Country Report: Japan (October 2019)
Japanese foreign policy drew increased criticism in the summer of 2019. On the left, there were harsh critiques of Abe’s diplomatic failures with Russia and North Korea (both putting Japan at increased risk), the breakdown of relations with South Korea, and the troubled state of the Japan-US relationship (Tokyo Shimbun, August 5). On the right, optimism was hard to find as well, although Abe was not targeted. The Osaka summit with Xi Jinping in early summer and the trade deal with Donald Trump just after summer’s end offered little relief given high levels of distrust of both leaders. While Yomiuri led in the admiration of Abe’s “trust at the top” ties to foreign leaders (Trump, Putin, Modi, and Xi), yielding results as seen in the comparison of how Xi has fared with Trump, on August 28 it cited “risks.” To sustain the “honeymoon” with Trump, Japan’s burden in trade and security is rising while concern is kept quiet about the short-range missile threat from North Korea. Japan has yielded to Russia on two islands, while Abe is unable to explain his thought process to the Diet or the Japanese people. This analysis by strong Abe supporters captures the price that Japan is paying for diplomacy in difficult times. Tokyo Shimbun on August 27 had a blunt headline that Japan-US talks are strikingly unequal. Asahi the previous day had called Trump’s goal “reelection” and Abe’s objective “avoidance.”
However critical media commentaries on Abe’s foreign policy were, public opinion was on his side. On August 26 Yomiuri’s poll showed 54 percent support for his diplomatic and security policy (up 7 percent from early July), 65 percent support for his trade restrictions on South Korea, but also 72 percent support for security ties to that country and only 19 percent opposed. Whereas 29 percent favored compromise to improve relations, 64 percent opposed it as long as Seoul persisted in its positions (those under 30 were 42 and 56 percent). The poll taken just after the GSOMIA decision by Seoul reflected an atmosphere of US disappointment with Moon and fear of instability in East Asia blamed on Moon, as Yomiuri reported on August 24. Tokyo Shimbun on that day described furtive bilateral efforts in May to forestall a downward cycle in relations, involving foreign ministry and defense officials as well as parliamentarians, but they failed. The forced labor court decision had left no way out. For Tokyo, GSOMIA added a rude awakening. It was blamed on Seoul, seen as benefiting Pyongyang, drew understanding from Beijing, and left Washington upset, concluded Mainichi on August 24, seeing no way forward in this impasse.
Criticism of Abe paled before attacks on Moon Jae-in, which reached a new intensity in the aftermath of Moon’s decision to end GSOMIA. The principal divide in Japan was between the hysterics veering toward “hate Korea” replete with hopelessness and vengeance, and the calm voices seeking at least a subdued environment to try to restart diplomacy. Former ambassador to the US Sasae Kenichiro in Yomiuri on August 29 represented the second camp, regretting the GSOMIA decision, which stirred dissatisfaction in Japan, and the earlier court verdict on forced labor, but not Japan’s trade barriers. He appealed for a calm environment with efforts to use the imperial ceremony in October and a Japan-China-ROK summit, but he warned against the negative fallout if Japanese firms were pressed to pay in court. He also warned the US to avoid getting in the center in this dispute, which could only deepen the Japan-ROK split. Involved in the 1998 Japan-ROK agreement, Sasae proposed that focusing on citizens’ exchanges and joint assistance for economic development in third countries would be a way forward, as cultural ties helped lead to a 1998 forward-looking approach. On the left, Tokyo Shimbun on September 14 also stressed exchanges in its editorial, as if there exists an end-around the deepening disputes. Yet, Moon Chung-in that same day in Asahi tackled the challenge more directly, warning of rising antipathy in the younger generation on both sides, also citing the 1998 agreement, and appealing for consciousness that the two nations need each other. Loss of that awareness may be the biggest casualty of the “worst bilateral relationship,” which shows no sign of reversing.
Japanese spent so much effort pushing back against Trump’s accusations and clashing with Moon that they appeared to lose focus on the threats from North Korea and China. On August 26 Yomiuri responded to Trump’s distortions about the alliance by insisting that US forces are not in Japan just for the defense of Japan but also receive great geopolitical benefits, which are now growing in the new geopolitical competition, where Seoul has switched from supporting the US-led world order to opposing it with Beijing and Moscow. Realism is cast in doubt by rampant “my country centrism,” but the US should grasp Japan’s role in the emerging geopolitical struggle. Asahi on August 24 bluntly criticized Trump and Moon—the former for his thinking on burden-sharing and Pyongyang’s readiness for a deal, and the latter for misreading the responses to its moves in both Tokyo and Washington. The August 23 Tokyo Shimbun headline was that North Korea is cheering Seoul’s abandonment of GSOMIA and Japan-US-South Korean cooperation has been weakened. Asahi on August 23 went further, headlining that this invites China, Russia, and North Korea to go on the offense. In its sensational headline that day Sankei charged that the framework on the North is broken.
