County Report: Japan (March 2024)

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Through the winter of 2024, as Kishida Fumio suffered low ratings amid an LDP funding scandal, foreign affairs were a secondary concern. End-of-year and start-of-year meetings kept relations going, while assessments of what to expect in the new year put wariness in the forefront. Alarm about Trump’s return to power was starting to rise, as nervousness about Russia and US support for Ukraine became palpable. As for Japan’s options, South Korea continued to draw satisfaction after a successful year of diplomacy; North Korea added an element of intrigue as if in search of a breakthrough on abductees Kishida could go to Pyongyang; and ASEAN served as the clearest diplomatic target as a gateway to the Global South. In this report, we set aside coverage of both China and Taiwan, saving them for a pending Special Forum piece on Japan’s threat perceptions.

On December 30, Yomiuri reported on developments over the past year. It noted affirmation of FOIP as Japan served as chair of the G7, enjoyed a special role through cultivating ties to the Global South—even among states with close ties to Russia and China—and the big improvement in ties to South Korea. Yet, negative currents included: China’s marine products exclusion, North Korea’s missile threats, and the inability due to Komeito to export arms as the world faces a difficult year ahead over Ukraine and the Middle East. It called on Kishida to show leadership.

On January 14, Yomiuri assessed Foreign Minister Kamikawa’s meeting with Tony Blinken in DC, accentuating that Japan was appealing for stronger relations in the face of an even more severe security environment with great importance attached to the year ahead. The Taiwan election is bound to have great impact on Japan. In 2024, all-out efforts to realize FOIP are sought. Kishida will make a state visit to Washington, originally sought for early March but pushed back. With an election coming in the US, there is little time for Biden to focus on foreign policy. If Trump were to win, he would stress making deals, as in Ukraine and in the Middle East. Japan must prepare for both possible outcomes from the fall US elections, readers were forewarned.

On January 16, Yomiuri reported on Aso’s role as a pipe to Trump. As the Kishida administration responds to the revival of the “Trump wave” in the United States, alarm has mounted, and Aso’s trip to the US January 9-13 followed by a meeting with Kishida on the 15th offered a chance to assess the situation. Unable to meet Trump in New York, Aso met with several close to him in Washington, sending a message from Kishida. Aso had sat with Abe and golfed with Trump. As Kishida seeks a meeting to strengthen trust with Biden, he is rushing to forge ties to Trump, too.

Tomita Koji in Yomiuri on January 15 warned of a difficult year ahead and called for Japan to give support to the United States. The parallel wars in Ukraine and Gaza are having a major effect on international society with little prospect of complete resolution in the short term. With multiple foreign elections, from Taiwan in January to the United States in November, 2024 will be an extremely important year for Japanese diplomacy to demonstrate constructive leadership in international society and to support the United States, playing a big role as a bridge to the Global South. If Sino-US relations continue to stabilize, it is thought that Japan-China relations will follow the same path. China does not want the water discharge issue to scuttle overall ties, Tomita thinks. Whereas the costs to China of armed unification with Taiwan would be huge, and there is no reason for it to rush, Xi personally decides, making matters less predictable. Japan and the US must keep repeating their message for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and strengthen their deterrence and resistance capacity. The Biden administration highly values the December 2022 three national security documents of the Kishida cabinet, and cooperation is going forward particularly in advanced technology, but the US is asking Japan to do more with cyber defense. As for Japan-ROK relations, despite great improvement, Japan must not be too optimistic and should boost three-way cooperation to forestall possible setbacks.

The January 21 Yomiuri carried Takemori Shunpei’s analysis of how Japan should respond to a world order with weakening US leadership. He argued that to 2015 the US standard held, but Trump’s impact, the Sino-US trade war, the pandemic, and Russia’s assault on Ukraine called it into question. In 2021 and 2022, under Biden there were efforts to revive it, but the US Congress on Ukraine, the Gaza war, and China’s behavior and retaliation against countries critical of it, all have changed the calculus. China’s popularity in the Global South is rising. If Modi is reelected, that would not make the difference for US revival. Trump may just abandon the US standard, leaving the world in chaos. What should Japan do? It must build closer ties with Europe and strengthen ties with natural gas suppliers including Qatar, Iran, and Russia, readers are told.

