Country Report: Japan (August 2018)

As Donald Trump wreaked havoc in international relations, confusing friend with foe, Japan was not at all immune. Unlike European allies, it was left essentially to fend for itself—with no clear partner. Japanese media registered concern, then alarm, and finally a degree of resignation. The late spring and early summer of 2018—when Trump left Abe and others aghast at the G7, made extravagant claims about his summit with Kim Jong-un, trashed NATO and European allies, and delivered the coup de grace to backers of the international order in a summit with Vladimir Putin—saw coverage of Trump’s policies in Asia and beyond take a dramatic turn. A bedrock of Japanese thinking from the Cold War era was shattered, and there was no sign that it could be rebuilt in the Trump era. Japan “passing” had long been a concern; now it is the nation’s overwhelming preoccupation. Of all challenges, North Korea was foremost, causing a string of shocks from January that grew more alarming through the spring. Abe both redoubled pursuit of Trump and looked elsewhere, as difficult as that proved amid turbulent changes.

From April Japanese grew troubled by the impression, as Yomiuri on April 11 asserted, that they were caught between Trump’s “America First” disregard of its most important East Asian ally and Xi Jinping’s desire to forge a new order, relegating Japan to a marginal role. Preemptive or defensive measures were sought, seeking to forestall the worrisome consequences of isolation.
As Asahi headlined on May 1, the world order was changing with the US role under a cloud. The
primary media message through the spring was to tighten Japan-US coordination, as Yomiuri wrote in an April 28 editorial, warning that there was still no path to denuclearization, Trump’s negotiating strategy was unknown, and China, whose sanctions had pressured North Korea into talks, had to maintain restrictions on energy supplies and North Korean labor, as if they were now in doubt. Yet, Abe improved ties with China in the 40th year since their peace treaty was signed, hosted the CJK summit at last, sought a southern strategy, and worked with the EU as economic linkages were energetically sought in the face of alarm about US economic moves. A separate article focuses on North Korea. Here a broader view is taken of Abe’s various moves.

Abe-Trump Summits

Whether the April 18 summit or the June 7 summit, Abe’s trips to meet Trump were not seen as successful in Japan. Pressure for bilateral talks on trade intensified, while Abe sought in vain to rush TPP-11 into operation. The unpredictability of Trump dealing with Kim Jong-un caused hand-wringing too, as in Tokyo Shimbun of April 19. Talk that Abe too was seeking a summit with Kim, while denying that he would set the abduction issue aside, was reported, as in the April 20 Yomiuri. Trump’s decision to meet with Kim, shifting from pressure to dialogue, was recognized as historic, even if the Abe-Trump summit spoke of maintaining sanctions as well as maximum pressure until denuclearization, but few in Japan took that assurance as credible. Yet, Yomiuri on April 19 insisted despite concern about Trump’s style, there was shared thinking about North Korea. A peace treaty is not the objective; denuclearization is essential for regional security, and the alliance is the pathway for dealing with the North, it pleaded in an editorial. Trump is in accord and the abduction issue is front and center, were the rose-colored claims.

On June 9 the Abe-Trump summit on the eve of the Trump-Kim summit drew clashing editorials from Yomiuri and Asahi. The former stressed the need to deepen alliance unity, as Abe recited. Yet, it was concerned about Trump’s softening position toward Kim, dropping “maximum pressure” and not preparing for the danger of protracted talks with narrowing focus, calling on Abe to persuade Trump. It warned against Trump agreeing to a statement proclaiming the end of the Korean War as if that removed the threat and could lead to US troop withdrawals. While Abe is interested in talking with Kim, he has rightly set preconditions for an overall resolution of the issues at stake, Yomiuri asserts, doubting that this would be possible. In contrast, Asahi says it is outdated to keep repeating that Japan is in total unison with the United States and relies on it exclusively. Trump is unpredictable, US pressure to cut the trade deficit and buy lots of arms is troubling, pressure alone on North Korea is not realistic, and Japan should now strive to forge regional peace and security in defense of its own interests together with neighboring states. In that day’s Tokyo Shimbun stress was put on differences between Abe and Trump and on unfair trade demands based on the wishes of the US rust belt. Japan was ignored and making not the least contribution to peace as Trump zigged and zagged. Sankei was concerned about Trump’s lack of interest in human rights, while it, as Yomiuri, stressed support for the abductions issue.