Assessing Abe’s diplomacy on July 19 in Asahi, Tanaka Hitoshi focused on the Korean Peninsula and Russia. He approved the shift to North Korea from pressure to dialogue, but he saw no “win-win” prospect. Likewise, with South Korea he saw a dead end, finding Seoul at fault for breaking the “comfort women” agreement, but faulting Abe for not meeting Moon at the G20 and for imposing trade barriers with doubtful prospects of success. For Russia, he blamed Abe for not explaining to the Japanese people his switch to a two-island approach. Tanaka called on Japan to try harder to dissuade Trump from his unilateralism and protectionism. Called a “pro” for his diplomatic background, Tanaka appealed for professional management of relations.
Japan-South Korean relations
Relations with South Korea dominated the news cycle since July. Moon Jae-in loomed as the number one villain despite Kim Jong-un repeatedly firing missiles and China and Russia sending bombers into the exclusive maritime zone claimed by Seoul. A special issue of Bungei Shunju appearing in September was devoted to Japan-South Korean ties, opening with an article by Onodera Itsunori putting all the blame on Moon. It explains Moon’s escalation of anti-Japan actions as starting in the fall of 2018 with the denial of port entry to a Japanese ship in a 15-country naval parade (because of the flag it was hoisting), followed by the radar incident targeting a Japanese aircraft. The motive identified is that Moon, aware that four previous presidents were arrested, seeks to ensure that the next president is a progressive, not a conservative. Sacrificing ROK-Japan relations is the pathway he chose to accomplish this: blaming a bad deal in 1965 on Park Chung-hee, a bad agreement in 2015 on his daughter, Park Geun-hye, and conservatives in general for weakness toward Japan. While the article notes that the ROK defense minister knows Japanese and studied at a Japanese school, and the prime minister chaired the ROK-Japan parliamentary group, it asserts that the ROK president has so much power that such officials just do his bidding. Faulting the mass media and “performances” such as landing on Takeshima (Dokdo) for stirring emotions, Onodera points to GSOMIA as another Acheson Line, breaking the power balance, empowering those who might risk aggression to think that the US alliance system is no longer a bulwark. The worst impact, thus, is the breakdown of mil-mil trust, which had held strong until this downturn.
Japanese media were prone to view Moon Jae-in as squeezed by the Japan-ROK clash as if Abe was winning, but some only saw a lose-lose outcome. Yomiuri on July 19 focused on falling support in South Korea for Moon and the conservative backlash against him, insisting that Japan would continue its approach and strengthen its diplomatic arguments abroad. Sankei was more scathing on August 8 after Moon called for a “peace economy” with North Korea in order not to lose to Japan again. Choosing the North with its system intact, Moon was playing into an old North Korean strategy to demonize Japan, neutralize the US, and appeal to a historical image of national unity at odds with the values that should be keeping South Koreans safe.
On August 8, Sankei entitled an article, “Who ‘lost South Korea?’” Recalling the US debate over who lost China seventy years earlier, and thirty years later over who lost Iran, it rejects the notion that Japan lost South Korea—since it only sought universal values—and the notion that South Korea lost Japan. It puts much of the blame on the US and Trump, emboldening Moon through his summits with Kim Jong-un so that Moon could prioritize China and North-South relations to the Japan-US-ROK triangle. Finally, Miyake Kunihiko writes that South Korea lost the US, and blames the Korean people, who similar to the corrupt Chinese in the 1940s and the corrupt Iranian leaders in the 1970s have transformed their internal policies in the past decade. No explanation is given for what is meant or how this transpired, but it conveys a shared feeling.
