Abe's Double-Dealing
Japan's latest diplomatic attempts may prove to be in vain
By Shi Yongming  ·  2017-01-09  ·   Source: | NO.2 JANUARY 12, 2017

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Tokyo on December 16, 2016 (XINHUA)

At the end of 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a combined diplomatic move with Russia and the United States.

In mid-December, Abe first had talks with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin on a decades-old territorial dispute over four islands in the Pacific, which are called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia. Later, he paid a visit to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and attended a commemoration for U.S. soldiers and civilians killed there during a Japanese attack in 1941 with U.S. President Barack Obama, whose presidency is set to end in January 2017.

The relations between the United States and Russia remain strained since the Syrian conflict and Ukraine crisis. Japan is an ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, and Abe has spared no effort to enhance the alliance with Washington. But the close U.S.-Japan relationship does not seem to pose an obstacle for Japan in seeking the possibility of negotiating with Russia on the territorial issue.

In fact, Abe's recent diplomatic steps again reflect his ambition toward historical revisionism. Abe has been trying to change Japan's position in the post-World War II (WWII) international order and make Japan become a "normal" state again. For this purpose, he has made questionable choices in dealing with Japan's relations with the United States, China and Russia. For Tokyo, Washington is a patron to depend on and Beijing is a rival to contend with. Japan believes that Moscow, despite its close relations with Beijing and the longstanding bilateral territorial dispute, can be useful to them through economic incentives. With such thinking, Abe intends to make Japan "great" again in the Asia-Pacific region, regardless of Japan-China relations.

U.S. alliance

Japan's ambitions for a greater role in regional affairs have grown remarkably since the Obama administration adopted its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy in 2011. In the last five years, Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party have taken a series of moves to remove constitutional restrictions on Japan's military development established at the end of WWII. Abe is fully aware that he must make use of the opportunity offered by Obama's strategic re-orientation to realize his targets.

In Obama's Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, the U.S.-Japan alliance is the core axis, supplemented by other U.S.-allied countries including the Republic of Korea and Australia as well as other partners.

Japan is of great importance to Washington's Asia-Pacific policy. In the country, there is a major U.S. military presence, especially the U.S. Navy and Air Force. Japan often helps the United States involve itself or interfere in Asian affairs.

Obama and Abe agreed to collaborate on Asia-Pacific affairs through coordinating the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy with the "proactive pacifism" promoted by the Abe administration. In such collaboration, the United States, though it takes the leading position, is increasingly dependent on Japan. Under such circumstances, Abe has advanced the revision of Japan's pacifist constitution forcefully and even successfully prompted Washington to compromise on some issues. On international occasions, the Japanese prime minister never stops exaggerating the so-called "China threat" in order to defend Japan's military expansion.

Last May after attending the G7 Summit in Japan, at the invitation of Abe, Obama became the first incumbent U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, one of the two Japanese cities that suffered U.S. nuclear bombing at the end of WWII. He also attended a commemoration for victims of the nuclear strike. Although Obama did not apologize for using an atomic bomb, Abe was satisfied with the visit. Japan's hardliners called it a victory of Abe's diplomacy. With Abe's political move, Japan looks like a victim nation in WWII, but in fact, it was an aggressor during the war.

Similar to Obama's visit to Hiroshima, Abe did not clearly apologize for Japan's attack on U.S. territory during his trip to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Without mutual apologies by their state leaders, it looks as though the United States and Japan don't owe each other on historical issues. In fact, such a hypocritical political show only serves their respective strategic purposes. For Obama, Japan will undertake to more closely follow U.S. policy on Asia-Pacific. For Abe, Japan could further unload its historical responsibility for aggression and war atrocities. Abe stressed that the change of relations between Japan and the United States, from enemies to allies, has set an example to the world. But this change lacks justice at its core. Each of the two governments just uses the other for its own ends.

Obama's Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy gave Abe an opportunity to carry out his historical revisionism. But Donald Trump's success in the U.S. presidential election in November 2016 brings uncertainty to U.S. foreign policy, which will have an impact on Abe's diplomacy. In particular, Trump has expressed repeatedly that he would withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which groups the United States, Japan and 10 other nations. If Washington really abandons the TPP eventually, Obama's efforts to build a U.S.-led economic arrangement against China's rise will be wasted. This could be a concern for Abe.

To ensure the consistency of the U.S.-Japan alliance, Abe took a series of steps during the power transition in the United States. Under his insistence, the Japanese parliament has ratified the TPP. The move obviously aims to persuade Trump to drop opposition to the deal.

In his presidential campaign, Trump also demanded U.S. allies to undertake more responsibilities. It means Japan might need to pay more for U.S. military protection. But on the other hand, Japan might have more possibilities to develop its own military capabilities. Abe is not only ambitious to carry out his "proactive pacifism," but also eager to take more initiatives in the U.S.-Japan alliance and in international affairs.

People hold a commemoration to mark the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Washington, D.C., the United States, on December 7, 2016 (XINHUA)

Russia policy

To some extent, Abe seems more independent on its policy toward Russia.

Japan joined the Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis. But unlike other U.S. allies, it is not completely estranged from Russia in diplomacy.

In recent years, Russia has suffered economic hardship because of drops in oil prices and Western sanctions. Abe therefore believes there is a chance to take advantage of the situation in Russia.

On the territorial dispute, the Japanese Government insists on its sovereignty over the four disputed islands and says it will not sign a peace treaty with Russia before taking them back. But Russia persists in claiming that these islands are Russian territories and that it recovered their sovereignty at the end of WWII.

In fact, Japan's territorial claims concern the upholding of the post-WWII international order. Apparently, Abe doesn't recognize the post-war arrangements for Japan's territories, which are confirmed in many international treaties and documents.

To Abe's disappointment, although he vowed to offer Russia economic investment and loans, Putin did not make any compromise on the territorial issue during his recent two-day visit to Japan, the first for a Russian president in 11 years.

In addition to seeking the possibility of territorial talks, Abe has shown friendship to Putin with the purpose of trying to drive a wedge between Russia and China. But the China-Russia strategic partnership is not as simple as a conventional alliance. In this respect, there is no future for Abe's strategy, which is based on outdated diplomatic paradigms.

The author is an associate researcher of Asia-Pacific issues at the China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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