Before Noda Goes to Moscow, Mori

It seems yesterday’s post was well timed. The Japanese media is now reporting (日) that former prime minister and recenty retired LDP elder Mori Yoshiro is currently preparing to fly to Moscow to meet with President Putin ahead of Noda’s visit in December. One government official has denied that this has anything to do with the government, with it being suggested the meeting is simply a catch up between old friends. It is certainly true that Mori and Putin have close personal connections. Mori was, for one, the Japanese PM at the time of the singing of the infinitely sensible Irkutsk Declaration in 2001, which reconfirmed the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration signed on the eve of normalization in 1956. The original declaration committed the two sides to signing a peace treaty which would in turn result in the return of two of the southernmost Kuriles, Habomai and Shikotan, to Japan.

Along with Suzuki Muneo, Mori has the necessary personal connections to facilitate a positive outcome if the Japanese government is open to it. Thus, giving the timing, it is hard to believe this is a mere coincidence. It is also very interesting that Mori has come out and reprimanded (日) LDP President Abe for focusing too much on getting Noda to call an election this year, something which could certainly interfere with any progress on Russo-Japanese relations and would limit Noda’s credibility in any discussions.

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.

Reaction to Hashimoto’s Senkaku Suggestion

In response to Hashimoto Toru’s suggestion that Japan take China to the ICJ over the Senkaku Islands dispute, the Japanese government was negative, and it continued to insist there is no territorial dispute despite Hashimoto admonishment over the stance. No surprises so far.

However, two non-cabinet members of the DPJ, and probably the two most important voices on security issues within the party, have shown a hint of flexibility on the issue. Two days ago Nagashima Akihisa, the prime minister’s foreign and security policy aide, said on national television (日) that Japan would consider responding to a Chinese request to seek ICJ arbitration. Then this evening, on the same TBS station, Maehara Seiji, who will likely be back in the cabinet tomorrow, also said  (日) the government would give consideration to any Chinese proposal to go to the ICJ. He did rule out however Japan being the one to make the initial move, saying that as Japan was the nation that actually administrated control over the islands then it would be unusual for Japan to be the one to lodge the dispute with the ICJ. That does make some sense – such a move may project doubt over the legitimacy of one’s own claim. Ultimately the government probably forced its own hand in this regard and it is possible that it may have regreted reacting to ROK President Lee’s provocation on Dokdo by lodging a complaint with the ICJ (which the ROK then rejected), given that a Japanese refusal to respond in kind on the Senkaku Islands would look contradictory. Of course, without an official government statement suggesting that it would consider responding to any ICJ case, then the contradiction will not be fully resolved. Nevertheless, this is more flexibility, and more sense, than many expected.

While I have no basis for assuming this, but it is always possible that the recent willingness of the US to (re)assert that the Senkakus were covered under Article 5 of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty was connected by the Obama administration to Japan perhaps showing a degree more flexibility on the issue and at the very least consider ICJ arbitration, thus putting the ball in China’s court. Will the CCP take the, quite significant risk, as detailed in Friday’s post, of taking this to the ICJ? Is this a bluff by the Japanese government? If so, will it be called?

It will be interesting to see if this gets any coverage in the Chinese media, or how, or if, the Chinese government reacts to the overture.


Hashimoto Digging Himself into a Hole with Japan’s Conservatives?

While the recent Chinese protests against Japan did very little for China’s image as a country ruled and inhabited by rational and well-informed people, in terms of the public relations war over the Senkaku territorial dispute itself, and regarding drawing attention to China and Taiwan’s dangerous attempts to undermine Japanese effective administrative control, Japan has been faring badly.

The main problems have been the combination of Japan’s unwillingness to admit that there is a territorial dispute, combined with simplistic understandings of the historical context of Japan’s acquisition(by both sides of the argument, actually), which has made it look less than reasonable, especially as critics have pointed to Japan’s WWII-related territorial disputes with other nations. The recent prominence of hardline conservative voices regarding the Senkaku Islands dispute has also raised suspicions elsewhere. While Japan has proposed taking the ROK to the ICJ over Dokdo, has emphasized the “rule of (international) law” in the UN, and has criticized the ROK for not recognizing the dispute, it has been too timid to also adhere to the same exact logic regarding the Senkaku Islands, which drastically undermines its credibility.

