The articles in this special forum examine Japan’s foreign policy from three angles. The first provides an overview with a year-by-year breakdown for 2020-23. This is followed by an analysis on the invigoration of Japan’s relations with Europe, in this case emphasizing trade and investment. Finally, we offer an overview of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy, highlighting important changes in 2022-23. These three articles join the six previous Special Forum articles posted in 2022 for a wide-ranging assessment of how Japanese thinking evolved across a critical decade. Changes in the early 2020s were the most transformative.

Gilbert Rozman, “Japan’s Fulsome Embrace of Bipolarity, 2020-2022”

A sea change occurred in Japanese foreign policy between 2020 and 2022. After Kishida Fumio replaced Suga Yoshihide a year after Abe Shinzo resigned, some spoke of the “Kishida Doctrine” no less than the “Abe Doctrine” as spelling the death knell of the “Yoshida Doctrine.” Kishida embraced economic security, conditioning ties to China to reduce economic vulnerability and dual-use technological seepage as well as imposing tough sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. On values too, Abe paved the way with his call for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and Kishida went further in echoing the US rhetoric on democracy, a rule-based order, and human rights, albeit with some nuances apt to entice the “Global South.” The principle of serving as a “shield” while the US served as a “spear” was outdated, as recognized by Abe and transformed by Kishida. Although a transition would be needed, a new approach had been declared by 2023.

Japan’s linkage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the PRC threat of coercion toward Taiwan and wake-up call from China’s missiles fired into the Japanese EEZ near Taiwan, heightened the sense that Japan had finally reinterpreted its One China principle with the PRC. When the all-out Ukraine war was launched, Kishida fully joined his G7 counterparts. The victory Yoon Suk-yeol in 2022, the redoubling of US efforts to boost trilateralism, and a dangerous security environment, all led to a degree of flexibility in response to overtures from Yoon. By late winter, 2023 a way forward with Seoul appeared in sight. Talk of a Reiwa Restoration suggested transformation on the order of the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Over the course of one year from when Russia invaded Ukraine, hardly a month passed without fundamental change. The Indo-Pacific order is genuine and growing. Tokyo makes its case as a distinct force in order-building with three points: (1) it is the initiator of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy and still has a steering role, striving to help to clarify the US initiatives; (2) it has kept alive the vital trade agenda in regionalism, through CPTPP, still urging the US to join; and (3) it has a special role in the diverse Global South—in Southeast Asia and India—where the US approach is complementary but less well received and the US image remains far less popular.

The winter of 2023 saw Kishida make a celebrated visit to Washington, while clarifying the new security strategy of Japan in the face of dangers from China, North Korea, and Russia. Then Yoon Suk-yeol proposed a deal on the forced labor issue welcomed by Kishida. Developments with China and Russia brought polarization closer, as economic security coordination with the US tightened.

Abe’s final year as prime minister ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Abe kept up appearances that his initiatives with China and Russia were only put in abeyance, but the reality was that a state visit of Xi Jinping seemed ever more distant; a breakthrough with Putin was inconceivable; and a special bond with Trump yielded few dividends while Abe was at a loss to play a role on the Korean Peninsula. Hope that Suga could revive Abe’s illusions faded fast. Awaiting Biden at the end of 2020, Japanese were torn over the meaning of his election for Japan’s foreign policy, given the usual inclination to favor a Republican. With Abe gone and then Biden elected, uncertainty reigned. Decisions to prioritize Japan as the most important US ally, to solidify US-Japan ties rather than look for a breakthrough with China, and to put the Quad at the center of US Indo-Pacific strategy, all raised Japan’s profile.

After becoming prime minister in September, Kishida emphasized the promotion of FOIP and forthcoming national security and defense statements to strengthen the defense against China. Kishida’s impact came on the heels of a new debate on the meaning of a “Taiwan contingency” and more urgent US warnings of dangers originating in Russia and China. If Suga had entered office with few expectations of the end of the “Abe Doctrine,” Kishida faced very different expectations, given three geopolitical reassurances: US resoluteness in resisting China and backing Taiwan; the Quad as a framework narrowing China’s options; and Japanese consensus to defend its interests.

