Country Report: Japan (June 2021)

  • Editorial Staff

The late spring of 2021 saw Japan solidify its alliance with the United States in a summit between Suga Yoshihide and Joe Biden and in the multilateral G7 summit less than two months later. While multilateralism was boosted, much of the discussion centered on how Japanese foreign policy toward China had shifted, notably on wording regarding Taiwan and Xinjiang. Attention was directed also at how European countries had drawn closer to Japan in concerns over China. The situation with South Korea remained in a rut despite Moon Jae-in’s summit with Biden and his eagerness to meet with Suga, including on the sidelines of the G7 summit. Neither North Korea nor Russia drew much attention, despite reminders of disconcerting behavior.

Post-Pandemic International Order

Yomiuri on May 27 looked ahead to the international order after the pandemic pessimistically. The post-Cold War appeal of globalism was fading, civilizations were viewed in new ways, and many rising countries did not share thinking about the political and social order. The Sino-US clash raises the prospect of a clash of civilizations, driven by Chinese thinking and the response of the US. After summarizing the viewpoints of various observers on the overall trends, the article raises questions about the inconsistency of Japan’s proclamations about values and policy toward Myanmar, which risks its isolation. In the background were debates about how far Suga would go in joining Biden and the rest of the G7 on rhetoric and policies in support of values. Debate on denouncing the "genocide" against the Uighurs in the Diet session led to concerns over enactment of a "Japan version of the Magnitsky Act," imposing sanctions on serious human rights violations that occurred in a foreign country. Yet China is supporting the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, leading many to say Japan will never rebel against China.

Japan-US summit

In Gaiko No. 67, Nakashima Kentaro opened the discussion of the new unfolding of FOIP, calling Biden’s policy an effort to restore the “balance of power.” Suga was the first foreign leader to meet with Biden in the White House because it was necessary to show the world quickly the strengthening bilateral relationship in the face of the biggest competitor China. The article emphasizes the US strategy to counter China and the primary role of Kurt Campbell. In light of China’s aggressive behavior, above all putting China in its crosshairs, the US moves are considered “realist” responses, which Japan endorses. It is now the center of diplomatic policy, of decisive importance. China must not be permitted to change the situation by force, testing US leadership and alliances. The article argues that the US pressed for a stronger statement on Taiwan than at the March 2+2 meeting in Tokyo, but Japan resisted, not wanting to provoke China more than was necessary. Meanwhile, it reports a debate under way in Washington on moving away from strategic ambiguity over Taiwan and what message should be sent to China. As the US presses for more acceptance of Taiwan in international society, Japan remains wary of arousing China. In contrast to Hillary Clinton’s 2012 optimism about no need for balance of power politics, Biden has made a 180-degree shift, backing democracies in the battle against authoritarianism. Returning from the summit, Suga took pride in forging personal relations with Biden and by tightening the alliance showing strength to international society. The US has been drawn back heavily into Asia, and Japan is a player on its side, one discerns.

Europe

Yomiuri editorialized on May 7 about the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting, asserting, as China threatens the existing order, both economically and militarily, it is significant to confirm that Japan, the US, and Europe will lead in strengthening international cooperation. If under Trump, it was difficult for the G7 to deal with problems in the world in unison, the editorial welcomed Biden’s restart of the international cooperation system based on freedom and democracy. Yomiuri welcomed a joint statement addressing "serious concerns" about the suppression of human rights in Xinjiang, the suppression of democrats in Hong Kong, and intimidating maritime activities in the East China Sea and South China Sea, noting the unusual step of touching on the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait too. Explaining that, until now, Europe has been less wary of China, especially in Italy and Germany, the editorial notes that countries have recently turned to being involved in the stability of the Indo-Pacific. The upgrading of Japan’s diplomacy in Europe is recognized here as well as the revival of the 1980s’ concept of three centers of shared values cooperating on security issues.

