Japanese Thinking toward the Indo-Pacific, 2017-2019


In 2017-19 Abe’s legacy was determined under a rapidly changing regional environment. Was it to be reassertion of Japan’s great power standing or reconciliation to being a middle power? Was it to be an autonomous foreign policy able to maneuver among the increasingly antagonistic great powers of China, Russia, and the United States or a subordinate role in a US-led alliance with little autonomy? Finally, was his legacy to be construction of a distinct national identity steeped in history or tight solidarity with the liberal democratic camp? Amid wavering between these choices, the outcome was becoming clearer as the decade of the 2010s neared its completion.

Abe returned as prime minister with a bang, hoarding the spotlight with his transformative domestic agenda and bold foreign policy moves. In 2017 Abe strove mightily to revive his momentum, cozying up to Trump as no other ally did and pursuing a breakthrough with Xi Jinping, which he confidently insisted he was achieving with Putin. Yet, the results fell short, only to be followed by marginalization in 2018; the upsweep in diplomacy over North Korea and Trump’s unilateralism with China and others bypassed Japan. The year 2019 saw Abe press for renewed relevance on numerous fronts, invigorating personal diplomacy. If on Asia’s southern front, he had some success dependent on Trump’s inconsistent interest, to the north Abe’s main accomplishment was revenge against Moon Jae-in. Year by year, Abe had overreached. Paradoxically he had left a foundation for a more modest, realistic foreign policy in support of a more strategic US.  

Each of these three years of Abe’s leadership had a distinctive orientation, even if there were also enduring themes. The year 2017 was dominated by Abe’s pursuit of Donald Trump, the new and unpredictable US president. In 2018 diplomacy over North Korea took the oxygen out of the air for almost any other initiatives, leaving Abe on the margins. China drew close scrutiny in 2019, not only for its deteriorating relationship with the United States, but as a target of Japan’s contradictory strategy of containment/engagement.

The dynamics of Japanese foreign policy changed abruptly from year to year despite constant insistence that the Japan-US alliance was stronger than ever. 2017 brought upbeat assurances that Japan was in the driver’s seat, showing leadership and advancing diplomacy in all directions. 2018, however, saw the low point of the Abe era, as marginalization was barely concealed by repeated bravado. The year 2019 appeared to point to the resurgence of Japanese leadership, but it was undermined by both murky pretenses and pique, neither coordinated with the US.

During his final years as prime minister, Abe Shinzo faced a more difficult external environment, but he emerged remarkably unscathed. Of all US allies, his leadership ensured that Japan would suffer the least tension from Donald Trump’s mercurial presidency. Despite Xi Jinping’s rocky ties to other US allies in Asia, including “wolf warrior” attacks on Australia and South Korea, Sino-Japanese diplomacy was more upbeat than it had been recently. Abe continued to claim that he enjoyed a special personal bond with Putin, assuring good prospects for Russo-Japanese relations. Also, Abe’s ties to Narendra Modi drew acclaim for lighting the way to the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) that Abe had proposed and US officials had subsequently embraced. Although Abe’s relations with Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un were troubled, few put the blame on him. He was applauded for personal diplomacy, which he handled directly through the Kantei.

Despite Abe’s perceived successes in diplomacy, the Indo-Pacific region was more troubled in 2020 than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. All around Japan, bilateral tensions were worsening apart from the ominous tightening of Sino-Russian quasi-alliance relations. Chinese ties to the United States, India, and Taiwan had cratered. North Korea had put diplomacy aside to raise tensions in the region, especially with the United States and South Korea. The South China Sea had become a flashpoint. Abe’s legacy must be assessed more in terms of countering rising threats than of bridging the gaps that had continued to grow wider around Japan.

The Year 2017

Trump took office with a long-term animus toward Japan and a lack of respect for US alliance partners. He was on the lookout for targets that not only confirmed his “America First” outlook, but also reflected his negative view of all who did not do his bidding. Japan’s trade surplus, low military budget, and autonomous foreign policy inclinations all could have stirred his ire. Abe acted with alacrity to forge a personal relationship, catering to Trump’s self-interest, while also satisfying the security officials working for Trump that Japan would be the indispensable partner in the key region. As Abe solidified security ties to Australia, India, and parts of Southeast Asia, he received credit for acting in the US interest, too. His appeal for FOIP was echoed in US policy toward the region. Abe’s foremost goal was realized.

Although scorecards at the end of 2016 for Abe’s foreign policy have been generally positive, anxieties were rising that he was unprepared for the new environment. Trump’s opposition to free trade and globalization and narrow notions of US interests were the principal, new concern, but worries about troubles in Asia were high on the list too. Yomiuri on January 16 said Trump lacks consciousness of how US alliances have served as the backbone of the postwar order, his isolationism and unpredictability are sources of risk, and he lacks a vision of stability in the Asia-Pacific region and will deal with China from tradeoff principles. There are almost no diplomatic specialists in his appointees. His January news conference revealed a lack of strategic thinking. The article sounds a warning that mainstream Japan was nervous. Little seemed stable in the outside world. New pressures were coming from all sides: North Korea, South Korea, China, and now the United States. Yet, Abe’s popularity rested, above all, on his foreign and security successes.

On the positive side, it was widely assumed that US foreign policy would not really change and Japan’s value would rise as it helped to convince Trump of the essential US role in the international order. Abe would forge trust with him as the Japan-US axis was being reaffirmed. After wary responses in Japan to Trump’s inauguration speech, February witnessed a string of reassurances: generals put in charge of US security policy, a tough posture toward North Korea, and an Abe-Trump summit that led to talk of a “honeymoon” or even revival of the “Ron-Yasu” era of two leaders having warm personal relations.

The three-month period after Trump’s inauguration was marked by two transformative developments: 1) the lead-up to and follow-up of the Abe-Trump summit on the weekend of February 10-12, which reassured Japan that a close alliance would continue; and 2) the lead-up to and follow-up of the Xi-Trump summit on the weekend of April 7-8, which was interpreted in Japan as even more reassurance that Trump was serious about standing up to China and facing the North Korean threat forcefully. Conservatives took satisfaction from the two periods of summitry, despite some misgivings about the use of US military power against North Korea or economic power against Japan. As US-Russia ties defied hopes and South Korea seemed headed in the wrong direction, new concerns arose, but the mainstream was positive.

The Abe-Trump summit was considered successful beyond expectations. Close relations of trust were established, tough US stances on North Korea and missile defense were welcome, US affirmation of article 5 of the Security Treaty applying to the Senkaku Islands was unambiguous, and Trump even expressed understanding for Abe’s pursuit of Putin. Abe led the way for world leaders to see Trump as an acceptable partner for building trust. Concern about US isolationism was cast aside; it would deepen its involvement in Asia and strengthen its alliance with Japan. Without ignoring economic challenges ahead, coverage concentrated on strategic consensus in a volatile region.

After Trump met with Xi Jinping, the Trump-Abe-Xi triangle was described in rather zero-sum terms, showcasing the strengthened Japan-US relationship, sensing troubled Sino-US ties, and warning of a possible upsurge in anti-Japan sentiments in China along with a growing role of Japanese diplomacy. The key regional triangle appeared ripe for Tokyo to aspire to a “pivot” role.

