Two themes dominated the news in November: the “shock” of the election of Donald Trump, which is covered separately in a Special Forum article, and the “anticipation” of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan on December 15. Already in the first part of the fall there was a sharp increase in Japanese articles on Japan-Russia relations, and such attention accelerated in November. Below, much of the space is devoted to this after some coverage of Sino-ROK, Sino-Southeast Asian, Sino-Japanese, and ROK-Japanese relations. This was an especially informative period for debates on foreign relations.
November 2016 saw three shocks to Japanese foreign policy: the Trump shock—the unanticipated victory of someone seen, at least for a short time, as having enormous potential to set back the Abe foreign policy agenda; the Putin shock—the abrupt and inexplicable change of course of Russia’s leader after Abe’s upbeat trips to Russia in May and September had raised high hopes for a dramatic breakthrough on Abe’s priority issue of 2016; and the Park shock—the collapse of an administration on which Japan had counted heavily as its Korean opponents fortified by pubic opinion promised to reverse policies vital to Japanese trust and ruined the chances for a China-Japan-Korea (CJK) trilateral summit in December. Abe scrambled to salvage the vitally important US special relationship by visiting Trump before any other foreign leader and arranging a trip to Pearl Harbor with Obama. He struggled to find a way forward with Putin as plans kept changing to make a minimal success of Putin’s visit set for December 15. As for South Korea, there was little to do except to wait, as Park handed Abe one last gift in the long-delayed, US-encouraged GSOMIA—intelligence sharing agreement. As for a “Duterte shock,” the Philippine leader visited Japan in November, and this did not register as a big enough blow to Abe’s Southeast Asian agenda to be notable.
Geopolitics stayed in the background in Japan’s foreign policy. Pursuit of Russia was presented as an effort to regain sovereignty over islands lost in 1945. US and China relations appeared to be on a long-settled track, at least until Trump raised doubts. Yet, it was the Japan-Russia relationship that some chose to view from a geopolitical perspective in a departure from the standard narrative. On September 21, Sankei argued that Putin was just using Japan as a card versus the United States and China, while it warned that Japan was making a mistake with its emphasis on Russia, when Russia sticks with China and is opposed to international law. Others in Sankei, as on October 10, discussed Abe’s overture as an effort to change Eurasian geopolitics, as if this were a real possibility. A tendency to stick to a narrower focus—as on the Northern Territories, “comfort women,” and personal ties with the US president—obscured the bigger geopolitical stakes that some worried were now turning against Japan, given troubled relations with China and North Korea, to the point that armed conflict could occur, newly growing concerns about Southeast Asian partners, and now the three shocks—one after another—within just a few weeks of each other. In November, geopolitics was finally drawing more attention, as Japanese felt cornered.
In the October issue of Toa, Maeda Hiroko examines the rapid slide in Sino-ROK relations, stressing that with the decision on THAAD deployment the honeymoon has been shattered. Reporting on the Park-Xi summit in Hangzhou at the G20 talks, Maeda points to the signs of Chinese displeasure: restrictions on issuing multi-entry visas to South Koreans; limits on “Korean wave” artists; hardline commentaries that warn of making Korea a bigger target, including economic sanctions if THAAD will be deployed; and other verbal threats. Maeda observes that THAAD is not really a threat, and Koreans are upset that Chinese are blaming their country, not the North Koreans. Finding that Park had disregarded US desires by attending the Beijing 70th anniversary parade in September 2015 and joining the AIIB, Maeda attributes the Chinese response to opposition to Japan-US-ROK security cooperation viewed as for containing it and rupturing the stability of East Asia, citing a parallel response at the end of the 1990s when Japan was deploying theater missile defense and, notably, in threats to launch missile attacks on Taiwan if Taiwan did the same. The article casts doubt on China’s frequent insistence that it has no intention to challenge the United States and the international order, blaming it for great power consciousness rooted in the Sino-barbarian order. The problem is rooted in Sino-Korean history, reflected in the way relations had worsened when the Koguryo issue was raised. The biggest issue is the ROK-US partnership and the advance of Japan-US-ROK ties, which China seeks to split. Yet, Maeda argues, Beijing and Seoul need to compromise with each other, as if one could be hopeful that the current impasse may still be manageable.