At the same time the Japanese government has also been unable to articulate to the international community that any Chinese attempt to undermine effective control, is, irrespective of historical and legal dimensions of the dispute itself, invalid and dangerous. Essentially there is a difference between being pigheaded and committing violence against the international order. The principle of respecting effective control must be adhered to, especially given the serious limitations of international law regarding dealing with historical territorial claims. However, if Japan admitted that there was a territorial dispute, was open to taking it to the ICJ, perhaps in exchange for China recognizing Japan’s administrative control and not challenging it, then perhaps China’s actions would be regarded as every bit as provocative as the Japanese believe they should be. This is the jist of former ambassador and head of the MOFA Treaties Bureau Kazuhiko Togo‘s argument to deal with the situation, anyhow. There is certainly something to it.

It is of great interest in this context of territorial and international law disputes, security tensions, and “hardliner” Abe Shinzo’s ascendance to the LDP throne, that Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru has chosen this time to pick a Twitter fight with conservatives over territorial and history issues. I have reproduced selected elements of the discussion below with commentary. While there is a lot to deconstruct and challenge regarding his own view of history and past and current conflicts, the below conversation shows why it is too soon to lump him in with populist “nationalists” like Ishihara Shintaro, or for that matter, conservative “nationalists” like Abe Shinzo and Koizumi Junichiro (as people who walked out of even a reasonably mild Diet resolution on Japan’s war responsibility and defunded the secular alternative to the Yasukuni Shrine).


Hashimoto had earlier suggested that Japan propose dual administration of Dokdo, or the area around it, which is arguably a more moderate proposal than the current government line and certainly more so than calls to “punish” the ROK with sanctions or whatsoever. He had already had media criticism. The storm that this touched off led Hashimoto to confront his interlocutors regarding what they perceived to be “weak-kneed” diplomacy regarding South Korea (on his part and of the current Noda government).

He pointed out the most important point – that South Korea has clear and effective administrative control over the islands. He accused past administrations going way back of having done nothing about the ROK’s acquisition of the islands, but he suggested that this was ultimately Japan’s own “fault” and that they had to accept the cruel facts of life – Korea is not going to give up Dokdo, and like Japan with the Senkakus, it has administrative control. While Hashimoto’s own plan of dual administration will be considered for all of a single second in Korea, Hashimoto felt the need to ask his assailants what they would otherwise do to rectify the situation.

Were they actually saying that they wanted “to use force against Korea to take back the islands?” “No” they said – of course not. “But that is basically what you are arguing for” Hashimoto replies. “What about economic sanctions?” some suggest. “Go back and do so more study! How is that going to work?” Hashimoto accurately notes.

Indeed. Hashimoto seems to at least understand that you can’t take one stance on one territorial issue and then self-indulgently take another stance on another conflict.

This morning Hashimoto is at it again, but this time with the Senkakus. What is that retro-conservative saying now?

Japan should admit that there is a territorial dispute and should be willing to go to the ICJ!

Hmmm…that isn’t going to sit well.


Between sovereign states, claims should be settled by reference to principles of law and justice. The rule of law should be respected. While continuing to adhere to such a stance, it is also a reality that a certain degree of one’s own force needs to be maintained. We must face reality while also adhering to the rule of law.

Thus, in regards to the Senkakus, we should stop with this kind of bureaucratic “there is not territorial dispute” stance. If we are so confident in our convictions we should say to China that we are willing to go to the ICJ. This is our chance – actually China is not too keen to go to the ICJ. International society is neutral in regards to disputes. Even the US does not recognize Japan’s sovereignty and is keeping neutral. If we are willing to resolve through the ICJ, we will get considerable support from international society. Even if Korea and China are reluctant, they will have to explain to the international community their position. Likewise with Russia. We should however also increase our national strength. In regards to defense spending, we should not limit it to 1 percent. We should acquire the level of defense strength that we need. As a maritime nation, including the JCG strength, this is a particularly important topic. We need to embrace collective self defense. And strengthen the US alliance. While leading on the promotion of the rule of international law through the ICJ, we should also strengthen ourselves (militarily).

Regarding Japan’s past war deeds, we should recognize our wrongness [literally “that wrong things are wrong”]. However, in regards to the (unchangeable) circumstances of that era, we should also at the same time[as recognizing the bad things] identify the constructive aspects [likely referring to Taiwan and Korea’s economic growth, or Southeast Asian independence?] and correct global perceptions. All of the thinking (statements) about this period is foggy. This fogginess is the main cause of problems. We cannot just say that everything we did was justified or that we are simply being masochistic [by not recognizing positive aspects]. If we admit to the bad things [atrocities] more specifically then we can also talk about the circumstances of the time [perhaps the reasons for the war] and also our contributions. We can push back against mistaken perceptions. This should be made more clear in our government statements on these issues [the bad things should be detailed more as well as “good” things ie the current vagueness is preventing the recognition of either].

