Country Report: Japan (August 2017)

Trump’s shadow hung heavily over summer developments in East Asia, as covered in Japan’s media. There was talk of US isolation, retreat in leadership, and failure in managing North Korea. Yomiuri on July 31 cited press accounts abroad without any heartening news for the Japanese public; explanations ranged beyond Trump to the broader US society—inequality, cultural despondency, and so on—as the US image was falling. As Washington pursues two extremes, relying heavily on China to curb North Korea—to the detriment of resisting China’s advances in the South and East China seas—while also planning a military assault on North Korea that raises the threat of its retaliatory attacks on Japanese soil, Japan veered from its talk of a “US-China honeymoon” excluding Japan, as in Yomiuri on June 26, to out-of-control US behavior a month later. Despite Abe’s supposed close ties to Trump, the mood in Japan was troubled.

Consumed with falling ratings at home, Abe’s foreign policy profile was rather low over the summer. Kono Taro emerged as a new voice, becoming foreign minister in early August and just three days later, engaging in a rocky exchange in Manila with Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, offering support to President Duterte of the Philippines despite being easily upstaged by Wang’s promised assistance, joining Vietnam by increasing defense cooperation and criticizing China in the South China Sea, and supporting Tillerson in mobilizing support at ARF against North Korea. Asahi was quick on August 5 to assess Kono’s expected impact, differentiating him from his dovish father Kono Yohei, despite some hopeful voices in China and South Korea. The contrast with a father who in 1993-95 played a large role in reconciling with Asian neighbors is stark: Unlike the father, the son supports constitutional revision to make clear the existence of the SDF, and was early to support Japan’s collective self-defense; and in contrast with the father’s conciliatory views, the son supported Abe’s 70th anniversary statement about the end of the war and the government’s position on the “comfort women” agreement without calling for anything more.

In the August issue of Toa, Asano Ryo reexamined “strategic culture,” pointing to its rise in Japanese international relations studies from the late 1990s to interpret the unexpected changes in China’s behavior and the deterioration of Sino-Japanese ties. This is contrasted with realism and seen as separate from power, leading to study of identities in what is called constructivism. Missing, however, is recognition that few among Japanese analysts had been enamored of realism or economic liberalism; what was happening was a refocusing on other dimensions of national identity, especially reinterpreting Chinese history through sources such as classic writings.

Sino-Japanese Relations

One type of article depicts strains in Sino-Japanese relations from the battle for the skies over the East China Sea, obliging Japanese “topguns” to scramble increasingly often. Chinese pilots sometimes use curse words in Japanese, as China is viewed as seeking greater hegemony and parallels are drawn between Chinese tactics with US reconnaissance planes further south, including the crash over a decade ago due to aggressive moves. Sentaku in June links this to China’s push for area denial and its intelligence war.

There was some confusion over the summer on the state of Sino-Japanese relations. Was Japan hedging against the chaotic US scene by opening the door to joining the BRI? Was the divide over the South China and North Korea deepening, despite Chinese criticisms of Japan continuing unabated? One indicator of trouble was at the ARF, when Wang Yi and Kono Taro clashed, the former accusing the latter of following US orders in his criticism of China and hearing in response that China should behave as a great power. Sankei on August 9 called China’s diplomacy rude, noting that Wang went to the Philippines brandishing assistance and then cancelling a meeting with his Vietnam counterpart over the South China Sea issue. A Yomiuri editorial the previous day asserted as well that China is splitting the ASEAN.

Despite attempts to forge a positive atmosphere for Sino-Japanese relations at the Abe-Xi summit in Hamburg, there was little substantive progress. Japan hoped for at least three noteworthy results: a resumption of the trilateral summit with China and South Korea in Japan as early as the second half of July, to which China refused, perhaps due to the THAAD deployment in South Korea; more Chinese support for tough sanctions on North Korea at a time of deepening tensions; and an exchange of two summits with Xi going to Japan in 2017 to mark the 45th anniversary of their normalized relations and Abe going to China in 2018 for the 40th anniversary of their peace treaty. On June 30 Yomiuri reported on China’s decision against the trilateral summit.

On July 8-9, newspapers showcased the Abe-Xi summit in Hamburg, mostly putting a positive spin on China’s welcome to Abe’s declared interest in exploring cooperation with BRI, although he had stated that a month earlier and put conditions about transparency and international standards, which many doubted would be met. From Asahi came optimism about Japan’s cooperation and China’s response, but from Yomiuri there was more attention to Xi’s proposal to separate politics and economics, implying as though China had no need to meet any political goals, just when Japan was pushing for joint pressure on North Korea in contrast to China’s call for prioritizing dialogue. A July 9 Yomiuri editorial called on China for restraint in the face of accelerating incursions into the area around the Senkaku Islands. Sankei that day was relatively hopeful despite this issue, seeing a mood of cooperation and a relatively calm period in bilateral relations prior to China’s Party Congress.

