moon is under pressure. Japan needs diplomatic wisdom, too, the editorial concludes. Japan’s progressives, at least, sense an opening in 2021 to repair bilateral relations.
On February 8, Sankei covered Seoul’s efforts to navigate between Washington and Beijing after Biden and Moon Jae-in had agreed by phone that improving Japan-South Korea relations and trilateral cooperation between Japan, the US, and South Korea are important for regional peace and prosperity. In addition, Moon had promised to upgrade the ROK-US alliance by raising common values to another level. Yet in Moon’s phone call days earlier with Xi Jinping, Xi said that realization of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would be a "common interest" for China and South Korea, and expressed positive support for Moon’s policy toward North Korea. The article charges Moon with placing the highest priority on harmony with North Korea and with praising Xi, saying, "We sincerely celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party" and "China’s international status and influence are increasing day by day. Under Park Geun-hye and her “honeymoon” with China, it was shown that the opportunistic policy of equidistance between the US and China only ends with the kind of harsh sanctions China imposed in 2016. Now that Biden plans to counter China’s “aggressive and coercive behavior,” Moon will be held responsible for countering China’s hedging and for achieving unity between Japan, the United States and South Korea.
Wedge on December 25 noted that China sees Australia as bad because of its advocacy of an independent investigation into the origin of COVID-19. Australia has no option but to succumb to China’s economic intimidation. It plans to strengthen the US-Australia alliance and supports a greater US military commitment in the Indo-Pacific, which is welcomed by Japan. It is important for Japan to solidify its ties, such as cooperation in defense when Prime Minister Morrison visits Japan.
Jiji.com on December 27 asserted that Germany is revising its Asia-Pacific policy and looking to strengthen relations with Japan. Defense Minister Karenbauer criticized China’s hegemony in the South China Sea and said that Germany would send warships to the Indo-Pacific, and Defense Minister Kishi responded that he "strongly supports" this. There were even references to the arbitral tribunal’s decision denying China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea. The series of moves is a turning point for Germany, where Merkel, who has established a relationship with China some describe as a honeymoon and has visited China 12 times since taking office in 2005, is soon to retire. Germany has advocated the idea of "transformation through trade," as if economic development and democratization are two sides of the same coin. Yet the tightening of control in Hong Kong since the beginning of this year has greatly strengthened Germany’s sense of caution. The economic benefits are also fading. Chinese companies have exclusively received orders for the main business of BRI. "Japan and Germany are united in maintaining a rules-based international order," said Yasper Week of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who is responsible for developing Indo-Pacific guidelines. Another official said, "I underestimated the possibility of cooperation with Japan." This change is likely to trigger the diversification of Japan’s diplomacy.
On February 2, Yomiuri editorialized on the importance of Great Britain applying to join TPP, urging Tokyo to deepen its ties with London. They already have an EPA, but there is more that needs to be covered, and Tokyo should welcome this application. Expanding TPP is very significant, but without relaxing the rules. China has shown interest and may try to join by relaxing the rules, which should not be allowed. The US aim had been to contain China with TPP. And Trump left it, proclaiming “America First.” Biden has a negative attitude about rejoining soon. Japan should strive with determination for its return, seeking multilateral cooperation that can get China to correct its unjust trade practices. That same day Sankei saw the UK move as a good opportunity to advance freedom, citing Taiwan and South Korea as desired participants. Given the special alliance relations between the US and UK, this should be a step to urge Biden to return. It is important that the major countries of Europe, which share the values of freedom and democracy, form economic links to the TPP member states.
On February 3, Mainichi reported on Great Britain’s application to join TPP. It was significant, being the first application since the 11-member association was finalized, the first non-Asian member amid the tide of protectionism. TPP sets high standards of liberalization for a digital age, but it is small-scale compared to RCEP, which includes China. The participating countries will start talks with London this spring. Japan is the chair this year, and it must not accept any watering down of standards. TPP remains effective in pressing China to reform. The biggest question is the return of the US, and there is little chance that will happen soon in light of Biden’s protection of American manufacturing. South Korea and Thailand have expressed interest. If the US returns, others will recognize the cost of not joining TPP.