We should admit the wrong things, have sympathy for others, and continue to be cautious [about war?]. But, we should push back against unreasonable criticism. Being able to be proud of what we did is directly connected to our recognizing the injustices.

Hashimoto’s point regarding China and Japan having a “chance” shows a good understanding of the situation. China would certainly hesitate to take the Senkaku Islands dispute to the international court, having built it up into a big deal and emphasizing the “unmistakeable” justice of the Chinese claim. In reality, the historical evidence and justifications are foggy at best, and Japan’s continuous administration and lack of Chinese protest before the 1970s could be fatal for China’s case in a court of international law. Certainly ignoring such a risk would be unwise.

Any Japanese administration that lost the Senkakus would be finished to be sure – but what is a Japanese Prime Minister and a new party in government worth these days anyway? The consequences for the Chinese Communist Party would be much more severe. They may ignore the ruling and take on the nose the possibly irreparable harm done to China’s international reputation – significant all the more because they would have agreed to abide by the ruling by going to court. The other issue is that if Japan received a ruling in its favour then it would almost certainly strengthen further its administrative control over the islands and would feel good about doing so. Would China continue to contest this control? Would it launch a military strike?

Conventional logic would suggest no, given the economic, military and diplomatic losses it would incur. But, the CCP’s legitimacy, especially now that the economy is faltering and social instability is rising, is increasingly based on a perception of it being a hardheaded and effective manager of international relations and of China’s rise, and in particular one that would ensure that the historical traumas inflicted by the West and Japan are not repeated. If the CCP just meekly accepted the ruling, the chance of popular anger rising could well lead to the party’s downfall, or certainly end quite a few political lives. Either it would be accused of having been too soft regarding Japan and/or the international community, or it would be accused by others of deceit and manipulation surrounding the Senkaku Islands.The CCP has recently effectively dealt itself “all in” on this dispute.

So Hashimoto probably calculates that Japan being open to taking the dispute to the ICJ is a low-risk, high-return proposition.

In any respect, Hashimoto was not finished there on Twitter and took a few responses. A few other tidbits that won’t endear him to either the left or the right in Japan:

Interlocutor 1:  If we adhered to the 1 percent cap on military spending then Japan would still be 3rd the highest military spender in the world, and that there is still waste in defense spending – 1 percent should be enough.

[Japan is no where near 1 percent right now FWIW]

Hashimoto: I am not necessarily advocating for going beyond 1 percent…just simply that we should start from the point of view of what we need, and we can take the conversation regarding money from there.

Interlocutor 2: The US and Europe never bother to apologize for their colonialism… and there is no way that they could compensate for hundreds of years of colonialism

Hashimoto: There is no need for us to imitate Europe and America’s bad points. We should recognize the violations and we should also note clearly the constructive actions.

[Fun fact just to stir the pot with my American readers: Until 2009 in the US there was no official apology for black slavery or for the treatment of Native Americans/First Peoples – and the resolutions of 2009 explicitly identified that there would be no compensation]

Interlocutor 3: Maybe you want to abandon the [1965] Japan-Korea Treaty on Basic Relations? [Which resolved the legal issue (for the ROK at least) regarding compensation].

Interlocutor 4: Many [Japanese war criminals] were executed, money was paid, and a treaty was agreed to, don’t you think this has been resolved? Are you saying even though reconciliation money was paid and documents exchanged then this is insufficient?

Hashimoto: Yes, legally speaking. But problems of the spirit [lit. heart] are different from legal issues.

An additional comment to No.4: “Could you say the same thing [directly] to the bereaved families of those caught up in “gratuitous” internal incidents?

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 and China until 2013

At the East Asia Forum I argue that things are less desperate than they currently seem…for now.

Given that not a whole lot is known about Xi Jinping’s views on Japan, we can only but wonder for the time being. Most indications are that since Xi is pragmatic on most issues then this may also apply to foreign policy. We have seen in Chinese behaviour of the last few weeks that economic stability ultimately means a little more than nationalist posturing, although, perhaps, just.

