Country Report: Japan (December 2019)

On August 24 after Abe surpassed Sato Eisaku as the longest-serving postwar prime minister, Mainichi compared the foreign policies of the two. Sato secured the return of Okinawa and was able to normalize relations with South Korea, while Abe spoke of resolving Japan’s unfinished diplomatic business; yet, on the Northern Territories and North Korea, he has nothing to show, while Sato’s treaty with South Korea is now under stress. In another critique of Abe’s foreign policy amid support by 52 percent of the public, Kamiya Matake wrote in Sankei’s Seiron that Japan had succumbed to “group think,” especially toward Russia and North Korea. Under a strong leader with just a few advisors who count, it has changed direction toward those countries with excessive optimism and a dearth of open discussion in the LDP. That process offers little chance for rethinking mistakes, he said. Yet, Kamiya in Sankei on October 11 praised Abe’s successful leadership with his “proactive contributor to peace” and Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. The former means that Japan has more responsibility for world peace and security, and the latter has put it at the core of contributing internationally, linking the Pacific and Indian oceans, influencing US and other countries’ foreign policy. However, for Japan to do more it needs to put more money into defense and boost ODA, fourth in the world, explains Kamiya. Despite shortcomings of late in policies toward Russia and North Korea, Abe deserves mainly praise.

On September 4 Yomiuri praised Abe’s “strategic” diplomacy, including his management of Trump by expanding imports of beef from diverse countries to the point the US was pressured to agree to a trade agreement with tariffs for meat no lower than those in TPP in order to restore its exports to Japan. The other agreements Japan signed were a “negotiating card” in talks with the US. Also praised was how Abe handled Trump’s pressure on Iran, visiting in June and meeting annually with Rouhani while avoiding being drawn into US-led patrols in the Strait of Hormuz and damaging ties with Iran. Even Trump on August 25 commended Abe’s useful role as an intermediary. Visiting 80 countries, Abe has, readers are told, fulfilled his promise to conduct “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective.” The next day Yomiuri characterized Abe as having transitioned from being seen in his first term as prime minister as “idealistic” to recently being praised as a “pragmatist.” Abe had gained the limelight under Koizumi for his obsession with the abductions issue with North Korea, and in 2017 he pressed for “maximum pressure.” Then, in June 2018 he took a forward-looking posture toward meeting Kim Jong-un, adding in May 2019 that he would do so unconditionally, winning approval from more than half of Japanese respondents. Similarly, once regarded as an historical revisionist and the cause of worsening Japan-ROK relations in the US, Abe’s 70th anniversary of the end of the war statement and then “comfort women” agreement in 2015 altered his image. When the response was different in South Korea, it mattered that Abe had won understanding in the US.

On August 30 Yomiuri wrote about the rise of Imai Takaya as Abe’s main foreign policy advisor after Imai orchestrated the 2017 shift to China centering on cooperation with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in accord with strong interests in the business community. Yachi and others focusing on security or diplomacy feared that this would have a bad impact on security cooperation with the US and India and boost China’s economic power aimed at expanding hegemony. They preferred strengthening the Quad. Abe sided with Imai and sent him with Nikai to the May 2017 BRI conference. Later Imai won in a struggle over whether to boost joint economic activities on the islands held by Russia before progress was made on their return, arousing dissatisfaction that Imai only listens to the other country’s position, seeking short-term results at the cost of a long-term vision. In closing with this conclusion, Yomiuri appears to be siding with Yachi, not Imai or Abe of late.

Asahi on September 13 raised questions about the appointment of Kitamura Shigeru as head of the NSS, replacing Yachi, who was already 75 years old. Formerly the head of the cabinet office on intelligence and research, Kitamura had been part of the Keisatsusho (Police) and served as a secretary for Abe in 2006 and had built close ties to counterparts in countries such as the US, South Korea, and Russia. He had also in 2018 conducted secret talks with North Korea in Vietnam. Apart from his background not part of the foreign ministry, his appointment drew talk of a change of course in diplomacy. Yachi was viewed as critical of Abe’s moves toward Russia, China, and North Korea, leading to the 2017 shift to Imai Takaya of METI in cooperating with BRI. Imai, who wrote in Bungei Shunju in June 2018 that he and Yachi have been at odds over deepening joint economic activity with Russia even more than over BRI, has now become a special advisor to the prime minister. Asahi added that under Yachi the NSS paid little heed to the abductee issue, and that Abe aims to resolve the lingering postwar issues with Russia and North Korea, reorganizing the NSS with new economic responsibilities and further strengthening the Kantei, perhaps as well as METI. The article concluded with warnings of alienation in the foreign ministry and elsewhere in the bureaucracy, as the NSS is now moving from policy to politics.