At Diet hearings later in June some advocated dialogue while maintaining the sanctions, which Yomiuri reported on June 22, noting Tanaka Hitoshi’s view as well as views of those leading the push on the abductions issue. Divisions existed on how to respond to North Korea—no talks or sanctions relief until all conditions are satisfied in a single package versus early normalization to advance regional peace and stability, which some warned would only please the North. On June 14, Yomiuri had pointed to a shift by Abe to build trust with Kim Jong-un as a means to deal with the abductions issue, softening his position in favor of dialogue, following the US lead. Asahi on June 18 reported that a poll showed 67 percent want early talks with the North and 40 percent expected that the abductions issue could be resolved, but only 26 percent expected denuclearization after the Trump-Kim summit. Sankei that day reported that Seoul anticipates demands by the North for Japanese “reparations” of total $20 billion, which would spare Seoul some burden of future assistance. On June 15 it had warned that this was the final opportunity for the relatives of the abductees, but it was sober about the prospects. Asahi, in contrast, saw Kim Jong-un as forward-looking. Since resolving the abduction issue is a condition for Japanese economic assistance, Tokyo Shimbun held out hope once there was progress on this issue that Abe would meet Kim Jong-un in September in Vladivostok at the Eastern Economic Forum or in New York for the General Assembly gathering after diplomats had just met in Mongolia.

In Gendai Business on June 26 Trump’s approach to alliances was aired. They are of little concern; yesterday’s friend is today’s enemy is his longstanding business outlook. He only believes in his own country, as Japan, the EU states, and South Korea have discovered. His policies can change very quickly. On June 15, the day of Xi Jinping’s 65th birthday, Trump announced economic sanctions on China, affecting $50 billion in exports to the United States. China promptly also imposed 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion of US exports to take effect on July 6 in both cases. It is unclear if this trade war is planned until the fall US elections or will persist as did policies toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, as seems more likely. While most people and experts in Japan doubted the results of the Singapore summit, the author of this piece saw it as a success, equating it with the 1989 Malta summit that ended the Cold War. Yet, Kim went to China a week later, and Pyongyang is now using Washington and Beijing to check each other in what is a very fast and agile diplomacy. It even wants to invite Xi to the July 27 65th anniversary commemoration of victory in the Korean War, the paper asserted. The impression is left of Trump failing on North Korea and lashing out, endangering Japan.

Not only was there disappointment at Trump’s unilateralism and “America First,” leaving Japan rather on its own, but there was alarm at the risk to Japan and the world from the US-China trade war (Yomiuri, June 17). On history, Japan was more isolated after South Korea’s reneging on a deal and Russia’s hardening on the war outcome. On geopolitics, North Korean diplomacy left Japan feeling unusually alone. And now on economics, a double-whammy came from direct pressure exerted by Trump and also indirect pressure through his looming trade war with China.

South Korea

On April 25 Sankei reported a plan to construct a statue in Busan in front of the Japanese consulate in memory of the laborers conscripted by Japan, which would damage bilateral ties and be the responsibility of the Korean government. This would join the “comfort women” statue erected there in 2016, while setting back trilateral cooperation versus North Korea. Yet, other newspapers focused more on Moon’s degree of cooperation on security.