On March 28, Hosoya Yuichi wrote in Yomiuri of a broad approach, recognizing setbacks to the international order and seeking a Japan-US-Australia-India maritime strategy in support of freedom of navigation. Yet, he saw a rival order taking shape on the Eurasian continent, geopolitically and geo-economically. Rather than seeing Japan’s role as firmly with the sea power group, however, he said that Japan should also try to play a moderating role with the land power group through multiple bilateral relationships. Japan is diplomatically empowered. reinforcing US ties as the foundation of foreign policy while strengthening relations with other countries including China and Russia. Abe sought to keep Trump close, to sustain ties with Putin, and to improve those with Xi with talk of cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

As Abe chased after Trump, Western alliances were crumbling. Adding to uncertainty, Trump seemed to be appealing to China to constrain North Korea without being checked by the US security establishment. Japan was marginal, and its plans for China and Russia were at an impasse, as ties to South Korea were cratering with a progressive president taking office. Talk of US abandonment spread, but so too did warnings of US entrapment through an overly aggressive approach to North Korea. Trump’s amateurism raised concern. Tanaka Akihiko on June 4 distinguished two tasks for Japan’s foreign policy: to strengthen the Japan-US security system, welcoming Trump’s priority for dealing with the North Korea question; and to maintain the world’s liberal order at a time Trump had left it in confusion. This two-track approach boosts autonomy—once again showcasing that Japan has a major role to play, although now more so due to retreating US leadership.

Trump rekindled hope among the Japanese right and left in his first months in office; but by May, he had dashed it. For the right, Abe’s February meeting with Trump and a sense that US policy toward China and North Korea would be less patient boosted optimism. However, the US trade-offs with China following the Xi-Trump April summit, saber-rattling toward North Korea, and Trump’s incompetence on daily display cast a dark shadow. For the left, his neo-isolationism linked to “America first” gave hope that Asian states would cooperate more. In the April issue of Journalism, Lee Jong Won wrote that as US hegemony recedes in Asia, a new era is arriving where Japan, China, and South Korea have a chance to forge a regional order including an intra-regional security system. Blaming Obama’s containment of China, Lee saw Trump opening the door to find a mechanism to manage competition. The left blamed US entrapment for Japan’s problems in Asia, anticipated cooperation on regionalism, and some even had hope to resolve the North Korean issue.

In the same issue, Takahashi Kosuke called for reviving the East Asian community idea, accepting the US-Japan alliance for balance against China, but seeking to limit excessive Japanese dependence on the US when Trump is making demands with zero-sum elements. With Sino-US reconciliation following the Xi-Trump summit, Japan too should improve ties with China, avoiding linkage of the South and East China seas and seeking a grand bargain

The second half of April brought saber-rattling to a high pitch. US “maximum pressure” strategy with possible military action was widely reported and the risks to Japan as well as South Korea were anxiously discussed. If there was some talk of Chinese cooperation on sanctions, limiting oil exports, doubts that China would do what Trump wanted prevailed. Abe’s phone call with Trump on April 24 supported Trump’s saying “all options are on the table.” That day, Yomiuri reviewed Japanese sources covering the tense situation on the peninsula. Most were pessimistic, worrying about Trump’s policy shifts and the North’s increasingly erratic behavior. A major theme was alarm over “pro-North Korean” Moon Jae-in’s election. Trump’s gullibility was a concern.

Trump’s shadow hung heavily over summer developments in East Asia, as covered in Japan’s media, amid talk of US isolation, retreat in leadership, and failure in managing North Korea. Explanations ranged beyond Trump to the broader US society—inequality, cultural despondency, and so on—as the US image was falling. Washington pursued two extremes, relying on China to curb North Korea—to the detriment of resisting China’s advances in the South and East China seas—and planning a military assault on the North that raised the threat of retaliatory attacks on Japanese soil, papers veered from talk of a “US-China honeymoon” excluding Japan, as in the June 26 Yomiuri, to out-of-control US behavior only a month later. Despite Abe’s supposed close ties to Trump, the mood in Japan was troubled into the fall.

In late 2017, a succession of galvanizing themes dominated media coverage in Japan: Moon Jae-in’s turn toward China; Trump’s travel to five countries in Asia, beginning with Japan; and North Korea’s new ICBM test and the appeal to China by the US to cut off oil supplies. Confronting North Korea, managing China, and facing an untrustworthy leader in South Korea refocused concern about Trump and Abe’s ability to work with him to impact such developments.

New warnings about China in the US National Defense Strategy issued in December stressed that China aims to replace the US in the leading role and in place of the “war on terror” the US focus is on great power competition with China and Russia. This new US strategy is viewed as largely consonant with the interests of Japan, facing China’s threat to the Senkaku Islands, boosting traditional alliances, and confronting China directly. Support for Abe’s Indo-Pacific framework inclusive of Australia, India, and Japan, was welcome.

Abe ended 2017 confident in Japan-US relations, mostly upbeat about ties to Russia and China, and making headway in diverse ties from India to Taiwan. Of immediate concern were both sides of the Korean Peninsula, but the new Security Council sanctions resolution at the end of 2017 was appreciated.

The United States

In 2017 Japan prioritized three things from US foreign policy: 1) an Abe-Trump “honeymoon,” proving that “America First” was not targeted at Japan and that in the Indo-Pacific Trump was security-minded, not an isolationist; 2) no G2 in US-China relations, as Trump prioritized pressuring China, notably on North Korea; and 3) a hard line on North Korea, including pressure on Moon Jae-in to support tougher sanctions in response to accelerated provocations. If wariness in the face of Trump’s overall foreign policy behavior could not be suppressed, the image of Abe’s successful management of Trump overshadowed skepticism.

Sparking new assessments of Trump were not only frequent meetings and calls with Abe but also Trump’s interactions with Xi Jinping and messages on both of the Koreas. Security took precedence over economics, and the April Trump-Xi summit was welcomed for clear signs of ultimatums to Xi. Trump’s forceful diplomacy on North Korea set the tone. Indeed, there was an image of China shifting ground while the United States stood firm. Trump made it clear that China would have to impose stiffer sanctions while US military preparations were intensifying, Xi was eager for stable US relations, in part for the success of the fall party congress. Trump won praise for pressing China forcefully.

There were moments of concern that Trump might “abandon” Japan by cutting a deal with China or, as his “fire and fury” rhetoric intensified toward North Korea, entrapment could be the outcome. Confidence in the Abe-Trump relationship allayed concerns, as did Trump’s fall trip to Asia, seen as increasing pressure on North Korea and on Beijing and Seoul to cooperate. For conservatives what mattered most was Trump’s clear recognition that persuasion of China has failed. Japan mainly endorsed the Trump strategy.

Meetings between Abe and Trump were treated as a “honeymoon,” Trump making Japan his base for a Japan-US-led framework, reaching Australia and India, helping pressure North Korea and responding to China. If concern was raised about Trump’s bilateralism and rejection of TPP, Trump was credited with a shared strategy to contain China and to stop North Korea.


Abe kept seeking more dialogue with Xi Jinping, while simultaneously trying to put pressure on him, whether over North Korea, the South China Sea, or bilateral issues, notably in the East China Sea. Signs that Xi was tougher on Kim Jong-un, as in the cutoff of coal imports, were welcome. Yet Japanese were skeptical that Xi would change on the North, even if Trump offered leniency on trade in return for China’s cooperation on the North Korea issue.

