Weighed in the Balance: Abe’s Legacy of Searching for Supplementary Security Partners

James D.J. Brown

The lives of Japanese diplomats and security planners were simpler in the old days. During the Cold War, Tokyo’s priority was to monitor the activities of Soviet aircraft and naval vessels in the vicinity of Japan, and to prepare to resist a hypothetical invasion from the north. Matters were made easier by the fact that, in dealing with Japan’s main potential adversary, security imperatives needed to be balanced against few economic considerations since the Soviet Union was not a major player in international trade. Throughout the Cold War, the relative might of the United States was also such that, in terms of security, it was largely sufficient for Japan to rely on its alliance with Washington.  

In certain respects, the current geopolitical situation has similarities with the Cold War, with a US-led bloc facing off against an authoritarian and nominally communist rival. However, the present security environment is much more complicated for Japan. China, which presents the most chronic security threat, is also Japan’s largest trading partner. Added to this, although the United States is still an indispensable ally, it is no longer a sufficient ally. This realization has been accelerated by the presidency of Donald Trump, who questioned the value of alliances and promoted an “America First” foreign policy.

These contemporary challenges have forced Japanese leaders to reassess the country’s security policies. Of course, Tokyo needs to continue to carefully manage its bilateral relationships with the United States and China. Yet, strategists have recognized that Japan also needs to be more active in reaching beyond Washington and Beijing to develop deeper security relations with other countries in Asia. These relationships have value in their own right, but they are also crucial in adding weight to Japan’s efforts to balance China.

The purpose of this article is therefore to analyse the evolution of Japan’s security relations with countries other than the United States and China. It does so in two main sections. The first outlines Japan’s strategy towards these other powers by drawing upon government documents. The second assesses the extent to which Tokyo has been successful in cultivating security ties with priority partners; namely, India, Australia, ASEAN members, South Korea (ROK), and Russia. The time period for analysis is the administration of Abe Shinzo from December 2012 to September 2020. In the conclusion, suggestions are offered as to where Abe’s successor, Suga Yoshihide, should emphasise continuity, and where change.

Japan’s strategy of seeking supplementary security partners

A notable marker in Japan’s growing maturity as a security actor was the publication in December 2013 of the country’s first National Security Strategy (NSS). This begins by emphasizing that Japan’s security situation has become more severe since “the balance of power in the international community has been changing on an unprecedented scale.” The NSS also highlights two particular security concerns. The first is North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The second is China’s “attempts to change the status quo by coercion based on their own assertions, which are incompatible with the existing order of international law.”1

While these two neighbors continue to be regarded as the main challenges to Japan’s security, the order of priority has changed since 2013. Specifically, in contrast to previous years, the Ministry of Defence’s 2019 edition of the Defence of Japan annual white paper listed China above North Korea as a source of security concern.2 In addition, in September 2020, then defense minister Kono Taro demonstrated Tokyo’s altered stance by saying that, “When I was foreign minister [2017-19], I was very careful not to say that China is a threat … But as defence minister [from 2019], I must say China has become a security threat to Japan.”3

As with Abe’s “Abenomics” program for reviving the economy, Japan’s security strategy can be thought of as featuring three arrows. The first is for Japan to increase the capabilities of its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) and to reduce constitutional restraints on their use.4 This included reinterpretation of the Constitution in 2015 to permit collective self-defense; that is, to permit the SDF to use force when a foreign country in a close relationship with Japan comes under attack in a situation in which Japan’s own security is deemed gravely threatened. The second arrow is to reinforce the alliance with the United States, which Abe did by developing close—some would say sycophantic—relations with President Trump.5

Each of these is worthy of dedicated study, yet the strategic arrow of greatest interest to this article is the third. This is for Japan “to engage itself in building trust and cooperative relations with other partners both within and outside the Asia-Pacific region”.6 To be clear, this is not a subtle means for Japan to gradually move away from its alliance with the United States. Instead, all three arrows are supposed to combine to make a stronger whole. The idea is that Japan, by further developing its own defence capabilities and supplementary security partnerships, will become a more valuable US ally. Added to this, the process of upgrading Japan’s own capabilities, such as through the purchase of 105 F-35 joint strike fighters from the United States, has the added benefit of assuaging US critics of Japan’s bilateral trade surplus.