In any respect it seems that the attitude he takes will have a significant impact upon Japan’s long-term foreign policy evolution. With the Japanese domestic political scene in the new year likely to offer the best opportunities in a long time for political entrepreneurs to perhaps even go as far as amending the constitution, then anything provocative that China may do will likely strengthen those calling for revision to Article 9. More on that issue another day, however.

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.

The TPP and Japan’s Geopolitical Environment

Previously I have lamented that the discussion over the TPP in Japan was focused on slightly bizarre and narrow conceptions of the debate revolving around what the TPP will or will not do for the Japanese economy. In short, it seems unlikely to me that failing to join the TPP will either destroy Japanese agriculture, or save the Japanese economy and kick it magically into action, depending on which view you take. Simply put, the health of the Japanese agricultural sector, and Japan’s food security/self-sufficiency is already stagnant under the current system (and some argue that the current system has created such a mess). On the other hand joining the TPP is not going to make or break the ‘internationalization’ of Japan’s economy. This point deserves more attention.

Western companies may well lament the lack of access, as any self-interested actor would do, but in all cases things are not what they seem about the ‘closed’ Japanese economy. In addition to the US farm lobby coming out against the ‘closed’ Japanese agricultural sector (it’s true but it is more a case of the pot being introduced to the kettle), the US automobile industry also feigned an interest in the principles of free trade when it opposed Japanese entry into the TPP on the basis of the Japanese automobile sector being anti-competitive. Of course, the problem with that, as the Japanese car manufacturers indignantly pointed out, is that Japan does not have any tariffs on vehicle imports. And if you are worried about those nefarious non-tariff barriers to trade that one just knows the deceptive Japanese must be upholding, you would need to explain the strong and rising popularity of European cars in Japan, especially relative to the fate of the “Toyota” Cavalier.

On the broader level, natural disasters have actually demonstrated that the Japanese economy is not all that insular. The 3/11 disaster, which snuffed out a producer and intermediate-goods led comeback (where Japan is still the most crucial player, cf. consumer goods) created problems in global supply chains. The Thai floods also brought into sharp relief the fact that Japan has been very gradually to be sure, and some may argue very deliberately, been broadening its economy. The Japanese-led expansion of production networks in Asia, and now the mini-shopping spree Japanese companies are going on in the West due to the almost irrationally strong yen, is a much more consequential dynamic in the short to medium term than what are most likely to be efficiency adjustments that the TPP would likely bring.

That said, I believe it is hard to make any more specific judgement upon the TPP than what I have outlined without the Japanese government actually getting involved in the negotiations.

However since I wrote my original post over a month ago on the broader meaning of the TPP within Japan’s diplomatic world view (a more polished version appeared at the East Asia Forum here), there has been a gradual move of the discourse in Japan towards discussing these broader, more strategic issues. And in the last month the geopolitical environment has started to see some interesting developments as well, which will put Japan’s ultimate choice about joining the TPP in a longer-term context.

First there was the accusations from LDP President Tanigaki and Ishihara Nobuteru that a foreign policy that seeks to exclude China in some way from was inappropriate, or literally (ja) “tone-deaf.” This may sound somewhat opportunistic coming from the LDP, but on the other hand Tanigaki in particular is on reasonable ground here as he has always been less antagonistic toward China within the LDP. Koizumi Shinjiro then took a shot at his own party for putting their heads in the sand on the issue, which in itself is not unreasonable as a criticism, but then went on and suggested that the US should be the axis of both Japan’s economic and security policies. He accused (ja) the leadership of the LDP of pursuing a “Hatoyama-like” policy of East Asia regional integration. These kinds of discussions have been echoing throughout Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki for the last month or so, and the discussions are certainly not confined to the LDP. Which is good.

While Koizumi the younger often has many insightful, sharp and witty things to say, I think he has misunderstood why the name “Hatoyama” has become a foreign policy epithet in Japan at least. And it demonstrates that the US remains the Koizumis’ Achilles’ heal in terms of foreign policy thinking.

The problem with Hatoyama’s thinking was that he suggested that in the short to medium term a clear choice needed to be made about aligning Japan comprehensively with one or the other sphere of influence in its broader foreign policy. While others quickly exaggerated his intensions, Hatoyama did come close to pushing the idea that Japan should align itself with East Asia more, both in economic and security and diplomatic terms, and away from the US.

If Koizumi’s statement was describing the overall debate about the TPP then I would have to agree – some of the “either/or thinking” is a bit reminiscent of Hatoyama’s binary rhetoric, imagined or otherwise.

