More on the South China Sea

After previous South China Sea interviews here and here, I also had a nice chat with Ken Moritsugu from AP regarding the South China Sea in the middle of month just before top SDF officials and the Japanese MOD started talking more about the “possibility” of Japan taking on a more prominent military role in the South China Sea.

Is Japan really getting involved?

Certainly the current Japanese government seems to be seriously considering this as a possibility, but my sense at this point in time is that it is about strategic signalling more than a commitment. The Japanese government has most notably upped the tempo of its military cooperation with the Philippines with the Philippines and Japanese militaries this year engaging in their first ever maritime joint training exercises in areas of the South China Sea. President Aquino’s latest visit saw the two countries discussing the possibility that Japan and the Philippines would consider an Visiting Forces Agreement where the MSDF could use Philippines’ facilities and maybe even have a rotating presence. The two countries have also agreed to upgrade their strategic partnership further and sign an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment. In addition, a Japanese defense minister made a symbolic visit Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in 2013, and we have seen formerly more cautious Southeast Asian players like Malaysia and Indonesia looking to cooperate with Japan in explicitly defense-focused areas.

In what form?

I imagine at first it will simply be an increased presence in the region in terms of regularised joint training exercises and perhaps temporary use of bases. Increased intensity in cooperation associated with humanitarian assistance and disaster response will enhance operational familiarity and that in itself could be significant. In terms of traditional military exercises, Japan will likely concentrate in the near future on ways that it can enhance maritime situational awareness and surveillance of its SCS partners. In terms of joint patrols, Japan will likely get involved if other players, perhaps Australia, India or other ASEAN nations, also participate. I think there will be some reluctance within the broader foreign policy establishment in Japan if it was only Japan and the United States conducting joint patrols. A wider regional community response would give these operations greater legitimacy at home among the public.

How big a change in Japan’s postwar security policy would venturing into the SCS be?

I think it would depend on the type of response. If this was singularly a US-Japan-focused response involving Japan in physical maritime patrols or “freedom of navigation” operations using MSDF ships, then this would indeed represent a significant change in terms of Japan proactively projecting power into the South China Sea directly through the alliance mechanism. If it was framed in terms of a US-led Southeast Asian community response with various players involved, then in many ways it could be understood as a logical progression of Japan’s contributions to regional maritime security activities starting with anti-piracy activities in the 1990s.
A lot of this will depend on how long current tensions in the SCS persist, however. If, as some analysts have argued, China is upping the tempo this year ahead of the likely unfavourable Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in its dispute with the Philippines, but then intends to pulls back after that, then such Japanese involvement in SCS military operations may not come to fruition. If tensions continue or intensify in the coming years, then Japanese involvement may become inevitable.

There is a domestic factor to consider as well in that the Abe administration will likely need to go slow after passing any security legislation – even if they succeed they are likely to take a bit of a hit in terms of popularity. This may also be true in coming years if Abe and the LDP are serious about any constitutional change to Article 9.

Is this a good idea? Japan-China relations?

My sense is that at this point the Japanese government is engaging in strategic signalling and putting into place the necessary legal and military mechanisms as preparation ahead of making a final decision about whether to get more directly involved later down the track. There is the possibility that it might sour Japan-China relations which are currently improving, but it is also possible that Japan could use the “threat” of greater involvement in the South China Sea as leverage against China in tensions around the Senkaku Islands.

Related to this, and ultimately the key problem for the Japanese government, however, is that Japan does have very limited military resources to commit in terms of taking up a large role in the South China Sea at this point. The MSDF may be able to spare some capacity for air-based ISR activities, but beyond that I would be cautious about expecting too much unless we see an improvement in government finances and/or an increase in the military budget.

 

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Japan to conduct maritime and aerial patrols over the South China Sea?

Below are some lightly edited remarks provided to the ever-busy Justin McCurry, writing for the Christian Science Monitor on recent suggestions that Japan may take up a great military role in the South China Sea, here.

The prospect of greater SDF involvement in the SCS has been on the radar for a number of years, but I see the timing of bringing this up as being connected to progress on the US-Japan Revised Guidelines. Greater integration of regional operational activities between the US and Japan will be the likely outcome of the negotiations over the revised guidelines that will be finalized sometime this year.