The year 2022 was transformative for Japan. It clarified policy toward the great powers that had been fuzzy since the end of the Cold War, and it overturned lingering thinking rooted in postwar pacifism. After more than a year of apparent drift apart from increased solidarity with the United States, the direction of foreign policy became clear. On Abe’s legacy, Sino-US relations and Taiwan, the Japan-US-Europe triangle, Japan-Russia ties, and even the Japan-US-South Korea triangle, Tokyo’s course ahead was unmistakable. This was made possible by three critical realizations: (1) the world and Asia is at an historical turning point, which requires a clear strategy; (2) security and economics can no longer be kept separate; and (3) “gaiatsu” and passivity must give way to co-leadership with the United States in concert with a host of Asian and European countries. This outlook recognized an irreconcilable clash with China, Russia, and North Korea on one side, and Japan, the US, and their allies on the other. This was the severest security situation since WWII.

The late spring and early summer of 2022 saw a consolidation of the new direction in Japanese foreign policy set by the response to both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the US-led rebooting of the international order. Late May saw Biden’s visit to South Korea and then Japan, followed by the Quad summit in Tokyo. The message was that Japan and the US must lead, in diplomacy, security, and economics in opposition to China and Russia. A month later, Kishida joined the G7 and NATO summits. Three points were clear: (1) the transformation under way is irreversible, a milestone comparable to the end of the Cold War—the war will be long-lasting, and NATO will hold together; (2) Europe and Asia are indivisible, recognizing a need to face shared security concerns together; and (3) Japan faces unexpected uncertainties over energy ties to Russia and economic security relations with China. These remain to be resolved to set an agenda for an emerging era.

The Ukraine war brought into the open strategic thinking about China’s threat to attack Taiwan. Responding to Russia, Japan sent three key messages: (1) to Washington, the alliance was resolute in the face of dangers to the international order, whether in Europe or Asia; (2) to NATO, Asia and Europe are one inseparable arena, which must be defended together; and (3) to China, the separation of economics and security is over, as pushback was building through economic security.

The “Abe Doctrine” outlived its originator although in 2021 Russian hostility and Sino-US tensions along with the new Biden administration’s economic security agenda left Japan in limbo. The legacy of wooing Putin, hopes for a state visit from Xi Jinping, and refusal to talk to Moon Jae-in until the “forced labor” issue was settled, complicated Biden’s agenda. From the onset of the Ukraine war, the “Kishida Doctrine” emerged, embracing US policy and accepting the reality of bipolarity. Japan avidly supported the liberal international order as never before.

Kishida swung strongly behind a robust national defense, boosting the defense budget toward 2% of GDP and preparing counterstrike capabilities, while leaving vague how Japan would respond to a “Taiwan contingency,” as it rallied others to be ready. On economic security, Kishida joined the US in export controls on certain semiconductors, among other new steps. On identity themes, Japan had become outspoken, albeit with some hints of greater caution in ties to the Global South. In 2020 to 2022, a sea change was occurring in Japanese thinking.

Brad Glosserman,Japan’s Economic Turn to Europe”

With the US from 2017 wary of trade agreements, Abe looked to Europe for partners to realize the international dimension of his economic aspirations. Abe naturally rooted his thinking in the relationship with the United States, but Washington’s reluctance to partner with him on large elements of his international trade agenda obliged Abe to look elsewhere for support. This chapter looks at Japan’s economic relationship with Europe during the Abe years through a strategic prism. It explores the emergence of that partnership, its implications and how it has weathered the shocks of the last decade. A later section turns to the Suga and Kishida periods for insight into Japan’s evolving economic ties. While some of the principles that guided Abe’s foreign economic policy in general, and Japan’s relations with Europe more specifically, predated his administration, Abe deserves credit for having the readiness and the flexibility to adapt to the unforeseen circumstances that arose with considerable regularity. The initiatives he launched were not complete when he left the Kantei, but he put policy on a trajectory that his successors have maintained, and which continues to guide international economic policy.

The desire to be a “rule maker” had assumed new urgency as China became more aggressive in the pursuit of its preferred version of regional and global order, pushing its own trade agreements and arrangements, the promotion of Chinese officials to leading positions in international organizations and, when stymied, creating its own institutions.

Unfortunately for Abe, US interest in TPP waned. Abe was forced to rework his international economic policy, adjusting to the loss of a partner in the fight to promote shared values and interests. Abe pushed ahead with TPP-11 and RCEP. But even as Japan pursued those trade deals, Tokyo needed another powerful government to join it in promoting high-quality standards, and fill the gap in influence, status, and standing created by the US abdication of its former role. Europe was that partner, and the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement became the new gold standard. Washington’s rejection of TPP prompted Japan to redouble efforts toward its conclusion. The EPA served as “a breakwater” against US pressure.