In terms of priority partners, the NSS states that “Japan will strengthen cooperative relations with countries with which it shares universal values and strategic interests, such as the ROK, Australia, the countries of ASEAN, and India.”7 Russia is not included in this initial list, most likely on account of the difficulty of claiming that Tokyo and Moscow share universal values and strategic interests. However, later in the document, it is made clear that Russia is also regarded as a potential security partner, with the assertion that “Under the increasingly severe security environment in East Asia, it is critical for Japan to advance cooperation with Russia in all areas.”8

These three arrows (as I have described them) remain the core features of Japan’s security policy. However, since the publication of the NSS in 2013, there have been further developments. Most relevant here is Japan’s promotion of a vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).9 This is a concept that the Abe administration intensively promoted to provide a rhetorical framework for Japan’s increasingly close security ties with countries bordering on the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is also a means of affirming a common commitment to the principles of rule of law and freedom of navigation. Implicit is the understanding that FOIP is intended to encourage regional connectivity in a way that is independent of China.

The other multilateral initiative of relevance is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Tokyo agreed to join the talks about this regional trade agreement in 2013 and became one of its leading proponents. This was partly driven by economic considerations, but Abe left no doubt that it was also about security. Addressing the US Congress in 2015, Abe stated “the TPP goes far beyond just economic benefits. It is also about our security. Long-term, its strategic value is awesome.”10 Again, what was strongly implied was that the agreement was intended to serve as a bulwark against China’s growing regional influence. Even after Trump withdrew the United States in 2017, Japan remained committed to the initiative and took a leading role in ensuring the signature in March 2018 of the revised Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).11

Successful implementation?

Japan’s aim of developing security partnerships that will supplement the alliance with the United States, and thereby balance China, is an admirably clear strategy. But, how well was it implemented under Abe? To answer this question, this section looks first at the countries where Japan has had success. These are India, Australia, and several ASEAN members. It then turns to the cases where the strategy failed. These are South Korea and Russia. In each case, the course of security relations between 2012 and 2020 is described, and the causes of the successes and failures analysed. 

India

India is an obvious choice for Japan as a supplementary security partner. It is a rising power and shares Japan’s intensifying concerns about China’s growing influence. An added consideration is that India is located close to the major sea lanes that connect Africa and the Middle East to East Asia, and through which Japan imports most of its oil. Lastly, as a democracy, India is a natural partner for Japan. The two countries also have no major disagreements on historical issues and do not have any territorial disputes with each other.

Due to these factors, security relations between Tokyo and New Delhi have been improving for two decades. During Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s visit to New Delhi in 2005, the sides announced a “Japan-India Global Partnership” and established a high-level strategic dialogue. This was followed three years later by the signing of the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. In June 2012, Japan and India held their first bilateral naval exercises at Sagami Bay in Japan.

After Abe returned to office in December 2012, bilateral security ties continued to go from strength to strength. A notable milestone was the upgrading of the relationship to a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan in August-September 2014. At the same time, the governments signed an agreement on the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology. A year later, a further agreement was concluded concerning Security Measures for the Protection of Classified Military Information. Furthermore, bilateral exercises have intensified, not only between the countries’ navies, but also via the Dharma Guardian exercises between Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Forces and the Indian Army, and Shinyuu Maitri drills between Japan’s Air Self-Defence Forces and the Indian Air Force. Additionally, in 2019, the countries held their first “2+2” meeting between the defense and foreign ministers, a format that signals especially close security ties. Lastly, in September 2020, Japan and India signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, enabling the countries’ armed forces to exchange supplies and logical support. Crucially, this allows the Japanese and Indian navies to make wider use of each other’s bases, thereby increasing the ability of their ships to sustain a presence in an expanded region.

Security cooperation has also advanced on a multilateral basis. The most visible manifestation is the annual Malabar naval exercise. Originally a bilateral initiative between India and the United States, Japan became a permanent participant in 2015. Additionally, the countries held the first Japan-India-US summit in November 2018, at which the leaders reaffirmed the importance of trilateral cooperation for promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Likewise, trilateral cooperation has advanced with the inclusion of Australia. The first Japan, India, Australia high-level dialogue was held in June 2015. Additionally, in August 2020, the countries’ trade ministers agreed to work together to achieve supply chain resilience in the Indo-Pacific region. There is no question that this is intended to increase economic security by reducing dependence on supply chains that include China. 