Japan responding favourably to Admiral Thomas’ statement will demonstrate its commitment to increased “burden sharing” in East Asia through the US-Japan alliance; but I would still imagine this will not be a big focus of the negotiations and debate of security issues in the first half of this year. It is likely to be more of a long-term possibility. I don’t think it is posturing, and Prime Minister Abe and Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen would jump at the opportunity if they had the chance – but it is likely that there is an appreciation that the SDF taking on this role may not go ahead soon if debate over Japan’s security legislation gets particularly heated later this year.

In terms of regional reactions, clearly China will not react well – but I don’t think the PRC will change its behavior one way or another in response to this. I see no evidence that China would dial down its own activity in the region in regards to its territorial tensions with Philippines and Vietnam if the US or Japan were to pull back. In terms of the reaction of ASEAN nations, if Japanese patrols were initially very modest and within the operational framework of the alliance, I expect most ASEAN nations to be unconcerned, and Vietnam and the Philippines will welcome it. An independently acting Japan would be a different prospect, however, but that is not practically possible and is not really what the discussion is about at this point in time.

There are concerns, however, that the Abe administration is being unnecessarily provocative in even mentioning this.

On the face of it, it may indeed look unnecessary and inflammatory. And it is possible that US and Japanese leaders and officials may still judge it to be too inflammatory at a point in time when Japan is trying to improve relations with the PRC.

But if at some point “patrols” in the SCS do go ahead, the issue can be looked at from a wider view than just that of the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Certainly Japan does not have any direct territorial interests in the SCS, but Japan’s own national security will be greatly affected by any instability and conflict in the SCS, making it a legitimate stakeholder. Few countries anywhere are as dependent on regional maritime approaches as Japan is for both its resources and its income. For this reason, Japan has already been playing a security role in the region for some time, through its anti-piracy initiatives in region cooperating with littoral ASEAN nations. It has also been a critical part of the response to natural disasters in the region. It is likely that Japan would not be patrolling the region in an independent fashion at this point in time, and it will be cooperating with the US and perhaps the Australian navies, especially now that Australian warships have embedded with the 7th Fleet.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is whether Japan can in practical terms commit to more than just symbolic cooperation in the SCS. A larger commitment of resources could potentially lead to strategic vacuums opening up elsewhere closer to Japan itself, which is still the SDF’s primary responsibility. Without significantly greater investment in the defense budget, Japan’s power projection capabilities will remain modest. There is a great risk of overextending the MSDF in particular, which may not be strategically very wise. This has been an issue with conservatives like Koizumi and Abe – they have big strategic plans for the SDF and the alliance but they do not always appreciate the strategic and resource risks inherent in widening the range of roles and the geographic scope of operations that Japan’s defense officials do.

That said, the Japanese government is quite sensitive about the possibility of there being a future weakening of US commitment to the region in general, and even a symbolic commitment will allow Japan to start to position itself better in the regional strategic order should the US’ strategic rebalance stagnate in the future.

Now for Something Completely Different: Kind Words for Abe Shinzo

After Abe Shinzo’s victory in the LDP presidential race, Japan Security Watch co-perpetrator James Simpson and I consoled ourselves on Twitter with recognition that while Abe may have been a failure (and indeed a potential danger) on the domestic front the first time around, his foreign and security policy accomplishments, aside from a few indiscrete remarks, were significant.

There is a tendency to see Japan’s foreign policy in the 21st century split between the “conservative nationalist” period which would cover the Koizumi, Abe and Aso cabinets, and the “Asianist” period with the LDP Fukuda interlude and the DPJ (or earlier to Obuchi if you want book ends). If one however pays attention to what was done, rather than what was said during the last 11 years, a more appropriate division could arguably be made between the Koizumi tenure and the post-Koizumi tenure, of which Abe ushered into existence.