For one commentator, the EPA is “the most important bilateral trade agreement ever concluded.” That reflected its scope—goods, services, public procurement, regulatory cooperation, and the modernization of trade rules, intellectual property rights, corporate governance, and sustainable development—as well as its ambition. It addresses many of the nontariff barriers that businesses trying to crack the Japanese market have complained about. Its greatest significance is normative, however. It demonstrated that Japan and the EU were “flag bearers of free trade.”

None felt the jolt from Brexit more acutely than did Japan. It marginalized a vital partner and forced a reassessment of a strategy that prioritized London in Japan’s foreign policy—not only a problem, but a betrayal. The two governments concluded a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in October 2020, that went into effect on January 1, 2021. It is the UK’s largest bilateral agreement post-Brexit and was described as “a milestone for a new era in Japan-UK relations.” The agreement also consolidated the Japan-UK relationship on a political level, showing the world that London can get business done and helped to build a strategic relationship with a potentially valuable partner that goes beyond trade. It is helpful, too, to view the Japan-UK CEPA as preparation for Britain’s entry into the CPTPP.

Japan has had a two-prong economic strategy since Abe Shinzo returned as prime minister. First, Abe sought to rejuvenate the economy to give the country a boost both real and psychological as he sought to reclaim Japan’s place among the first tier of nations. Second, he pursued partnerships with like-minded countries to backstop the principles, rules, and institutions of the existing world order to protect Japanese interests and Tokyo’s status within that system. That strategy was buffeted by external events.

Kishida inherited a foreign policy that has proven remarkably resilient, despite serious and foundational shocks. While much of this approach was laid out by Abe, parts of that policy long predated Abe. Tokyo sought additional support to turn back the systemic challenge posed by Beijing. The desire to forge closer relations with Europe assumed new urgency during the Trump years, when the US commitment to multilateralism and the rules-based order that Japan relied upon was called into question. As Kishida contemplates his international economic agenda in the spring of 2023, he has three concerns. The first is stewardship of the G7. Promoting supply chain resilience and protecting against economic coercion will be core elements of Japan’s G7 effort. These are priority concerns for Europe too and will promote coordination between Tokyo and Brussels (as well as other European and G7 capitals). Kishida does not want to close the door on cooperation with China either in pursuit of political objectives or in ways that would disadvantage Japanese businesses that rely on the Chinese market. His thinking echoes that of Europe: While Japan and Europe are worried about Chinese intentions, neither has adopted as hard a line as that of the United States. The second core element of Kishida’s economic policy toward Europe is to blunt the sharper edges of US policy toward China and maintain space for diplomatic maneuver with Beijing. Kishida’s third major concern in his international economic agenda is his “New Capitalism.” The foundation has been laid, and current dynamics are reinforcing the partnership. Some of the credit must go to Abe for both recognizing the need to revitalize the relationship and actually pursuing it. It will take leadership and energy in Tokyo and Brussels to ensure that the current trajectory continues.

Shihoko Goto, “Southeast Asia Tests the Allure of Japan’s Global Vision”

While Northeast Asia garners the most attention for great power challenges and historical memory and recently the Quad has redirected attention further south and west, there is no substitute for the arena of Southeast Asia in strategizing about the revival of Japan’s leading role economically and, with the United States, strategically. Over the past decade from 2013 to 2023, three distinctive periods can be discerned in Japan’s thinking, always with the United States and China clearly in the picture. In 2013 to 2016, the Abe administration weighed mounting concern about China’s advancing position in Southeast Asia and the limits of the Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia,” as it sought to intensify its presence in Southeast Asia. In 2017 to 2020, the Abe administration struggled to manage the Trump administration’s pullout from the US-initiated TPP with a strong Southeast Asian focus while searching for common ground with Xi Jinping’s BRI. Finally, from 2021 to 2023, Suga and Kishida responded to a cascade of new initiatives from the Biden administration. Throughout these three periods, Japan perceived its moves in Southeast Asia in the context of US and Chinese ones.

With no sign of tensions between the United States and China easing, Southeast Asia is emerging as a battleground for strategic competition. For Tokyo, though, Southeast Asia has long been established as the heart of its overseas economic and now increasingly its security interests. It is at the frontline of testing Japan’s growing influence as a leader of middle powers, and bringing together countries that are facing the challenges of a shifting regional order and pressure from the two competing powers. The question is whether Japan can continue to champion the needs of the countries finding themselves in the middle, amid ever-intensifying strategic competition.