But Hatoyama didn’t advocate a Japanese foreign policy that made Asia the major economic diplomatic focus, and the US/West as the security focus, which is probably where Tanigaki, and a fair amount of others in Japan, sit right now. As mentioned above, the Hatoyama policy supposedly looked to Asia as the comprehensive focus Japan (economically, culturally, diplomatically, militarily etc)- which is actually very close in logic to Koizumi’s own statement that the US should be the axis for Japan’s economic and diplomatic/security policy!

Another pervasive mistake, implicitly contained within Koizumi’s statement, is assuming that economically Japan can’t have its cake and eat it too. A problem with some of the more passive, multilateral conceptions of Japan’s security policy is that it can be difficult to play various sides of the coin coherently. And security policy requires coherence for it to be effective and for partnerships and responsibilities in times of conflict to be expressly understood. But in the economic, intercultural and diplomatic fields, a Janus-like foreign policy seems seems perfectly reasonable if you can get away with it- and often actually preferable.

In reality an economically integrated East Asia probably complements Japan’s security, including its security relationship with the US, better than an economically narrow ‘littoral-Pacific’ orientation, as suggested by the TPP. A number of reasonable people see stronger East Asian integration as something that would empower the US-Japan alliance in its accepted role of keeping stability in East Asia, and not undermine it. There is another school of thought that suggests, coming from the other direction, that Japan can only pursue a strong relationship with Asia on the back of a comprehensive partnership with the West and the US in particular. This is probably what Koizumi Jr. was really aiming for in his statement. However, this conception ignores the diplomatic sensibilities, and frankly the post-colonial antagonisms that still remain in East Asia, and also diminishes Japan’s own diplomatic capabilities, strengths and distinct advantages it has in Asia compared to Western countries (notwithstanding the obvious weaknesses as well). Despite protestations to the contrary there is no pressing reason for Japan, and other nations in East Asia, to align themselves strongly with the US on all dimensions of foreign policy, including the security and economic dimensions. If the price of having the US in the region while being able to pursue closer economic relations in East Asia, is more burden-sharing in the military dimension to offset US demands, then I am sure Japan and other East Asian nations would take that choice if it came to that.

The good news is that while the Noda administration has made a somewhat untidy political entry into discussions about negotiations on joining the TPP, Japan is moving ahead reasonably quickly with the “plus 3” negotiations (China, Japan, Korea) within the context of discussions on the TPP. At a trilateral summit in Bali the three countries agreed to push (ja) on to starting negotiations next year after a collaborative study group finishes its investigation on the key issues for getting agreement. Overall Japan-China relations seem to be going well and there is talk of strengthening the relationship by going deeper than just looking at a ‘mutually reassuring strategic relationship’ (戦略的互恵関係). Discussion on resource sharing in the East China Sea between the two countries has also restarted. Caution and skepticism is always the appropriate default for understanding Japan-China diplomatic relations, as so strongly emphasised by 2010’s events, however China-Japan relations did get off on the right foot after Noda’s inauguration (en), with both sides deserving credit. It may well be that the TPP, Japan’s interest in it, and Obama’s recent strategic victories in East Asia, may force the Chinese to play softer ball with Japan in the mean time. Developments working in Japan’s strategic favour in the short-term are Myanmar’s rather unexpected about-turn, the Darwin Marines announcement, the TPP and Japan’s interest in this, Japan’s overtures to ASEAN, and the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia in particular, India working closer with everyone but China, potential US military cooperation with Indonesia, and the boost all of this has given to intra-ASEAN relations. Possibly equally important is that on their own any one of these might have made the security environment quite tense, but the sudden and cascading nature of all of these developments seem to have created considerable diplomatic space for Japan to pursue its varied interests. It almost seems of late that Japan has had some diplomatic ‘presence’ which has not been a pervasive description of Japan’s foreign policy for some time. It is not often that a Japanese PM can talk all at the same time of ‘restraining’ China, involving Japan in multilateral negotiations over the South China Sea, while pushing forward on deepening relations between with China with little noise emanating from that direction (ja).