The fact of the matter is is that Koizumi’s foreign policy was not only somewhat opportunistic but often unfocused. In terms of military and security policy, Koizumi dedicated Japan’s resources to inappropriate endeavours and his adminstration appeared to lack an articulated strategic focus other than to simply follow behind the US, something which ultimately overstretched the SDF’s resources and doctrinal coherence to the point of danger. Only, perhaps ironically, under the DPJ, are we seeing a more robust and focused consideration and debate in regards to what the SDF should be doing, rather than trying to do everything or anything that is politically expedient at the time. Koizumi also displaced Obuchi’s human security agenda from the centre of Japan’s foreign policy, at least rhetorically, seemingly on the basis of personal whim. This was an area of foreign policy endeavour where Japan was a global leader and one of great value in terms of Japan’s national interests in the strategically important Southeast Asia region. During Koizumi’s time in office Japan’s crediblity and influence in Southeast Asia fell to its lowest levels, while China was making significant strides precisely at this time. Despite this, Koizumi only visited Southeast Asia once during five years outside of multilateral forums and the like. Even when he did things right, like embracing Indonesia during the post-tsunami humanitarian crisis and during the subsequent crisis (and then peace-process) in Aceh, he failed in terms of follow up and ensuring Japan remained committed. Indeed, after making the initial running Japan meekly ceded a primary leadership role to Finland in Aceh. If Koizumi had of cared more about a coherent and consistent foreign policy in this critical region he may well have ended up with a Nobel Peace Prize as well as enhancing Japanese credibility in the region. The less said about Northeast Asia under Koizumi’s watch, the better, of course.

Abe on the other hand, while only in office one year, was much more focused in terms of foreign policy goals, and was generally constructive and effective. Japan security and geopolitical relations with many strategically critical nations for Japan such as India, Australia, and Vietnam actually went forward in concrete terms in all realms – diplomatic, economic and military. Relations with Northeast Asia, much to everyone’s surprise, stabilized and improved. Abe, and those who came after him, presided over actual progress being made on FTAs/EPAs in the region rather than simply engaging in rhetoric about “region building.” If one pays close attention to what has actually happened under the DPJ in terms of foreign policy, strategic and security policy developments, (that is, rather than being distracted by the diplomatic and political noise), then much of what the DPJ has done effectively in foreign and security policy, albeit quietly, is arguably a continuation and strengthening of tendencies and agendas initiated under the Abe regime.

While the above is somewhat oversimplified for the purposes of making clear that not all is what it seems, it is in this context that one can read fellow antipodean and friend of the show Andrew Levidis‘ articulate, balanced and unsentimental take (not a criticism) on what an Abe 2.0 administration might mean – something MTC was right to identify.

One paragraph in particular could well describe where the DPJ after three years has ended up in regards to foreign policy thinking:

Japan’s diplomatic strategy toward China during the Abe cabinet was symbolised by an ‘unsentimental perception of friendship’ in which China was ‘neither enemy, nor neutral nor friend’. As premier, Abe made the symbolic decision to visit Beijing, endorsed the official declaration of wartime aggression and accepted the creation of a Sino–Japanese history commission. Yet at the same time he rejected the link between anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and the so-called history problem, criticised China experts within Japan for their ‘excessive reactions’, warned of the instability within China from the loss of the philosophical paradigm of ‘equality of outcomes’, and warned of China’s rapid acquisition of military power.

This view would not be out of place among some of the junior and centrist elements of the DPJ, although this was not necessarily the case at the start of 2009. The irony is that Abe’s social and domestic agenda is anethema to many of these very same people, despite there being areas of linkage in the foreign and security policy dimension. Abe’s seeming contempt for the Japanese constitution, symbolized by the setting up of the ‘Yanai Committee’ to discuss how to “reinterpret” the constitution, is also viewed by many in the centre (of both parties) as cynical and contrary to the very spirit of democratic liberalism that Abe and other conservatives are keen to promote as the key difference between Japan and China.

The other issue is that the foreign policy Abe wanted to pursue, and the one he did pursue, may well have been quite different – such are the difficulties of being in a position of compromise and there is no necessary shame in that. However if is is indeed the case, as some have suggested, that Abe believes that the foreign policy he pursued while in office was too soft, rather than being somewhat competent, then this is indeed a troubling thought.

I will leave the last words to Andrew:

Shinzo Abe’s return to the presidency of the LDP and (potentially) to the Japanese premiership offers both opportunity and danger, and the degree to which he succeeds in reconciling the seeming contradictions within his vision will have a direct bearing upon Japan’s relations and role in Asia.

