Special Forum Issue

“Tracking Japanese Strategic Thinking toward Asia: Early Abe, the Korean Peninsula, and Australia”

Tracking Japanese Thinking toward Asia: Early Abe, the Korean Peninsula, and Australia


This Special Forum approaches Japanese foreign policy from three angles. First, it tracks the momentous shift in thinking that occurred during the first four years of Abe Shinzo’s second stint as prime minister through 2016. Second, it turns to the decade from Abe’s reemergence at the end of 2012 to the beginning of 2022 for an appraisal of Japanese thinking toward South Korea. Third, Japanese thinking toward Australia over the decade is covered with stress on the early Abe years. A contrast between the “quasi-alliance” progression of Japan-Australian ties and the “virtual alliance” disappointments of Japan-ROK ties is explored comparatively in this introduction after initial reflections about common threads in these cases.

This set of three articles follows similar Special Forum collections of articles on the past decade of thinking about Asia in Russia and South Korea. Each case begins with a breakdown by period, starting with concentration on the first part of the decade. Selected country coverage is either bundled or separated. Together, the three sets of articles—to be followed by more—showcase countries on the front line of regional transformation in Asia in a critical time frame of transformation.

Coin Master Free Spins

The 2022 war in Ukraine is a gamechanger for Asia as well as Europe and the US. For Japan, the image fostered by Abe of Japan becoming a bridge between the US and Russia has been erased. Meanwhile, the integration of Japan into a broader US-led alliance system, including NATO, has accelerated. Economic security looms as the principal response to aggression with values in support of the international order reinforced. Abe’s impact has made possible Japan’s larger security profile.

Reflections on Portions of the Abe Legacy

With much more to come in coverage of Japanese foreign policy, a preliminary assessment based on the first four years of his second term and his management of relations with South Korea and Australia over a decade must be incomplete. Success in forging a “quasi-alliance” with Australia stands in contrast with failure with South Korea despite the seeming breakthrough at the end of 2015. Upbeat results in 2015 were not duplicated in some other early years. If revisionist goals appeared to interfere with realist strategy in the earliest period, the realist side was winning out, but not completely. Of course, much depended on other states.

Abe’s results fluctuated abruptly in 2013 to 2016, with the high point occurring in 2015. He faced difficult challenges with leaders such as Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, against whom he took different approaches. Despite tensions with Barack Obama over policies toward China, Russia, and South Korea, the overall result was favorable, but that appeared to be in jeopardy with Trump’s ascent. If grueling diplomacy had been necessary to overcome a deep divide with Park Geun-hye, the collapse of her administration and the advent of Moon Jae-in left Abe at an impasse. Whereas Abe generally read Xi Jinping’s ambitions well, he so often gave the benefit of the doubt to Putin that his judgment was left in doubt. In a troubled and worsening environment, Abe made sound strategic choices far more often than not, justifying a positive evaluation of him as an Asian statesman.

Abe grasped three fundamental realities when many others in Japan and abroad wavered. He understood that Japan must shed its postwar pacifism and reactive foreign policy to become a “normal” state in pursuit of vital security interests. If South Korea could not abide this transformation and Australia warmly welcomed it, his policies to the two would be influenced accordingly. Abe also recognized the growing threat from China’s expansionist ambitions—not its rise per se and the urgency of forging a balance of power to keep it in check. If South Korea had difficulty committing to this undertaking and Australia increasingly embraced it, this too affected Japan’s bilateral relations. Finally, Abe desperately sought US engagement in the Indo-Pacific, even humiliating himself in wooing Trump. If he was no longer prime minister when Biden launched an intense campaign for a multilateral security agenda in the region, Abe’s foresight was key to its success. 