While pessimism generally prevailed that bilateral relations would improve during Moon Jae-in’s tenure as president, there was occasional exploration of ways forward. A starting point is to take into account the resentment of South Koreans toward the period of annexation in search of a way to boost mutual understanding. Taking this viewpoint meant reaching beyond the claim that 1965 resolved all historical claims and left Seoul with no legal basis to raise them again by noting that historical memories at least cannot be so easily dismissed. Even Japanese who praise Abe’s success in diplomacy with Park Geun-hye do not necessarily think that Japanese could thereupon forget the grievances nursed by her public, citing Abe’s own acknowledgement in his August 15, 2015 statement about staying humble and continuing to remember and the wording of the deal reached on December 28, 2015 concerning the “comfort women” as well as the willingness to use government money to clinch the deal. Togo Kazuhiko wrote that a verdict on the forced labor case wending its way through the ROK courts hung like a dark cloud even at that time as did the clashing interpretations of the 1965 treaty on whether the 1910 annexation was legal or not. In 2018 the court judgment calling for compensation for the laborers, coming on top of Moon’s negation of the 2015 agreement and arousal of historical grievances left the relations in shambles. By late June Abe had abandoned hope of dialogue with Moon to resolve the problem. Subsequently, Abe’s export restrictions and Moon’s responses as well as departure from GSOMIA dug the hole deeper. Togo faults Abe’s move for giving a pretext to Moon to unify Koreans in anti-Japanese populism and for moving away from the geopolitical thinking, prioritizing Sino-US tensions, at a critical time.
Togo refocuses the geopolitical urgency from China’s threat or North Korea’s threat to the Sino-US tensions and calls for gaining diplomatic leverage, presumably with both states, by strengthening ties to South Korea and Russia. Since the South is making North Korea’s case in diplomacy against the US and Russia is coordinating with China in opposing the US, what kind of diplomatic leverage is envisioned is suspect. He also calls on Japan to reaffirm its humility over history to win Korean trust, not aggravating the current tensions. For Togo, the line must be drawn at not allowing Japanese companies to be obliged to pay as the courts demand. He is open to a Korean proposal to update relations beyond the 1965 foundation, but not to what is called “coercion of Korean judicial power” or by calling the 1965 deal an “unequal treaty.” This article in ELNEOS suggests a way forward as improbable as it may seem to people on both sides.
On August 5 Asahi described how South Korea is excluding Japan: boycotting its goods, cutting it out from sports events (removing Mizuno from the October Seoul marathon), asking factories to get by without Japanese imports, and joining in pledges to not go to Japan for tourism. While NGOs are forming pacts to punish Japan, the government has tried to stay on the sidelines. On August 24 Asahi followed with an article on the impact in Japan: seeing fewer tourists in Kyushu and a cutback on ferries from Korea; in one tourist spot, onsen, hotels, and certain shops lost half of their Korean visitors. A Korea wave store in Harajuku, Tokyo went from more than 1,000 Korean visitors a day to fewer than 20. Student excursions have been cancelled, and flights to the main airports of Japan have been cancelled.
On August 9 Yomiuri focused on troubles in the South Korean economy with unemployment, a drop in exports to China, and Japan’s trade restrictions. Noting increases in the minimum wage that had failed to boost consumption, the article left the impression that Japan’s impact is one additional blow that leaves Moon at a dead end. In an August 3 editorial, Yomiuri asked why does South Korea not face reality. Japan seeks a good working relationship, but the South is driven by emotions. Seoul seeks US intercession on trade and only blames Japan.
On August 8 Park Cheolhee in Asahi warned that by removing South Korea from its white list, Japan has crossed a line and wounded Koreans’ self-respect. Despite shared values on what should matter most in two fraternal twins in East Asia, Japan has branded South Korea as an unfriendly country without an explanation, in retribution for the forced labor ruling. In Park’s meetings with Japanese, he discerns the attitude that they do not want to deal further with South Korea, while in the South, the opinions of the faction that knows Japan and the internationalists are becoming harder to voice in the new environment where each side sees itself as 100 percent correct. Movements to stop tourism and boycott Japanese goods are on the rise. Park offers a compromise approach on the forced labor issue, instead of payments to the victims the companies would establish a fund for education, health, and welfare. Yet this requires Japan to accept some legitimacy of the court ruling, which is inconceivable now. The emotions building in South Korea would soon be complemented by Japanese anger at GSOMIA.
Yomiuri on August 18 characterized Koreans in the 1890s as conservatives prioritizing traditional ties to China and reformers stressing ties with Japan for modernization; while in the postwar era it portrayed Koreans as conservatives stressing the ROK-US alliance and relations with Japan and progressives prioritizing unification and anti-US and anti-Japan feelings. In the former period the split at home became engulfed in great power maneuvering, and now the divide is doing the same with the North Korean threat, the focal point of the continental versus maritime struggle as the US is retreating and leaving instability in its wake in the South China Sea, in the Korean Peninsula, and in Syria, as China and Russia are filling the void. Japan, in turn needs to avoid an overly emotional response to South Korea, not allowing a further downward spiral, which would hand a victory to Pyongyang and Beijing.