In Kishida’s January 30 speech to the Diet he noted that he is now working to build constructive, stable relations with China following his November meeting with Xi Jinping, that despite the troubled state of relations with Russia he is determined to work for a resolution of the territorial issue and a peace treaty, that given the time constraints on the abductee issue, it is very urgent to deal with this humanitarian matter and realize talks with Kim Jong-un while raising bilateral ties to a new level. He aims to deepen links with the Global South, alleviating world division.

In the last part of 2023, the struggle to spend more on defense and to boost arms exports, overcoming a veto by Komeito, often played out in the Japanese press. The LDP vetted a plan for a tax increase for defense expenditures to begin in 2025 or 2026, but Komeito was yet to agree on that timetable, noted the December 1 Yomiuri. As for arms exports, Yomiuri said for the sake of Japan’s own security expanded foreign sales are needed. Extolling the new trend of joint production, a December 24 Yomiuri editorial called for action.

Russia

In the November/December Gaiko, Ishii Akira took a close look at the reversal of the hierarchy in Sino-Russian relations, further demonstrated when Putin attended the October BRI forum, in his 42nd meeting with Xi Jinping as the two sides were preparing for the 75th anniversary of normalization. Saying that military ties were hot and economic ones cold, Ishii observed that to 2022 Russia was running out of additional things to sell to China. Now it has more to sell, given the transfer of exports away from Europe, and more to buy, having lost suppliers, but it is much weaker in national power versus China. One sign of that was the opening of Vladivostok from June to be used in the manner of an internal Chinese port for moving goods from the Northeast southward. A right China had lost for 160 years has been partially restored. Will Russia not have to swallow other Chinese demands? With the ongoing Gaza war, Russia and China are boosting their image in the Global South, offering Russia a chance to restore its newly damaged image.

On January 8, Yomiuri reported on Foreign Minister Kamikawa’s visit to Kyiv, where she aimed to counter the message of “assistance fatigue” in Europe and the United States with a show of continuity. A February 19 Tokyo conference on Japan-Ukraine economic reconstruction awaited.

A Yomiuri editorial on January 15 called for all-out diplomacy to achieve a ceasefire in the war in Ukraine, while promising it more aid. Kamikawa visited nine countries at the start of the year, and she was forced underground for a joint press conference in Kyiv due to air raid sirens. Although Japan is limited in military aid, the editorial emphasized the salience of economic cooperation for rebuilding and of humanitarian assistance. Kamikawa also made the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to Finland, now a member of NATO, since Abe Shintaro in 1985.

On January 20, Yomiuri reported that as the US and EU struggle to deliver further assistance to Ukraine, Japan is stepping up. At next month’s Japan-Ukraine Economic Recovery Advancement conference, plans will be announced. In November, JICA reopened its office in Kiev. One pillar is mine-clearing. The equipment Japan is supplying is extremely effective. Lessons from recovery after the Eastern Japan earthquake disaster are being applied. Japan’s assistance is also going to computers needed for distance-learning after schools were hit by Russian drones and missiles.

On January 31, Yomiuri reported on Medvedev’ speech the previous day, announcing the deployment of new weapons on the Northern Territories, to which Kishida said that day that he will persist in seeking their return. Medvedev had added that hara-kiri is a sad samurai tradition.
On February 8, when a Tokyo assembly attended by Kishida met to demand the return of the Northern Territories, one focus was the reopening of visits graves by aging former residents, stopped along with peace treaty talks by Russia once the Ukraine war spread in 2022. By year’s end, a projection mapping exhibit will open in Tokyo showing the nature and history of disputed areas (also Takeshima and the Senkakus) to broaden understanding of Japan’s sovereignty. With coverage of this and the tougher language coming from the Japanese government on this issue since Russia’s war of aggression, Yomiuri on February 7 called for heightening consciousness.