That same day, Sankei was even more effusive about the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting, given its unity on China and wording on the Taiwan Strait, in step with the joint statement by Suga and Biden in April. It noted that the unity of the G7 is a major premise to counter China and Russia. Stress on advocating shared values is clear, from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s appeal for the “D10” to the rise of the Quad, to Biden’s plan for a summit of the democracies. But particular pleasure is taken in the G7 as the axis of a multi-layered framework. Yet Sankei expects more from Japan, pointing out that on the Uighur issue; only it in the G7 has not taken sanctions.

On June 22 in GLOBE+ of Asahi Shimbun, the G7 was reassessed by Tsuruoka Michito. He found the reference to the Taiwan Strait the same as in the May G7 Foreign Ministers’ Joint Statement and the joint statement by the US and the EU on Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea the same as the April Japan-US summit statement and at conferences in which Japan does not participate, so it cannot be said that Japan is playing a leading role apart from the US. Yet more revealing in the G7 Joint Statement was mention that "we are concerned about the use of all forms of forced labor." Although it does not name China, it clearly refers to human rights issues in Xinjiang, calling for concrete efforts to eradicate the use of forced labor for the G7 Trade Ministers’ Meeting in October, in line with the Biden administration’s emphasis. This issue was the "hottest" at the G7, and it seems that the UK and Canada supported the US policy as did France. The US seemed to want to name China.

Japan’s position appears to have been more complicated. It announced an action plan on "business and human rights" last October but progress has not been rapid, given differences within the government, such as between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The government has not revealed Japan’s remarks on the issue of forced labor at the G7 summit, and Japan is the only G7 country that has not imposed sanctions on China over human rights in Xinjiang. Noting that the issue of forced labor is directly related to corporate activities and cannot be avoided by Japan, Tsuruoka writes that Japan is still grappling with how to position value issues such as freedom and human rights in diplomacy. This time, the UK, president of the G7, emphasized "values."

Prior to the G7, Japan and the United States wanted to criticize China, but Europe, which emphasizes the economy, was cautious. Yet, feelings toward China are changing in Europe, which is welcomed in Japan, even if there needs to be sensitivity to the priority on Russia. In the joint statement released at the NATO summit this time, China was mentioned 10 times, while Russia was mentioned 61 times. The three Baltic states and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, are skeptical that "defense against Russia may be neglected." Still, in the Leaders’ Joint Statement, it is important to look for not only the word China but also China that appears between the lines. At the G7 summit photo shoot, it became a hot topic that “Suga might have been isolated,” given various interpretations of photographs, some showing Suga alone. This is explained as European leaders are always meeting at conferences, the US being exceptional, and Canada having a high affinity with Europe. This time, India, Australia, South Korea, and South Africa were guests, but as long as Japan defends its status as "the only participating country from Asia," the structural problem of difficulty in securing a place remains. If you want a natural companion, you have no choice but to support the expansion of the G7 and create Indo-Pacific and non-Western groups.

On June 17 JB Press tallied China’s losses from “wolf warrior” diplomacy, emphasizing the EU backlash against the Chinese sanctions after the EU had sanctioned China more lightly over its Xinjiang human rights policy. In mid-December, the Chinese side suddenly swallowed the EU’s demands to conclude an investment treaty long under negotiation due to concern that the Biden administration would put pressure on the EU for a tougher line on China and that Germany would no longer hold the presidency with the pro-Chinese Merkel. It was significant to take this step amid the ongoing serious US-China conflict. But just months later China’s retaliatory sanctions were perceived as a serious challenge to democracy, as it extended to politicians, experts and key organizations representing the EU as a whole. Now Central and Eastern European countries are moving away from the 17 + 1 dialogue. As its conflict with the United States is likely to continue for a long time, it is of great significance to maintain good relations with Japan and the EU, the article concludes, and the Chinese government had made various efforts to strengthen relations with both, but it is throwing that away in the spring of 2021.