Despite attempts to forge a positive atmosphere for Sino-Japanese relations at the July Abe-Xi summit in Hamburg, there was little substantive progress. Japan hoped for at least three results: a resumption of the trilateral summit with China and South Korea in Japan, to which China refused, perhaps due to the THAAD deployment in South Korea; more Chinese support for tough sanctions on North Korea; and an exchange of two summits with Xi going to Japan in 2017 to mark the 45th anniversary of their normalized relationship and Abe going to China in 2018 for the 40th anniversary of their peace treaty. Many put a positive spin on China’s welcome to Abe’s declared interest in exploring cooperation with BRI, although conditioning it on transparency and international standards, which many doubted would be met. Attention shifted to Xi’s proposal to separate politics and economics, prioritizing dialogue. Was Japan hedging against the chaotic US scene by opening the door to joining the BRI? One indicator of further trouble was at the ARF, when Wang Yi and Kono Taro clashed, Wang accusing Kono of following US orders in criticisms of China and hearing in response that China should not be splitting ASEAN.

Xi’s hard line and Trump’s America-first without an Asian strategy left Japan uneasy as Sino-US relations struggled to find common ground. Linking Xi’s guided tour for Trump of the Imperial Palace to a Qing emperor appealing for respect for China’s history and culture and for trust in personal relations, Yomiuri on November 10, argued that China’s failure to do more to rein in North Korea left Trump distrustful, that Xi was playing another round in trying to get the US to accept China’s “core interests” and a “new type of great power relations,” while Trump was insisting on a framework in the Indo-Pacific opposed to BRI. Skeptical of Xi’s focus on equality between “two emperors,” Japanese conservatives in late 2017 put more trust in Trump.

Mixed messages of Chinese views of Japan could be found: from hundreds of TV dramas on the war against Japan and news reports on the revival of Japanese militarism to the upsurge in Chinese visitors to Japan, likely reaching 7 million in 2017 and signs of expanded diplomatic contacts. Despite news that Xi was cooperating on sanctions to smooth the way for a successful Trump visit to China in November, many portrayed his foreign policy as expansion to forge a new world order in which China and the US lead. While China did not seek to confront the US directly, it kept expanding its power, leaving Japan with scant room for an independent foreign policy in this era of bipolarization. Despite this overall message, the temptation was great to explore new ties.

After the 19th Party Congress there had been a notable shift in Xi’s hardline posture toward Japan as seen in his APEC summit with Abe. One reason given is that Xi had consolidated his rule. Another, seen in Xi’s hospitality toward Trump, was China’s confidence that it is now on the same level as the United States. Stability at home and acceptance abroad was leading Xi to be less aggressive was one interpretation, ing Japan to explore closer ties.

Ties to China improved significantly at the end of the year in response to Xi’s “smile diplomacy.”. On the fronts with North Korea and the South China Sea, Xi pursued better ties with Seoul and Hanoi. To forestall Trump’s North Korea, Indo-Pacific, and trade policies, he treated Trump as someone with whom one could deal after personal ties had been established. By the end of November Japan was ready to make its support for BRI concrete in energy conservation, environmentalism, high-level industry, and transport, no longer regarding it as a plan for economic hegemony or at least recognizing it as a tradeoff for Chinese cooperation on North Korea, while anticipating a series of summits: CJK, Abe to China, and finally Xi to Japan in a diplomatic surge.
South Korea

The year 2017 saw Koreans rally against the “comfort women” agreement and elect a man whose views on history, North Korea, and the Indo-Pacific region raised grave concern. Yet, there was no pressure on Abe to seek common ground, given the credit he gained from his 2015 deal. Distrust of Seoul extended from history issues to policy toward Pyongyang to failure to face the growing regional threat from Beijing to suspicions of wavering in relations with the United States. Coverage of impeachment, the arrest of Park Geun-hye, and the advent of the Moon administration was alarmist.  

Moon’s election revealed fear that he would lean toward China, be anti-American, and raise historic disputes that precluded cooperation with Japan. Assurances that security and economic ties would be kept separate from history did not suffice. On June 4, after new sanctions were approved by the Security Council, Seoul received credit for coordinating with Washington and Tokyo, but Beijing was faulted along with Moscow for insisting on the importance of dialogue and refusing to stop oil exports to the North In the fall alarm, which had quieted in 2016, revived about ROK sympathy for Beijing,

There was no cause for optimism despite the Moon-Abe summit in Germany in early July. Moon had already called for Japan to assume legal responsibility and officially apologize for the “comfort women,” Many accused Seoul of stirring “hate Japan” sentiments, e.g., by erecting “comfort women” statues, and concluded that Seoul’s actions on the history issue were interfering with the important matter of responding in lockstep to growing North Korean threats.

Moon drew heavy criticism late in 2017 after his decision to yield to China on the “three no’s” about THAAD, missile defense, and trilateralism with Japan. South Korea insisted on bilateral military exercises with the United States as US-Japan exercises were unfolding to avoid the appearance of trilateralism although US forces in Japan are essential in any contingency.

Doubts were raised about the US-ROK summit prior to Moon’s planned visit to China in December. Seoul was on the sidelines in the US-led regional approach, while Beijing was pressing to disrupt trilateralism and keep Seoul preoccupied with avoiding further Chinese retribution. Negativity toward Japan, failure to focus on North Korea, appeasement of China, and the gap with Trump all boded poorly, it was said. Sankei on November 9 contrasted the Trump visit to South Korea with the “honeymoon” visit with Abe, noting that Trump met for fewer than 30 minutes with Moon, half of which was used for translators, that the Moon administration is split between pro- and anti-US officials, and that the US military option and the Korean China option hung ominously over the visit—unease the leaders tried to keep below the surface.


In the aftermath of Putin’s December 2016 visit that fell short of expectations, Abe put a brave face on bilateral relations throughout 2017. Russia’s irritating behavior, including using North Korea as a “diplomatic card” and increasing the export of petroleum products to it, clashed with Abe’s goals of increasing pressure on the North as well as making progress in Japan-Russia relations.

Disappointed by Russia’s attitude at the first meeting to implement the Abe-Putin agreement on joint economic development of the islands. as Russia only insisted that its laws apply that would require Japan to deny sovereignty. many saw further militarization of the islands by Russia. The March 2+2 talks of Japan and Russia exposed the gap in their thinking. Japan seeks progress toward a peace treaty, while Russia sees Japan as a member of the G7 with the overall security environment in mind. The two sides clashed on Russian strengthening of its forces on the disputed islands. On North Korea Russia opposed missile defense and insisted on dialogue only. Conceived as a way to create a favorable environment for territorial talks, 2+2 had exposed huge gaps over North Korea, China, and a host of bilateral security relations.

Reporting on Abe’s April visit to Moscow saw no sign of negotiations on territory and many problems with joint economic activity. Coverage pointed to Putin’s hostility to Japanese military cooperation with the United States as well as Russia’s approach to North Korea, criticizing Trump’s military pressure and prioritizing blame for the US more than the North Koreans.

Although some attributed Abe’s continued pursuit of Putin to a strategy to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, awareness was growing that Russia, increasingly dependent on China, was yielding further on regional issues, such as support for China’s position in the South China Sea. Yet, Abe insisted that prospects remained favorable for a breakthrough ahead.

The Year 2018

Despite the façade of successful personal chemistry with nearly all leaders active in the region, Abe faced an annus horribilis in the glare of diplomacy over the Korean Peninsula, Sino-Russian solidarity, and Trump’s unilateral trade war and threats. Riding a crest of confidence at the end of 2017 that he was steering Trump toward a long-desired Indo-Pacific strategic agenda and in sync with Trump’s “fire and fury” warnings to intensify sanctions on North Korea, as his foremost great power ally, Abe cringed in 2018 at how little Japan could do on either the security or trade fronts in new conditions.