Lastly, there is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad), which is an informal strategic forum featuring Japan, India, Australia, and the United States. This grouping has gained prominence since 2017 and US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has spoken of the desire “at some point to formalize a structure like this.”12

The main factor driving closer bilateral and multilateral security ties between Japan and India is China. Until recently, New Delhi was hesitant about joining any security initiative that could be interpreted as taking sides against Beijing. This stance is consistent with India’s traditional commitment to strategic autonomy based on the principle of non-alignment. However, as tensions between India and China have risen, especially due to deadly border skirmishes in the Himalayas, New Delhi has shown more enthusiasm for security cooperation which, whatever the official rhetoric, is designed to balance China. For instance, on September 3 2020, General Bipin Rawat, India’s most senior soldier, called for the Quad to “ensure freedom of navigation operations” in Asia, something that Indian decisionmakers had previously been reluctant to endorse.13

While perceived Chinese antagonism is the leading cause, the Japanese government has also played an important role in deepening security relations. In particular, Tokyo’s decision to dial back criticism of India’s nuclear weapons program removed a serious obstacle to closer ties. When India conducted the Pokhran-II nuclear weapons tests in 1998, Japan led international criticism and suspended official development assistance. By the early 2000s, however, Japan had decided that India was strategically too important to isolate, and engagement was resumed. This stance was made to look more acceptable after the initiation in 2005 of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, which implicitly recognised India as an official nuclear weapons state, despite its refusal to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Finally, Abe must take some credit. While, as we shall see, Abe’s personalised approach to diplomacy was not always successful, it worked well with India. As well as engaging in several of Modi’s trademark bear hugs, Abe joined the Indian prime minister for a visit to his home state of Gujarat in 2017 and hosted him for a reciprocal visit to Abe’s holiday home in Yamanashi in 2018. These friendly personal relations helped accelerate what was an already improving security relationship. 

Australia

Japan’s “special strategic partnership” with Australia has many similarities with Tokyo’s relationship with India yet is a few steps more advanced. This reflects the fact that both Japan and Australia are US allies, thereby easing security cooperation. Indeed, so close has become the relationship that, if the SDF were to use force for the collective self-defence of any country other than the United States, it would most likely be Australia.

As with India, the trend of deeper security relations with Australia preceded Abe’s return to office in December 2012. Indeed, the countries’ landmark declaration on security cooperation dates to March 2007, during Abe’s first stint as prime minister. The Democratic Party of Japan picked up this baton after taking power in 2009 and concluded the Japan-Australia Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (May 2010) and the Information Security Agreement (May 2012). After Abe regained office, momentum was maintained with the conclusion of the Agreement Concerning the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology (July 2014) and the signing of an expanded version of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (January 2017). Regular bilateral exercises have also been continued, including the Nichi Gou Trident naval drills, and the Bushido Guardian exercise between the ASDF and Royal Australian Air Force, which was held for the first time in 2019.

At the time of writing, the sides are on the verge of finalizing an even more important deal in the form of the Reciprocal Access Agreement. This will provide official legal status for Australian forces to operate on Japanese territory and for the SDF to do the same in Australia. Although it is a technical agreement, covering matters such as entry and exit procedures and criminal jurisdiction, it is of great symbolic significance since it is Japan’s first agreement covering the presence of a foreign military on its territory since the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States in 1960.14 It also foresees an intensification of the trend of Japanese forces operating overseas. Although an official announcement has yet to be made, the agreement may be signed when Australian prime minister Scott Morrison visits Japan, which may occur as early as November 2020. Once the agreement is concluded, it is likely to serve as a template for similar agreements with other supplementary security partners.