South Korea

Sakata Yasuyo in Gaiko focused on the revival of trilateralism by the Biden administration. In the Trump era the US just put out fires, as when the GSOMIA was imperiled. Now, the goal is to restructure Japan-US-ROK ties for the Indo-Pacific era. In 2018-19 not only were Japan-ROK ties troubled, so too were triangular relations. One cause was Trump’s disparaging of alliances. In contrast, “Team Biden” is stressing the Quad as a principal Indo-Pacific platform, followed by the trilateral framework of US allies. In June, the Shangri-la meetings followed by the G7 Plus will provide further opportunities. Tony Blinken is especially committed, having played a big role under Obama in nurturing US-Japan-ROK ties. While he sees this as important for North Korea policy, he also has the broader Indo-Pacific in mind. This means changing South Korea since the US and Japan are already clear on their goals. As noted by a US expert, if South Korea is missing in FOIP it sends the wrong message to China and is a conceptual failure. Even if on China and North Korea, the two US allies have a different take, they should be able to find common ground with the US on the Indo-Pacific, Sakata suggests. This broader theme was acknowledged in the separate 2+2 talks but with different nuances, as South Korea remained wary. At the summit, Suga referred to the role of the ROK with the US and Japan in responding to North Korea and furthering peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. Reference is made also to the Quad Plus Alpha, incorporating South Korea. Moon is more cautious, but in his March 1 speech he made some movement on ties with Japan in a regional context but not on the Indo-Pacific, even if he is inching in that direction with US ties. While the missing link of Japan-South Korean ties remains, the triangular nexus with the United States is advancing, suggesting that this will set the path forward.  Progress however depends on whether Japan-ROK diplomatic ties can be mended.

On May 25, Mainichi editorialized about the Biden-Moon summit, saying that for Moon, whose priority is to improve North-South relations, US support would bring a tailwind, but it must not give Pyongyang an opening by rushing to achieve results before Moon’s term expires in May 2022. It found noteworthy that Moon was in tune with the US stance on restraining China. Although it did not name China, the joint statement clarified "the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait." It also cited the importance of "freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea, an international order based on rules, and the role of the "Quad." As democracies from Asia have been invited to the G7 summit and Moon will attend, it should be an opportunity to further strengthen three-way cooperation.

Yomiuri on May 25 editorialized about the Biden-Moon summit as well. Unlike Trump, who disregarded the alliance, the clear statement that the Japan-US-US-Korea alliance will be at the center of Asian diplomacy will contribute to regional stability, it asserted, adding that the US and South Korea must not neglect to prepare for military provocations, resuming large-scale joint exercises to maintain deterrence. In China policy, it was noticeable that South Korea showed an attitude of trying to keep pace with the US was the heartening evaluation offered by Yomiuri.

On June 21 in Daily Shincho Moon’s “stalking” of Suga at the G7, twice approaching him at the evening party only to be rebuffed with a brief greeting, was questioned. Moon seeks a summit if he attends the Tokyo Olympics, but Suga is cautious, and Moon may not attend after failing to arrange a meeting in Great Britain. The article suggests that Moon is desperate because he fears going to jail, as his predecessors have done, if no significant achievement occurs and the conservatives regain power. Also feared is the humiliation of Kim Jong-un meeting with Suga at the Tokyo Olympics, as unlikely as that is, afterwards in Pyongyang, or in a three-way meeting with China at the Beijing Olympics. Japan could alleviate food shortages in return for help on the abductees. Unlike in 2002 when Pyongyang alerted Seoul to Koizumi’s planned visit, Seoul fears being blindsided this time. Suddenly, in November Moon plunged into “diplomatic” wooing of Japan, with scant results. Biden, like Suga, was undercut by Moon’s handling of the “comfort women” agreement, which they personally had guaranteed; so he now only seeks a trilateral framework to curb North Korea. By insisting in the May joint statement with Moon on human rights in North Korea, the US has driven a wedge between South Korea and North Korea, in the process weakening the left in South Korea before the 2022 elections.