Three troubling themes rattled Japan throughout 2018, diminishing Abe’s image as a foreign policy strategist: the upsurge in diplomacy over North Korea, leaving Tokyo on the sidelines; the intensifying Sino-US trade war, putting Japan’s firms in China in the crosshairs and exposing Abe’s lack of clout with Trump on trade; and Moon Jae-in’s prominence in diplomacy and in supporting a hard line toward Japan on history issues. The atmosphere had shifted abruptly from the optimism of 2017 to deep uncertainty in 2018.

The first part of 2018 brought considerable redirection to Abe’s foreign policy. Preoccupation with Trump had diminished after his November visit to Tokyo. The pursuit of Putin was no longer at a frenetic pace as in 2016 or marked by countdowns to the next summit as in 2017. Ties to Moon Jae-in had shifted from anxious concern to resigned acceptance of the new status quo, in which Abe joined Moon at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics with low expectations this would have much impact on relations. Now three themes, other than those centered on Korea, had taken center stage: seeking clarity on the FOIP, which Abe and Trump had separately declared in November; acceptance of the BRI as the key to improving relations with Xi Jinping; and giving momentum for the new CPTPP agreement, to replace TPP, along with a new Japan-EU agreement. Expectations rose for Japan to act in Obama’s stead, coordinating joint reform pressure on China for market economy reforms.

As much as Abe sought to redirect attention to the south, all eyes were on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean presence at the Winter Olympics saw Japanese media warning about Seoul turning soft and breaking away from the “maximum pressure” approach of Tokyo and Washington, which was reinforced by warnings in early March about North-South plans for a summit, only to be undercut by Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-un. Suddenly trilateral relations were problematic—more so due to Trump’s threats directed at Japan-US trade apart from Korean matters. Moon Jae-in’s history speech on March 1 aggravated concerns about the “history card,” a blow to bilateral relations. There was no saving grace for diplomacy—Abe was overshadowed at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, deteriorating Sino-US and Russo-US relations and media images of the two major powers Abe was courting cast a shadow, and the close Abe-Trump bond appeared less a reliable relationship than something needing tending in a rushed April visit. Trump’s agreement for a US-North Korean summit; Moon Jae-in’s March 1 speech; and Trump’s unilateral tariffs affecting Japanese exports of steel hit hard.

Concern rose over a US-China trade war and its ramifications for Japan. Yomiuri on April 5 editorialized that all parties should get rid of “one-country-ism” and support international trade. It blamed China for violating intellectual property rights, for restricting foreign capital in the automobile sector and elsewhere, and for coercing technology transfers. Yet, it also faulted Trump’s disregard for international rules and his insistence on solely bilateral deals. 

On April 23 Yomiuri reported an opinion poll casting doubt on Abe’s foreign policy record. This included doubts about Japan-US relations, despite Abe’s claims of success in his summits with Trump. On North Korea and trade Trump’s behavior raised alarm. If in 2017 Trump’s hardline on the North was seen as reinforcing Abe’s stance and his go-slow approach to actual trade pressure as cautiously acceptable, the situation was entirely changed. Abe scrambled to invoke his purportedly special personal relationship with Trump, but the hastily arranged April summit offered little comfort. The expectation that the US-Japan alliance would be the cornerstone of US policy in East Asia—given shared rhetoric about the supposedly overarching theme of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”—bore no semblance to the new reality. With Trump imposing tariffs on Japanese steel while others were spared and pressing for a bilateral FTA, to which Japan was adamantly opposed, the danger of Japan-bashing after Japan-passing could no longer be ruled out.

Many feared that at a time of tectonic movement in security Trump had few staff familiar with the realities of North Korea and past economic negotiations and was prone to sudden decisions leaving Japan on the sidelines. In return for a deal eliminating ICBMs, Trump could relax economic sanctions. On trade, the history of US-Japan tensions was recalled amid fear of political pressure to agree on a bilateral basis. Pessimism on trade, North Korea, Trump-Abe relations, and Japanese domestic politics cast a dark shadow beyond anything recently seen as the half way point of 2018 was nearing. Signs of hope in Sino-Japanese relations could hardly compensate. Caught between Trump’s “America First” disregard of its most important East Asian ally and Xi Jinping’s desire to forge a new order, Japan had a marginal role. Preemptive or defensive measures were sought to forestall isolation.

The primary media message through the spring was to tighten Japan-US coordination, as Yomiuri wrote in an April 28 editorial, warning that there was still no path to denuclearization, Trump’s negotiating strategy was unknown, and China, whose sanctions had pressured North Korea into talks, had to maintain restrictions on energy supplies and North Korean labor, as if they were now in doubt. Yet, Abe improved ties with China, hosted the CJK summit at last, sought a southern strategy, and worked with the EU as economic linkages were increased in the face of alarm about the US.

Abe’s trips to meet Trump were not seen as successful. Pressure for bilateral talks on trade intensified. The unpredictability of Trump’s dealings with Kim Jong-un caused handwringing. Not only was Japan left on the outside as four countries engaged in intense diplomacy, but South Korea appeared to be in the driver’s seat by venturing on its own, while Japan had no sense of independent policy when Trump was not treating it as first in Asia and Putin was not reciprocating Abe’s overtures. Experts in Japan doubted the results of the Singapore summit. Kim went to China a week later, and Pyongyang is now using Washington and Beijing to check each other. By late summer, Abe had been surprised by Putin with an unwelcome proposal on their bilateral dispute, made little headway in Japan’s marginalization in dealing with North Korea and building trust with South Korea, and failed to escape the shadow of Trump’s unilateralism in Asia with trade threats that obliged Abe to enter bilateral talks as he remained nervous about spillover from a US-China trade war. This was a difficult period for Japanese foreign policy, raising doubt on whether it is really a great power, as it was left only a bystander.

Not only was there disappointment at Trump’s unilateralism and “America First,” but there was alarm at the risk to Japan and the world from the US-China trade war. On history, Japan was more isolated after Seoul reneged on a deal and Moscow hardened on the war’s outcome. On geopolitics, North Korean diplomacy left Japan feeling alone. And now on economics, a double whammy came from direct pressure exerted by Trump and indirect pressure through his looming trade war with China. If the progressive camp’s idealism about peace-seeking diplomacy was reviving, conservatives were left aghast. 

As Trump wreaked havoc in international relations, confusing friend with foe, Japan was not immune. Its media registered concern, then alarm, and finally a degree of resignation. The late spring and early summer of 2018—when Trump left Abe and others aghast at the G7, made extravagant claims about his summit with Kim Jong-un, trashed NATO and European allies, and stunned backers of the international order in a summit with Vladimir Putin—saw coverage take a dramatic turn. Japan “passing”—a longtime concern—became a preoccupation. North Korea policy caused a string of shocks from January that grew more alarming through the spring. Abe both redoubled his pursuit of Trump and looked elsewhere, as difficult as that proved to be.

On October 7 Hosoya Yuichi in Yomiuri warned of threats to democracy from distortions of public opinion, with China and Russia strengthening and Great Britain and the US in crisis. He cited prior examples of democracies dying. Increasingly, US policies in the Indo-Pacific were seen through the prism of troubles inside the United States and its political system. The end of the year was more problematic, as Trump pulled troops from two countries, casting “America First” in more isolationist terms, and the departure of Jim Mattis as secretary of defense in protest over Trump’s policies further rattled Japan.

The United States

From the time Trump indicated that he would hold a summit with Kim Jong-un, Japanese were wary. On March 10 a Yomiuri editorial warned of a “smile attack,” and of a “deal” and sought to counter the image that Japan had been marginalized. It depicted a process that would not be easy, calling for a calm attitude, coordination with the US, and pursuit of a comprehensive resolution with three parts: nuclear weapons, missiles, and the abductee issue.