Further to the Quad and the trilateral activities including India, Japan and Australia are involved in three-party security cooperation with the United States. This includes regular meetings between the defense ministers. At their meeting in 2019, these ministers issued a Strategic Action Agenda, featuring the commitment to
“Increase the complexity and sophistication of trilateral exercises to enhance interoperability, build common understanding, and better enable our defence forces to work together to contribute to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.”15
True to this ambition, Japan hosted a trilateral exercise with the navies of Australia and the United States in November 2019. Additionally, the ASDF joined the United States and Australia in Guam for the Cope North air force exercise in February-March 2020.

Just as with India, Japan-Australia security ties have been driven by shared concerns about China. From Canberra’s point of view, these worries became particularly pronounced in 2020 after Beijing placed restrictions on imports of Australian beef and barley, and pressured Australian journalists into fleeing China. It is widely believed that these measures were retaliation following Australia’s leading role in calling for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Furthermore, Australia fully shares Japan’s concerns about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor. This does not mean that Australian strategists intend to ditch the US alliance. On the contrary, as with Japan, it means that Australia is seeking to surround the central pillar of its security policy with a supportive scaffolding of supplementary ties.

Southeast Asia

The third area of comparable success is Japan’s security relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Japan’s focus on these countries is logical given their location close to the South China Sea and thus to sea lanes of vital importance to Japan. In addition, since several ASEAN members contest aspects of China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea, there is (at least to some extent) a common interest in cooperating with Japan to uphold maritime law in the region.

When engaging with ASEAN as a group, Japan makes use of the annual ASEAN-Japan Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting. At the second of these in 2016, Tokyo unveiled its Vientiane Vision, which provides a guideline for ASEAN-Japan defense cooperation. Updated in 2019, the Vientiane Vision 2.0 presents five concrete “means.” These are: 1) promoting shared understanding of international norms; 2) a defense cooperation program; 3) defense equipment and technology cooperation; 4) joint training and exercises; and 5) human resource development and academic exchanges.16

ASEAN is, of course, not monolithic, and Japan’s progress in security cooperation with its members has been uneven. There have, nonetheless, been several highlights. These include the first “2+2” with Indonesia in December 2015. Japan’s relationship with Vietnam was also upgraded to an Extensive Strategic Partnership in March 2014, and, in April 2018, the sides issued a Joint Vision Statement on Japan-Vietnam Defence Cooperation. Likewise, with the Philippines, the Agreement concerning the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology was signed in February 2016. This opened the way to the transfer of five Japanese TC-90 training aircraft to the Philippine navy to strengthen its capabilities in maritime situational awareness. Lastly, in September 2019, the MSDF conducted a small bilateral exercise with the Philippines in Subic Bay. A month later, Japan joined the Philippines-US bilateral Kamandag exercise. The SDF has also continued regular participation in the multilateral Cobra Gold drills co-hosted by Thailand and the United States.

These developments represent a positive trend, yet there are more constraints on Japanese security cooperation with ASEAN than with Australia or India. This is not, as might be thought, because of the history of Japanese imperialism in the region, but rather because of the extent of Chinese influence. This factor makes most ASEAN countries extremely reluctant to engage in any activities that could be seen as taking sides against China. Indeed, in 2016, the Philippines appeared to go the other way when President Rodrigo Duterte used a trip to Beijing to announce his “separation from the United States.”17 Although Duterte later backtracked and suspended a decision to end joint military exercises with the United States, this geopolitical wavering by a US treaty ally was a reminder of the difficulties of encouraging Southeast Asian nations to balance against China.

Japan’s defense cooperation with ASEAN is also contentious because of many members’ poor levels of democracy and human rights. Most controversial has been the Abe government’s cultivation of ties with the Myanmar Armed Forces, despite the Tatmadaw, as they are known, having been accused of widespread human rights abuses against the Rohingya minority. Indeed, even as a UN report called for top Tatmadaw generals to face prosecution for “genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes,” Japan has continued a military exchange program.18 Indeed, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces Min Aung Hlaing was invited to Japan in October 2019 and granted a meeting with Abe. Such disregard for democracy and human rights raises questions about whether the Japanese government’s professed commitment to “freedom and openness” is any more than window dressing.19 