The April 27 North-South summit left Japanese wringing their hands. Not only was Japan left on the outside as four countries were engaged in intense diplomacy, but South Korea appeared to be in the driver’s seat by venturing on its own, while Japan had no sense of independent policy when Trump was not treating it as first in Asia—as had been true of US presidents since as far back as the 1950s—and Putin was not reciprocating Abe’s overtures. Kimura Kan in the April 28 issues of Asahi and Yomiuri called on Japan to improve ties with other Asian states so it would not just have good ties to the United States. He stressed how different South Korean thinking is about North Korea’s threat, relegating denuclearization to a lower priority, that the trilateral solidarity on North Korea of the postwar era is gone, and that Japan should learn from Moon the importance of an autonomous foreign policy. In the same Yomiuri issue Izumi Hajime was optimistic that Japan could join in the same building of a peace framework as visits intensify with Moon possibly going to Pyongyang on September 9 for the 70th anniversary celebration of the founding of North Korea and Kim possibly to the September General Assembly. Yet, as Yomiuri reported on April 29, South Korean conservative newspapers doubted that the visit of Kim to South Korea was a turning point, and Japanese commentators doubted that there was sincerity in his pledge to denuclearize. This was the widely shared conclusion in Japanese media.

Distrust in Moon remained intense, as he was focused on ties to Pyongyang and Trump was no longer exerting the kind of pressure on South Korean leaders that Japan expected. While Moon came to Japan for the CJK meetings in May and resumed shuttle diplomacy, this did not lead to any serious improvement in his image. The “comfort women” issue drew less attention as rising South Korean tourism to Japan was welcome, but the focus remained on North Korea.

Reporting on May 8 on an interview with Moon, Yomiuri accentuates Moon’s self-confidence that complete denuclearization of North Korea is within reach, as he is anticipating a large intermediary role in ongoing US-North Korean relations, after having laid the groundwork on April 27 in his summit with Kim. Moreover, with Japanese funds indispensable for the economic incentives sought by the North, the article cites Moon’s ambition to play a mediating role also in Japan-North Korea relations, purging the past with assistance in lieu of reparations. Yet, in a companion article Moon’s hard line on “comfort women” is noted as part of a “two-track” approach to bilateral relations. The positive side is seen in the rapid growth of Koreans visiting Japan in 2014 to 2016 from about 300,000 to 500,000 a month, although the peak in Japanese visitors to Korea of over 300,000 in 2012 gave way to declines to 2015 with modest recovery in 2016. About to visit Japan for the CJK summit, Moon offered cooperation on Japan’s abduction issue and insisted that the precondition for denuclearization is better North-South ties. Yet, many articles in Yomiuri pointed to skepticism in Japan: the risk in leading with plans for economic cooperation; the skepticism about the North’s intentions as seen in commitments to date, even from many in Seoul; the early signs of the South’s violations of the UN sanctions; the attention shown to China, including Kim’s May 8 visit to Dalian; and the past record of agreeing to denuclearize and after a “peace campaign” finding a pretext to disavow promises.

A Dong-a Ilbo correspondent wrote in Asahi on May 26 after four years in Japan that Japanese keep shifting their outlook on South Korea, officially shifting from “an important neighbor sharing fundamental values of freedom, democracy, and a market economy,” to the “most important neighbor,” to the “most important neighbor sharing strategic interests.” This inconsistency is abnormal, recently reflecting a more negative image of Moon Jae-in. Despite a population more than twice that of South Korea, Japanese visitors to Korea only number 2.31 million compared to 7.14 million Korean tourists to Japan. Japanese do not know Korea, he concluded.

Moon’s message to cooperate without agreeing on history issues was received cautiously. It seemed reminiscent of the 1998 understanding for livelier dialogue channels—now with the complete restoration of shuttle diplomacy, increased tourist visits, and strengthened economic ties. Moon cited the popularity of Japanese cooking, novels, dramas, and anime in South Korea, and especially noted the surge of travel to Japan. Yet, his goal seemed to be to win backing for his soft approach toward Kim, not a message well received by many Japanese.

Asahi on May 9 found promise in Moon’s visit for the three-way summit, emphasizing shared interests, including free trade, low fertility, energy, and lower trust in the United States due to Trump’s unreliability. Yet, on North Korea they remain divided over dialogue versus pressure. The paper called for genuine dialogue without using Washington as intermediary. It found hope in increased hiring of Koreans by Japanese firms, alleviating the unemployment problem on one side and the labor shortage on the other. On May 10 it found that disputes over history were absent in this first visit by a Korean president in 6 ½ years and that South Korea had set a positive tone by removing a statue to conscripted labor in Busan. Nonetheless, it noted Japan’s concern about Moon’s lack of flexibility on history and territory and an unwillingness to hold high-level economic consultations as a symbol of government opposition to the “comfort women” statue.