Pyongyang was not serious and was only searching for a way to escape from the tightening sanctions. Sankei emphasized the April visit of Abe to the United States, insisting that maximum pressure had brought the North to the table and it must be continued—through both sanctions and military means.

Coverage on April 20 of the Abe-Trump summit acknowledged that a clash had been avoided but noted that trade issues were set aside for the future. Abe had tried to reach a joint stand on China’s trade injustices, seeing TPP as the vehicle for surrounding China with a network against them, but Trump treated Japan as a target for import restrictions instead. Abe’s call for working level talks to manage issues clashed with Trump’s top-down approach. When Trump spoke about reducing the US troop presence in South Korea, Abe had expressed concern about disrupting the military balance. 

On June 9 the Abe-Trump summit on the eve of the Trump-Kim summit drew clashing editorials from Yomiuri and Asahi. The former stressed the need to deepen alliance unity. Yet, it was concerned about Trump’s softening position toward Kim, dropping “maximum pressure,” and warned against agreeing to a statement proclaiming the end of the Korean War as if that removed the threat and could lead to US troop withdrawals. On June 15 it warned that this was the final opportunity for the relatives of the abductees, but it was sober about the prospects. Asahi, in contrast, saw Kim Jong-un as forward-looking.

Through most of the summer Japanese were stumbling around in the wake of Trump’s diplomacy, doubting that he had a promising strategy, and even more other states. Japan distrusted Moon’s soft line and the quest for sanctions relief from China and Russia; it pushed the US to keep its resolve despite concern over the US-DPRK Singapore summit and later statements.

Instead of November serving to solidify US-Japan relations in a regional context, Trump’s choice not to travel to Asia as he doubled down on his “America First” agenda left many stunned. Would he value alliances and commitments abroad after pulling away from Syria and Afghanistan? Will his protectionism disrupt trade ties further, damaging Japan’s economy? Will personnel changes removing officials most trusted in Tokyo reverberate in poorer bilateral relations? Should Tokyo hedge further against the dangers inherent in these moves by Trump? The year ended with many questions.


On the one hand, Japan supported a tough US posture toward China, rallied states of the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s expansionary moves, and opposed China’s grey-zone tactics in the East China Sea. On the other, it pursued better relations, starting with Abe-Xi summits, let China know it was amenable to participation in some BRI initiatives, and held out hope at the Trump-Xi relationship worsened that it could bridge the differences in some areas, particularly economic ones. Momentum for personal diplomacy at the top, which would peak under Kantei leadership bypassing normal channels.

A February 22 editorial in Nihon Keizai Shimbun focused on BRI, noting that government discussions cooperating in third countries. Firms would provide their own technology. Yet, the article warns that nothing should be offered that could be used by the Chinese military. High transparency and strict environmental standards are needed. Yet, there was a warning that China, not following international rules, is not to be trusted by international society.

While many feared that China was bent on forging a region centered on itself or that the two superpowers would cut a deal, leaving out Japan, some took comfort in improving Sino-Japanese relations. Distrustful of Trump and wary of China’s intentions, they pointed to Japan’s relevance despite its exclusion. On April 18 Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Japan prompted Asahi to see a big opportunity to take advantage of China’s new, positive posture. China’s shift is attributed to differences over North Korea, trade, and military matters. Xi Jinping’s priority is China’s neighborhood in his second term. A slowdown in China’s economy coupled with Trump’s protectionism has led it to propose resumption of Sino-Japanese economic talks. Wang sought more Japanese cooperation on BRI, warning that strong efforts are needed to prevent a setback to relations. China’s opening came with pressure to break ranks.

On May 13 Tanaka Akihiko in Yomiuri took a broader look at the trade talks between the United States and China. He observed that Trump is leaning more and more to protectionism and that a trade war would have a huge impact on the world economy. Tanaka added that bilateral negotiations are not just about trade; they are about the world order in the 21st century. He casts doubt on China’s claim that the 2025 program for made in China is just economic in orientation and not military and warns that at the 19th Congress and the 2018 March legislative assembly, China’s intentions had become clear to be a strong country with a model exported to developing countries under authoritarian rule. Tanaka finally asks if control of world industry can be put in the hands of an Orwellian state. Warnings about China were growing.

A bifurcated message was conveyed about China in the spring of 2018: in domestic and foreign policy it was heading in a troubling direction, but in relations with Japan there were promising developments despite increasing infringements around the Senkaku Islands. Politically, China was discarding Deng Xiaoping’s legacy. On North Korea, reports pointed to more forcible repatriations of refugees and tighter censorship of criticisms. On Taiwan, there was alarm about a more aggressive approach. Dictatorship and censorship were tightening. Yet Yomiuri on May 6 greeted Li Keqiang with a headline on joint economic activities going forward in third countries related to the BRI. If China had sought the premier’s visit in response to Trump’s protectionist policies and wanted direct payback to Trump, Japan did not want to appear leaning toward China against its ally and blamed China for an array of economic problems. After all, China’s overtures to Japan were due to worsening tensions with the United States in both economics and security. Li’s talk of a new stage in bilateral relations was also a response to growing wariness in countries targeted by the BRI. Yomiuri on May 25 pointed to a sharp Sino-US conflict over high tech hegemony, but Trump was going after Japanese car makers and steel and aluminum, complicating Japan’s stance.

When Kim Jong-un went to China on June 19-20 for the third time in three months, many saw it as China opposing any quick improvement in US-North Korean relations, and Kim making sure that China had his back. Much was made of China as the real winner in US-North Korean talks, as it played the North Korean card in the trade war. The Kim-Xi honeymoon was viewed as behind Kim’s tough stance toward Trump in Singapore, after Xi had given guarantees to Kim. Yomiuri on June 22 editorialized that bragging about a “honeymoon” was aimed at containing Washington, while relaxing sanctions was part of supporting Pyongyang. Forging a security environment on the peninsula with US troops cut and missile defense removed is its goal.

On August 23, summarizing journal articles, Sankei concluded that the Sino-US trade war is a struggle for hegemony, concentrating on high tech, and will continue as a cold war, damaging the global economy. Coverage is reluctant to either fully side with the United States against China’s abuses of trade or to join with China in defense of what it claims is a fight against protectionism. Japan was not about to make common cause against the US as dangers mounted, but it also was unable to coordinate with a newly unilateralist US.

In October 2018 Abe made his first official visit to China since Xi became its leader, breathing new life into the relationship and raising hope that a return state visit in 2019 would be transformative. There was talk that Japan should engage China more, finding the right balance with its hedging while seeking a win-win outcome. This means not giving the wrong impression that the notion of the “Indo-Pacific” or the Quad is intended to contain China, some urged. Yet, most were pessimistic, both about the prospects of Sino-Japanese relations in light of geopolitical trends and the long-term outlook for Sino-US relations, even after Trump’s tenure. Beyond the façade of Abe succeeding in multidirectional diplomacy was the reality of Japan facing marginalization.

South Korea

Moon’s March 1 speech set aside North Korea in order to concentrate criticism on the historical issue with Japan as well as the independence movement. He said that the history of Dokdo is aggression against Korea, and one cannot end criticism of Japan as a victimizer over the “comfort women.” Yomiuri the next day worried about the “anti-Japan” stance of his leftist regime. It warned of the need to be on guard for an anti-Japan campaign conducted in parallel by North and South Korea, a possible means to further rapprochement, finding a common enemy. Juxtaposition of Moon’s March 1 speech and new diplomacy dealt a double blow to Japan.