South Korea

While defense ties with India, Australia, and Southeast Asian countries have seen marked progress since 2012, Japan’s relations with South Korea have moved in the opposite direction. This is despite the fact that the NSS lists the ROK first among supplementary security partners and describes it as “a neighboring country of the utmost geopolitical importance for the security of Japan.” Yet, while the NSS commits Japan to the construction of “future-oriented and multilayered relations” with South Korea, the reality has been a relationship that is backward-looking and fractious.20

However, before turning to the negatives, a few words are merited about the positives. First, in December 2014, during the South Korean presidency of Park Geun-hye, Japan, the ROK, and United States signed the Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement Concerning the Nuclear and Missile Threats Posed by North Korea, which permitted Tokyo and Seoul to exchange classified information about North Korea via the United States. Taking a step further, in November 2016, Japan and the ROK concluded the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which enables the sides to share military intelligence more directly.

Added to this, frameworks exist for trilateral cooperation with the United States. These include the Trilateral Defense Ministerial Meeting. When this was last held in November 2019, the three ministers agreed “to further trilateral security cooperation, including information sharing, high-level policy consultation, and bilateral/multilateral exercises”.21 Yet, while some mechanisms for trilateral cooperation continue to function, there is no concealing the fact that, as the Defense of Japan 2020 admits, “defense relations between [Japan and the ROK] have been extremely sour because of various bilateral issues since 2018.”22

The significance of 2018 is that this was when, in October, the ROK Supreme Court ruled that Japan’s Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp. (NSSMC) must pay compensation to Korean individuals who had been forced to work in the company’s mills during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. The Japanese government firmly rejected this decision by claiming that all compensation claims were settled under a 1965 treaty, which states that the “problem concerning property, rights and interests of the two Contracting Parties and their nationals … is settled completely and finally.”23 Tokyo therefore instructed NSSMC not to pay the fine, causing the South Korean courts to order the seizure of the company’s local assets. 

Matters escalated further in July 2019 when Japan restricted exports of three chemicals that are essential to South Korea’s semiconductor industry. A month later, Tokyo removed the ROK from a “white list” of trusted trade partners. Although Tokyo insisted the decision was related to arms-control issues, most analysts interpreted the move as retaliation for the forced labor ruling.24 South Korea, in turn, announced its intention to terminate GSOMIA, although this decision was reversed at the eleventh hour.

Aside from the forced labor issue, bilateral relations have been roiled by the decision of Moon Jae-in, who acceded to the ROK presidency in May 2017, to effectively abandon the agreement reached with Japan in December 2015 to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the “comfort women” issue, referring to the victims of Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.25 Separately, in October 2018, Japan withdrew from an international fleet review ceremony in the ROK after Seoul banned the MSDF from using its official “rising sun” ensign, which many Koreans see as a symbol of Japanese imperialism. Lastly, and most worrying of all, in December 2018, an ROK navy destroyer targeted a Japanese MSDF aircraft with its fire-control radar, thereby raising fears of an actual exchange of fire.

As for the main causes of this disastrous deterioration of relations, there is enough blame to go around. From Japan’s point of view, the ROK under Moon Jae-in has shown itself an unreliable partner, which is willing to disregard international agreements in its obsession with the history of Japanese colonialism. There is also bemusement at the Moon administration’s seemingly tireless enthusiasm for embracing the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, while simultaneously regarding the elected Japanese leader as beyond the pale. Whatever one thinks of these claims, there is little doubt that Seoul’s threat to withdraw from GSOMIA was ill-considered. By escalating a historical dispute into the realm of security cooperation, Seoul risked cutting off its nose to spite its face. One can only imagine how thrilled Pyongyang and Beijing must have been to observe this bitter confrontation between two US allies.

As for the Japanese side, the biggest error was to retaliate against the forced labor ruling by imposing economic restrictions on sensitive South Korean imports. This served to expand, rather than contain, the dispute. What is more, this resort to economic statecraft is really little better than the punishment diplomacy that Beijing is accused of exercising against countries such as Australia and Germany.

Lastly, the fact that bilateral relations became as bad as they did points to a failure of US leadership. In other circumstances, the US president would have personally intervened to remind the parties that contemporary security issues must take priority over historical grudges. However, Donald Trump’s disdain for alliances and the chaos of US diplomacy under his leadership seriously limited Washington’s ability to perform this reconciling role.