In Kokusai Mondai, no. 2, Yuasa Takeshi asked how Russia’s approach to Central Asia has changed since the start of the war. It has sought to forge the regional order through the CSTO, the EEU, and the SCO, but members of these organizations do not welcome an order keeping Russia at the top, and the war has aggravated that. As China’s presence in the SCO has grown and new members were added, clashing interests have become more conspicuous. As demand for sovereignty grows, it is extremely possible that there will be border clashes and disputes over economic corridors. Following its great power consciousness, Russia has sought to forge a regional identity with it at the center, a suzerain state over vassal states. Expressions such as the “near abroad” and “sphere of influence” reflect the honne behind the tatemae of agreeing to other sovereign states. Such thinking prompted the war in Ukraine.

Central Asian states, by contrast, are seeking a new order through multilateral ties. From the early 2010s, they have gradually separated from Russia’s blueprint. Kazakhstan has led in pursuing independence. After the war with Ukraine began, opposition grew more apparent to the CSTO, fearing Russian infringements against sovereignty, after first in May 2022 rejecting Putin’s desire for support for the war, albeit not openly. After China had become a political and economic partner on the same level as Russia, Central Asian countries squeezed between the two pursued diplomatic and security policies following their own national interests. The war had a positive influence on Central Asian economies, helping Russia to evade sanctions. After the 2022 Samarkand SCO thwarted Putin, the 2023 New Delhi SCO exposed the different dreams of the SCO, bringing them more to the forefront. China had shifted to treating the SCO as part of the Global South. With Kazakhstan as chair of the CSTO and SCO in 2024, there is no inclination to deal with the Ukraine war. Russia’s hold over Central Asia has further loosened due to the war and sparks of instability have grown, as Afghanistan has changed. China is ahead of Russia in dealing with this question.

In Bungei Shunju, No. 3, four Japanese analysts warned that the fate of the Ukraine war lies with Europe, the United States, and Japan. After the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in 2023, they point to the “election year” of 2024 as critical. One factor is whether the Sino-Russian relationship will be a “military alliance.” In today’s international situation the two cannot distance themselves from each other, but Russia is very unlikely to join a war over Taiwan, and China no matter how bad Russia’s situation is in Ukraine will not join the war. After all, to the early 2010s, the Russian military saw China as a latent enemy. The military and security establishments on both sides have historically been opposed and considered the other side a threat. From 2014 they quickly drew closer together, recognizing that they could use each other. The article leaves unstated how Xi or Putin might sour on this close relationship. The end insists that Japan’s assistance matters for the outcome of the war. While drawing a comparison with South Korea’s supply of ammunition to the United States to fill gaps left from supplying Ukraine, it noted that Japan could return to Great Britain munitions it had purchased. This came against the backdrop of a debate on removing some weapons export restrictions led by the LDP.

In Kokusai Mondai, No. 2, Mifune Emi asked if Russia is growing more dependent on China. She distinguishes between subordination and dependence, arguing that due to China’s strategic aims versus the US, it needs close ties to Russia, lessening subordination. After all, China sees the war as a great-power competition with the United States. Restoration of China’s right to use the port of Vladivostok reflects a new balance, but it does not signify subordination. In October 2023, Gazprom announced its plan to start work on “Power of Siberia-2” despite snags in talks with China, but Xi Jinping a month earlier had hinted at prioritizing a pipeline from Turkmenistan instead. China is using Russia’s situation to further its own interests, concluded Mifune.

On February 3, Yomiuri pointed to increasing cross-border traffic between Russia and China. In this 75th anniversary year of establishing relations, exchanges are intensifying. In September 2023 visa-free group tourism was restored, the opening in June 2022 of the Amur River bridge is impacting ties as the symbol of a honeymoon, and at the end of February 2024 an air route will open between Moscow and Shenyang. A January trade conference in Shenyang saw many infrastructure contracts signed. Western efforts to isolate Russia’s economy have led to China filling the void, it is reported.

BRICS

Yomiuri on January 13 noted Argentina’s decision to pull out of BRICS, which as recently as October it had agreed to join as part of a widely-heralded expansion. President Milei, newly in office, has changed the foreign policy direction, impacting ties to China and Brazil and plans for currency swaps. He decided to buy US F-16s instead of Chinese aircraft amid reports of secret foreign ministry talks with Taiwan. Questions about the impact on Chinese purchases of Argentinian agricultural products were raised, suggesting that the situation could be fluid.