Distrust in Moon remained intense, as he was focused on ties to Pyongyang and Trump was no longer exerting the kind of pressure on him that Japan expected. While Moon came to Japan for the CJK meeting in May, this did not lead to a more positive image. Warnings of pro-North Korea leanings did not cease when Moon offered cooperation on Japan’s abduction issue and insisted that better North-South ties are what is needed for denuclearization.

Troubled by Moon’s hard line on “comfort women” and lack of flexibility on history issues, Japanese grew more alarmed by news of a court ruling ahead demanding payment from Japanese companies for forced labor. When the ruling was issued in October, many were ready to wash their hands of South Korea. Japan-ROK relations seemed hopeless as some said that the 1965 legal framework was being overturned. Yet, in South Korea many informed people viewed the Supreme Court decision on forced labor as in violation of the spirit of the 1965 treaty, unlike the “comfort women” case, and economic circles in both states were unsettled by the court decision; big Japanese companies in anticipation of the ruling had already reduced their capital inside South Korea. It was suggested that Japanese focus on South Korean wariness about China after THAAD sanctions and given the accelerated departure of Korean companies from China, not just on negative stories.

The last quarter of 2018 was a rocky period for relations The forced labor issue rose to the surface, and the “comfort women” issue was rekindled. Many saw a Pandora’s box opening with interminable court cases ahead.


In 2018 Abe continued to insist that his pursuit of Putin was going well. Critics, however, grew emboldened as they observed US ties to Russia worsen, Sino-Russian ties strengthen, Russian support for North Korea grow, and Russia’s attitude toward Japan harden. Whether criticizing the Japan-US alliance, THAAD in South Korea, or Japan’s missile defense plans, Russia viewed the territorial issue through the lens of world geopolitics and arousal nationalist public opinion, the military and foreign ministry in opposition to the return of the islands. Defensive steps by Japan were equated with purported US containment of Russia. Putin viewed Japan as a satellite of the United States, glorified the seizing of Japan’s islands as part of the victory in WWII, and did not link progress in the pursuit of joint economic development on the islands with resolution of the territorial question. When Japanese delegations visited the islands in pursuit of joint economic activities, Russia was unyielding in insisting on the application of Russian laws. Instead of negotiations being the starting point for finding a solution to the dispute, they were a trap to get Japan to capitulate, critics charged. As Asahi noted on May 28, Russia was making recognition of the results of WWII a precondition for progress. Yet, Russia was also stressing that its position was influenced by the downturn in Russo-US ties and Japan’s alliance with the enemy. The impression was left that a deal might be possible only if Japan altered its geopolitical alignment. 

Yomiuri noticeably altered its tone on Russia after the Eastern Economic Forum. On September 11, it warned of a long slog, acknowledging that Japanese had been wrong to assume that once Putin won reelection, he would take a softer line allowing for real exchange. While the ostensible aim of the forum was to boost investment in the Russian Far East, and Russia to reduce its isolation in the region had planned to host Kim Jong-un, the forum turned into a showcase for Sino-Russian ties in security as well as economy. Xi Jinping made his first appearance there as the most honored guest, as Abe was left in the shadows—yet, still intent in his tenacious pursuit of Putin. 

The Year 2019

If 2017 saw Japanese hopes rise that Abe could ride the rollercoaster of great power maneuvering on the coattails of Trump but with multidirectional diplomacy and 2018 saw hopes fall as diplomacy bypassed Japan, the year 2019 brought renewed energy that despite far-reaching shifts in the region Abe could reinvigorate personal summitry. Yet, behind the façade of Abe’s apparent successes, the reality was becoming harder to miss. If sobering up would wait until 2020, 2019 would be a year of testing the limits.

In 2019 the world was seen as on the brink of a tectonic transformation. In doubt were the San Francisco Peace Treaty system of 1951, the 1953 system, when East Asia had stabilized at the end of the Korean War, the 1965 treaty at the foundation of Japan-ROK relations, and the 1989 system that had brought the Cold War to an end. Warnings spread in Japan, casting doubt on the future.

After setbacks to Japanese diplomacy in 2018, Abe came roaring back with projections of major achievements in 2019. A sigh of relief was heard after the Hanoi summit. This reassurance proved to be a jumping off point for bold plans to assert Japanese leadership, which reached their pinnacle over the summer. If in 2018 the divide between Tokyo and Washington was expressed mainly in the former’s unease, in 2019 it was manifest in Abe’s autonomous moves toward Beijing, Moscow, and Seoul. By year’s end hopes that Japan could seize the initiative were, however, fading fast.

Early 2019 brought disappointing news regarding Japanese foreign policy on many fronts, but at least the worst-case scenario at the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit was avoided. Hopes for a breakthrough with Russia with accelerated diplomacy were dashed in disappointing high-level meetings in January and February. The momentum built with the October Abe-Xi summit was scarcely sustained amidst nervousness of where the trade war between Washington and Beijing could lead. Ties with South Korea went from bad to worse. Also, strains in Japan-US relations could hardly be ignored as warnings mounted over US demands when Japan-US trade talks commenced and over host-nation support. Alarm ranged from Trump’s pressure on their country and the alliance’s sudden unreliability; fear that the North Korean situation would now revert to the showdown of 2017; and the implications of a Sino-US cold war.

While Abe’s continuity at the top and perceived success in raising Japan’s profile (images of personal summitry in the forefront as diplomats are pushed to the periphery) were lauded, the idea that his repeated focus on abductions and territory could drive policy was fading. Yet, Abe had gained credit as the champion of free trade multilateralism and as the sole leader deepening ties to the US, China, and Russia simultaneously. There was no sense in Japan that a different leader could turn Japan’s troubles around, especially with concerns centering increasingly on the growing Sino-US split and Japanese pessimism about China’s trajectory separate from Trump’s personal impact.

Amid gloomy conditions, Japanese found hope in diplomacy planned for May and June: the upcoming transition to the Reiwa era on May 1, the plan for Donald Trump to come in late May for a state visit and the first official meeting of a foreign leader with the new emperor, and hoopla over the G20 summit in Osaka a month later. In the distance loomed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Hosoya Yuichi in the June 25 Yomiuri noted that Japan is hosting a G20 summit at an important historical transition while having good relations with all the principal countries. Beyond furthering a positive global agenda, Abe could serve as a bridge, he said. Yet that other world leaders, notably Trump, were overshadowing Abe could not be ignored in the Japanese press. Abe only recaptured the spotlight by taking the initiative against Moon Jae-in.

Some forthrightly identified a new cold war in Northeast Asia and argued that there would be no progress in Japan-Russia ties, Japan could not escape the Sino-US clash, China is exerting a bad influence on North Korea, South Korea is increasingly anti-Japan, and the only path forward is to stick even more closely to the United States. In a May 4 editorial, Yomiuri bemoaned the contrast between the start of the Heisei era—when the democratic system was widely victorious—and the start of the Reiwa era—when China and Russia are increasing the force of authoritarianism and democracy is in retreat in Europe and the US. It sees big gains in the past 30 years in the spread of the global economy and the internet, but it points to a backlash against globalization and the technological revolution still advancing.

Japan both doubled down on support for US policies in the Indo-Pacific and staked out ground to exert leadership: continuing to woo Russia, punishing South Korea, meeting China halfway on ways to resist protectionism, and responding vigorously to India’s regional realignment. The thrust of policies was to capitalize on the vacuum left by Trump as well as on the backlash of those hedging against US unilateralism. This balancing could not persist.