Another Toa article by Kitamura Koichi discussed the possibility of a Sino-ROK arrangement on THAAD, finding the situation fluid although Xi’s treatment of Park in Hangzhou was severe. Kitamura compares the photo of Xi with her to that of Xi and Abe together, in which there was no Japanese flag—unlike in China’s other published photos—and to Xi’s treatment of Abe in their November 2014 summit. Yet, with the United States included in three-way working-level talks, the issue can be managed, Kitamura suggests, with delays into the next Korean presidency. China may influence the anti-THAAD mood in South Korea through trade retaliation and such warnings as not sending customary delegations to gatherings in Seoul. The article sees China’s pressure already having an impact; not a few experts have begun to doubt that THAAD will actually be deployed in Korea.
Optimism about foreign policy in the early fall centered on the turnabouts in Seoul’s ties to Beijing and Tokyo as well as the confidence in Japan-US ties and impressions of a breakthrough in sight in Japan-Russia ties. Despite some concern that a shift in Seoul would change the picture, the strengthening of Japan-US-ROK trilateralism offered reassurance. The rosy picture began to shift with Southeast Asian changes, then the November shocks, and, finally, rising uncertainty as problems compounded.
Sino-Southeast Asian Relations
Yomiuri Shimbun on October 26 headlined that China’s railroad plans, one after another, have ground to a halt. Problems have resulted from agreeing on financial contracts and completing construction site inspections. In December 2015, the Laos railroad was started, but construction never went beyond the cornerstone. This is to be part of a 3,000km “pan-Asian” railroad from Kunming to Singapore, also passing through Thailand and Malaysia, as agreed in 2010. The main hurdle is collecting the estimated budget of USD 6 billion, of which China is down for USD 1.7 billion and Laos for about USD 700 million, while about 60 percent of the total is to be covered by joint ventures established by state-owned enterprises. Laos was expected to give mining rights to China in return for its capital, but agreement has proven difficult, as Laos also found objectionable the monopoly by Chinese firms on construction. Yet, anticipating the railroad, plans for a new city of more than one million people near Vientiane have gone forward with condominiums built, although many remain unsold. A similar situation is unfolding in Indonesia, readers are told, where China outbid Japan for a railroad, promising completion in three years and without any government burden, but after more than one year construction has not begun on the Jakarta-Bandung line to the dissatisfaction of Indonesia’s leader, aired at the September G20 summit. Again financing is at issue. The article concludes with mention of the freezing of the Laos-Bangkok leg of the “pan-Asian railroad,” pointing to Sino-Japanese competition still ongoing and China claiming some miscalculation as cutbacks are occurring. Yet, within Southeast Asia, policy changes could later shake such Japanese confidence.
A November 15 Ekonomisuto article by Ishi Junya examined Duterte’s late October visit to Japan in light of his recent trip to China. Although Duterte is antagonistic to the United States, he has overwhelming popularity in the Philippines. In Japan he expressed a desire to free his country within two years from the control of foreign armed forces after a week earlier in China promising to separate it militarily and economically from the United States. Yet, the article sees his rhetoric as a means to secure assistance from China and downplays the emotion nature of his language. It expects that he seeks to reduce dependency on the United States while keeping the essential security alliance and restructuring the relationship, which now will be on the agenda with the new US president. In the background will be China’s tough posture on economic assistance and South China Sea issues rather than playing easy. Thus, ongoing Southeast Asian shifts were not given prominence in Japanese media.
Ma Licheng, who became a celebrity in Japan when he championed the idea of “new thinking” by China in 2003, in the August 2015 Chuo koron drew attention calling for a renewal of this as a pathway to stability in East Asia. The fact that he was writing in Japanese and acknowledged hatred for himself in China lingering from his earlier views did not stop the Japanese from thinking it is newsworthy again that a Chinese specialist would hold such opinions. He praised Japan for its great contributions to the Chinese economy and employment. He recalled the halcyon days when Chinese were entranced by Japanese television dramas in the 1980s and the contributions of Hu Yaobang, whose 100th birthday is this year, to mutual understanding. He valued the popularity of aspects of Japanese culture in China since the 1990s. Although Ma notes the downturn in official relations since 2012, he finds the recent sharp rise in Chinese tourism to Japan a reflection of the way Chinese find Japanese clean, polite, and civilized. Japan’s response not to isolate China after June 24, 1989 draws Ma’s praise as well. As for today, he offers hope that contradictions between China and Japan can be resolved. For example, joint development can help to manage their territorial dispute. China can recognize that it still has a lot to learn from Japan, as it recognizes that Japan is not headed toward militarism, especially given the attitudes of the Japanese people. Such music to Japanese ears has no bearing on mutual trust.