By early August the focus of Sino-Japanese relations was more fully on North Korea, after its ICBM tests and Trump’s sharpened rhetoric, with blame placed on China for its huge economic help to the North. Hamburg had exposed a wide gap as Japan joined the United States and South Korea in calling for more pressure. Yomiuri on July 13 noted the improved mood in Hamburg, as Chinese media even showed the two leaders standing before the flags of both countries—a message of improving relations—but the gap on North Korea remained wide. Amid what Yomiuri on July 19 called the new “war of nerves” in the Japan Sea with China, China’s warships passed through two straits at opposite ends of Japan. China, and Russia, too, were blamed more on July 30 for its response to North Korea in both Yomiuri and Asahi. Finally, the foreign ministers’ meeting in Manila saw Kono Taro in his debut and sharp exchange with Wang, against the background of a rising risk of a clash between the United States and North Korea, as reported in various Japanese media on August 10, which again, emphasized China’s insufficient cooperation.

Japan-South Korean Relations

On July 23, Yomiuri noted that Moon did not plan to keep his campaign promise to renegotiate the “comfort women” agreement, nor promises to separate history from security and economics in his dealing with Japan. Instead, he calls for naming a Memorial Day for these women from 2018 and establishing an institute in 2019 as well as a history museum in 2020. The editorial warned that these actions would unavoidably damage bilateral relations, while contradicting the promise of looking to the future in relations. Most aggressive in castigating Moon for his policies was Sankei, which on July 19 warned that his overtures to North Korea were out of step with US/Japanese policies as well as repeatedly attacking the “history war” he is instigating. This attack on discord toward the North had been the Yomiuri message on July 2 in responding to the Moon-Trump summit, sustaining Japan’s pessimism toward Moon.

When the head of the foundation in charge of distributing the Japanese funds to the “comfort women” resigned after intense pressure from South Korean media and little reporting on the “success” of the disbursements was made (in contrast to the broad coverage of the minority of “comfort women” in opposition), it was unclear whether Moon would move to disband the foundation altogether, Yomiuri reported the next day. Yet, it pointed out that Moon did not want to damage relations with Japan and break the agreement completely. (Only 25 percent of Japanese did not value the agreement.)

When Kono Taro, now the foreign minister, met with his counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, Japanese called for carrying out the terms of the 2016 “comfort women” agreement and noted that more than 70 percent of the surviving women had indicated that they would accept the funds set aside. On August 10, Asahi called for more efforts to get the funds to the women, although the director of the fund in South Korea had resigned under public pressure. On that same day, Sankei reported that a statue donated by China at Xi Jinping’s urging, of Ahn Jung-geun, the assassin of Ito Hirobumi, was being erected in front of a train station in South Korea just four years after Park Geun-hye had asked Xi to erect a memorial for him in Harbin. Because of a worsening in Sino-ROK relations, news was withheld of the statue in South Korea, but locals are counting on Chinese tourists to visit it.

Sankei, as on August 5, persisted on the “history war” being waged against Japan, warning that a decade after a US House resolution on the “comfort women” issue, it could happen again as distorted truths are being spread by South Korea. With Moon keeping the battle over history alive, Sankei is eager to do so as well, arousing the Japanese public to engage more actively. Sankei on August 4 reported that as the Sea of Japan makes news for being targeted by North Korean missiles, 11 countries reported the name also as the “East Sea” in accordance with South Korean lobbying efforts. Only 58 percent support the newspaper headline indicated, blaming the South Koreans.

An August Toa article found not only deepening mistrust between Washington and Beijing over North Korea—now testing ICBMs—but also no cause for optimism in Japan-ROK relations despite the Moon-Abe summit in Germany in early July. Moon had already called for Japan to assume legal responsibility and officially apologize for the “comfort women,” South Korean media were not objective in their coverage, and Korean movies were showcasing colonial times to put pressure on Japan, leaving a “minus image,” especially among young people. The situation seemed hopeless.