It is in this context the TPP becomes meaningful if talked about and pursued in the right way in the diplomatic context (that is to say, avoid conceptions like Nagashima’s or Koizumi’s). It may well be a way of allowing Japan to participate in what could be a valuable economic development, but it may also give Japan, when pursued in tandem with the potentially more lucrative “plus 3” deal, a bit more leverage in managing its security environment without fear of retribution from one party or another. Specifically, the TPP seems to have allowed Japan to avoid incurring US wrath on Futenma and/or on pursuing East Asia-centric economic regionalism. Irrespective of how the TPP turns out it provides whatever government is in power in Japan some short-term security – after all, one of the number one priorities for any Japanese Prime Minister in the current domestic political environment is to avoid the US, willfully or otherwise, bringing down a government due to said government’s foreign policy credentials being undermined by superficial appearances of strategic discord between the allies (see Hatoyama, Yukio). And while it seems that China might in the short-term be cowed by the strategic blunder that was 2010 and what now appears to have transpired from that, Japan not putting the boot in in the short-term may well be a significant diplomatic enabler later on down the track. Obviously global financial tensions and concerns about China’s own economic stability right now need to be given due consideration.

The Japanese interest in TPP has also seemingly given a bit of a spur to ASEAN plus 6 EPA negotiations, particularly as ASEAN, accustomed to being in the driving seat of regionalism, now faces a renewed “plus 3 threat” as well as the TPP challenge to its prized “multilateral” leadership.

Japan in the various arrangements - Asahi Shimbun 18 November 2011

However, the existing TPP group of 9’s “defensive” decision at APEC to forge ahead without Japan, Canada and Mexico, has made Japan’s accension much less attractive for Noda or the Japanese government in terms of what can be concretely gained from the TPP. The main attraction, perhaps more than the economic benefits, for Japan, was the ability to influence the making of norms and trade rules in what some see to be a pathfinder trade agreement to a broader Asia-Pacific one. The idea here seems to be that now with Japan potentially on board the TPP becomes worth its while, especially for the US. However by excluding Japan from the initial stages they can push the Japanese to accept whatever type of agreement is forged between the group of 9, without giving Japan the chance to raise objections or gain for itself exceptions, except in the drawing up of schedules phase. This is too clever by a long way however. The TPP is not necessarily that valuable to Japan economically, or that crucial to its ‘internationalization,’ that they would necessarily play along with any seriousness. Excluding Japan in this way just makes it all the more easier for Japan to play along for the next year or so and then say no when something not particularly tasty for the Japanese palate is put on the table.

This all assumes of course that things will go as smoothly as the plus 9 countries expect in terms of even negotiations with those countries, which, as belaboured previously, is an assumption one should not bet on. Nevertheless, Japan should enjoy, and perhaps just maybe even aggressively seek to take advantage of, the diplomatic opportunities on offer right now.

The latter of course, requires some domestic stability and consensus, and Noda’s diminishing political prospects as he tackles the thankless job of trying to unite the DPJ around a fiscal plan (including tax rises) for the near future, will be of concern.

Edit: Micheal T. Cucek has an uncanny habit of providing very useful and succinct summaries of my posts. This latest one  is so helpful it is worth providing it here as the effective conclusion to this post:

The key takeaway is that the TPP does not detract from Japan’s options as to strategic alignment but adds to them, forcing other actors within the East Asian drama to be cognizant of Japan’s more varied ecosystem of strategic choice.

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.

Japan to start exporting arms by 2012?

I have a post up at Japan Security Watch looking at a report that was released yesterday that argues for a relaxation of the current arms export restrictions Japan has.

In other news, go here for a good concise run down of ex-Reconstruction Minister Matsumoto Ryu’s weirdness.

For those who are not well disposed towards reading, here is PressTV’s report on the situation. Includes Koizumi Shinjiro FWIW.

The LDP’s least insufferable member Kono Taro has been suspended from all executive LDP party positions for about one year. The LDP senior leadership has been suggesting again the possibility of a “grand coalition,”  with the DPJ to extend its life, which along with the situation around the Hamada expulsion, and the suspensions/punishment of those that voted to extend the Diet session like Kono, is likely to lead to tension in the party.  As suggested before, the LDP could be in for a rough period – discussions about party reform, including the killing off of party factions for once and for all, has seemingly stalled and senior party officials nixed the idea. The party has committed to reconsidering its policy on nuclear power, but who knows if that is genuine or a temporary measure to placate the public and/or those interested in renewable energy within the party.  Time will tell. In fact the party couldn’t even come to an agreement on whether to make the LDP building a no-smoking area – an internal party decision was overturned by its Vice-President Oshima who was having none of that.

It would be worthy of derision, if it wasn’t for the equally sad and significantly more consequential problems the ruling DPJ is facing as a party.

Update: Japan has indeed since subsequently relaxed the restrictions on arms’ exports. Please see here for detailed background, and here for translation of, and commentary on, the document.