US leadership in the Indo-Pacific region was inconsistent in the Abe era. Japan viewed Obama’s posture toward Xi Jinping as too weak, at least in Xi’s early years, US commitment to TPP as incomprehensibly reversible, Trump’s agenda as at odds with US respect for allies, and the degree of US support for the “rebalance” to Asia as insufficient. In these uncertain circumstances, Abe stepped up his own diplomacy, playing a critical role in shaping the transformation of the region. The very notion of the Indo-Pacific became associated with Abe’s redefinition of Asia.

If Abe’s successes were vital in Asia’s southern tier—symbolized by Australia and extending from India to Taiwan—tensions with the United States were visible in Asia’s northern tier, at times over North Korea but most pronounced over South Korea and Russia. If in 2015-16, Washington was satisfied that Abe had shifted to a future-oriented policy toward Seoul, a meeting of the minds was not achieved in regard to Moscow. There was still much to do to solidify Japan-US coordination.  

Gilbert Rozman, “Tracking the Big Shift in Japan’s Foreign Policy Thinking toward Asia, 2013-2016”

Unlike any other time since the Yoshida Doctrine set Japan’s foreign policy course, a consensus had formed by 2012 that the country was under siege. Abe insisted he had the answers through bold moves worthy of a great power. His agenda combined vigorous domestic policies for security and bold external initiatives. At the core of his thinking was transforming the Japan-US alliance into a regional framework in which Japan played a more equal role in both collective defense and multilateral diplomacy. The foundation Abe built proved decisive into the 2020s. Taking a “panoramic” view of maritime Asia, he showcased relations with Southeast Asia, India, and Australia, while launching new initiatives with Taiwan and Russia. He experienced failures as well as successes with no full scorecard possible until he and his successors faced the growing standoff of the US and China in 2020-22.  This was the rivalry that had shaped Abe’s thinking, and which he had done a lot to reshape.

Abe’s “pro-active diplomacy” in 2013 conflicted with Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye’s activist impulses, appeared to find some alignment with Vladimir Putin’s “Turn to the East,” proved very appealing to Barack Obama’s “rebalance to Asia,” and made a strong impression in Asia’s southern tier from India to Southeast Asia to Australia. In this transformative year for Japanese foreign policy after seven years of rotating prime ministers and the chaotic reception of DPJ leadership in 2009-12, a foundation was laid: an ever-closer alliance with the US and a shift to “collective defense” and away from postwar restrictions or idealism about China.

2013 was also a year of Abe’s lack of restraint, allowing historical revisionism to cloud a realist drift in foreign policy, sending an emissary to Pyongyang to explore progress on the abductions issue, and energetically wooing Putin in spite of his growing animus toward the US. Abe seemed to be baiting South Korea rather than working to bridge differences. Standing firmly with the US broke down only in Northeast Asia. Japan was downcast on South Korea in ways that offered little hope, but upbeat on Russia despite little evidence. These relations were presented strictly in bilateral terms with history in the forefront.  A strategy of working around South Korea, countering China without fanfare, and looking for every possible opening on its periphery, while hugging the US, meant a lack of coordination in Northeast Asia.

In his 2013 historical revisionism and his stress on distinctive relations with such countries as India and Australia, as well as in Northeast Asia, Abe conveyed the image that Japan was not just piggybacking on Obama’s “rebalance to Asia.” There was an element of “Asianism,” but to the extent Japan was nervous about US abandonment (through lack of resources for Obama’s rebalance or eagerness for compromise with China) or about a further Chinese shift toward aggression (the bounds of Xi Jinping’s hostility to Japan were unclear), Abe prioritized the Japan-US alliance. He reassured Washington by committing to do more with it.

While South Koreans and Chinese were putting the focus on Japan’s revisionism, the story in Japanese media was heavily about security. As the threat from China grew, the preoccupation with national security kept increasing. Japan was beleaguered again, regaining its confidence, ending its passivity, and prioritizing strategic thinking. The US “rebalance to Asia” was praised as not only essential to counter China, but also as the pathway to revitalize the alliance through collective defense with Japan doing its share. Japan, thus, appeared as a status quo power, committed to the postwar international order versus China’s rejection of the status quo, targeting Japan due to unwavering, expansionist strategic objectives colored by lingering historical enmity.