North Korea

An intriguing article in the August Seiron by Kawasoe Keiko links the battle between the Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping factions to their North Korea policy. The Jiang group charges that Xi is damaging Sino-North Korean relations. A major role in the fight is played by the party’s no. 3 Zhang Dejiang of the Jiang faction (along with Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli), who was secretary of the Yanbian Korean autonomous area and Jilin province secretary. He studied in North Korea, learning the language and then traveling as translator to Pyongyang with Jiang Zemin in his first foreign trip as the party secretary of China in 1990. Later he would host Kim Jong-il in Guangdong and lead a delegation to Pyongyang in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of their mutual assistance treaty. The article refers to Zhang as Kim Jong-il’s China representative and the don of the mafia of Jilin—whose ties with the Korean Peninsula have been closest—ethnically and historically. Jiang Zemin’s career is linked closely to Jilin, where he started in a Jilin automobile factory. While in office, Jiang promoted many from Northeast China.

Hu Jintao also kept his ties to North Korea close, the article suggests, including through connections with the Shenyang military district and Dandong in Liaoning province, from which food and energy went to North Korea, whose technicians received education as well as training there. Cyberwarfare points were set up in Shenyang and elsewhere in the Northeast, the article adds.

Xi Jinping, however, broke some of the connections to North Korea, reducing military districts from 7 to 5 by deliberately putting the Shenyang district under Beijing in a single northern district and showing from the time of his first trip there in 2008 that his attitude was different. He prioritized South Korea, received Kim Jong-un’s first emissary coldly, and targeted Zhou Yongkang of the Jiang faction for, among other things, leaking secrets in a 2010 visit to North Korea. Meanwhile, he purged many officials from Liaoning from the Zhang Dejiang line. Kawasoe notes too Xi’s anger with Seoul over THAAD and uncertainty over exiles from China from the Jiang faction who are cooperating with the United States. The thrust of her narrative, however, is that China’s policy toward North Korea has been heavily influenced by factionalism long-favorable to the North.

In the August Toa, China’s trade with North Korea was clarified., noting its large level at $5.8 billion in 2016 compared to the North’s GDP of about $20 billion, comprising nearly 90 percent of the North’s total trade. The article wondered whether China’s agreement to Security Council sanctions in 2017 will mean greater pressure on the North’s “lifeline.” With a focus on North Korean textile exports, which rose rapidly from 2010 to a total of $750 million in 2016, the article by Ri Chan-u describes North Korean imports from Chinese materials, semi-processed goods, and parts, to be processed by cheap North Korean labor, adding about 30 percent to the finished product’s value. This role puts North Korea in a parallel situation to the South in the 1970s-80s, it is asserted, but it actually started in the North in the 1960s based on imports from Japan of machines for light industrial exports in return for the North’s mineral and seafood exports, leading to joint ventures with Korean Japanese, who were investing in the North from the late 1980s and having a peak effect in 1996 in producing suits and jackets. South Korean processing orders rose quickly from 1991 as exports of such goods as shirts and blouses were treated as non-taxed domestic production in the South, diversifying in 2000 to TVs and car parts, and peaking in 2009 with $250 billion of exports to the South on the basis of $160 billion of imports. From 2010, only the Kaeseong Industrial Park was left, and in 2016 that too was gone after about two decades of processing for the South. Picking up the processing ball, China doubled its trade in five years to $800 million. Thus, Japan’s sanctions and then the South’s sanctions were nullified as the North kept boosting its textile processing for export. Yet, the article sees deception in the role of South Korean materials continuing to pass through Dandong to the North and finished goods going into South Korea, the United States, and Europe under Chinese labels. Along with a rapid rise in coal exports to China, textiles rose rapidly as a source of foreign currency for Pyongyang. Now that North Korean exports are falling, Chinese exports of materials to the North keep rising, for reasons still unclear, concludes Ri at the article’s end.

Southeast Asia

A June 25 Yomiuri article on the Philippines reviewed how President Duterte has dealt with China, setting aside the international tribunal ruling. He obtained a freeze that allowed his country’s fishermen to return to old grounds and halted Chinese reclamation of the Scarborough Shoal, as well as $24 billion in promised economic assistance (although $15 billion was to come through direct investments by companies, a result doubted in the article). Of the $9 billion in government-to-government funds, strings are attached that the scale of China’s aid is limited and its future disbursement unclear. In any case, $1.5 billion per year over 6 years is less that what the Philippines receives from Japan, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank each. Meanwhile, Duterte continues the military relationship with the United States with no plan to reconsider it. Similarly, Indonesia has made economic deals with China while expecting assistance from Japan on a railroad and continuing security cooperation with Japan and Australia, as Jakarta tightens control over the Natuna Islands versus China. The article assures readers that Southeast Asian states seek a balanced framework with great powers, looking to ASEAN+ groupings and to TPP-11 to go with RCEP in regard to trade cooperation.