Japan and Australia to take Perhaps the Final Big Step in the Relationship?

A very interesting development out of New York this morning (日). Japan and Australia, on the heels of the recent two-plus-two dialogue in Sydney where Japan’s foreign and defense ministers had to rush home admist the controversy over the Senkaku Islands with China, have agreed to further deepening of the strategic partnership, and have also committed themselves to making a breakthrough on the Economic Partnership Agreement which has been under negotiation for 5 years.

This would be a significant step for the bilateral relationship. Australia and Japan already have a ministerial “two-plus-two dialogue.” In fact Australia is the only nation other than the US to have such an arrangement with Japan. Japan’s two-plus-two dialogues with Vietnam and India are at the sub-ministerial level. Australia and Japan in the last few years have signed a Acquisitions and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) and also an intelligence-sharing agreement. They have recently begun conducting bilateral military exercises together with the Nichi-gou Trident exercises in June this year. Japan’s SDF is also, after US Forces Japan, the most familiar with the Australian defense forces as the two countries have deepened military-level relations starting with the Cambodia UNPKO, and have comprehensively engaged with each other in regional peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief,  and human security fields. Of course, the Australians were also the ones to protect the Japanese SDF in Iraq.
So, other than a formal alliance, which is unlikely due to Japan’s restrictions on the exercise of collective self-defense, and also the fact that alliances are no longer the weapon of choice for security partnerships, there was only a few areas left where the two countries can usefully collaborate in more depth than they do now. One such area is in the maritime domain, particularly around Anti-Submarine warfare (ASW). When the two countries held their first bilateral exercises recently they engaged in ASW exercises, something they have also done so with the US in trilateral exercises. Furthermore, there has been interesting discussion in the Australian press about the Japanese working with the Australians, perhaps in a joint partnership, to outfit the Royal Australian Navy with 12 submarines similar to the highly regarded Japanese diesel-electric mid-sized Soryuu submarine. We will see where that goes.

[Going, it is. One day after writing this Japan and Australia announce that they are seriously considering working together on finding a replacement for the troubled Collins-class submarines].

Two other areas are in regards to the economic partnership, and collaboration on the UN, including UN Security Council reform. Australia is currently competing for a non-permanent seat on the next installment of the UN Security Council, and Japan is sure to support this. Australia has after all supported Japan’s ascension to the UNSC as a permanent member after UNSC reform (if it ever takes place) since the early 1990s. In terms of the economic partnership, while it has been deepening over time without an EPA, particulary as Japan has invested much more in the Australian mineral resource economy recently (in part a response to Chinese investment in Australia), negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement lagged for some time. However, in the last year or so it would seem that the DPJ, perhaps using the TPP as a bait and switch approach to distract the anti-FTA elements at home, begun a new push for an EPA* with Australia. Certainly it seemed that the Japanese govenrment was more engaged than it had been in previous years, with the exception of a bit of activity when negotiations were first entered into in 2007. Of note in terms of this particular announcement, is that the last time an Economic Partnership Agreement was explicitly connected to the deepening of the strategic partnership in this way was when former Prime Minister Abe in 2007 basically told his own bureaucracy that an EPA with India would be agreed to and that it was to be done soon. And indeed it was soon settled and is now in force. It is within this context that we can perhaps understand the latest commitment, and it would not surprise me if we see an EPA between Australia and Japan, irrespective of what happens on the TPP, within the next two years.

* Japan doesn’t do “FTAs” as they see them as too narrow. They tend to go for wider “economic partnership agreements,” which put less emphasis on increasing the percentage of trade items where tariffs will not be applied (to be called an FTA this usually needs to be somewhere in the mid-90s (%)), in favour of economic engagement and agreements in areas wider than tariff liberalization.

Japan’s Regional Security Environment and Possibilities for Conflict

The next 5 months could be one of high drama and tension in East Asia geopolitics due to various leadership transitions and elections. In South Korea we have already seen election year sensitivities coming to have real life policy consequences with the last-minute cancellation of the ACSA/GSOMIA military accords between Japan and the ROK. With the presidential election due to be held in December 2012 this might just be the first in a series of tensions between Japan and South Korea, or even between the ROK and the US. North Korean leaders are also the masters of milking the US presidential season for concessions by simultaneously escalating tensions and negotiating for their deescalation.