Coverage of South Korea in June remained intense: Asahi blamed the Moon administration for turning negative on North Korean refugees and on human rights issues in the North (June 6). Sankei saw a mixed reaction to the Trump-Kim summit, as optimism was mixed with concern over Trump’s talk of reducing US forces and his cancellation of joint exercises (June 16) with prior fear (June 4) that Trump would prematurely agree to end the armistice and cut troops.

Meanwhile, Moon went to Moscow and spoke to the Duma under the title the “Eurasia Dream,” appealing on the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2020 for strengthening cooperation for the development of Eurasia and achieving trade of $30 billion and exchanges of 1 million visitors. He called for cooperation in joint leadership of the fourth industrial revolution, realization of the 9 bridges proposal he had made at the Eastern Economic Forum in 2017 for cooperation in the Far East, and taking advantage of the end of the dark period of antagonism between the two Koreas and the United States. Positive support from Russia for this will be welcomed, he asserted, leading to triangular cooperation with both parts of Korea. This will make Busan the terminus of the trans-Siberian railroad. Moon held out hope that within one decade there is a high possibility that the dream he shared would be realized, suggesting even that the peninsula will become part of the Eurasian space Putin is envisioning.

A Yomiuri article on June 22 assessed troubles in South Korea’s economy and pointed to ways Japan can help. Although the growth rate continues to exceed 3 percent, it has been boosted by a large share of the world’s $412 billion semi-conductor market, which rose 22 percent in 2017, and Samsung’s profits in the first quarter of 2018 rose spectacularly. Yet, exports comprise over half of the South’s GDP, of which semiconductors have risen in 6 years from 8 to 16 percent. On the weak side is 4 percent unemployment, rising especially for males after military service, who seek work in large firms with much higher starting salaries and refuse to take menial jobs in the mismatch between aspirations and opportunities. As semi-conductors become increasingly automated, they offer few openings. Moon has pushed for raising starting wages for the lowest paid, which has had a reverse effect on hiring in the service sector. The article foresees serious trouble from spillover from the Sino-US trade war since about 1/4th of exports go to China to the point that South Korea could be the biggest victim of the war. Historically, Seoul has relied on Japanese economic cooperation and technical support, and there is a move in search of new linkages. Complementarity exists in Japan’s labor shortage, even in large firms, leading to hiring of Koreans in a win-win relationship. Japanese FDI in Korea rose 48 percent in 2017, tightening supply chains. Finally, the article notes that in the face of Trump’s protectionism both benefit from free trade, suggesting that Korea join TPP-11 and economic ties be part of future-oriented cooperation to which Moon and Abe have agreed, reducing Korea’s dependence on China too.


 A bifurcated message was conveyed about China in the spring of 2018: in domestic and foreign policy it was heading in a troubling direction, but in relations with Japan there were promising developments. On the negative side Sankei devoted a series to history wars, concentrating on Confucian institutes around the world and picking up the theme of sharp power, as on April 14. For a time, strong warnings were issued about increasing Chinese infringements around the Senkaku Islands. Politically, China was discarding Deng Xiaoping’s legacy. On North Korea, reports pointed to more forcible repatriations of refugees and tighter censorship of criticisms. On Taiwan, there was alarm about the PRC taking a more aggressive approach. Dictatorship and censorship were tightening. On the positive side Yomiuri on May 6 greeted Li Keqiang with a headline on joint economic activities in third countries related to the BRI going forward and stress on what Japanese companies had to offer, including Central Asia as a place of cooperation. Yet, it warned of concern about Chinese hegemonism, a danger of driving states into excessive debt, and a lack of transparency and openness—thus an ambivalent message.