Newsweek on June 18 reported that in 2012-15 the unilateral refusal of a summit by the South Korean side had the effect of merely delaying the resolution of new problems in Japan-South Korea relations and did not function as any concrete pressure on the Japanese side. Park Geun-hye’s refusal to meet had the effect of worsening the international position of South Korea, not Japan. When China’s expansion into the South China Sea became a major issue in October 2015, Park was finally forced to hold the first summit meeting with Abe, who had outflanked her with the Obama administration, accepting the Kono Statement and changing his perception as a historical revisionist by a speech on August 15. At the recent G7 summit the Japanese side refused to propose a summit meeting, and its actions did not stop there, even informing the international community that its side was closing the door to dialogue. Yet, taking the initiative to point the criticism of the United States for improving relations between Japan and South Korea toward its own side only puts its position at a disadvantage. It is even fatal to do it in a place where the world leaders and the media chasing it are crowded. Moon Jae-in himself approached Suga twice and showed an attitude of seeking further dialogue. And that is to drive the situation by showing an attitude of seeking dialogue, rather pursuing dialogue itself. What the Japanese government is doing now is more negative than that of the Park Geun-hye administration, concludes the article.

On June 25 in Newsweek, Japan-ROK relations were assessed, in the hope that the generations obsessed with the past will soon disappear. It was noted that in 2019 more than 7 million Koreans visited Japan, a survey by the Cabinet Office found that 46% of Japanese in the 18-29 age group felt familiar with South Korea, and Japan is one of the largest K-Pop "importing countries" in the world. No solution is in sight between the two governments, and if Japan agreed to one, it would be overturned again. In May 2020, a bill to replace compensation for former recruited workers with donations from Japanese and Korean companies and individuals was not even deliberated in the National Assembly. Yet relations must be well managed, readers are told, or there could be economic severance or armed attack. Both Japan and South Korea are now acquiring missiles that can reach each other. Escalation of emotional conflict is dangerous.

On June 9, Yomiuri reported on the May 2021 joint Japan-South Korea opinion poll, showing that over 80 percent in each country find relations to be bad, and levels of trust are almost as poor. There is pessimism about future relations, although a little less so in South Korea. As for joining the US in pressuring China more, there was not a big difference with about twice as many in each country in favor as those who were opposed. The same 68 percentage figure was registered in both countries in support of improving Japan-South Korean relations. Finally, Japanese were a little more positive in finding Biden reliable (59 versus 54 percent) and not finding Xi Jinping so (7 versus 13 percent), but, overall, the similarities in worldview were pronounced in this poll.

North Korea

On May 7, Asahi looked at US relations with North Korea. It blamed the failure of past talks on the absence of a cooperative system for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula among the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia. The editorial echoes the phrasing of those who lean toward North Korea. The US is faulted for giving an excuse to North Korea due to insufficient involvement and a change of stance due to changes in administration. A new Biden administration position is credited with listening to the opinions of both the Japanese and Korean governments. A Japan-Korea foreign ministers’ meeting was held for the first time in a long time, but it is necessary to restore Japan-ROK relations, readers are told. They are likewise told, it is time to seriously consider China and Russia, which are backing North Korea; they are advised to refrain from using it for bargaining with the United States.

Yahoo on June 7 found in the revised Workers’ Party of Korea Covenant the disappearance of the phrase "crushing Japanese militarism and aggression," and quoted a former unification minister that "It may act as a positive signal to Japan-North Korea relations. He analyzed that the new agreement "reflects changes in perceptions of Japan." Yet subsequently, criticism of Japan resumed by April and continues. This is in sharp contrast to the restraint in criticism of the United States of late. The abduction issue is also the most important issue in the Suga Cabinet, as it is said, “We will do our utmost to realize the return of all victims as soon as possible." However, while North Korea’s criticism of Japan has escalated, it seems unlikely that the abduction issue will progress again this year, concluded the article.

Russia

Mainichi on June 3 responded to the seizure by Russian authorities of a Japanese fishing boat operating in Japan’s EEZ and noted the protests on June 2-3 by the Japanese government. through diplomatic circles and demands for the immediate release of the crew and the ship. In another incident, three Japanese fishermen were killed in a crash with a Russian crab boat. Sankei on June 1 also complained about Russian behavior toward Japanese fishing boats in Japan’s EEZ. It pointed to a boat operating in the Sea of Okhotsk off the coast of Wakkanai City, Hokkaido, on May 28. Just two days earlier, a horsehair crab fishing boat and a Russian ship collided off the coast of Monbetsu City in the Sea of Okhotsk, causing the Kitayuki Maru to overturn and killing three crew members. The Japan Transport Safety Board is listening to the situation from both captains and investigating the cause. Some officials have speculated that the sudden capture of Eihomaru might be to influence the handling of this collision to Russia’s advantage. The article concludes that Japan’s diplomacy has been deflected by the Putin administration due to the Northern Territories issue.