South Korea

Ito Kohtaro in Yomiuri on January 14 warned of Japan falling way behind South Korea in arms exports, as Seoul and Washington cement the science and technology alliance forged by their defense ministers in November. Blocked by its “pacifism” from such exports, although slight relaxation has occurred recently, as in the case of the Philippines, Japan will stand by as Seoul and Washington link their industrial arms production, and Japan’s value as a US ally will slip. South Korea is Japan’s most promising partner. Arms exports would be good for the defense industry in Japan and for improving its security environment by supporting others. Ito added.

In Bungei Shunju, No. 2, Kuroda Katsuhiro praised the bravery of Yoon Suk-yeol for leaving behind anti-Japan policy. In one year, he met with Kishida seven times in what is being called the second normalization of diplomatic relations after 1965. Criticized, as was Park Chung-hee, for humiliating and traitorous diplomacy, he along with Kishida deserves the Nobel Prize, as Kim Dae-jung won it for not only his summit with North Korea but also his agreement with Obuchi in 1998. US hopes were behind Yoon, and Biden solidified the triangle at the Camp David summit.

Given the victim consciousness in South Korea, Yoon took a big political risk. He did so again on the Fukushima water discharge issue. Surprisingly, his popularity did not drop, perhaps a sign of change in Korean society. Unlike the way pro-US, pro-China, and pro-North Korea are treated, Kuroda argues that pro-Japan carries more negative connotations of not just feeling positive about a country. After a long era of criticizing Japan for the “comfort women” issue, the forced labor issue drew less mass support. People are growing tired of “anti-Japan,” and among young people there is “history fatigue.” Fukushima is not linked to history or even a bilateral matter.

Despite a lot of fake news, the public was not much aroused. On a Japan issue, it is rare to find such diversity in the media, academics, and opinionmakers. Yoon overcame the two big issues of forced labor and Fukushima discharges as the first South Korean leader to set aside anti-Japan history issues. He abandoned the notion that South Korea is morally superior to Japan.

Completing normalization, which was left unfinished in 1965 after resolving matters of money and things, Yoon accepted the belief that developed South Korea is equal to Japan. This proved possible because his father, an economist, instilled respect for freedom and spent a year as a visiting professor at Hitotsubashi University, when the young Yoon first visited Japan. Yoon is also influenced by strong antagonism to China, which treats South Korea as a subordinate, and negativity to China, North Korea, and Russia for a lack of freedom. In 2023, when on the 100th anniversary of the Kanto earthquake, which is remembered for the massacre of Koreans in Japan, Korean media sought to revive the “history card.” Yoon opposed it. The key ahead to holding off untimely criticism will be the Korean media, which Kuroda continues to criticize.  

In Toa, No. 2, Ito Kohtaro wrote of new US-ROK steps aimed toward the 100th anniversary of the alliance, pointing to the Security Consultative Meeting on November 13. Such decisions as a reciprocal defense procurement agreement ranging from missile defense to space, cyber, and artificial intelligence are transforming the alliance. Building on the Camp David strategic linkage of the two US alliances, Japan must now grasp the change in the US-ROK alliance to go further to realize the spirit of Camp David as well, argues Ito.

North Korea

On November 4, Yomiuri reported on the closing of North Korean embassies and consulates in Hong Kong, parts of Africa, and Spain. Sue to tightening economic sanctions, its total number of foreign outposts has fallen from 53 to 49. They have been used for smuggling to support the North’s weapons program, efforts pursued since the 1990s after loss of support. Again, North Korea is aided by Russia as well as China, the article explains, as it bolsters its armed forces.

On January 7, days after reporting on North Korea’s hostile turn toward South Korea as an enemy country, Yomiuri noted Kim Jong-un’s unprecedented telegram expressing deep sympathy over the Noto earthquake to Japan’s prime minister. Juxtaposing the two attitudes, the paper concluded that the North intended to drive a wedge between the two countries.