Reporting on the first high-level economic dialogue in eight years. Asahi on April 17 repeated Foreign Minister Kono’s remark that it was a big step toward the improvement of Sino-Japanese relations, noting that China sought the meeting in response to Trump’s protectionist policies. It
argues, however, that thinking differed: China sought a more direct payback to Trump, while Japan did not want to appear leaning toward China against its ally and blamed China for a lot of economic problems. While agreeing on free trade, China pressed for the BRI and Japan took a case-by-case approach in advocating a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” It unsuccessfully tried to get China to resume purchase of foodstuffs from eastern Japan, which had stopped after the Fukushima accident. Worried about how to revitalize its economy, China has set its eyes on Japan and has found some receptivity even if Japanese firms do not see conditions for fair competition. On the same day Yomiuri editorialized that China has decided that it needs to improve ties to Japan; Japan favors concrete economic moves, but is concerned about China relaxing the sanctions on North Korea, which China challenged with a stage-by-stage reduction in sanctions as progress occurred. That day Sankei noted agreement on accelerating CJK and RCEP FTA talks, but emphasized Japan’s refusal to commit to deepening ties to the BRI and China’s economic transgressions. The article indicated that further economic dialogues are planned annually. On April 16 it warned that no date was set for Xi to visit Japan and that Abe was doubtful about expecting much in relations with China. More hopeful was an April 16 Tokyo Shimbun editorial that saw trust being built one step at a time and anticipated that economic talks will lead to tackling political problems, while treating Abe’s response on the BRI as forward-looking. Ties had begun to improve in 2017 and advanced with Kono’s visit to China in January, but as China sought a boost in economic ties Japan worried about a widening divide over North Korea.

By May 26 Sankei was alert to the relaxation of Chinese economic pressure as seen in the tourist boom to North Korea and the surge in real estate prices in Dandong, the gateway to the North, as Beijing and Shanghai investors arrived after the drop in values due to sanctions. When Kim went to China on June 19-20 for the third time in three months, Sankei saw it as China opposing any quick improvement in US-North Korean relations, Kim thanking China for the free use of its airplane to travel to Singapore to meet Trump, and for the second time just before a Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang, Kim was making sure that China had his back. Much was made of China as the real winner in US-North Korean talks, as it played the North Korean card with the trade war in mind. The special relationship between socialist states was now restored, the paper argued on June 21, carrying an article by Miyake Kunihiko on the beginning of the end of the 1953 system, which means instability in the region posing a problem for Japan. Its editorial that day saw China and North Korea on the same wavelength for relaxed sanctions through stage-by-stage denuclearization and a weakening of the US military presence and alliance with South Korea. Tokyo Shimbun saw Kim praise Xi’s leadership as Xi was lauding the beautiful future of socialism together, while Trump followed the summit with odd timing for his tough new trade sanctions on China, the intermediary in this process. Asahi concurred that the Kim-Xi honeymoon was behind Kim’s tough stance toward Trump in Singapore, refusing to make concrete the process of denuclearization after the Dalian summit, where Xi had given guarantees to Kim, and insisting that Sino-North Korean interests totally coincide. Yomiuri saw China striving for the lead role on the peninsula, and on June 22 it editorialized that bragging about a “honeymoon” was aimed at containing Washington, while relaxing sanctions was part of supporting Pyongyang. China’s strategy aims more at forging a desired security environment on the Korean Peninsula with US troops cut and missile defense removed than denuclearization. It warned that the Security Council sanctions must not be weakened, fearing China’s intentions.