The year 2014 began on a troubled note for Japan, not only because the visit by Abe to Yasukuni at the end of 2013 cast a shadow on relations with the US, but due to doubts over Obama’s policies to both China and South Korea and the collapse of Russo-US relations over Crimea and attendant sanctions. With more attention to territorial symbolism, historical memories, and abductees, analysis of geopolitical forces at work stayed in the background. Missing were candor on both the strength of the Putin-Xi Jinping relationship to Japan’s disadvantage and of the US-ROK alliance, which could have alleviated some anxiety. Conservatives were too obsessed with Park as a villain and too reluctant to credit Obama with restarting Japanese-ROK relations via a long-term strategy of strategic patience toward South Korea’s relations with China while keeping the focus on the imminent danger from North Korea. Progressives were too hostile to collective self-defense and secrecy laws to accept the urgency of bolstering Obama’s rebalance to Asia. A collective sigh of relief in late March with the trilateral Japan-US-ROK summit failed to be put in a broader geopolitical context. Yet the new NSC had prompted, at last, the start of soul-searching rethinking of the fundamentals of East Asian security.

Interspersed in Japanese articles were remarks about South Korean emotions, Chinese ambitions, and US vacillation under the influence of interest groups. In contrast to past images of Japan from in and out of the country, Japanese now assumed that Japan is guided by realist thinking. Given a feeling that Abe was complicating the “rebalance to Asia,” not only for South Korean trilateralism but even for outreach to China, some doubted that realism to boost the alliance was really driving Abe. On the Japanese side, suspicions of Obama’s weakness before Seoul and Beijing were compounded by strong push-back to his post-Yasukuni critical tone. Visiting Japan, Obama won approval for his strong statement that the Senkakus fall under the Security Treaty, his endorsement of collective self-defense, and his showcasing of a personal bond with Abe. His decision to declare that the Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands was key. Obama was said to have changed course with China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone and then the Russian moves toward Ukraine, leading to strengthened security ties with Japan. Xi Jinping’s strategy to isolate Japan and to split it from the United States was thwarted when Obama chose to step away from China’s divisive trap of a “new type of great power relations.” At last, there was a degree of confidence that Obama stands with Abe against China. This carried over as the focus turned in May to joint support for Southeast Asian states in the face of China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Yet Abe had little to show in 2014 for his ROK and Russia moves.

Relations with South Korea began 2015 in difficulty but ended on a high note. Park was outmaneuvered by Abe and unable to keep resisting US pressure to mend ties. Under pressure in advance of his statement on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, Abe succeeded in navigating this milestone year of transition from a defeated state remaining on the defensive over its history left with a low strategic profile, to a proactive force for Asia’s reorganization within the US-led international community. This put him on track to be recognized as the most successful prime minister in sixty years in accomplishing realist goals at the expense of still lingering passive pacifism and revisionist goals in place of defensive apologizing. The mood was hopeful as 2015 drew to an end. Nervousness prevalent through much of 2015 had dissipated. Confident leadership, improved bilateral relations with the countries that matter most, and a mood of expectation was present. A shared security outlook in the face of the North’s threat and new signs of China’s ambivalence raised hope for a further breakthrough with South Korea after the December accord. Questions from 2013-15 seemed largely settled early in 2016. Relations with the Obama administration were more secure, solidified by Obama’s firmness against maritime expansionism and his satisfaction with the 2015 Abe Statement and the 2015 “comfort women” agreement. Despite signs of renewed diplomacy with Abe after nearly three years of hostility, the relationship with China was set back again early in 2016 as it kept pressuring Japan in the East China Sea and warning it against becoming involved in the South China Sea. Japan-US-India ties were on the upswing. The ROK-Japan imbroglio appeared to be resolved. One big question mark lingered on Russia, given the US-Japan divide, but the overall direction of the Japan-US alliance was reset.