On September 11 Yomiuri discussed books with anti-Japan criticism that are a hit in South Korea. Attacking the Japanese race (hannichi shuzokushugi), they are bestsellers arousing emotions over “comfort women” and conscripted labor. On September 14 Tokyo Shimbun gave examples of the outrage spilling out toward Zainichi, even justifying rape of Korean women and reminding one of the hysteria, which led to violence at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Such hate has reached unprecedented levels, it argued, on Facebook and TV, causing discomfort for the 3rd and 4th generations, and the courts are not protecting them.
In an Asahi editorial on September 16, “hate Korea” was linked to media coverage in Japan. Noting that the discussion has heightened over Japan-ROK relations, it bemoans the tone of it in some of the media. Recalling the period of Japan’s colonial control, the editorial points to a long history of civilizational transmission and exchanges beneficial to both sides, adding that today’s dispute is weakening both. Instead of stressing how the two can flourish together, some media enflame emotions toward South Korea, it argues, citing Bungei Shunju and Will articles on such prospects as severing relations and the countdown to South Korea’s disappearance in the 2020s. In another case, the title stated “sayonara” to the mettlesome neighbor. Absent is constructive dialogue on how to improve relations, for instance, in Shukan Post’s talk of the pathology of Koreans as a kind of ethnic bias. On television too, the negativism has been pronounced. If both governments rail at each other, the principle of good-neighborly relations will not be raised, and public opinion will be aroused. In Japan’s history since 1945, media followed state policy, while demeaning China and Korea, fostering similar thinking in the people. In order not to repeat this mistake, distance has to be kept from the government, while asking media to contribute to calm diplomatic discussions in order to banish all bias in order to forge healthy foreign relations. Asahi Shimbun on September 5 took aim at “hate Korea” language in Shukan Post, pointing to a sharp backlash to it in Japan. More that “hate,” the tone is to “erase” South Korea as if it is not needed. Various publications are appearing with strident language toward the South, it is reported, along with TV shows of that sort, especially after Seoul declared the end of GSOMIA. It has led to a cycle of criticism and apology, and Asahi insists that it will be cautious in posting ads for this kind of book, neglecting to note that it is not their likely venue.
The special September “hate Korea” issue of Shukan Post, which said “sayonara” to the South, also drew Tokyo Shimbun’s attention on September 8, warning that nothing has been learned from the 2018 Shincho 45 experience. It noted that days before there was a demonstration by the journal’s office, calling for the issue, which attacked the national character of Koreans, to be confiscated. Blame was put on a journal with declining circulation stooping to dirty tricks. On September 14 Asahi said that more important than “anti” or “pro” is to “know” Korea.
After the launching of two North Korean missiles, on July 27 Sankei editorialized for tighter sanctions, stopping smuggling and demanding that laborers in Russia and China return home by year’s end without any explanation of how the Security Council would agree, let alone the US, given Trump’s indifference due to his quest for talks with Kim Jong-un. Sankei explained North Korea’s position toward South Korea as threatening and unequal, demanding the unconditional reopening of Kaesong and Kumgang-san or else, as it fires missiles to underscore its warnings.
With Seoul’s decision to cancel GSOMIA, Yomiuri wrote on August 23 that the cordon around North Korea is weaker as well as that the conservative-progressive clash in Seoul has deepened.
On July 28 Tokyo Shimbun reported on an internal North Korean document from November 2018 at odds with its external posture, insisting that the US is the enemy and will retain its sanctions no matter what, implying that there is no hope in talks. The media also portrayed South Korean as “puppets,” indicating no trust in Trump or Moon. If in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, Pyongyang has shifted from calls for sanctions relief to system guarantees, there has been no real change in thinking. The paper also faults Trump for abandoning Japan by ignoring missile tests and only focusing on missiles targeting the US mainland and Hawaii, while preparing for talks aimed at a freeze first as fear was rising that Japan’s defense is being ignored. As missiles continued to be launched, this paper on August 26 pointed to the gulf between Japan and the US as well as the ROK, expecting Kim Jong-un to keep driving a wedge between these states. Trump’s image and Abe’s ability to deal with him were increasingly in question.