By May 10 coverage showcased a new stage in Sino-Japanese relations with the CJK summit. By May 17 Asahi was calling for looking at China through a different lens than containment and collapse. The time was ripe for a fresh, positive approach. On June 18 Yomiuri asserted that Japan was ready to make concrete the agreement with Li Keqiang in May to cooperate in third countries in accord with Japan’s June strategy for infrastructure exports. By year end when Abe goes to China, a new forum with government and business will focus on concrete projects in support of a scenario of summit exchanges. Japan’s infrastructure strategy and China’s BRI should not be opposed. Japanese firms had found in 2015 in bidding with China for Indonesia’s high-speed railroad project that China’s prices were lower, as Japanese infrastructure exports were stagnating. Japanese firms objected to Japan’s hard line to China as not helpful for desired cooperation. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the BRI activities went to Chinese firms, hiring few local laborers, and in some places China’s projects were not proceeding well, leading to talk of a debt trap as in Sri Lanka. As talk of the BRI cooperation has grown, some in Japan have warned of the risk of leakage of high technology, leading to four conditions being set: healthy finances, openness, transparency, and economic viability. Hopes rose that China would agree to them.

Tokyo Shimbun on June 10 spelled out a way to realize Li Keqiang’s remark that spring had come in Sino-Japanese relations, as both sides expected that history and territorial issues would not shake up relations. It called for giving more weight to localism than patriotism. This has begun in Chinese tourism, where localities showcase healthy onsen, golf courses with good service, and other physical activity. For local areas in Japan depopulating, Chinese tourism offers a chance to boost their economies. Yet, Yomiuri on May 18 was convinced that China’s overtures to Japan were due to worsening tensions with the United States in both economics and security and that Li’s talk of a new stage in bilateral relations was also a response to growing wariness in countries targeted by the BRI. Now China is more eager to manage tensions in the East China Sea too. Yomiuri on May 25 pointed to a sharp Sino-US conflict over high tech hegemony, but when Trump started going after Japanese car makers as well as steel and aluminum, Japan’s self-control was tested, as seen in Yomiuri on June 2 and June 15. It was not easy to find balance in blaming both Washington and Beijing, when the former was targeting Tokyo too. On June 16 Yomiuri put the stress on Trump’s effort to boost support for the coming elections, having seen his ratings jump after he started with import restrictions in March. Tokyo Shimbun on June 17 observed that in a trade war with China, Japan’s firms would suffer collateral damage: Income would drop, wages and employment would be hit, prices on parts in Japanese cars from China would rise and have to be passed along with damaging impact on sales, electrical parts and office machines would suffer for both Chinese products with Japanese parts and Japanese products with Chinese parts.  The paper editorialized on June 15 about chaos and an 18 percent drop in US prestige around the world. Many Japanese were drawing similarities with the 1980s US-Japan trade war, which is linked to the rising value of the yen, a hit to Japanese exports, and later the collapse of the bubble economy, although some say that China has more autonomy to act (Sankei, May 24).

Trump’s trade war with China drew growing concern. Yomiuri on June 17 attributed it to his eye on the mid-term elections, arousing anti-Chinese sentiments over lost factories and jobs. On June 19 it editorialized that this war would be a big blow to world trade and investment, and both countries should engage in talks, given the persistent view that Chinese investment is aimed at extracting high technology, which is shared by japan and in the EU, but disregarding international rules, as Trump is doing, should not be permitted. Trump should fundamentally change his negotiating strategy, readers were told, without letting China escape blame.


Much of the June Toa issue was devoted to Taiwan, including an article by Watanabe Takeshi on China’s sharp power and Taiwan identity. The article draws on poll results posted in earl 2018 in a Taiwan journal, which shows that over the past year, there has been a 5 percent drop in respondents calling themselves Taiwanese and an 8 percent rise in the identity of both Taiwanese and Chinese. The drop for those in their 20s and 30s was a little greater, the latter much more so turning against support for Taiwan independence. Watanabe links the result to China’s intensification of sharp power.


The hopelessness of pursuing Russia was growing clearer as Moscow was increasingly viewed as having North Korea’s back (Yomiuri, April 11) and as insistent on joint economic activity on its terms supposedly to build trust before a peace treaty could be possible (which some vainly saw as a territorial deal, as Abe in March agreed to accelerate talks on the economic cooperation to occur on and around the disputed islands (Yomiuri, April 4). While Yomiuri held out hope for Abe’s pursuit of Putin, Sankei pointed to Putin’s aggressive moves and China’s pleasure at his reelection with indications the two states would together shake up the international order and use the opening from North Korea to seek a new order in Northeast Asia (Sankei, March 26, April 4). After widespread coverage in late March of Lavrov’s visit to Japan, where he stressed Russia’s opposition to Japan’s missile defense and gave no hint of how progress could occur on the islands issue of such Japanese concern, hope was further fading in bilateral prospects. As Abe’s visit to Putin proved fruitless and Putin and Xi more closely joined forces, the negative Sankei analysis appeared sounder than Yomiuri’s persistent optimism about Russian ties.