The US presidential and congressional elections take place in November this year, which will constrain President Barack Obama on issues such as North Korea, Iran, and the TPP, and will likely push him to take tougher positions on China-related issues such as human rights, currency manipulation and adherence to WTO rules. China will also undergo a leadership change around November this year, and although the top two positions of CCP General Secretary (and eventually PRC president) and Party Secretary (and eventually Premier) of the State Council appear to be relatively safe for Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang, the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee could well change depending on internal CCP politics around internal and external events. It is important to bear in mind that the slowdown in the Chinese economy that is currently taking place could make this a more sensitive time than normal for the PRC. This sensitivity could be exacerbated by Sino-American relations. Every president since Nixon has essentially found it useful to take a tougher line on China in their first term. Some have speculated this is because of the lack of a working relationship and distrust between Chinese leaders and a new US administration, and the general demands of reelection politics. Human rights, trade, and Taiwan/North Korea issues generally tend to pop up as critical issues around US election time and the administration in power cannot be seen to be taking a soft line towards China. Of course this is simply not just about the US. When the PRC undergoes its sensitive 10-yearly leadership transition analysts have pointed out that actors other than the core CCP leadership tend to have their influence augmented and reflected more in PRC foreign policy and diplomacy. The PLA and the SOE sector of the economy for example tend to have greater influence during this period. With these two pivotal events for Sino-American relations taking place in exactly the same month tensions are sure to rise, and the possibility for diplomatic conflict or worse cannot be ruled out. Recent tensions over the South China Sea may well have set the tone for the next 5 months or more.

Then there is Japan. While Japan’s House of Representatives election does not have to be held until the middle of next year there has been some talk about a November date, after the ruling DPJ and the opposition LDP’s internal party elections. Given the various inter- and intra-party interests this seems quite plausible, although far from determined. From the foreign policy view this could add to diplomatic tensions in East Asia. For Noda Yoshihiko the main goal before then will be for him to suck as much oxygen out of his opponents’ likely election platforms by either appealing to his opponents to work together on these platforms in the interim, or taking them on as his own.

Indeed there are signs of such a strategy being implemented. Noda is continuing to support the Osaka-mayor backed development of legislation to turn the Osaka region into a Metropolitan administrative district similar to Tokyo. While Noda is unlikely to decisively agree to Japan’s joining TPP negotiations, he will continue to fly the TPP flag – another policy interest of Mayor Hashimoto Toru and his reformist One Osaka (Ishin no Kai) party. Both the One Osaka party and the LDP have identified in their policy statements a desire to change Japan’s disposition towards defense and collective self-defense in particular – the LDP through the dubious mechanism of “constitutional reinterpretation” and Hashimoto through a constitutional amendment to Article 9. Noda has in the last week identified discussion on the interpretation of collective self-defense as something he wants to push forward in the current parliamentary session, particularly as it pertains to defense of US ships on the high seas and Japan’s use of its BMD system to  defend the US from ballistic missile attack. Finally, Noda has also pushed forward on the previously identified proposal of ‘nationalizing’ the Senkaku Islands, where the government takes over ownership from the current private owner. This is clearly focused on taking a little wind out of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro’s sails – something that Ishihara furiously alluded to in public. It is also a reasonably popular policy which will do no harm to Noda assuming he acts in a more decisive way than Kan Naoto’s administration did when faced with Chinese pressure over the islands.

The Noda administration’s other objective will be to relieve itself of as much pressure as possible from external sources as well. US-Japan relations could become a source of tension due to a number of issues. First there is the ongoing issue over the Futenma Replacement Facility. Second there is the continuing controversy and diplomatic friction over the deployment of the unpopular Ospreys to both Okinawa and Japan’s mainland. Third, there is the TPP, where arguments for Japan to enter negotiations have become weaker giving recent US demands. Noda is in an impossible situation in regards to all of these issues, given how politically vulnerable he now is in terms of both the upper and lower house numbers (as any subsequent prime minister will be without a solid majority in the Diet). In the short-term the best that Noda can do is state that he is committed to pushing forward with the policies, and hope that US election politics mercifully distracts Washington DC.