An Asahi editorial on January 5 focused on the heavy responsibility of the US and Russia as nuclear powers, calling for Biden to improve relations with Russia. By rebuilding NATO and calling out Russia for human rights violations, Biden will anger Putin, but he should strive to renew New START, revive the Iran nuclear deal, and cooperate on North Korea and China’s military rise. Including Japan and reaffirming multilateral cooperation is the desired path.
On February 1, Asahi reported that Medvedev declared it would be impossible to discuss the Northern Territories issue because of last year’s constitutional amendment. "Peace treaty negotiations with Japan are disappearing." This message was repeated in other newspapers.
A Sankei response on February 3 to Russia’s brutal treatment of demonstrators over the Navalny affair strongly denounced the actions and called for Japan and Western countries to continue to watch the situation and increase pressure to stop the Putin administration from cracking down. In order to solve the Northern Territories issue, Russia has to share the values of democracy.
On February 7, there was a surge of remembrances of “Northern Territories” day along with a national convention. The expression "illegal occupation," which had not been used in 2019 and 2020 for the four islands, was revived. Suga sent a video message, expressing his determination to "continue to steadily proceed with negotiations" regarding the conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia, including territorial disputes, noted Kyodo.
That same day Hakamada Shigeki wrote in Sankei that Japan had been proceeding in negotiations based on the illusion that the 1956 joint declaration was their foundation. Interpretations of the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration are different. The declaration states that Shikotan and Habomai will be handed over after the conclusion of a peace treaty, but Putin said that nothing is stated about the sovereignty and conditions for the handing over of the two islands. Abe has repeatedly said he would conclude a peace treaty with Putin, but the Russian side has never made such a statement. In territorial negotiations, it is important not to be impatient, and if you set a deadline such as "during your term," your position will be weakened. We do not deny economic cooperation with Russia, but we should proceed in a way that is balanced with progress in territorial negotiations. Hakamada charged that Abe’s strategy was wrong, being more in a hurry to reach a deal and making one-sided concessions. With Putin offering nothing, Abe tried economic concessions. Putin kept closing the door, treating the islands as the fruits of victory in 1945 and making it against the Constitution to relinquish territory. Japan let illusions drive its approach, undermining an approach it had developed over a long time. Suga should discard rosy expectations, be realistic, and gain respect for Japan as an independent country whose cause is backed by history and law. Policy should be parallel progress is needed on territory and economic ties, argued Hakamada.
In contrast, Suzuki Muneo, in the same roundtable, argued that Suga is on track to carry Abe’s diplomacy forward: as seen in his January 18 speech calling for solving the issue in this generation based on the 2018 Abe-Putin Singapore understanding to accelerate talks relying on the 1956 Joint Declaration. Since the talks have been secret, others do not know their contents; it only appears that there have been setbacks. Despite the pandemic a face-to-face meeting of Suga and Putin is needed. This year is the 65th anniversary of the Joint Declaration, and the average age of former islanders is 85. An agreement would let them move back to two islands and travel freely to the other two, where joint economic development would proceed. This would be a 2 + alpha result, Suzuki optimistically anticipated in his statements for Sankei.
Hokkaido Shimbun on February 7 noted that unlike Abe, who forecast the resolution of the talks during his tenure, Suga has made no such prediction. Due to the pandemic in 2020 there were no visa-free visits to the islands to the chagrin of the aging survivors. Sakhalin is eager to build resorts on the islands, rushing to establish infrastructure, apartments, and businesses. Yet, the worsening economy in the pandemic has greatly slowed these efforts. Criticism has mounted over such vast investments on scarcely populated islands. In a tourism campaign within Russia, more air routes were established. Some people fleeing the virus left the mainland and came to the islands, unable to go abroad.
On February 3, Yomiuri editorialized about the military coup in Myanmar. It called for a peaceful resolution through international cooperation. In Southeast Asia Thailand also is under a military administration, and is deepening relations with China. On Myanmar China shields the military from pressure from international society by opposing interference in internal affairs. Biden has demanded that the military relinquish power and warned of a resumption of economic sanctions. Foreign Minister Motegi has expressed great concern and called for an early return to a democratic political system. Japan should join with the US and Europe for a peaceful outcome.