Russia

The other area of serious disappointment for the Abe administration was relations with Russia. As noted above, the NSS of 2013 describes security cooperation with Russia as being of critical importance. This was for three reasons. First, the Abe government was seeking to encourage Russia to develop independent interests within the Asia-Pacific and thereby to distance itself from its increasingly close relationship with China. Second, the aim was to stabilize relations with Russia and thereby ensure that, while Japan may be facing threats from North Korea and China, it could at least feel at ease about its northern frontier. Third, closer security cooperation was viewed by Abe as a means — in addition to political and economic engagement — through which bilateral relations could be raised to a new level, thereby laying the groundwork for a resolution to the countries’ long-standing dispute over the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands.

This strategy might have been understandable in 2013. However, what is remarkable is that it continued despite the aggressive turn in Russian foreign policy in 2014. Despite the annexation of Crimea, shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, interference in the US presidential elections, and attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK using a chemical weapon, Abe continued to visit Russia regularly, accumulating a total of 27 meetings with the Russian president and describing him as someone who is “dear to me as a partner.”26 

This engagement included the security sphere, where four “2+2” meetings were held between 2013 and 2019. There were also high-level exchanges of defense officials. The most controversial of these was in December 2017 when Japan welcomed Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Gennady Gerasimov, who is subject to Western sanctions for his role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition, the Japanese and Russian armed forces have conducted joint exercises, not only in the Sea of Japan, but also in the Gulf of Aden, where the MSDF and Russia’s Northern Fleet practised flying helicopters off each other’s decks in November 2018. The sides also hold a regular cybersecurity meeting at which, in November 2019, Putin’s special advisor on international information security Andrei Krutskikh proposed that Russia send FSB officers to assist with the cyber security of the 2020 Olympics.27 

However, most galling for those countries advocating a tougher response was Abe’s reluctance to support retaliatory measures against Putin’s Russia. Under US pressure, Japan did introduce some sanctions in 2014 but they were designed to have no impact. Indeed, the Japanese government never published the list of the Russian officials subject to sanctions. Furthermore, it is notable that, despite pressure from the UK, Japan refused to join the 29 countries that expelled Russian intelligence officers in response to the attack on Sergei Skripal in March 2018. Indeed, when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tokyo later that month, he was greeted, not by questions about the use of a chemical weapon for an attempted assassination on foreign soil, but with a birthday cake.

Despite these efforts to butter up the Russian leadership, Abe’s strategy did not achieve any of his intended goals. First, Russia-China relations only became closer, as symbolized by the Vostok-2018 drills, which saw China contribute 3000 troops to military exercises in the Russian Far East. Additionally, in July 2019, Russian and Chinese strategic bombers conducted their first joint patrol over the Sea of Japan. This culminated in an incursion by one Russian aircraft into Japanese-claimed airspace over the islands of Dokdo/Takeshima.

Second, Japanese engagement has not rendered Russia a friendlier neighbor. The incident in July 2019 was just one of several incursions by Russian aircraft into Japanese airspace. In addition, Russian military planes regularly probe Japanese defenses, provoking over 250 scrambles by the ASDF each year since 2013; only China provokes more.28 Added to this, Russia has upgraded its military presence on the Japanese-claimed Southern Kurils, including by deploying new anti-ship missiles in 2016 and by sending three SU-35 fighter jets to the islands in 2018.

Third, Abe proved unable to extract any concessions from Russia on the territorial dispute. This was despite his decision to cease demanding the return of all four islands and instead to concentrate on achieving the transfer of just Shikotan and Habomai. This was an unprecedented concession and, if successful, would have secured the return of just 7% of the total disputed landmass. As it was, Abe received nothing at all. A final humiliation came in July 2020 when Putin introduced amendments to the Constitution, including a new clause to ban territorial concessions. Commenting on this amendment, Russian senator Aleksei Pushkov stated that “the prospects of Moscow renouncing sovereignty over the Southern Kurils is now, in my opinion, equal to zero.”29

The primary cause of this failure was a misjudgement by Abe and his advisors that close personal relations between Abe and Putin, combined with Japanese concessions and the offer of economic cooperation, would be sufficient to secure the transfer of Shikotan and Habomai, plus an agreement to conduct joint economic activities on the larger two islands.30 It proved a mistake to offer engagement and concessions upfront without waiting for Russian reciprocity. In addition, the Abe government was misguided in believing that real trust could be established between the countries’ leaders. Whether Putin personally liked Abe or not is immaterial. From the Russian perspective, what matters above all else is that Japan remains a close US ally and that Washington presently considers Russia an adversary. As long as these conditions prevail, Moscow will regard cooperation with Japan, not as a means of building a security partnership, but as an opportunity to exploit divisions between the United States and its allies. 