On June 5, Asahi reported on Russia’s position in dealing with Japan, defending as "natural" a constitution that stipulates "prohibition of territorial ceding," while insisting that "Japan and Russia are partners in all directions," and that Russia is "ready to continue discussions based on the current situation" toward the conclusion of a peace treaty. Yet there is a warning of the possibility that the US ground-launched intermediate-range missiles could be deployed in Japan due to the expiration of the INF Treaty, reaffirming that the Japan-US alliance is an obstacle to peace treaty negotiations. In Russia, after the constitutional amendment, there is a growing movement to separate territorial negotiations and a peace treaty, the article concluded.

On June 11 TBS News reported that a Japanese was arrested for illegally obtaining military-related literature for the purpose of handing it over to a Russian spy. It was found that the Russian side may have targeted Japan, where the literature is easily available. Unemployed Miyasaka Kazuo (70) is suspected of illegally obtaining eight military-related documents from the United States and other countries multiple times over a period of about 30 years and earned more than 10 million yen. According to investigators, some countries have banned military-related literature from being viewed by certain countries such as Russia, but it has become clear that the Russian side may have targeted Japan, which does not have such restrictions.

Sino-Russian relations

In Wedge on June 15, a Sino-Russian military alliance was described as a US nightmare after the G7 had pressed for democratic solidarity against their values. The two are accelerating military ties and their spirit of opposition. The issue is complicated since they have not yet established an alliance, but Putin’s authoritarianism led to leaning to China followed by Xi Jinping’s ascent.
Putin in October 2020 raised the prospect of an alliance, and on June 9, 2021 their warships both approached the Senkakus, each in unprecedented fashion, as a first step in jointly responding to Biden’s policies. This has implications for Japan. Even if no alliance is declared, simultaneous pressure on Ukraine and Taiwan may be forthcoming, not only putting Biden in a difficult situation but opening the door to joint action to occupy the Senkakus, as could be foreshadowed by their warship maneuvers. Although the US insists that it will respond on the basis of the security treaty, it would be tested to act alone.

Japan-China relations

On May 31, Sankei reported that the Japanese government has decided to encourage universities in Japan that established "Confucius Institutes" under the influence of the Chinese government to disclose information. There are 14, including Waseda University and Ritsumeikan. The institutes are the only parts of universities that have a cultural center virtually controlled by foreign governments—a base of the dictatorship of the Communist Party on the campus of a Japanese university that advocates academic freedom. Is this really healthy? No legal installation approval or notification is required, a problem the government does not know is occurring. The value of academic freedom, the basis of university education, is being questioned, the article concludes.

Newsweek on June 9 reported that 200 Chinese who had gone to Japan on exchanges have been labeled traitors. The level of paranoia in China is rising with attacks on social media; cultural exchanges may become impossible. The Japan Foundation has invited intellectuals who want to learn about Japanese art and culture. Its programs are popular. Its website states that the purpose is to "deepen mutual understanding.” A returnee wrote a book about her experiences in Japan, which is now being called Japanese propaganda. One respondent wrote, "(Jiang Feng) is a traitor who received money from the Japanese government and tried to praise Japan.

In Yahoo Japan on June 12, Japan’s readiness to respond to China’s June 10 “anti-foreign sanctions law” was discussed. It stipulates retaliatory sanctions when sanctions are imposed from a foreign country, and also applies to those who cooperated with the sanctions. When China is subject to unjustified sanctions or interference in its domestic affairs from foreign countries, as in refusal to purchase Uyghur cotton, the Chinese government lists the parties (individuals and organizations) and their relatives who have decided and implemented the sanctions on China and creates a "retaliation list, it is said. The contents of the penalties are mainly "refusal of entry or deportation," "freezing of property in China," or "prohibition of transactions with all Chinese companies." But even so, if the G7 unites, it will hurt China, readers are told. Specifically, if South Korea leans to the American side, it will suffer considerable damage, and Japan is also exposed. It cannot say if it has discontinued plans for a state visit by Xi Jinping, and China is its largest trade partner.

