Is Japan a pivot or stumble to Asia?

Japanese capabilities to contribute constructive agendas and inputs in the changing regional politics are highly potent and Tokyo should certainly articulate such approaches. It is unfortunate both for Japan and the region that Tokyo is increasingly seen ‘less as a pivot to Asia and more as stumble’ and a course-correction is indeed required.

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Japan in Asia. Map not to scale
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It has been reported that Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso wanted to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Munich Security Conference (15-17 February 2019), apparently to give him suggestions for the upcoming second US-North Korea summit meet (27-28 February 2019). However, US authorities informed that it would not be possible because of Pompeo’s busy schedule. Generally, such situations are not unusual; but this particular instance could also be seen as a realisation in Washington that Tokyo does not bring any positive agenda or suggestions on the North Korean nuclear issue and that therefore, it could be avoided.

In fact, in the changing equations in East Asia, Japan appears to be desperate to remain an important player but Tokyo’s inflexible over-reliance on an ‘assertive’ posture does not appear to be a suitable strategy to do so. While most regional countries have been trying to read unprecedented changes taking place in inter-state relations in the region and trying to adjust their policies, Japan appears to be fixed in its pursuit of becoming a ‘normal state’ in the context of its definite belief in China’s assertiveness and aggressively preparing for countermeasures as the only option. Where the US, China, South Korea and even North Korea have been shifting their positions and experimenting with multiple foreign policy options, Japan has been adamant in maintaining a single and fixed policy option.

Such a narrow approach has not only left Japan with a less significant role to play in the regional politics but has also strained its relations with nearly all regional countries such as China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia. There are also signs that even its closest ally—the US—has also been working with Japan only while implementing one of its options for the region, namely the Indo-Pacific strategy, to counterbalance China. In most of the US’s other options and goals for and in the region, Tokyo appears to be disconnected from Washington. The US appears to be dealing with China, South Korea and North Korea independently, and barely taking Tokyo’s positions and suggestions into account. Even in the context of Indo-Pacific strategy, there are two versions in the US policy—hard and soft—whereas Japan appears to have only the hard version of it. Thus, in the soft version of the Indo-Pacific strategy which emphasises not only on ‘free and independent’ but also ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific, Japan’s role appears to be less salient. Apart from the US, India and Australia too have been working simultaneously on both the versions but Japan is doing disservice to its own status by limiting its position to one version alone.

In dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue as well, it is rather obvious that Japan is a non-player compared to the tremendous diplomatic churning among Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington and Beijing. There have been three summit meets between the North and South Korean leaders, three summit meets between North Korean and Chinese leaders, and one summit meet between the US and North Korean leaders; and Japan appears to be isolated without any such exchanges. In fact, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, did meet US President, Donald Trump, before the latter’s first meeting with North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore in June 2018. However, it was inconsequential as Japan’s only insistence was that the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens must also be raised during the talks. Japan has not been happy with current episode of engagement and concessions to North Korea by South Korea and the US, and is adamant on maintaining a tough posture. It is due to the same factor that Japan appears to be a non-player in the second US-North Korea summit meet in Hanoi as well.

In the past, Japan even tried to hold direct talks with the North Korean leader and there were few reports in mid-2018 that the leaders of both countries might meet; but North Korea does not appear to be interested in direct talks with Japan as it thinks that there is nothing positive that Japan could contribute. At present, Tokyo’s relations with Seoul are also described as being the ‘worst in five decades’ even though both countries share their important concern in the form of North Korea, and their closest ally in the form of the US. The comfort women issue, territorial disputes, historical contestations and even normal diplomatic skirmishes keep these two countries disillusioned from each other and there is apparently no common and coordinated position between both the countries on nearly any regional issue. The two countries have no coordination in their approaches regarding China, North Korea and even the Indo-Pacific strategy.

In the above context, it will be useful for Japan to simultaneously consider multiple options in pursuance of its foreign policy. In the changing regional politics, Tokyo needs to have multi-layered priorities to deal with this period of flux. Japanese capabilities to contribute constructive agendas and inputs in the changing regional politics are highly potent and Tokyo should certainly articulate such approaches. It is unfortunate both for Japan and the region that Tokyo is increasingly seen ‘less as a pivot to Asia and more as stumble’ and a course-correction is indeed required.

Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.

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