Of course, other writings on Japan-China relations left a very different impression. Few had much hope for bilateral security relations in the East China or South China seas. Stagnation in Chinese exports drew alarm as in Yomiuri on November 10. Nor were the tensions with China over the increasing aggressiveness of Chinese ships in the East China Sea in any way relieved. This is not where Japanese could find a basis for optimism; so they turned elsewhere in the wait for clarity about US policy ahead.
Japanese-South Korean Relations
The upbeat mood of late summer had turned more sober in the fall. Yes, GSOMIA talks had resumed after four years, and there was optimism about an agreement on intelligence sharing before it was reached, but, despite the awareness that this was driven by the North Korean threat, there was deep concern that the opposition to it in South Korea would again be heated, as in Yomiuri Shimbun on October 28. Hopes for a CJK trilateral summit in Japan by year’s end had risen at the time the foreign ministers met in late August, but first there was doubt that China would proceed with it, and later it became clear that Park Geun-hye was too weakened to be able to make her first trip in four years as president to Japan. Even GSOMIA was seen, e.g. in Asahi Shimbun on October 28, as due to US involvement, although it did not want to have a large profile. Adding to worries about the impact of Park’s loss of legitimacy on Japan-ROK relations were comments that this also would damage ROK policy toward North Korea, as in Sankei on October 27. Fearing the strengthening of the political left in South Korea, Japanese saw one more sign that Abe’s foreign policy successes of 2015 were fast unraveling. There was no relief expected in this context.
For the Japanese right it remained useful to depict Japan as under pressure over its historical memory. This was done by showcasing the strong opposition in South Korea to removing the “comfort woman” statue and, for Sankei, to the proposals for UNESCO to collect records on the history of these women after a research group had been established on October 1—the day of one such article. With ROK opposition critical of THAAD for damaging relations with China, the Kaesong complex closing for damaging North Korean ties, and the “comfort women” and GSOMIA deals for doing the opposite with Japan, Japanese were growing nervous about ties to Seoul.
Much of the coverage of this relationship centered on how the “comfort women” deal was being implemented, but relative optimism in the late summer turned to deepening pessimism in November. Few trusted that this was the “irreversible” resolution that it was declared to be or that the statue in front of the Japanese embassy would be removed, as Park said she would strive to do. This was faulted as an agreement between foreign ministers, which was not in writing and lacked any diplomatic force. As Park became helpless and the Korean people seemed aroused against Japan too, there was no expectation of continuity in three matters of great importance to Japan: the December 28 agreement, trilateral cooperation on missile defense as well as the deployment of THAAD, and the GSOMIA intelligence sharing agreement. Articles about South Korea were increasingly pessimistic in late 2016.
The Japan-Russia coverage has been so abundant that this report concentrates on the latest articles prior to preparation for posting. In September the media mood, especially in Yomiuri Shimbun, was remarkably buoyant. In October it remained so, as the period of intense diplomacy accompanied, it was assumed, by diplomacy with a tight deadline, approached. Suddenly, a different tone was struck in November, growing more pessimistic as the month wore on, even as, for a time, hope lingered.
Urgency verging on desperation could be detected in Japanese media appeals for seizing the opportunity of Putin’s visit on December 15. The chief press booster, Yomiuri Shimbun, expressed Abe’s deep desire for a breakthrough at the summit, evoking the “kanreki” anniversary of 60 years since diplomatic normalization in 1956 as the end of one cycle and the start of a new one, when a fresh path is taken. This message on November 13, however, came amid rapidly gathering headwinds.