On February 15, Sankei reported on the possibility that Kishida would visit North Korea. It cited Kim Jong-un’s sister’s statement that day that if the abduction of Japanese issue were not an obstacle there is no reason why the two cannot draw closer, and she referred to the possibility that Kishida would visit Pyongyang, explaining this as a personal opinion. The aim appears to be to drive a wedge in the Japan-US-ROK connection, hinting at a new, soft posture toward Japan. Saying if the Japanese side makes a political determination, a new future together would be in sight, she was responding to recent Diet committee remarks of Kishida aimed at resolving the abductee issue, suggesting that he could make the necessary decision to bring about a summit.

In Toa, No. 2, alarm was expressed about Trump cutting a deal with Kim Jong-un to reduce the threat to the US mainland at the cost of extended deterrence, leading to troop reductions in allied countries and South Korea going nuclear. All of this would proceed against the background of Putin visiting his very important partner in North Korea. A recent telegram from Kim Jong-un to Kishida—the first since the 1990s—sympathized with earthquake victims and encouraged talk of a visit to Pyongyang, although much remains unclear, the article concludes.

Kohari Susumu in Toa, No. 3, analyzed Kim Jong-un’s policy shift toward South Korea, while mentioning the Russia-North Korea honeymoon and a January 26 visit to Pyongyang of a high Chinese foreign policy official at the start of a year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of normalization. Asking if China is understanding of North Korea’s shift to the South, Kohari sees it as cool to the change. He also reported that the North has indicated it would welcome Kishida if Japan agrees to put aside the abductee issue, which has been fully resolved.

ASEAN

On November 5, Yomiuri covered the Japan-Philippines summit in an editorial, saying that new security ties in response to China have great significance. Kishida is also visiting Malaysia ahead of the December Japan-ASEAN summit and amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea over China’s pressure on the Philippines. Japan is exporting limited arms to beef up security, strengthening ties between two US allies on the basis of what is called an equal partnership.

In Gaiko, November/December, Ambassador Kiya Masahiko stressed trust as the key feature of Japan-ASEAN relations as the 50th anniversary summit in Tokyo approached. Already the year was marked with events, including a kickoff symposium in February. Explaining why ASEAN is now drawing attention, Kiya pointed to: (1) its critical strategic and geopolitical position for FOIP as ASEAN has launched its own AOIP; (2) its role as a center of global development, attracting Japanese manufacturing firms and those eying a market of 600-700 million persons; (3) its role as the hub of regional cooperation, including multilateral meetings; and (4) Japan’s focus on strengthening diplomacy with the Global South, for which ASEAN is the gateway.

As awareness of its presence has risen, some issues stand out. These include the diversity of responses to Russia and Ukraine; the heavy economic dependence on China amid concern about its impact on sovereignty, leading to heightened expectations for Japan; a desire to avoid having to choose between China and the United States, raising expectations for Japan’s contribution to regional stability. Japanese policy is still rooted in the Fukuda Doctrine of 1977, which overcame unease over the rapid expansion of Japan’s economic presence, building trust by going beyond politics and economics through social and cultural relations and an equal partnership. Bilateral ODA spurred development over a long time. As for the future, Japanese need a new image of ASEAN as the international environment has changed along with Japan’s relative national power. Now a developed and activist ASEAN must be correctly faced, building on Japan’s biggest asset, trust. As one of five comprehensive, strategic partners of ASEAN—with Australia, China, the United States, and India—Japan must strengthen multi-level exchanges and deepen trust. Kiya calls on Japanese to adjust their consciousness of an equal relationship without suggesting closer links to the United States or its other allies in the region or the difficult choices that may be required.