The driving force behind Abe’s successes was Xi Jinping’s aggressive policies. From 2013, Abe capitalized on them to win domestic support to reorganize security, to reinterpret constitutional limitations, and to revise defense guidelines. Xi had broken the back of Japanese opposition to such moves. Xi’s maritime recklessness drove Obama to forsake efforts to reach agreements, viewed with suspicion in Japan. Not only did Xi go too far in trying to reach a deal on a G2 as a “new type of major power relations,” he alarmed the US in the South China Sea. Xi served Abe’s regional outreach too, e.g., by threatening India over territorial issues. Also, he lost Park Geun-hye, despite her efforts, notably in early 2016 by not coordinating over North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests and THAAD retaliation.

Abe was building on momentum from a remarkably successful year in foreign policy in 2015. Apart from diplomacy with North Korea, he had no setbacks and a string of achievements, as reported in the Japanese media. Japanese prepared to press for two big security objectives: to enlist trilateralism on behalf of maritime security in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, clearly at the expense of China and to consummate Abe’s wooing of Putin. Skeptics in Japan doubted two key elements of Abe’s strategy: that Russia would recognize Japan’s sovereignty over even two islands, and that Japan could distance Russia from China. Hopes were not diminished, however, in this period of rising expectations for Abe’s prospects.

By 2016, the aggressive direction of Chinese foreign policy had accelerated, using economic power against South Korea over THAAD and undermining multilateral diplomacy as in new efforts to split ASEAN after the arbitration court’s verdict in favor of the Philippines and against China. The May inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen was seen as leading to new Chinese pressure and further Japan-US cooperation to support Taiwan. In September, China’s hosting of the G20 drew warnings: China’s aim is to challenge the US-led international order. The rosy expectations of the summer of 2016 collapsed in three shocks at year end: the Trump shock, with the election of a man opposed to free trade, globalization, alliance reassurances, and diplomacy as Japan had known it; the Putin shock, when it became clear that Russia was stringing Japan along and had no intention of cutting a deal, although Abe refused to acknowledge the bad news and renewed his pursuit with positive spin; and the Park shock, as her government beset by scandal was collapsing and taking with it a year of positive claims of Abe’s success with Seoul. Japanese felt cornered after becoming overconfident. The three “shocks” put Abe in a desperate mood: to appeal to Trump, to pretend that diplomacy with Putin remained on track, and to prepare for the worse with South Korea angry enough to push back in an aggressive manner.

None of these dark clouds, however, should take away from Abe’s accomplishments to date. In four years, he had achieved a remarkable turnaround for a state known as passive and highly dependent on its one ally. Japan was now the champion of pragmatism based on realistic threat perceptions. With the US future in doubt, Abe was the steady anchor set to keep it on course. As China bullied Asian neighbors, Abe rallied them behind a concerted response. Japan was no longer a free rider; it was a leader in collective defense and in calls for universal values. If revisionist talk had cast a dark shadow, Abe had cut a deal with South Korea, skillfully finessed the 70th anniversary statement, and exchanged visits with Obama to both Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor. The biggest challenges awaited, but Abe had achieved a lot.

Brad Glosserman, “Tracking the Downswings in a ‘Virtual Alliance’: Japan’s Policy toward the Korean Peninsula over a Decade”

However much South Korea deserves blame for the deterioration in Japan-ROK relations over a decade, a critical eye must be directed also at Japan for abetting this outcome. It is necessary to consider the revisionist thinking that played a role in repeated setbacks to this relationship despite the overall drift toward a realist foreign policy after Abe Shinzo became prime minister at the end of 2012. Nevertheless, Abe’s shift in 2015 to facilitate a breakthrough agreement with President Park Geun-hye, which her successor, Moon Jae-in, undermined, casts a different light on Japanese thinking. A tumultuous decade in Japan-ROK relations deserves to be showcased as we reflect on how Japanese thinking toward Asia has evolved.