Noda’s plan to discuss collective self-defense may also have an external facing dimension. Given Noda’s political acumen, it would not be a surprise to find out that he is using such discussions as a hedge against Chinese escalation of the Senkaku Islands dispute that is likely to come about should Noda’s “nationalization” plan come to fruition in the next few months. While the CCP can be unpredictable in terms of how they react to certain sensitive diplomatic issues, the party leadership, and likely the PLA, will be united in not wanting to see Japan take on a more proactive military stance. The CCP at least still takes a realist approach to its foreign policy thinking, and the one thing they will not want to see, now that the strategic “distraction” of Taiwan has been somewhat dampened in the interim, is Japan rising to become a full strategic competitor in the East Asia region. A change in Japan’s collective self-defense doctrine would portend such a development for the Chinese leadership. The Chinese will be all the more wary given Japan’s recent activities in strengthening relations with its ASEAN partners. Not wanting to give the Japanese government a good excuse to go forward with changes in Japan’s security doctrine, the CCP may well tone down its ‘outrage’ over the nationalization of the Senkakus, assuming that the more hardline policies such as the stationing of the SDF of the islands, as proposed by Ishihara Shintaro, are not entertained. If more hard-line ‘nationalist’ elements in the CCP, or in the PLA in particular, take advantage of the more permissive pre-leadership transition political environment and move to escalate the issue then Noda possibly figures that he can make some political capital out of that as well, depending on the nature of the escalation.

The above is perhaps a somewhat cynical reading of the current geopolitical environment and internal politics of various regional actors. There are promising developments such as the potential (日) restarting of trade talks between Japan and the ROK, and Japan’s likely participation in three-way talks on a NE Asia trade bloc with China and the ROK. There may even be some coming together over North Korea and a restart of the six-party talks given China’s increasing displeasure with the DPRK. These will all have great long-term significance if they come to fruition. However in the short-term one should expect tension to be the norm rather than the exception. This coming together of domestic politics and external developments in putting pressure on various governments, which will need to be mediated through sensitive East Asian publics, means that avoidance of such tensions will likely require skillful behind-the-scenes diplomacy until at least early 2013.

Ad-hoc reflections on the meaning of the TPP

The one thing I’ve noticed since arriving in Japan and having reflected on the TV coverage of the TPP discussions and debate, is quite how earnest, and I would argue, over-earnest the debate really is in Japan, notwithstanding the potential future impact on an over-represented voting bloc in Japan.

The fact of the matter is, no one really knows what the TPP is going to be and (from the point of view of the Japanese at least it would seem) its main sponsor, the US itself, may well be the biggest spanner in the works of any eventual TPP deal that even half way meets the expectations originally articulated in regards to this “high quality” trade and investment agreement.

The one thing we have to remember is that while the US is committed to a certain kind of a liberal trade order, it has a pretty chequered history in regards to its commitment to the liberal political and trade order in general. There are a number of nations involved (including the one from which this author comes) that are extremely sceptical about any deal eventually negotiated by any American administration, and given that the 60 vote necessity in the Senate now almost appears semi-constitutional, these nations will be even more sceptical going forward.

The additional problem that some countries will have is that they will in trying to meet US requirements potentially risk aggravating some of their own key political constituencies while possibly getting nothing much in return. In New Zealand for example any proposed changes to the government procurement systems in health, and IP laws (which will only advantage US companies – something which came up pretty quickly in the debate in NZ) which the US is pushing for through the TPP, will be looked upon quite suspiciously. In fact the very popular government in New Zealand was not willing to risk even a little bit of political capital on this and ruled out any fundamental changes to the Pharmac model due to TPP negotiations, without a single bit of discussion. If a popular government is unlikely to give the US what it wants, it is going to be a considerably harder road for other nations – including Australia and Japan, whose domestic political situations are much more precarious.