When Abe joined the St. Petersburg economic forum and then met with Putin, coverage was again mixed with some finding rays of hope, including new outlets so disturbed by US policy that Russia was targeted as an alternative. Yomiuri continued its upbeat outlook, editorializing on May 28 that although there was no noticeable success, including no progress on the islands, Japan was persisting in trying to narrow the gap, while Abe and Putin had agreed to back the US-North Korean talks as Putin showed understanding about the abductions issue. Yet, Japan cannot yield by accepting Russian law for the joint economic projects, which would be the same as recognizing Russian sovereignty. No longer optimistic, Yomiuri had fallen behind papers on the left in enthusiasm for wooing Putin, even carrying an opinion piece from Kimura Hiroshi, a mainstay of pessimism in Sankei, who foresaw an even more hardline Putin in his fourth term. On May 28 Tokyo Shimbun was more hopeful, pointing to the agreement for a summer on-site survey for joint economic development, an agreement for former islanders to visit graves by air, another 2+2 meeting in 2018, and Putin’s need for bilateral trade to multiply and for attracting Japanese investment. Its editorial that day warned that Trump had abandoned leadership of international society, ending Pax Americana, and Japan needed to expand its diplomatic options. South Korea was out, ties to China are still at a low level, and for energy and security deepening ties to Russia with its eastern shift and overreliance on China is appealing. Bilateral trade rose 14 percent in 2017. There is agreement on support for the Trump-Kim talks. Cooperation on the Arctic maritime route is envisioned. And Russia is uncomfortable with not resolving the border issue with Japan without returning the four islands—one of two holdovers from the Cold War with the Korean Peninsula. This was a call to intensify talks with Putin with a broad agenda.
The Asahi editorial that day noted Japan’s hopes that after Putin was reelected he would turn to a deal with Japan, but it found no sign of that, attributing the hardline to deterioration in US-Russian relations and the decision to rely again on missiles in the Okhotsk Sea. It sees Japan’s sanctions over Ukraine and plan for bold economic cooperation with Russia as contradictory. Given Russia’s large influence on the Asia-Pacific region, including the Korean Peninsula, building trust is necessary, Asahi argues, leaving the territorial issue to the context of peace and security. With the illusion that joint economic development would lead to resolution of that issue, Japan only managed to narrow the scope of talks. It should seek a new framework. On June 6 Asahi pointed to the importance of the September Vladivostok forum with Kim expected and economics the focus, and on June 21 it noted that 2+2 talks would be held in late July, where Russia’s concerns about security and Aegis Ashore will be aired along with Japan’s concerns about Russian moves. The impression is left that this is where Japan must concentrate.

The 21st meeting between Abe and Putin should have left no doubt that the impasse in talks could not be broken. There was no way to bridge the gap in clarifying the legal basis for joint economic development on the disputed islands. No matter how creative Japan tried to be in fuzzing the issue, Russia’s insistence that Japan had to recognize Russia’s legal authority over the islands, i.e., sovereignty, meant that instead of these negotiations being the starting point for finding a solution to the dispute they were a trap to get Japan to capitulate. As Asahi noted on May 28, Russia was making recognition of the results of WWII a precondition for progress. Yet, Russia was also stressing that its position was influenced by the downturn in Russo-US ties and Japan’s alliance with the enemy. Thus, the impression was conveyed that a deal might be possible if Japan altered its geopolitical alignment. This may have been tempting to those on the left who repeated Russia’s stance and revived the notion that a contradiction exists for Japan between a country of bases and one of peace (Asahi, June 6), but it was a non-starter for the mainstream. In the shadow of Trump and increased danger from North Korea as well as China, the progressive camp’s idealism about peace-seeking diplomacy was reviving. As seen in the Abe-Putin summit, Abe called for continued pressure on the North, while Putin Insisted on moving away from the path of pressure (Tokyo Shimbun, May 28), in line with the idealists. If Trump had agreed to Kim’s proposal to declare an end to the Korean War (Asahi, June 9), it would have given a big boost to those who think that proclaiming peace will actually lead to it.