A July 12 Yomiuri article by Sakamoto Shigeki rejected China’s claim that the court ruling on the South China Sea a year earlier does not stand. It asserts that although in October 2016, Duterte pigeonholed the ruling to draw Chinese economic support, the ruling remains in effect for third countries and is indispensable to international society for the rule of law. Sakamoto doubts that a new Code of Conduct will prove legally binding. For Japan, for which maritime transport is a matter of life and death, this is a security issue, and it must join with the United States and others to defend it. Meanwhile, on July 12, Yomiuri wrote that the US position on the South China Sea is hardening because China has not been sufficiently cooperative on North Korea. Yet, even this was not seen as sufficient as the paper stressed China’s advancing control there.

The August 8 Tokyo Shimbun focused on ASEAN’s response to North Korea at the ARF, noting that calls to expel it were not successful but that South Korea was pleased that its policy was affirmed and that an unprecedented statement was issued. By August 9, however, the focus had shifted to China’s success, as it used its growing national power to tilt the earlier balance of great powers in relations with ASEAN. This was the argument in Asahi, noting China’s success with the Philippines and the loss of influence by the United States, evidenced by Tillerson’s insubstantial presence. Asahi then noted that Japan was offering assistance to strengthen ties to ASEAN.

On August 5, an Asahi editorial bemoaned the setback to democracy in Southeast Asia and complained that Trump lacked the interest in it of past US administrations. For Yomiuri on August 1, the decline in US involvement in ASEAN issues meant that states were expecting Japan to fill the vacuum, even as it warned that the Philippines has been drawing closer to China and distancing itself from the United States. Sankei went further on August 5, calling on Trump to make the US position clearer and saying it is important for Japan and the United States to keep the regional balance.

On August 7 Yomiuri charted the positions on the South China Sea of various parties. At one end stands the United States and Japan for free passage, closest to them being Vietnam and Indonesia. The Philippines shifted from sharing its views with Vietnam to now being grouped with Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Following them are Brunei, Myanmar, and Laos, all of whom are dependent on China’s assistance economically. Then finally, come Cambodia and China at the other end of the spectrum. The article doubted that the new Code of Conduct is the answer since it is not legally binding and China’s adherence is left in doubt.

On August 9, Yomiuri regretted that China’s name was omitted in the chair’s statement on the South China Sea, avoiding criticism or any mention of the importance of demilitarization of the sea. Takei Tomohisa on August 1 had written in the paper that Trump was so eager for a deal with China on North Korea that he was letting China off on the South China Sea, as distrust within ASEAN had grown toward the United States. Meanwhile, China was mixing carrots and sticks, taking advantage of the fact that the United States and Japan were falling short on strategic economic assistance to the area. Since China had been deceptive in assurances that it would not militarize the South China Sea, its plans for BRI should be seen as serving its rise as a sea power too. The article called on the United States to lead in forging a maritime order to check China, as Japan intensifies its strategic involvement and assistance.

On August 9, Sankei reviewed the celebration of 50 years of ASEAN in Manila, blaming China’s interference for splitting the organization over the South China Sea and for using economics as a weapon deepening the divide. In addition, it discussed the rapidly falling US presence in the region under Trump, which weakens the US role as a bastion of stability and democratization. It saw contention in the ARF statement sought by Vietnam due to Cambodia acting as China’s surrogate. Thailand’s reconciliation attempt failed as Malaysia, concerned about the territorial issue, opposed it. Due to China’s largesse with BRI and other investments, the environment was not favorable for speaking freely. Praising the Obama administration’s “rebalance” and freedom of navigation operations versus China in the South China Sea, as well as his frequent visits to the region and dialogue with youth and press conferences along with promotion of democracy, the article criticized Tillerson’s presence in Manila as slight, and distracted by the North Korean issue. Meanwhile, Wang Yi was progressing with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct. Tillerson’s absence from the dinner on August 6 and his limited availability (open to US media only) on August 7 contrasted with Wang’s presence at news conferences. The article concluded that there is much for which China can smile broadly, not concealing its aspirations to advance.

