Shinzo Abe’s Foreign Policy and Reactions from Asian Powers
Since taking office as Japan’s Prime Minister for the second time, Shinzo Abe’s foreign policy posture has been under close scrutiny. Most have been concerned about his proposal to revise the Japanese Constitution, and how he has handled various expressions of nationalist sentiment from members of his ruling coalition. Some are also taking note of Abe’s recent visits to Russia and the Middle East. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentaries from Japan, China, South Korea, Russia and India.
Opinion is sharply divided on the question of revising Japan’s constitution to allow the country’s Self-Defense Forces to strike hostile nations if Japan comes under threat.
- Liberal-leaning papers have been strongly opposed to such constitutional revisions. “We are alarmed by this move,” worried the Asahi Shimbun. “Isn’t it more likely to aggravate, rather than ease, regional tensions and lead to an arms race?”
- The Mainichi News was more moderate in its criticism, saying that “the question of the SDF’s use of weapons in U.N. peacekeeping operations should be considered separately from operations to protect Japanese nationals.” It also voiced concern that procedural changes which would make it easier to initiate constitutional amendments risked undermining parliamentary democracy.
- In contrast, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun declared, “The time has come to consider enabling SDF to attack enemy bases,” suggesting specific weapons systems that would “supplement the U.S. military’s offensive power” and “buttress the bilateral defense system.”
The positions of the Asahi and Mainichi were also reflected in their criticism of revisionist interpretations of Japan’s role as an aggressor in WWII, as exemplified in comments by Abe and other senior members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
- “Voices questioning the Abe administration’s historical perceptions are rapidly spreading in the United States,” cautioned the Asahi. “If nothing is done to rectify the situation, Japan may even face isolation from the international community.” The Mainichisaid the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Cabinet members highlights a “lack of sensitivity.”
- Both papers were concerned how this would affect Japan’s relations with its neighbors,particularly South Korea, calling for “fresh diplomatic efforts to build mutual trust” and pointing out that “it’s especially important to detach the historical problems between our countries from measures to deal with North Korean threats.”
The papers were more similar in their criticism of Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, who recently remarked that sex slaves during WWII were necessary and that U.S. troops currently in Okinawa should use legal prostitutes.
- Of Hashimoto’s rhetoric, the Yomiuri Shimbun said it “made us doubt his common sense and dignity as a public figure,” and the Asahi Shimbun said it “not only pours salt into the wounds of former comfort women but it is also an affront to women today as well as U.S. servicemen.”
On other foreign policy fronts, Japanese commentary welcomed Japan-Russia cooperation in economic and security affairs, and looked forward to making steady progress on negotiating territorial disputeswith Moscow. Regarding Japan’s diplomacy in the Middle East, some frowned upon Abe’s efforts to export Japan’s nuclear technology, arguing that “in its rush to grab business opportunities offered by surging demand for nuclear power, the Japanese government is showing no sign of giving thoughtful consideration” to the “urgent and formidable challenge” to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Chinese commentary has lambasted Abe and his party for their nationalistic comments.
- Abe’s remarks on Japan’s role in WWII was “beautifying aggression” and reflected a “cowardly philosophy” which “lacks humanity,”criticized Xinhua.
- “These are clear signs of militarism rearing its head in Japan,” argued a Nankai University professor in a China Daily op-ed. “By following this path, Abe is making a fool of himself….It’s time he realized that his lamentable lack of foresight and right-wing zeal will sour Japan’s relations with its neighbors and bring utter disgrace on the country.”
The Global Times ran a series of editorials suggesting how China should respond:
- “China cannot change Abe’s value nor influence his strategic choice. China should lower its expectations toward the bilateral relationship.As for Abe himself, we should have no expectation. We believe that there is no need for Chinese leaders to meet him during his term.”
- “Japan will fall by itself. China doesn’t need to launch fierce counterattacks. Instead, it can just express its firm stance to make Japan feel scared.”
Editorials in South Korea were also harshly critical of the Abe Administration’s right-wing tendencies.
- The Chosun Ilbo expressed strong fear and anger at recent Japanese rhetoric: “Japanese politicians are trying to win votes…by appealing to populist, rightwing sentiment with their attempts to whitewash the unimaginable atrocities and slaughter…committed by Japanese troops during World War II. Nobody dares to counter that dangerous lurch to the right, in which Abe is a leading figure. That is why the country cannot be allowed to revise its pacifist constitution and arm itself again.”
- “We are seriously concerned about the right-leaning path of Japanese politicians,” wrote theJoong Ang Daily. “Abe seems to be hallucinating, blinded by the success of the low yen and the support of extreme rightists.”
- However, the Joong Ang also printed a slightly more sympathetic op-ed by a professor at Case Western University in the U.S. “Independently of the South Korean government’s diplomatic handling of the Japanese provocations, Korean people can contribute to an amelioration of their relationship with the Japanese people by letting them know that Koreans do not believe that Japan is wholly or optimally represented by its politicians on the right.”
During Abe’s visit to Moscow in late April, the two countries agreed to prioritize Russian-Japanese trade, economic, investment and energy cooperation. Following Abe’s visit, a number of major Russian energy firms now seek to expand their relations with Japan:
- Russian gas company Gazprom is now looking to develop terminals to process liquefied natural gas as well as distribution networks in Japan. Putin acknowledged Japan’s energy shortage struggles following the 3/11 Fukushima disaster, noting to Abe that, “Russia’s hydrocarbon reserves are so [enormous] that they are also capable of meeting Japan’s growing requirements without detriment to our traditional partners“
- Russia’s Rosneft has signed a cooperation agreement with INPEX, Japan’s largest energy explorer, to jointly explore oil and gas in the Sea of Okhotsk. The Director General of the Russian Direct Investment Fund announced he expected Russian-Japanese ventures could increase 10 times over the next three years.
Indians have been much less concerned about Abe’s nationalistic rhetoric and more interested in the strategic and material interests behind Abe’s foreign policy ventures.
- C. Raja Mohan, renowned expert in security studies and a columnist for the Indian Express, highly commended Abe for “pushing Japan into a rare moment of creative diplomacy.” Known as a great-power realist, Mohan praised the “new strategic imagination” in Tokyo’s efforts to reach out diplomatically and economically to Russia, improve ties with the Middle East, and revive its nuclear energy sector through exports.
- An analysis in the Hindustan Times also highlighted the importance of Japan’s nuclear exports, pointing out that “India hopes Abe’s expected sweep of upper house elections in Julywill pave the way for the final signing of a bilateral civil nuclear agreement.”