Japanese political leadership has been a driving force in defining not only Tokyo’s relations with Southeast Asia, but also in propelling the centrality of ASEAN in confronting the rising challenge of China during the period from 2013 to 2016. After all, Abe was instrumental in promoting the concept of the “FOIP,” which positioned Southeast Asia as key in the new regional framework. Growing concerns regarding China have pushed Japan to further its engagement in Southeast Asia beyond economic or even political engagement. In 2016, the Vientiane Vision was unveiled to further Japan’s defense commitment to ASEAN as a bloc, rather than simply bilaterally between targeted countries. The agreement focused more on capacity building and human resources development. That vision was further expanded in 2019 as Vientiane Vision 2.0, to focus on cooperating on defending the rule of law and enhancing maritime security in particular.

The period from 2017 to 2020 proved to be a golden age of sorts for Japan’s foreign policy, as it put the country at the forefront of balancing both its relations with Washington as well as Beijing, while garnering greater support for its commitment to Southeast Asia. Japan stepping up to lead the TPP was certainly the beginning of that period. Abe recast Japan as a regional stabilizer that would be proactive in mobilizing partners including Washington to push back against Chinese economic as well as military aggression.

Proactive diplomacy at the highest level is not only paying dividends in bolstering Japan’s reputation in Southeast Asia, but it is also playing a vital role in bridging US ties to the region. Just as Japan played an essential role in keeping the TPP together and building up the CPTPP, so too has it been a critical player in ensuring the success of Washington’s own economic initiative in the region, the IPEF. Japanese officials have made clear that it was Tokyo’s careful negotiations that encouraged not just Singapore, Vietnam, and Brunei, which have already joined the CPTPP, but also Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines to join the U.S.-led pact for initial negotiations. The fact that IPEF was launched in Tokyo should also not be ignored.

Japan’s infrastructure investment plan is increasingly being shaped by efforts to counterbalance Chinese dominance in Southeast Asia by putting connectivity of the region in the forefront by land and increasingly by sea. The prospect of Japan providing political leadership that matches its economic vision in the region may not be as straightforward as once expected. For one, even as Tokyo’s commercial and geopolitical interests in Southeast Asia remain high, the immediate risks in Northeast Asia are rising at a faster pace. Still, Tokyo’s commitment to Southeast Asia and the FOIP in particular has been a constant under both Suga and Kishida. In fact, Kishida committed to expand the FOIP strategy in early 2023 to counterbalance the China threat. One of the biggest challenges for Japan moving forward will be to ensure that it can continue to be one of the leading rule-making nations even as it may not necessarily be completely aligned with the US threat perception towards China. The challenge is to remain a trusted partner in Southeast Asia even if the threat perception towards China is less inclined to be aligned with that of the US. Competition will make it increasingly difficult for Japanese technology investments to Southeast Asia not to choose compliance with one side or another. As technology-driven smart growth takes on a greater role in large-scale infrastructure development, Japan’s development assistance vision may be impacted by the rising technology competition as well.

Over a decade Japan’s approach to Southeast Asia has hinged on three, critical factors: (1) the urgency of preventing China from gaining a hegemonic position there, using economic lures and dependency to shape political and strategic outcomes; (2) the necessity of keeping the United States fully engaged there, agreeing to coordination on security and values while striving to find a common approach to trade and economic security; and (3) the quest for Japanese leadership in a realm long prized as central to Japanese foreign policy, where Japan enjoys public opinion support. At times, China had appeared to gain the advantage with the BRI and active diplomacy. For a time, the United States had appeared sidelined with “America First” thinking and loss of interest in a trade agenda, while defying regional desires not to have to take sides. The steady Japanese hand under Abe, Suga, and Kishida has striven hard to overcome these challenges.

Over three periods, Japan’s approach to Southeast Asia reflected the evolution of the above forces. In 2013-16 Abe was intent on countering China’s advancing position across Southeast Asia and convincing Obama to play a more active role there. Under the impact of Xi Jinping’s BRI and Trump’s rejection of TPP as well as antipathy to multilateralism, Abe reinvigorated his Southeast Asian diplomacy, salvaging TPP and seeking to manage cooperation with the BRI. In the third period, Japan-US strategic cooperation reached unprecedented levels, while tensions with China continued to mount. In 2022-23 Kishida has joined Biden in rolling out strategies for encompassing Southeast Asia in a still-unfolding framework inclusive of security, economics, and values. If Japan appears hesitant on some elements of the US framework, it has found much satisfaction in Biden’s deeper engagement. Some differences in the priority of security, the role of trade agreements, and the stress to be put on values remain to be reconciled.  

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