Russo-Japanese Relations

By mid-June, there was widespread recognition that dark clouds loomed over hopes for joint economic activity on the islands. Putin’s doubtful words, uncertainty among Japanese firms, postponement of the opening of air travel due to extended fog, and, above all, a sense that Russia’s interest had subsided, left the Japanese in doubt, as seen in Asahi on June 3 and Yomiuri on June 20. Japanese complained of a Russian ship surveying in Japan’s EEZ without permission. Most seriously, no progress occurred in forging a “special system” to resolve questions of policing or taxation, a troubling sign to Yomiuri on June 28. Russian and Japanese expectations clashed: Russian locals’ hopes were inflated, while Japanese felt aggrieved by Russia’s rejection of the Nemuro mayor for his past statements, and were skeptical due to the poor infrastructure and business environment it found, as Yomiuri reported on July 2. Already local customs had toughened procedures, now taxing the Japanese teachers who came to the islands, as Tokyo Shimbun observed on June 23. On July 6 Russia declared a special economic zone on the islands, sparking a lot of commentary that if Japan did not proceed on Russian terms, the area would be open for companies from other states, such as South Korea. The media, as Yomiuri on July 15, warned that this is a blow to joint economic activity. Yet, it still attempted to see this as a response to new developments such as rising concern in Russia over a US military presence due to the North Korean situation (after Putin had lost interest in Japan as a result of Trump’s election). As Abe’s popularity in Japan is slipping, the paper suggested that he might try to use diplomacy to regain it, but this would be a slippery slope.

On June 13, in Sankei, Hakamada Shigeki castigated Japan’s policy toward Russia. He accused Putin of using a false pretext that joint missile defense against North Korea is really aimed at containing Russia. Putin trusts only military power, and—contrary to what some in Japan say—rejects the transfer of any two islands as long as the Japan-US security treaty holds, using the pretext that a US base could be moved onto the islands. In spite of Abe’s eagerness for economic cooperation, Putin turned more negative on the territorial issue. Meanwhile, Japanese media are under the illusion that Putin’s hardline rhetoric is just a negotiating tactic, Hakamada warns. It is Abe who is particularly keen on keeping the talks going, as in the letter from prior residents of the islands asking Putin to allow them easier access to ancestral graves, which was coordinated with Russia to avoid asking for the return of the islands and to pull emotionally on Japanese heartstrings as much as Russian ones for this goal.

 Later on July 28, in Sankei, Hakamada found strange elements in Japanese relations with Russia after Putin in December 2016 decided to focus only on economic ties with no sign of concessions on Russian legal authority in joint development. April saw agreement on an inspection team in July spending five days on the islands, but afterwards Russia insisted that the Japanese is happy with proceeding under Russian law, as vice-ministers meeting in August and Abe’s visit in September were expected to make the projects concrete. This pretense, in the absence of change in Japanese insistence on a special legal arrangement, was deemed strange. The Sakhalin governor proposed regular air and sea routes to link the islands and Hokkaido, but this too raised the question for Japan of international or domestic routes, threatening to undermine its territorial claims. One more odd development for Hakamada was the way Putin went out of his way to show respect for former prime minister Mori, Abe’s emissary, on July 9 when they met—Putin accompanied Mori back to the hotel where his daughter was waiting. This could be seen as a sign that Putin respects Abe, but Hakamada attributes it to Putin’s fear that Japanese have lost hope in these talks and, thus, interest in economic cooperation, which he wants to rekindle. Mori’s September 2014 statement in Russia, essentially supporting its position on Ukraine and at complete odds with the G7 position, is raised by Hakamada as part of the strangeness of Japan’s pursuit.

Indo-Chinese Relations

In the August Toa, the Himalayan standoff between Chinese and Indian forces was discussed in connection with the Dalai Lama’s April visit to Arunachal Pradesh. The article pointed to such themes as: China’s anger with his visit to an area it views as disputed; the Dalai Lama’s rejection of China’s plan to name his successor; China’s refusal to allow India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group; India’s June entry in the SCO along with Pakistan, which Russia had sought; India’s refusal to attend the May BRI summit as China is developing with Pakistan an economic corridor through Kashmir, at odds with India’s sovereignty claims; and India’s decision not to include Australia in the July military exercises with the United States and Japan. The article by Hirano Satoshi finds a parallel in China’s conduct with the way it has pressed its territorial complain for the Senkaku Islands with Japan, shaking up another bilateral relation.

Russo-Vietnamese Relations

An August Toa article found China concerned about Russia’s strengthening ties with Vietnam, where the Sino-Soviet split had intensified in the 1970s and lingered in the 1980s. With the 2016 signing of an EEU-Vietnam FTA, trade is forecast to grow to $10-$12 billion in 2020. Although Vietnam rejected Russia’s request to return the increasingly strategic Cam Rahn Bay, insisting that it must remain open to other countries while also rejecting a US effort to deny Russia use of it, Russia keeps agreeing to supply more advanced weaponry to Vietnam. In turn, China has taken advantage of Russia’s dependence on it since the Ukraine crisis arose—as in the need for electrical parts for its space industry—to demand more support in the South China Sea, by for instance holding the 2016 joint naval exercises held there. The article depicts a Sino-Russian struggle over Russia’s Vietnam policy, stressing Russia’s resistance.