There is also some suspicion arising among some fellow TPP travellers in regards to the US’ primary motives toward accession to the TPP. The original P4 countries (which involved New Zealand and hence why a pesky little non-important country genuinely committed to free trade like NZ cannot be brushed away in the discussions) that are at the “core” of the TPP, and not a few of the 5 negotiating to join are somewhat concerned about just how eager the US became toward the TPP in 2010 in particular. In fact top Australian and New Zealand political figures concerned at some of the external rhetoric floating around the TPP in Washington have had to communicate to key figures supporting the TPP  in no uncertain terms that the moment they (NZ and Australia – and likely Malaysia and Singapore wouldn’t be far behind in echoing the sentiment) smell a China containment policy, they are gone from the negotiations.

After all Australia had to sign a FTA with the US which did not go anywhere near as far in liberalizing the US agricultural market as hoped by the Australians, and due to the same range of interests and stakeholders a NZ-US FTA has not been a realistic consideration. Perhaps these comments are unfair and that the Obama administration in particular is more genuine. But in terms of US commitment to trade liberalization when it doesn’t suit them – well I guess many of these nations will believe it when they see it.

That is not to say that the TPP is a dead duck or negotiations are of  no value. In the short-term it could do good things in terms of clarifying rules of origins, procedures for trade remedies, and may even be a useful mitigating dynamic pushing back against tendencies towards protectionism that some are predicting will arise in the next year or two. However on the trade front – the most important front for most of the nations involved – this is likely to take a very long time and it is unlikely any deal – at least one as high in quality as initially desired – will be wrapped up in the space of a few years (unless some kind of security or economic jolt makes it more diplomatically and politically feasible).

What does this mean for Japan? Well first of all Peter Ennis gives a run down on the current inter-personal and diplomatic dynamics between Tokyo and Washington that I have no additional insights to add to. Essentially he argues that Tokyo and Washington, surprise surprise, might well be on different pages in regards to the symbolic and diplomatic dimensions of Japan’s agreeing to start negotiations.

However from my point of view it seems the Noda government’s signalling about the meaning of the TPP is somewhat curious overall. In one, simplistic sense, Japan has little to lose from joining negotiations as it is unlikely to be the only one with baggage coming into the negotiations. It is just more up front and earnest about them. The time scales here are in the order that Japanese agriculture and the government would have ample time to respond to any changes. After all, in the Australia-US FTA the US implementation of the limited amount of agricultural liberalization was somewhat tardy. These sort of dynamics do not appear to have been communicated very well in the Japanese media. In a sense, Kan’s concept of a “third opening” was somewhat of an over-exaggeration to the degree that Kan seemed to be focused solely on the TPP which took on more symbolism than it perhaps deserved.  The TPP could  be very big. But there is a long way to go. I thus found it quite interesting watching one Japanese TV program where it remarked how the production of certain agricultural goods had in the space of 25 years (or so) reduced a number of times over since liberalization. An economy can change quite a lot in 25 years and for the most part, it probably should. I don’t doubt that trade liberalization had something to do with these reductions but little mention was made of the redistribution of capital and labour resources that likely happened in the interim period.

Secondly, there is the question of whether the TPP as important as some of the other developments in global finance and trade. It may or may not have escaped the attention of some that a certain neighbourly competitor (South Korea) has already signed an FTA with Europe, and bilateral agreements with the US and Australia appear to be just around the corner. For the record, South Korea is only somewhat interested in the TPP.

Or perhaps all of the talk around the TPP, as Ennis in more polite terms suggests, a good way to placate the US diplomatically in order to relieve pressure over the Futenma issue? It may also be a valuable way to draw domestic fire away from Japan’s other more interesting trade projects, namely the already signed agreement with India, continued and redoubled efforts with the EU and Australia, and the start of China and South Korea trade discussions.

Japan also fundamentally likely shares concerns about the TPP turning into not just an economic hedge against China but also a full on “anti-Chinese” project. In this sense, the US should be secure enough in its relationship with Japan, and understanding enough of Japan’s own national interests, and recognise that the pursuit of simultaneous trade agreements with key Asian neighbours is actually a very good idea for Japan in terms of how it effects its long-term ability to manage diplomatic, economic and security tensions in East Asia.

SBY and Kan

If you are interested in Indonesia-Japan relations, I have a post over at Japan Security Watch. If not, all I have to report on the domestic situation right now is more of the same – although Ishiba Shigeru has been in the news a bit.