In the second half of November the mood in Japan toward the December 15 summit turned much more pessimistic. The arrest of Alexei Ulyukayev on November 15 not long after the victory of Donald Trump shook Japanese confidence in an agreement. The minister of economic development was regarded as a key person in resolving the territorial dispute with Russia. As the counterpart of Minister Seko in economic talks expected to pave the way to territorial concessions, he was seen as vital, and his removal came as a blow. One of the many articles that linked this event to Trump’s election, explained that Russia had viewed Russo-Japanese relations as an important card against the US military and economic containment of Russia, and there was a real possibility that it would trade territorial concessions for economic cooperation. Focusing directly on Trump, however, Putin can avoid the danger of a loss of popularity from returning islands. With bilateral US ties, Russia has less need for Japan. The article explains that Abe’s main goal is containment of China. Dispelling an image of an historical revisionist, he has gained US support, rallied ASEAN states against China in the South China Sea, promised vast assistance to India, and, as the final step in trying to surround China on four sides, made a lot of progress with Russia on the Northern Territories. This strategy faces obstacles, the article finds, in both US and Russian thinking, which do not treat China’s threat nearly as seriously as Japan does.
Since others do not take the Chinese threat so seriously, Japan’s position is not shared, the article bemoans. Indeed, the US concern is more about Russia and the Middle East than East Asia, and Russia has sought to split the US-Japan alliance. Now Abe’s framework for containing China is collapsing. The Philippines has shifted, there is a high possibility that Japan-South Korea relations will be set back with changes in that country, and US changes could further damage Abe’s foreign policy legacy. The article suggests that Abe’s failure could alter the balance in the LDP, shortening his time in office. Moreover, given its reliance on the establishment in DC dealings with the United States, the Abe administration may find in 2017 that Japan-US relations add to its troubles—even to the point of crisis conditions, it speculates.
In the aftermath of the Putin-Xi meeting in Lima on November 19, prospects for a territorial deal were seen to have seriously diminished. Articles sought to explain why this setback had occurred. The easiest answer was that Putin had responded to Trump’s election with a shift away from Japan to the United States for a deal that would remove the sanctions. Yet, the existence of earlier signs that Russia would not be ready to make a deal on islands suggests that Japanese are deceiving themselves to place the onus on Trump. There is reason to think that Putin was never satisfied with the terms of agreement being discussed in Japan, because either the economic package was much too small and not assured or the transfer of islands had lost its appeal for national identity or geopolitical reasons. Why then did Japanese media raise expectations so high, asked JB press on November 28. It answered, one, they misunderstood Russia’s need for Japan, taking the Ukraine sanctions as proof that Russia was isolated and desperate for economic assistance from Japan and then repeating that message despite mounting evidence that it was premised on faulty analysis of Putin’s calculus and the way Russians saw things. Two, they figured that Abe’s shift to two islands plus alpha would work since it long was viewed as the offer Russians were ready to accept. This assumption, however, had been insufficiently questioned as Putin was slow to proceed on the basis of “hikiwake,” a “win-win” deal he offered but kept failing to clarify. Three, ignoring expertise on Russia and well-rounded analysis of Putin’s worldview, Abe and the small circle in the Kantei painted a misleading picture of what was transpiring and counted on the Japanese media to transmit it without questioning it vigorously. The recriminations against Putin’s deceit came hard and fast, as in the harsh tone toward him in Yukan Fuji on November 25, but this fell short of self-reflection of what was wrong with the way Abe and Japan’s media had presented the story. When Russia finally announced the stationing of missiles on the disputed islands, Japan’s response on November 23 was further testimony that it had so compromised its position it could not even register a proper protest any more. Rubbing in its flaunting of Japan’s concerns, Russia also flew a helicopter by the Senkaku Islands, which led Japan to scramble its aircraft. In this article and elsewhere the prospects for a deal with Russia had disappeared.
On November 22, Yukan Fuji warned that Putin would eat and run, putting economic ties first but holding back on the territorial issue due to nationalism, while Trump hovers like a dark cloud over the negotiations since Russia sees a chance for the sanctions to be lifted without yielding any islands. The Lima meeting of Abe and Putin is reported as not offering reason for optimism. This analysis casts doubt on Russian sincerity: its goal was just to split the G7 and lift the sanctions; it was not actually looking to balance China, as many Japanese had argued; and it did not put much stock in Japanese economic ties. The article also suggests that the reason why the Obama administration opposed improvement in Japan-Russia relations, as seen in the Kantei, was the old US attitude of keeping Japan dependent by denying it ties to Moscow. Also noted are claims that Sino-Russian relations are only superficial: Russians are deeply concerned about the China threat, e.g., by sending lots of farmers and gaining control over Siberian resources. Such assumptions about the negative US role and the Russian quest for balancing China distort media analysis.