The United States

On the surface, the Abe-Trump “honeymoon” continued, but Abe explored other options and the public soured on Trump. Trust in the US had fallen to 30 percent. There was also a 17 percent drop in one year (to 39 percent) in agreement that bilateral relations are good. An equal number saw relations as bad. Trump’s trade demands fueled this reaction, even as 64 percent of respondents still saw the security treaty as useful for regional stability. Many focused on China as a military threat (75 versus 60% in the US) and saw relations with China as bad (67 versus 28 percent). US sanctions on China, however, were better regarded in the US. Japanese were also far more pessimistic about prospects of denuclearization as diplomacy continued.

While the expectations for an Abe-Putin meeting in the shadows of the G20 had been lowered and no date had been set for Xi Jinping’s expected return-visit following Abe’s October trip to China, the deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations and the uncertainties over trade and security in the triangular context of Japan, the US, and China—particularly in light of the prolonged talks to avert a Sino-US trade war, the alarm about Trump pressuring Abe over trade as bilateral talks loomed, and the concern about Sino-US security tensions, whether over the South China Sea or Taiwan—cast a dark shadow.

In the spring of 2019, in the face of a difficult environment for diplomacy with North Korea and troubled Sino-US relations, Abe continued to show initiative, defying the odds in continuing his pursuit of Putin and trying to join the fray in pursuit of a summit with Kim Jong-un, while preparing for a busy month in hosting first Donald Trump and then the G20. The new Reiwa era fueled recollections of the 30-year Heisei era and speculation about what might be different in the next era. In the forefront was the theme of US decline, China’s rise, and how Japan would position itself as the two big powers turned to open conflict, beginning with a trade war. The incoming Chinese ambassador Kong Xuanyou called for upgrading ties at the working level in finances and a technological revolution. He supported multilateralism and open economies, drawing a pointed difference with the US—and Japan-North Korea dialogue. With the start of the Reiwa era and the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the PRC in China, bilateral relations stood on a new starting line, it was said.

All roads ran through Washington in the late spring and early summer of 2019, even as Abe strove for a more autonomous role through hosting the G20, improving relations with China, and aggressively targeting South Korea.

Yomiuri editorialized on the need for both sides to prevent a lasting cycle of sanctions and retaliation by making concessions and avoiding a big downturn in the world economy, but it raised concern that Trump is using this to boost his support level for next year’s election. As Japan’s firms in the supply chain are in a difficult situation, it should serve as a bridge at the G20 summit, appealing for self-restraint from both sides.

Claims of success resounded from Abe’s leadership role in building relations of trust and of positioning Japan to speak to both the US and China, as their conflict intensified. Japanese criticized protectionism (US mainly), and threats to security (China mainly, but also Trump’s security card in trade negotiations). Prior to Xi’s arrival for the G20 summit some restraint on China was shown. The key question was whether the G20 would narrow the Sino-US gulf and assuage alarm over a slowing world economy, but it did not.

Even as Trump was shaking up the international order, Abe kept up the claim of a “honeymoon” with Trump at the cost of avoiding difficult themes. The idea that Abe could be a go-between was even aired. The trade war theme took on a more ominous tone. Some in Japan lined up firmly with the US, seeing the fate of Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Senkaku Islands at stake and worried that if Japan stood by, China would see its weakness as a reason to be more aggressive. After all, the Americans had realized the need for a paradigm shift from what had endured since 1972. Some wrung their hands or even found a ray of hope in the Trump-Xi summit at the G20. Yet, for most, the China is the source of the conflict, becoming uncompromising through the nationalist arousal of public opinion and posing an expansionist danger to which Japan, despite its new friendly mood on a political level, is responding with tighter security ties to China’s neighbors. Progressives, however, called it a struggle for hegemony and appealed for coexistence.

In his trip to Japan and South Korea only a month after Abe had pulled out all stops to host Trump and give him the high honor of being the first foreign leader to meet with Emperor Naruhito at the commencement of the Reiwa era, Trump unsettled the Japanese by questioning the mutual defense treaty (i.e., Japan would not come to the aid of the United States if it were attacked and instead would “watch it on a Sony television”). He blocked a statement on climate change that Abe had expected to be a cornerstone of the G20; he overshadowed Abe with his summits with Vladimir Putin as well as Xi Jinping; he undermined values diplomacy by his warmth to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, whom much of the world blamed for ordering the grisly murder of a Washington Post columnist; and he refocused denuclearizing on his own camaraderie with Kim Jong-un, inviting him to meet and greet at the DMZ.

The United States figured into both positive and negative coverage: criticized roundly for the absence of Trump at the EAS summit early in November and praised for its role in pressuring South Korea to return to GSOMIA later in the month. On the one hand, Washington cared little for the economic order; on the other, it was committed to the regional security order and vital to Japan. At the end of 2019 worry about Trump still shadowed Abe’s “honeymoon.”


If 2017 was about Trump and 2018 indirectly about Kim Jong-un, then 2019 could be said to be about Xi Jinping. This was the peak of outreach to him. How should Japan balance rapprochement with China and wariness toward it was the object of debate media during the spring. Sankei’s message was to be wary: Do not forget the lessons of the Heisei era in the new era (May 9), and do not misunderstand the meaning of the “Japan boom” now under way in China (April 18). Past mistakes cited are Japan’s lead in ending sanctions in 1991, easing the path for others; sending the Emperor to China not long before China launched the “patriotic education campaign” and then defiled the Emperor with criticism of Japan in front of him and aroused anti-Japanese sentiments even as it used Japan’s ODA for its rise. Xi Jinping is just trying to use Japan again due to a troubled relationship with the US and problems with BRI. Sankei reported on the April boom in Chinese reporting on “Reiwa” as a name coming from Chinese tradition and on the continuing “cherry blossom” boom for Chinese tourists—1,000,000 might visit then.

An interview with Chinese ambassador Kong Xuanyou noted that bilateral relations are moving in a good direction and building trust will continue as Xi’s visit in the spring awaits. More than 10 million Chinese tourists are expected in 2019. That same day Yomiuri cited a July 30 meeting in Beijing where Xi had said China should consider whether to join TPP after pressing for early conclusion of RCEP, both without the US, and multilateral means of containing Trump’s policy. The article notes that TPP demands for economic openness are substantial, and China would have to fundamentally alter its economic system; thus, the Japanese government doubts China’s entry.

85 percent of the Japanese respondents do not have a good image of China whereas the corresponding Chinese figure toward Japan had fallen to 53 percent after the anti-Japan campaign was suppressed from exceeding 90 percent in 2013. There is a sharp contrast in views of relations, reflecting an enormous gap as China advocated a “Japan-China friendship mood.”

Yomiuri on October 22/23 stressed the intensified control of information, including testing reporters and editors on Xi’s thought. Amid reports that Abe sought improved relations after the G20 summit had been treated as complete restoration of normal relations (Yomiuri, October 20), there were persistent critiques such as Yomiuri’s on October 17 about the 100th anniversary of the birth of Zhao Ziyang, who has not been rehabilitated. No wonder that 85 percent of Japanese do not have a good image of China and even as Chinese are feeling better about bilateral relations—36 percent saying they are bad, a 10 percent improvement—some 45 percent of Japanese view them as bad, a 6 percent drop. Coverage of Uyghurs locked up as criminals, suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, religious persecution, and detentions of Japanese citizens in China, intensified prior to Abe’s trip to China in late December. The year did not end with momentum for relations.