Abe’s legacy and Suga’s choices

Overall, the Abe government’s efforts to develop supplementary security relations with other countries in the region can be judged a moderate success, above all, because the strategy is correct. The continued decline in the relative power of the United States means that its support is now necessary, but not sufficient, to guarantee Japan’s security. As well as developing its own capabilities, Japan must develop closer security ties with other regional countries. Under Abe’s leadership, this goal has been effectively pursued with India, Australia, and several Southeast Asian countries. FOIP has also been deployed as a framework with which to conceptualize these ties, which are designed to provide a bulwark against Chinese regional hegemony.

As noted, however, there have been some areas in which Japan’s balancing strategy has been found wanting. A particular blind spot for Abe was Russia. Despite regular warnings by other G-7 members, Abe continued to place his faith in Putin and ignored examples of Russian aggression. The result was that Abe made unreciprocated concessions, especially by agreeing to focus on just two of the four disputed islands. Additionally, Japan’s lack of solidarity on the issue of confronting Russia has raised questions about the extent to which Japan shares common interests with Western countries, thereby setting back Japan’s ambitions to join the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing group.31

A bigger failure was with South Korea. Abe does at least deserve some credit for seeking a resolution to the “comfort women” issue in 2015 by offering an apology and official government funds. However, after the Moon administration effectively withdrew from this agreement, Abe’s government gave up on relations with ROK and made the situation worse by using economic statecraft to retaliate against the forced labour ruling. 

How then should Suga Yoshihide, who took over as prime minister on September 16, proceed? With India and Australia, the answer is to provide continuity. Suga lacks Abe’s personal interest in international relations and is unlikely to travel abroad so frequently. Nonetheless, this is unlikely to be a problem since Japan’s relations with India and Australia are driven by strong geopolitical tailwinds. These security relationships were already becoming closer before Abe and will continue to do so afterwards. 

In Southeast Asia too, Suga would be wise to continue building closer ties with key regional players, including Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. However, if Japan wants others to take seriously its claim to pursue values-based diplomacy, it must do more to press regional governments to uphold at least basic standards of human rights. This does not mean demanding that all countries become paragons of democracy. It does mean that Suga should stop Japan’s uncritical courtship of Myanmar’s genocidaires.

Turning to Russia, one must hope that Suga, who is unburdened by Abe’s personal preoccupations, will be able to take a firmer approach. This does not mean picking fights with Moscow. It does, however, mean that Suga should deal with Putin more warily and should only offer more political and economic engagement when these are clearly reciprocated. This less accommodating stance will not secure the return of the disputed islands, but it will prevent Moscow from exploiting Japan as a weak link in G-7 efforts to stand up to Russian aggression.

Finally, Suga must prioritize resetting relations with South Korea. Viewing the situation dispassionately, the countries’ intertwined security interests are of such critical importance that they should take precedence over almost any other issue, no matter how sensitive. In reality, domestic politics in both countries is likely to stand in the way of closer security cooperation. A gloomy hint of this was provided by the first phone call between Suga and Moon on September 24 in which the forced labor issue again reared its head.32 Given the incapability of Japan and South Korea to break this spiral of deteriorating relations, any progress is likely to depend on pressure being applied by whoever forms the next US presidential administration in January 2021. Until such a breakthrough in Japan-ROK relations is achieved, Japan’s search for supplementary security partnership in Asia can only be considered a partial success.