The relationship did not have to devolve as it did. While he is a conservative, Abe is also a pragmatist who adjusted policy to reflect prevailing political reality, and he is a strategist whose pre-eminent concern is the advancement of his country’s national interests. He knows the central position South Korea plays in the security of Japan and could have forged a partnership to better protect both countries’ interests. He did not do so, however, because Abe did not think he had a partner he could trust. Abe contributed to the downward spiral in relations, but the fault was not his alone. Indeed, the possible upturn in relations ahead in 2022 would not be primarily of Japan’s doing: a new attitude in Seoul and new determination in Washington are the two factors being watched most closely, although Tokyo’s moves do matter.

After highlighting key moments of his tenure, Glosserman examines in depth three issues that played an outsize role in that trajectory: historical concerns, made concrete in debates about “comfort women” and compensation for South Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula; an economic dispute over restrictions on the export of chemicals from Japan to South Korea that are critical to the production of high-tech goods; and military controversies, Despite the tumult, throughout the period, there was growing strategic clarity about the challenges Japan faced and the depth of US interest in trilateralism with Tokyo and Seoul, an interest that culminated in a critical behind-the-scenes role for Washington in the 2015 Abe-Park agreement. The challenges have become even sharper in early 2022 amidst a deepening global crisis over Ukraine with possible implications for Taiwan and North Korea.

The overall argument is that Japan bears some responsibility but less than South Korea for the troubled relationship over a decade, that the onus has increasingly shifted from Tokyo to Seoul—particularly from 2016—and that there is much that Tokyo can do to capitalize on a new international environment as well as a new mood in Seoul in 2022. Looking back at what went wrong over a decade can serve as a basis for drawing lessons on what could be transformative ahead.

The governments in all three capitals are acutely aware of the evolution of the regional security environment, and of the need for their active engagement to shape that development in ways that protect or advance their national interests. All three also recognize that their capacity to do so is greatly enhanced when they work together. The potential for Japan-ROK alignment is evident in an expansive list of initiatives and should be the guiding principle for the South Korea-Japan relationship more generally. And yet the challenge for the next administration in Seoul and its partner in Tokyo is transcending the narrowly defined and configured set of interests that have guided policy over the last few years and build a more forward-looking relationship. It is obvious, really, but it has been obvious for nearly a generation. The failure to move beyond the stalemate is a blot on both governments’ strategic thinking and does a disservice to both nations.

Over a decade, Tokyo has blamed South Koreans—their leadership, media, and public opinion—for an emotional attitude toward Japan, which is responsible for a poor and deteriorating relationship. There has been scant acknowledgment of the price of this deterioration for Japan and of its own responsibility, if less than that of South Korea, for this state of affairs. The conclusion here is that the cost of Japan-ROK distrust has been considerable and could rise sharply ahead.

The cost has been born by both Japanese and South Koreans. It is seen in the insufficiency of US leadership, owing to discord limiting trilateralism, greater emboldening of North Korea, and China’s wedge tactics to capitalize on the divisions between two US allies. Japan has concentrated on Southeast and South Asia effectively, working closely with the United States, but strategy to Northeast Asia—Russia as well as the Korean Peninsula—has often been found wanting. Unable to solidify multilateral alliance ties in Northeast Asia, the US has recently found it easier to advance such diplomacy in Asia’s southern tier.  

The situation in 2022 is different for at least three reasons. First, the Biden administration has determination to transform Japan-ROK relations, starting with spring 2021 summits with both countries’ leaders and pressing harder in 2022. Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put enormous pressure on Tokyo and Seoul, as two allies whose positions toward Moscow have veered from alliance cohesion, to act separately to stand firmly with Europe and the US at a time when China supports Russia and lines are being clearly drawn. If not in concert, parallel moves in this environment promise to boost trilateralism. Third, leadership change in Seoul and the experienced diplomacy of Kishida in Tokyo has raised expectations that a breakthrough is at last possible if efforts are sufficient in these propitious times. History issues are overshadowed by security concerns in a way they have not been before. The forces of alliance strengthening are advancing with momentum not seen previously. Lessons from the past decade of shortsightedness and missed opportunities must be grasped.