Shukan Bunshun on December 1 not only blamed the collapse of Japan-Russia talks on Trump, it attributed the arrest of Ulyukayev and rumored further purge of others in the liberal camp to Trump’s acceptance of Putin’s leadership, which emboldened hard-line elements. Left unsaid here and in other Japanese publications is what the easy abandonment of Abe by Putin signifies for Japan’s aspirations to be a big player in geopolitics. Clearly, Russia does not see it as such. Abe had to scramble to focus on Washington again—the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy needed more attention in this shaky period as Trump left uncertain whether Washington would be reliable.
The message being reported from Russia, as in the November 9 interview of Fyodor Lyukanov by Mainichi Shimbun, is that Abe is appreciated for the risk he is taking in his Russia diplomacy against US wishes, but given the uncertainty in Russia-US ties, a long-term outlook is needed, especially as Russians have long regarded Japan as a US dependency. Putin, he adds, is driven by the search for a partner for large-scale projects in the Russian Far East and by the search for balance in Asia against the United States and Europe along with its biggest partnership with China. He would consider progress on the territorial issue if there were a qualitative change in the bilateral relationship (i.e, massive economic cooperation and a more independent foreign policy, it appears), which would have to be registered in a new outlook on Japan by the Russian public, which only Putin’s leadership could accomplish with further Japanese policy changes. Nothing in this commentary or others by Russians should have given Japanese hope that on December 15 a breakthrough may occur.
Japanese articles in September and October were largely optimistic about economic prospects. Abe’s 8-point Sochi program had been a hit. His follow-up Vladivostok performance had made things more concrete. Russian enthusiasm about steps that Japan could take was growing more palpable. The expectation was that a blueprint for major economic cooperation would be finalized by Seko and Ulyukayev in early November, paving the way for intensified talks on the territorial compromise, which seemed manageable since Abe had lowered Japan’s sights to what appeared minimal if Putin would stick to his “hikiwake” offer from the start of Abe-Putin talks. It grew clear, however, that the economic offer was insufficient and too reversible for Putin to make a territorial offer with the distinct possibility he would not have it in any case. Japanese writings on economic talks finally joined in the pessimistic mood.
The economic talks in Moscow in early November apparently did not go well, as reported in the November 8 Asahi Shimbun. The Russian appetite for vast sums of investment in large projects, especially energy, collided with Japan’s more limited economic proposals. Russia called for an “energy bridge” of electricity from Sakhalin to Hokkaido as part of a vast Northeast Asian bridge. The article sees Putin as asking for huge energy commitments as a way to build trust, while Abe has focused on the personal chemistry between the two leaders with some economic lubricant, but not the scale of what Putin requires. The article also makes clear that importing natural gas is cheaper. Hokkaido has a glut of energy, and the transmission lines are too long to make this profitable for reaching Japan’s major centers. Concerns about growing dependent on Russia in energy are raised too. In any case, such projects cannot be decided quickly, leaving Russia in no mood to give up its island leverage at present.
If economics would not be enough to entice Russia, Japanese sources speculated that distrust of growing dependency on China and dissatisfaction with the meager fruits from bold plans and appeals for investment would swing Russia in Japan’s direction. Yet, the literature on Russo-Chinese relations had earlier shifted from talk of some sort of split or balancing to more moderate aims to keep Russia from siding with China in case of confrontation. By November expectations were dimming further.
Yomiuri on November 9 covered Li Keqiang’s meeting with Putin as strengthening the economic relationship of China and Russia, balancing Japan, and showing China’s aim to contain Russo-Japanese relations. The decision taken to establish a political committee for the development of ties between the Russian Far East and Northeast China was highlighted, along with Medvedev’s remark about large contracts being signed with China for investment there. The article also says that China sees its ties with Russia as an axis opposed to the United States and Japan, welcoming Russia’s support on the South China Sea and against THAAD. Except for an illusion that Japan balances China, the article leaves little prospect for playing Japan’s geopolitical card.