On June 15 in Yomiuri, Yabunaka Mitoji reviewed the G7 summit with an eye to Japan’s growing role in facing China. The main message of the summit was the defense of the international order centered on values by forging a framework in opposition to China. With other invited countries, the G7 recognized the importance of FOIP, called for peaceful resolution in the Taiwan Strait deepened awareness of the China threat, and put a focus on supply chains. All of this raised Japan’s profile, as the only Asian state in the G7. On June 14 JCAST News asked how Japan was evaluated at the G7 with concern that it was wary of Biden’s harder line toward China. It found that Japan was the most ambivalent, not as cautious as Germany and France in tackling China but also not as firm as the US on this. Earlier on June 11, Sankei reveled in the transformation of the G7, reviving with the struggle against China as its core: countermeasures against the giant economic zone BRI concept; European countries joining in promoting FOIP; responses to Hong Kong and Xinjiang human rights violations; and above all ensuring the security of Taiwan. In its assessment of the agenda, Sankei determined that the biggest theme is China.

In contrast, on June 15, Mainichi editorialized against dividing the world, endorsing Merkel’s approach and warning that developing countries may be trampled and international cooperation hindered. It called on Suga to prioritize diplomatic efforts to avoid a new cold war. Asahi the same day editorialized that if the G7 is to be characterized as a counter-mechanism to China, it would be an anachronism. While "peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait" is important and it is natural to categorically disagree with the human rights violations of Xinjiang Uygur and Hong Kong, what is needed in the modern world of deepening interdependence in economic ties and human flow, is not division, but an inclusive order based on the rule of law, concludes Asahi. In the continuum of newspaper responses, Sankei stressed Taiwan or countering China more vigorously, Yomiuri welcomed the results that were achieved, Asahi found merit in some results but was wary of a new divisive thrust, and Mainichi was most negative of division.

Taiwan

On May 10 in Yomiuri, Kitaoka Shinichi wrote that Japan is the biggest partner of the US as it faces its biggest concern China. He equates the situations on Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula, where Japan cannot be indifferent to the breakout of conflict, praising Taiwan’s democracy even if it is not treated as a country, and noting that it was not an inalienable part of China in history. Arguing that there is little chance China will resort to arms unless it expects to win, Kitaoka views the Suga-Moon joint statement as the starting point for responding to the China threat and being able to launch a real counterattack. Japan, however, cannot just adopt the same policies as a superpower distant from China with more room for decoupling. Also, it has to be more cautious in criticizing China and should answer savage attacks with civilized words. A chance also exists that the US will flip its China policy, and Japan needs to keep tightening ties to Southeast Asia without, to the extent possible, challenging Chins directly. Above all, national security is the key. Without closing the door to dialogue with China, Japan should build up its power and help lead the world by winning the sympathy of other countries.

Murakami Masatoshi in Gaiko focused on US policy toward Taiwan, emphasizing its extremely high importance to the Biden administration on multiple dimensions, not just geosecurity. It is, after all, a beacon of democracy versus authoritarian China, more important now that the sprouts of democracy in Hong Kong have been snuffed out. Murakami cites repeated moves in Biden’s first days to show support for Taiwan. The ways in which the administration is showing its support of Taiwan’s defense are enumerated, followed by questions about what Japan would do in case of an incident involving the island.  Although not well known, Japan is already playing a role in the defense of the Taiwan Strait, readers are told, through activities of the 7th Fleet with headquarters in Yokosuka. Mention is made that stability in the Indo-Pacific includes Taiwan. The question is asked, “will the Biden administration’s emphasis on Taiwan persist?” For its role in supply chain economic security centered on semi-conductors its importance is growing. Tsai Ing-wen, who has prioritized relations with the US and Japan, will have to step down before the end of Biden’s term. Uncertainty about continuity in US policy is left as the conclusion, although Biden is viewed as carrying forward the main lines of the Trump administration Taiwan policy.

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