Satake Tomohiko, “Tracking the Pathway to a ‘Quasi-alliance’: Japan’s Policy toward Australia from 2013 to 2022”
As Japan’s alliance with the United States drew closer in the post-Cold War era, two US allies saw their relationships with Japan change in strikingly contrasting ways. On the one hand, the Japan-ROK relationship grew rockier, especially in the decade after 2011. On the other, the Japan-Australia relationship climbed to new highs, visible already in the 1990s but booming with increasing clarity after Abe Shinzo became prime minister at the end of 2012. This essay focuses on how Japan’s policy toward Australia evolved during this critical decade of drawing closer. If prior to that the United States was understood to be Japan’s sole alliance partner, the situation in the early 2020s is that Japan has essentially gained a second, highly valued ally.  

How did this significant turnabout occur in Japan’s external relations? The answer can be found in Japanese thinking about its security policies, its alliance framework with the US, and its regional environment in the Asia-Pacific or, as it would decide, the Indo-Pacific region. A second source of transformation originated in Australia, which came to appreciate the need for a new framework beyond its alliance with the United States. Undoubtedly, both countries were impacted by their perceptions of China’s behavior. Although the Australian side figures into this assessment, the objective here is to trace over the decade Japan’s shifting thinking. Reinvigoration of their respective alliance relationships with the United States in the mid-1990s also cemented the two countries’ traditional roles as “northern and southern anchors” of the US military presence in the region. In the 2000s, the security dimension of bilateral ties rose to the fore, albeit centered on humanitarian cooperation and support for each’s US alliance.

By the time the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan led by Abe returned to the government in December 2012, Japan’s security cooperation with Australia had matured a great deal. The relationship had acquired a momentum of its own, rather independent of each state’s ties to China or even to the United States, although those would soon be drivers too. On the Japanese side, what accounts for the two decades of improving bilateral relations? A key factor was interest in constructing a framework in the western Pacific to boost Japan’s presence as a great power in a region still undergoing transformation. If in the early 1990s Japan’s focus was more on Northeast Asia, it soon evolved to Southeast Asia and beyond to the Indian Ocean. Seeking a balance of power and a continuing role for the US to maintain that balance, Japan found Australia to be the ideal partner: an ally of the US, an advocate of similar balance and values, and a state looking for a new regional role. Yet until 2013 the relationship appeared rather low key. That would change with Abe’s shift to a “pro-active” foreign policy.  Abe upgraded Japan’s cooperation with Australia to a “Special Strategic Partnership.” Australia came to be recognized as Japan’s second most important security partner next to the United States, or what some Japanese people label a “quasi-ally.”

Some Japanese commentators, including a former high-ranking SDF official, argued that AUKUS should have been “JAUKUS,” including Japan. Yet one could hardly find such thinking inside the Australian security community. A former Japanese ambassador to Australia also pushed for Australian support for Japan to be admitted to the West’s “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network. Unless Japan can develop a more mature intelligence community with better secrecy obligations, however, Australia is unlikely to support such an idea.

Japan’s continuous engagement with Australia was clearly motivated by the continuing expansion of Chinese influence especially in the region surrounding Japan. The two share a common interest in maintaining the FOIP sustained by a strong US military presence. It has appeared to be increasingly difficult to find a pathway for China in this order. If such is the case, Japan will continue to work with Australia closely to realize the FOIP, uphold a rules-based regional order, and continue to expand their partnership with other like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Japan’s relations with Australia in this context could be a “role model” for other bilateral and trilateral security cooperation in a more networked alliance structure in the Indo-Pacific.

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