The December 5 Yomiuri reported in disappointment on the just-concluded Kishida-Lavrov meeting in preparation for the Yamaguchi summit, including a chance for the Japanese foreign minister to deliver Abe’s letter to Putin. On December 1, Putin’s talk only mentioned the development of economic relations, Yomiuri notes, questioning his intention in avoiding the territorial question. On December 15 joint economic development on the islands is on the agenda, but the two sides are struggling with the matter of sovereignty. Japan must not recognize Russian sovereignty or damage its own legal position. The paper reports strong concerns that without progress in the territorial talks Japan be cautious about economic cooperation. The only sign of agreement in the talks was for relaxing visa requirements for Japanese going to the islands. In the joint news conference, Yomiuri reports that Lavrov was not upbeat, even insisting that a peace treaty be signed before the territorial issue is faced, in direct opposition to the need to demarcate the border as a precondition. This long optimistic newspaper is now acknowledging that recent Russian actions are in against the tide of improved bilateral relations, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles on two of the islands. No effort is made here to explain why this is.
On October 7, a Tokyo Shimbun interview with Suzuki Muneo put much of the blame for failure to resolve the territorial dispute on the United States. Having written in other articles about US responsibility for the failure to reach a territorial deal and peace treaty in 1956, he charged that Koizumi had broken off talks with Russia in 2002 because of his one-sided orientation to Washington (implying that the impact of reaching an agreement would have been to damage ties to it), and he argued that now the reason for an environment of secrecy in Abe-Putin talks is US alarm that the two countries would draw closer. Suzuki described a deal for increasing oil and gas from Russia as a means to deepen trust and an arrangement that recognized the sovereignty of Russia over islands as acceptable if Japan gets a joint development zone and some administrative rights. Those selling the need to compromise sought to make it a question of defying improper US interference for selfish reasons and asserting Japanese autonomy, which had for too long been allowed to languish.
Japanese sources acknowledged that Abe’s overtures to Putin made the Obama administration nervous, but they varied on the reason why without delving deeply into the matter and often assumed that Abe could make his case with more effort when needed. In November the geopolitical problem was finally addressed more fully with concern that Japan had to reinforce US ties and prepare for Trump.
Sankei on November 16 was clearest about Japan’s need to choose Washington not Moscow, making Russia the common enemy. It juxtaposed Abe’s diplomacy with Trump in order to normalize US ties left in doubt with Putin’s ouster of Ulyukayev, leaving no reason to normalize ties to Russia. Whereas for two years Americans had warned Japan to be wary because Putin’s aim in dealing with Abe was to break the sanctions regime, the voice of the Abe overtures to Putin, Yomiuri on November 15 in the evening, suddenly started warning the US side that is precisely what Putin intends to do in light of Trump’s eagerness for close ties. the two allies are failing to coordinate in facing Russia and Trump is not seen as a leader who is likely to do so.
Gendai Business on November 25 defended joint economic development with Russia, noting that the world has begun to shift rapidly and Japan’s economic ties to Russia, which China hates, are a suitable response. Fuji Terebi on November 23 defended the overtures to Russia as a “win-win” situation, but it insisted that Japan would not yield on its stance that the islands must be part of a peace treaty. Despite the fading hope for a breakthrough, Abe’s hopes for Putin were not permitted to collapse.
That still leaves the need for some sign of success on December 15, particularly due to the blame being given to Putin for trying to “eat and run” or grab an economic deal and fail to pay with a territorial deal. The very fact that this is the language used suggests that the pretense that Japan was not “buying” the islands was misleading.
Japanese, who prior to 2013 had chafed at every official statement or action by the Russians that was not seen as helpful to the return of four islands, looked the other way in 2015-2016 as Russian remarks about history and military buildups showed no regard for forging a favorable environment for a breakthrough. Russian pressure was deemed peripheral to the Abe-Putin momentum supposedly building quickly. As Russians joined China’s “history war” against Japan centered on memories of 1945 and stressed the US role in keeping Tokyo and Moscow apart since that time, Japanese did not push back to any degree, as if many were okay with the argument that a new accord would not rile Putin’s nationalist leanings (while turning them away from Japan) and would prove Japan’s resolve to distance itself from its ally. As hopes for December 15 faded, the gates were opened for broader consideration of Russia in historical and geopolitical context. This “shock” after viewing Russia more narrowly came on top of the other “shocks” in the very trying month of November.