Tokyo Shimbun reported on September 6 that Wang Yi went to North Korea on September 4 but, unlike his May 2018 visit, was not granted a meeting with Kim Jong-un. The paper gave as the possible reason Kim’s refusal to discuss denuclearization, as he had on a prior visit by Wang.
A Mainichi editorial on September 6 focused on Abe’s meeting with Putin in Vladivostok. After no progress had been made in their Osaka meeting barely two months earlier, this summit also ended in a platitude that they would “work forward” for treaty negotiations without clarifying that the stumbling block is the territorial dispute. Instead of discussing this, Putin seemed intent on building up the islands as a strategic base after the abolition of the INF treaty. As for joint economic activities on the islands, including planned tourism, Russia insists that they proceed under Russian law. Russia has hardened its attitude; so why continue with these talks is the message. Yomiuri was more upbeat, insisting on continuing with a mid- or long-term outlook. Planned joint activities are still viewed as building trust. Downplaying the island issue, what is stressed is the regional security environment. Progress can be achieved through 2×2 talks, it is said. Rather than economics driving the process, military discussions will. After all, Russia does not view the two small islands closest to Japan in the same manner as the other two and does not station its military there. Constructive relations are aimed at containing China, and Abe and Putin have a good relationship; Japan should keep its pursuit of Russia going forward. Sankei’s editorial that day on the 27th summit of Abe and Putin stressed the lack of progress on the return of the islands and Russia’s sole interest in realizing economic goals. It called on Abe to just walk out and return home, taking a different strategy to Russia and reaffirming that the territory is inherently Japan’s and that without the return of four islands Japan will reject economic cooperation. It also sought a strong protest over a Russian military aircraft intruding in Japan’s space by Takeshima and a request that Russian INF’s not be placed in the Far East. Finally, Sankei opposed tourism planned in October to the illegally occupied islands. The early fall only saw Japan-Russian relations worsen despite Abe’s attendance at the Eastern Economic Forum in September. It became increasingly clear that Moscow, as during the Cold War, views Japan primarily as an ally to the US with US bases, which is prioritized as a security threat.
Japanese newspapers closely covered rising Sino-US tensions, as in a March 13 Yomiuri piece on conflicting cyber strategies (tightening Sino-Russian ties), in a Yomiuri June 6 piece on both economic and security ties and signs of a Sino-DPRK honeymoon, and in a June 22 Mainichi article and in a June 21 Sankei article. While alarm about China was not diminishing, the fact that China sought a new era of Sino-Japanese cooperation was also noted, for instance, in a June 19 Yomiuri interview with Ambassador Kong Xuanyou. The focus was on cooperation on BRI, then on Abe-Xi summitry, and mostly on bilateral economic ties. Yet a rising negative tide warned about BRI, pointed to Hong Kong and Taiwan losing trust in “one country, two systems” (Yomiuri, June 19), and concentrated on negative domestic policies of Xi Jinping, which raised suspicions also about China’s external behavior. Improved bilateral ties did not lead to trust.
Japanese ambivalence toward China has confused some about the state of bilateral ties. Japanese attended the spring BRI summit, and Abe hosted Xi Jinping at the G20, putting a positive glow on the relationship, but Japanese media coverage of the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen and the Hong Kong demonstrations reinforce the negative image conveyed in writings on security. The improvement in ties in 2019 is meaningful, if not very deep. On the BRI the May 13 Yomiuri reported on four conditions set for cooperation: openness, transparency, economic viability, and financial health for the recipient country. Japan is ready to cooperate on infrastructure projects (the ADB and the AIIB) when investments meet international standards. On April 27 Yomiuri noted Trump’s warning that BRI could impact security as China gets deeper into other countries. While the US is pushing for FOIP in opposition to China, Japan has drawn the line at targeting BRI as it seeks to build a better relationship with China. It has similar concerns, but it sees a role for itself in prodding China to meet international standards. Not lost in such coverage was the view that countries not only have to counter China’s “debt trap” BRI but also fight Trump’s protectionism and unilateralism, as explained on April 21. One even found speculation, as in Asahi on May 15, that Japan’s cooperation on BRI—a kind of Marshall Plan for Asia—would lead to a new order excluding the US. Yomiuri on June 17 raised the alarm about BRI, saying that despite Xi’s efforts at the BRI forum to refute “debt trap” accusations, China was striving to set “imperial style rules,” as a big country facing smaller ones, and international society should not welcome a Chinese-led order. Clearly, Japan’s new-found cooperation with BRI was not meant to enable China to forge an order it could dominate. Yet, the paper on April 21 had expressed concern that Vietnam in seeking help in economic development, as trade tensions with the US mount, is embracing BRI despite public anti-Chinese sentiments. In this situation, it appears that Japan needs a nuanced approach unlike that of the US handling of China of late.