Against the backdrop of widespread negative reporting, a movement to disinvite Xi was stirring, led by right-wing Diet members and encouraged by media on the right and the left. Yomiuri was more cautious, but it raised concerns on November 7 that the visit would not bring genuine improvement in relations, implying that because China must improve relations with Japan considering the long-term tensions with the US over trade Japan can raise sensitive issues. Faulted, too, was China’s policy to North Korea, not enforcing the Security Council deadline to send back North Korean workers. After Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang in June 2019, he had expanded food assistance and tourism to the North, while boosting trade. On the surface, North Korea is running a large trade deficit, but smuggling and a boom in Chinese visitors in 2019 were seen to make the difference prior to the border shutdown in 2020.

South Korea

In 2019 unlike in 2018 Abe was confident he had Trump’s ear in the triangle with Moon. South Korea’s court decision on conscripted labor left it with the image of the disrupter. Hanoi represented a US-Japan consensus with Seoul left aside. After North Korea launched missiles, the first US call was to Japan, not South Korea. With the FOIP, Tokyo—not Seoul—was key to maintaining the international order; in fact, the ROK was behind some Southeast Asian states. Moon’s overoptimism on North Korea and unfriendly attitude toward Japan were backfiring—instead of excluding Tokyo, Seoul was excluded.

Again, his foreign policy in Asia was not coordinated with Trump’s, but he rightly assumed that Trump would not push back. Just after the G20 summit, where Abe refused to meet with Moon, he imposed export restrictions widely viewed as retribution, further damaging the worst relationship since the 1965 normalization. Stymied on so many matters, Abe not only presented himself at the G20 as the key advocate of a rule-based order and the sole leader who had cultivated good relations with leaders on both sides of the international divide, he followed with a different message that Japan was a big enough power to extract revenge from a middle power that had dared to antagonize it. Having been marginalized over North Korea, Abe acted unilaterally toward the South.

Refocusing attention on an obvious target, Abe revitalized support from the far right and muted others. He conveyed a proactive image of a nationalist despite his recent pragmatism. Japanese were growing more impatient about South Korea’s foreign policy as well as its position on bilateral relations. On the court-required compensation, they indicated waiting was now over. 

The Japanese response to South Korea was different in 2019 than in earlier downturns. The rise from 60 to an unprecedented 74 percent in one year in those who say they cannot trust the South is one indicator. Coming after the “comfort women” agreement and amid security challenges from North Korea and China, for which Seoul’s role was suspect, the feeling that South Koreans cannot accept the peace-boosting steps of postwar Japan and its contributions to the international community was now overwhelming. They are blinded to the true identity of Japan to protect their own identity.

Trump’s indifference to trilateralism and preference for Abe freed Abe to be more assertive. Trump’s pressure on Japan and disorienting policies made it more important for Abe to buttress his identity credentials by targeting Moon. New US assertiveness toward China tilted the US toward Japan, leaving Moon more vulnerable to Abe’s aggressive moves. And Moon’s obsession with improving relations with Kim Jong-un, although on the surface in accord with Trump’s wooing of Kim, left him vulnerable. When Moon went to Washington in April, he was given only a few minutes of Trump’s time, unlike the many hours Trump spends with Abe. Abe had gained confidence in Moon’s isolation by the time of the G20 summit.

Abe could make Moon pay for fines to be imposed on Japanese companies for wartime labor coerced from Koreans while showcasing pro-active steps in the face of passivity before Trump. Resentment over Moon’s refusal to address China’s aggression and downplay of North Korea’s threat led him not to fear retaliation for trade restrictions by cutting GSOMIA, knowing that Moon would arouse a US response on Japan’s side. National identity was at stake too for Japanese conservatives, believing that the US-Japan gap could, despite Trump’s provocations, be managed, the Sino-Japan gap had narrowed enough to be kept on the sidelines, and the Japan-ROK gap was now so amenable to action that Abe had a golden opportunity to rally his nation, isolate Seoul, and weaken Korean progressives.


After hopes were raised in the final months of 2018 for expedited talks on the territorial dispute and a peace treaty, as Abe treated Putin’s planned visit to Osaka for the G20 as a target, they were dashed in the first months of 2019. Optimism, or some might say desperation, did not survive the accelerated bilateral talks in January and February. As careful as Japan was to do no harm, avoiding justifying its claim to the islands with historical justifications, i.e., they are inherently Japanese territory, the Russian position hardened.

There was growing pessimism about the prospects for progress at the G20 meetings, Japanese had tried to ease the way by dropping mention in the 2019 Diplomatic White Paper of language Russians find sensitive, but this was to no avail, as Moscow said that any deal would take a long time. It became clear that there would be no movement on the territorial issue; the security treaty with the US is key (as it was 60 years earlier when Moscow repudiated the 1956 agreement, as it was doing again). China and Russia were drawing closer. Tokyo may see a chance for multipolarity, not Moscow. 

The Xi-Putin summit just after Putin met Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok drew Japanese concern about a joint tilt to North Korea, as did the Xi-Kim summit in June. On April 27 Tokyo Shimbun referred to the Xi-Putin meeting as strengthening their effort to contain the US by deepening their joint relations with North Korea. That same day Asahi posted the same message: Putin on the 25th had offered backing to Kim Jong-un, China and Russia were showing understanding for parroting the line that on North Korea there is agreement before noting that Russia insists on a comprehensive agreement on the North and on a collective security system rather than a “closed alliance” framework in the Indo-Pacific. Asahi editorialized the next day that Lavrov in January at a press conference after his meeting with Kono had rejected the view that Japan and Russia share opposition to China as a latent threat. Sankei that day warned that Russia’s position is to delay talks on demarcation until after a peace treaty, totally against the Japanese approach. The mood was pessimistic, but it grew more so when Putin met Abe.

Russia made Japanese recognition of the justice of Russia’s possession of the islands a precondition. It pointed to the resistance to any transfer of territory among Russians. Security matters make a deal impossible. Russia seemed to be using the Northern Territories as bait to get Japan to say “no” to the US and making a shift in the alliance a litmus test for bilateral relations.


Over three years before diplomacy quieted in 2020 as Abe’s resignation drew near, Japanese foreign policy in Asia peaked in 2017 in partnership with the US, was left marginalized in 2018 as diplomacy swirled around North Korea and struggled to find room for autonomy in 2019 as tensions were mounting. Each year Japan’s options rested on US policies and US-Japan relations, as China and its relations with Russia, North Korea, and Asia’s southern tiers had a decisive impact as well. Abe did better in 2017 when he seemed to be on the same wavelength as Trump, worse in 2018 when Trump ignored his consul, and only slightly better in 2019 when Trump was uncontrollable but often in alignment with Japan in Asia or inattentive to Abe’s own initiatives. In 2019, Abe also took hope for Xi Jinping’s increased interest in Japan, even if few were optimistic that was more than a tactical move with no lasting value.

Four short-term phenomena obscured Japan’s foreign policy drift in the late 2010s: Trump’s distortion of US policy, Xi’s decision to improve ties to Japan; Putin’s reluctance to shut down diplomacy as long as Abe was wooing him; and Kim Jong-un’s willingness to test diplomacy. By the end of 2019, it was possible to look beyond these forces. The Abe legacy would outlive Trump and reinforce US Asian policy more fully. It would survive the deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations because Abe had built a foundation to do so. As for Russia, an about-face would be needed, and for South Korea the challenge would be even more complicated. Abe’s autonomous moves over three years proved to have mixed results: keeping the US on track but also raising false hopes that Japan could operate as a great power well beyond its capabilities.

*This article draws heavily on the author’s bi-monthly overviews of Japan’s press in The Asan Forum, reorganizing and reinterpreting their coverage over a longer time frame. It concentrates on Northeast Asia, namely the great powers and the Korean Peninsula.

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