In the same issue of Gaiko, three authors scrutinized ASEAN solidarity. They noted that Indonesia refused to join BRICS, much as it stays out of the Quad, from concern with avoiding a possible misperception that would diminish ASEAN, viewing BRICS as having an anti-US coloring led by China and Russia. While ASEAN might be just one element of the Global South, in facing China it is essential. US positive involvement in Southeast Asia is necessary, even if the ASEAN members are divided on responding to China’s military threat. The big countries—Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines—can handle some tensions with China, while the small ones are too reliant on China. Even if there is consensus on strengthening ASEAN cohesion, attitudes toward China have a centrifugal effect. Economics and security have a fundamentally different character. Over time Japanese views of ASEAN have evolved. The first generation assisted newly independent countries. The second generation drew on an economic great power to offer ODA and enable countries to learn from Japan. The third generation has a more challenging task to make Japan relevant, given the educational draw of Europe and the US, China’s economy, and South Korea’s cultural influence. Ties have centered on economics, but now it is important to extend security cooperation along with forging supply chains. As a low-birth, aging society, Japan’s future rests on rethinking ASEAN, not just in the prism of facing China or the Sino-US confrontation.

On December 16-18, the Japan-ASEAN summit was convened in Tokyo. Forging multi-level links with ASEAN is critical for Japanese diplomacy amid advancing divisions in international society, taking into consideration ASEAN’s concern for neutrality and diversity.  Prior special summits met in 2003 and 2013. Others—the US, China, the EU, South Korea, and Australia, among them—are boosting ties to ASEAN too, but they lack Japan’s long, deep, continuous relations with it. Second to China as a trading partner and ahead of the US, ASEAN around 2030 will surpass Japan in GDP, and Japan is third in FDI there after the US and EU. Since the 1970s Japan has offered ODA as an equal, unlike the US and EU. Trump skipped ASEAN summits, giving the impression of slighting it. Biden’s IPEF is not much welcomed without US market opening. China’s economy is stagnating, and its BRI is seen as a “debt trap.” Japan is valued as an equal for resolving shared problems and for shared concern over China’s maritime penetration. Each ASEAN state must be addressed differently, taking into account its consciousness of China. As Japanese society shrinks, it must expand exchanges to strategically foster “shinilpa” leaders among youth and specialists who will be pro-Japan, the Yomiuri December 20 article argued.

Editorializing on December 19 about the summit, Yomiuri argued that because many ASEAN states are heavily dependent on China economically, they are restrained in criticizing it over its incursions in the South China Sea. Yet, there is deep concern over a “debt trap” used by China to pursue security interests in place of repayments. It is important that Japan tighten its linkages to ASEAN through trade and investment with high levels of transparency, capitalizing on the high level of trust it has nurtured over 50 years of dealing with ASEAN. On December 17, the paper had singled out Vietnam and the Philippines under a regional security threat that economies are being held hostage and deeply alarmed about China’s hegemonic moves in the South China Sea. On December 18, Yomiuri highlighted the gap in thinking about China as reflected in the joint statement, toward which Cambodia and Laos rejected possible wording. One observer is quoted as saying an era of one-sided assistance has ended in Japan’s relations with ASEAN. Now it is important to deepen ties to ASEAN, but the article is vague on how that is to be accomplished.

A December 12 article had already flagged the reduced salience of Japan as a partner, slipping below China since 2019 to roughly the level of the United States (in 2022, 43% chose Japan versus 48% China as the important partner of the future). As Japanese language programs in Thai schools recede (in 2022 to 415 from 433 in 2020), Chinese ones boom to 1,044, up by 96. Now five times as many pupils are studying Chinese. Meanwhile, English remains popular, and in culture and entertainment K-pop continues to dominate pop culture, as Japan’s standing fades.

Pacific Islands

On February 12, Yomiuri covered Kamikawa’s visit to Fiji, countering China’s rising influence with policies aimed at global warming among other issues. She prepared for a July summit in Tokyo. The Solomon Islands in 2022 signed a security pact with China. Nauru just cut ties to Taiwan, turning instead to China. As the area is becoming split between the US and China, Kamikawa called for a region-wide approach.

EU

On February 4, Yomiuri covered the February 2 3rd Brussels EU-Indo-Pacific conference. Despite the Ukraine war and Middle East situation, the EU affirmed its emphasis on the Indo-Pacific as indispensable in facing China. Themes included heightened concern for economic security and reduced dependence through de-risking on China for supply chains as well as export controls over advanced technology. Yet, the challenges of de-risking are considerable as the level of imports from China keeps growing. Among EU countries differences in the perceived danger are pronounced, and many want to avoid getting embroiled in an EU-US versus China confrontation.    

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