On Tiananmen Yomiuri on July 8 wrote about the 2019 boom in Tiananmen coverage in Taiwan, as people psychologically distance themselves from the PRC, explaining that in Japan the situation is similar. When relations with the PRC were relatively smooth in the first half of the 2000s interest in the Tiananmen events of 1989 flagged, but after alarm about China rose in 2011 over the Senkaku/Diaoyu tensions, newspaper coverage rose. For Kawashima Shin, writing in Asahi on June 5, Tiananmen is not just history. It is the root of the current Sino-US confrontation, and Japan too should consider what it can do. On June 12 Sankei compared the past editorial responses of various papers: it strongly criticized Japanese diplomacy for having prematurely lifted sanctions after 1989, facilitating the revival of China’s hegemonism, while discerning parallels in Japan’s easy cooperation with BRI today. Yomiuri is viewed as not very different on Tiananmen, although no mention is made of its BRI stance. In light of this past event, China is not able to win international trust for “peaceful development,” the paper argues. Nikkei is also credited with negativity to Japan’s past diplomacy, freeing China of its isolation at a time of international sanctions. Sankei appears to see itself as alone, however, in its linkage to today in light of Yomiuri’s vocal support for Abe’s foreign policy and Nikkei’s economic appeals. The progressive papers also recalled 1989 in their articles, when China turned its back on democracy, as Tokyo Shimbun put it on June 5. There is no wide divide in Japan today in coverage of China.
Sankei reported on August 5 that Sino-Russian military ties had reached a new stage, and the two were testing the security response of Japan, the US, and South Korea. Weakness had invited the joint Sino-Russian July 23 bomber patrol, it suggested, and Russia has shifted to align more with China after earlier claiming to be uninvolved in the South China Sea or the Taiwan issue. Citing Chosun Ilbo on alliance weakness, the paper detects concern in Seoul on the impact of this shift. In Yomiuri on July 25, both South Korea and Russia are blamed more than China. Contributing to the joint patrol was weakness in deterrence due to cancelling the US-ROK military exercises and deterioration in Japan-ROK defense cooperation due to the ROK radar incident in late 2018. Seoul is not credited with defending an airspace against the intruders but blamed for violating what Japan calls its own airspace over the disputed island. It appears that Beijing and Moscow calculated correctly that their overflight would cause apprehension and exacerbate divisions rather than leading to any serious response beyond the usual diplomatic protestations.
Is the “third neighbor” policy in jeopardy, as Mongolia’s ties with China and Russia expand? How much has Japan contributed to Mongolia’s development in its thirty years of transformation from a socialist planned economy, and what role should Japan play now? An article in Kaigai Jijo Nos. 5-6 by Kawaguchi Kazunori discussed these themes under the title “Mongolia’s balanced diplomacy.” It explained that geography and dependence on primary production limits Mongolia’s options. Having been known as the “16th republic” of the Soviet Union, Mongolia was hit hard by the loss of the Soviet market in the early 1990s, then in the 2010s by reductions in Chinese imports of coal and by the fall in international prices for its exports as indications of the “natural resource curse,” and by the failure to develop manufacturing exports, as seen in the lack of exports to Japan, totaling barely 4 billion yen versus 40 some billion yen in imports. Recent Russia has drawn closer to Mongolia (dominating in petroleum products), China has provided more assistance (leading to excessive dependence in trade), and the BRI with a projected third transit route between China and Russia has become the focus of planning. The article reviews meetings in 2018, especially the August visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Mongolia, where linkage of BRI and Mongolia’s development path was agreed including meat exports from the west of Mongolia, and a China-Mongolia FTA. The two countries plan to increase bilateral trade to $10 billion in 2010. Given these developments, Japan’s efforts—an economic partnership agreement, support for the investment environment, assistance to small and medium companies, and improvement of Ulan Bator’s services and infrastructure—seem paltry. With a possible shift looming in Mongolia’s balanced foreign relations, “third-neighbors” such as Japan have a big role to play to sustain the balance, argues Kawaguchi without much substance.