In the July Chuo Koron Koizumi Yu and Sahashi Ryo exchanged views on the new world order which Putin and Xi aimed to build in Northeast Asia, drawing on sharp power at the expense of US and Japanese interests and their presence. China’s sharp power overlaps more with soft power and relies on economic leverage; Russia’s is more openly aggressive. Both at times have seen Japan as the easiest mark to undermine allied cohesion. While Japan cannot just follow Trump’s management of these relations, it must be alert to the danger, argue the authors.


On June 10 Sankei reported on the Qingdao SCO summit, noting Xi Jinping’s call for making this body an important contributor to regional security, Russia’s push for Iran to be upgraded from observer to member and China’s welcome to this as Washington pulled out of the international agreement with Iran, and the Sino-Russian aim to make this a counterbalance to US leadership. As the G7 was simultaneously faltering, the SCO as well as the BRI were seen as building blocks. That day Yomiuri also stressed the Iran presence and support for it at the SCO and strengthened Sino-Russian ties as the SCO center. On a stage-by-stage approach to North Korea and free trade too, the SCO view was noted. But the big unknown was Modi’s role in the SCO. Despite opposition to the BRI, he wanted more Chinese investment before he runs for reelection in 2019.

Southeast Asia

On April 28 Sankei focused on leaders of Southeast Asia who love Xi Jinping, bemoaning the reversal of democratic trends in the region. In each strongmen were undermining democracy as they drew closer to China and received bountiful assistance from it, e.g., after Cambodia started to receive 2x or 3x the aid it was getting from Japan, it became more dictatorial. China’s sweet face leads to increasing indebtedness, which it uses to make countries subordinate. Two days later Sankei carried an article on the “debt hell” that came with the BRI, asserting that alarm has been spreading as countries realize there is no free lunch. In addition to Southeast Asia, it notes Mongolia, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia, and Pakistan as well as the Sri Lankan case. On April 29 Yomiuri saw the ASEAN leaders’ summit as taking a harder line to China on the South China Sea with the restoration of “concern” expressed in the chair’s statement versus the soft line in the November 2017 statement as a result of Singapore’s hosting role with reasons in China’s militarization of the islands and its treatment of Vietnam. Yet, it saw no hope of limiting China from talks on a code of conduct given hopes for trade and investment in infrastructure.     

In late May and June tensions over the South China Sea heated up. Along with differences over the process ahead in talks with North Korea and trade tensions, this had emerged as the third leg troubling Sino-US relations (Yomiuri, June 16). On June 3 ASEAN made clearer its concern about China’s militarization of the sea. Not only was Vietnam in the lead as usual with the backing of Singapore, but new leadership in Malaysia had distanced itself from China after Najib’s economic dealings with it, insisting that China had to respect Malaysia’s sovereignty. Even the Philippines is mentioned as registering some concern. Yomiuri on May 29covered the rising Sino-US tensions over the South China Sea, stressing the need for freedom of navigation.


On April 28 Yomiuri reported on the previous day’s Wuhan summit between Xi and Modi, seen as a thaw in relations marred by a territorial dispute and a divide over the BRI. Not only did Modi go to China this time, but he planned to go for the Qingdao SCO summit and the Fujian BRICS summit, making three visits in half a year. This intensity is attributed to Xi’s desire to stabilize ties to neighboring states in the wake of tensions with Trump and to Modi’s desire to accelerate economic growth through greater Chinese investment. No mention is made of Abe-Modi ties.