1. National Security Strategy, December 17 2013. http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/documents/2013/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2013/12/17/NSS.pdf

2. Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan 2019, https://www.mod.go.jp/e/publ/w_paper/wp2019/DOJ2019_Digest_EN.pdf

3. Daizo Teramoto, “Kono: China not a ‘concern’ for Japan. It is now a ‘security threat,’” The Asahi Shimbun, September 11, 2020, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/13717925

4. “Japan to seek record defense budget under Suga’s continuity policy,” The Japan Times, September 22, 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/09/22/national/japan-record-defense-budget-yoshihide-suga/

5. “Abe gaiko, domei kyoka ga kiten Abe zen shusho intabyu,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, September 26 2020, https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXMZO64254760V20C20A9SHA000/

6. National Security Strategy, p.23.

7. National Security Strategy, p.23.  

8. National Security Strategy, p.25.

9. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” August 7, 2020, https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/page25e_000278.html

10. Quoted in Aurela George Mulgan, “Securitizing the TPP in Japan: Policymaking structure and discourse,” Asia Policy, No.22, 2016, p. 203.

11. The 11 members of the CPTPP are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam.

12. Jesse Johnson, “With eye on China, US aims to ‘formalize’ four-nation ‘Quad’ security grouping,” The Japan Times, September 1, 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/09/01/asia-pacific/china-us-quad/

13. Quoted in “Ice and fire: India and China exchange the first gunshots in 45 years,” The Economist, September 8, 2020.

14. Michael Macarthur Bosack, “Five key takeaways from the Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement,” The Japan Times, June 12, 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2020/06/12/commentary/japan-commentary/five-key-takeaways-japan-australia-reciprocal-access-agreement/

15. US Department of Defense, “Australia-Japan-United States Strategic Action Agenda,” June 1, 2019, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/1863425/australia-japan-united-states-strategic-action-agenda/

16. Ministry of Defense of Japan, “Updating the Vientiane Vision: Japan’s Defense Cooperation Initiative with ASEAN,” November 2019, https://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/exc/admm/06/vv2_en.pdf

17. Ben Blanchard, “Duterte aligns Philippines with China, says US has lost,” Reuters, October 20, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-philippines-idUSKCN12K0AS

18. “Myanmar military leaders must face genocide charges — UN report,” UN News, August 27, 2018, https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/08/1017802

19. James D.J. Brown, “Japan’s values-free and token Indo-Pacific strategy,” The Diplomat, March 30 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/03/japans-values-free-and-token-indo-pacific-strategy/

20. National Security Strategy, p. 23.

21. Defense of Japan 2020, p. 359.

22. Defense of Japan 2020, p. 358.

23. “Japan and Republic of Korea: Agreement on the settlement of problems concerning property and claims and on economic cooperation,” June 22, 1965, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%20583/volume-583-I-8473-English.pdf

24. Kana Inagaki, Song Jung-a, Edward White, “Japan cuts S Korea from export ‘white list’ as trade tensions rise,” Financial Times, August 2 2019.

25. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Announcement by Foreign Ministers of Japan and the Republic of Korea at the Joint Press Occasion,” December 28, 2015, https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/na/kr/page4e_000364.html

26. “Sindzo Abe: prezident Putin mne dorog kak partner, s nim mozhno pogovorit’ po dusham,” TASS, November 25, 2018, https://tass.ru/interviews/5826060

27. Ksenia Naka, “Rossiia predlozhila Iaponii pomosh’ v obespechenii kiberbezopasnosti na OI” RIA Novosti, November 20, 2019, https://ria.ru/20191120/1561155871.html

28. Defense of Japan 2020, p.122.

29. “‘Vopros zakryt’: Pushkov otsenil znachenie popravok v situatsii s Kurilami,” RIA Novosti, July 2, 2020, https://ria.ru/20200702/1573814624.html

30. James D.J. Brown, “The high price of a two-island deal,” The Japan Times, November 16, 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2018/11/16/commentary/japan-commentary/high-price-two-island-deal/

31. James Brown, “Nihon ga faibu aizu no ichiin ni kantan ni hanarenai riyu,” Nikkei Business, September 9, 2020, https://business.nikkei.com/atcl/seminar/19/00023/090800199/

32. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Nikkan shuno denwa kaidan,” September 24, 2020, https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/a_o/na/kr/page3_002876.html

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