On September 19 in Sankei Miyake Kunihiko wrote about the current state of the Japan-US-Europe triangle, noting that in a three-way seminar Americans were effusive in seeing Japan as the key to US diplomacy in Asia. He compares the three sides in responding to China, finding Europe to be the outlier despite sharing some growing alarm about it. This is explained by the focus on Russia as the latent threat, whereas Miyake considers Japan to face dual threats from China and Russia. Triangular linkage is important in facing China, and he calls on Japan, omitting the US role, to strive to make this a global triangle and to involve Europe more in East Asia. On October 31 Miyake argued that some are saying the 1953 system, when the region stabilized at the end of the Korean War, is dead. Others warned of the end of the San Francisco Peace Treaty system of 1951, the breakdown of the 1965 foundation of Japan-ROK relations, and the 1989 system that had brought the Cold War to an end. All of these warnings cast doubt on the future.

On October 26 Sankei explained the recent fascination with France as a partner for Japan. In May it sent an aircraft carrier to join maritime exercises in the Pacific with the US, Australia, and Japan. In June Macron visited Japan, looking for a new way to become involved in the region amid Sino-US conflict, opposing hegemony and reminding people that 8000 French soldiers are in the Pacific. While Great Britain has been Japan’s gateway to Europe, Brexit drives Tokyo to look to France while Paris also is seeking a new partner as strategic relations with Japan have deepened. Trump’s decision to skip the EAS summit for the third straight year and Pence’s absence as well have alienated ASEAN and emboldened China, Asahi noted on October 31. As the US distances itself from the region, Japan’s interest in France should not be surprising.

When Japan’s Diplomatic White Paper was presented to the cabinet on October 27, the press responded with remarks about what has changed. For Sankei the demotion of South Korea from second (behind Australia) to fourth (behind also ASEAN and India) was most emphasized; China, Russia, and North Korea were viewed more ominously despite improved diplomatic ties to China; and demands for meeting new challenges raised doubt about sticking to 1 percent of GDP for the defense budget, e.g., Japan has 220 persons working on cyber security, while China has 30,000. (September 28, 29). Yomiuri also pointed to the downgrading of South Korea and the “game changer” of China and Russia developing new technology (AI), editorializing on September 28 that it is necessary to counter growing new threats. Tokyo Shimbun the same day wrote of the salience of Aegis Ashore and F35s, while pointing also to South Korea’s lesser place.

Tourism is a weapon widely used in East Asia: Chinese travel to Taiwan has fallen sharply after individual permits were suspended on August 1 with the aim of preventing Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election in January along with fake news due to Chinese media influence and “red capital” in underground radio (Sankei, August 3); South Korean travel to Japan has dropped sharply; travel by Chinese to Japan has grown rapidly as China prioritizes this relationship; and Chinese travel to South Korea fell under the shadow of THAAD deployment. Rapid increases in tourism can be abruptly reversed; they are insufficient for forging trust given the wide national identity gaps.

North Korea

Japanese sources accentuated the threat from North Korea over the late summer and early fall when the North’s diplomacy was mostly on hold. The submarine-launched missile on October 2 raised particular alarm: a threat to attack the US mainland (Yomiuri, October 3), a weapon that put all of Japan in its sights, and potential for what would be even worse—the merging of the technology of North and South Korea (Sankei, October 3). The best that could be hoped was it would lead Trump to reconsider his acceptance of the North’s provocations with a return to maximum pressure, Sankei ventured. Yet the next day Asahi reported on a warning at a Seoul Japan-China-ROK symposium that Trump, in pursuit of re-election would so soften his approach to the North and to China that it would shake the foundations of the US alliances with Japan and South Korea. It recounted a succession of about-faces in bilateral relations, which have destabilized East Asia, involving China, Japan, and South Korea, including THAAD, which a Chinese speaker blamed on the US; the stabilizing role of the US is now in doubt by others.

On September 22 Sankei reported on Russian irritation with North Korea over illegal fishing in the Russian EEZ, leading to mass arrests and shootings of Russian border forces, as well as its missile tests. The article raised the possibility that Russia would reconsider its assistance to the North if this poaching did not stop. Yet it offers little evidence for this shift despite a headline about the “turn” taking place in Russia’s lenient stance toward the North. Such wishful thinking gained little currency amid the outpouring of articles about North Korea’s deepening threat.

Shocked by the North Korean SLBM missile landing in Japan’s EEZ, Yomiuri on October 2 gave it a big, front-page headline and editorialized the next day that the heightened threat could not be overlooked as Japan’s security environment was deteriorating. It called for Japan to join with the US in improving defensive capabilities and noted that the ROK despite planning to pull out of GSOMIA sought Japan’s intelligence on this. Warning that Trump is only interested in long-range missiles, the article appeals for Japan-US-ROK consensus on the need for North Korea to give up all of its medium and short-range ballistic missiles. Tokyo Shimbun already on August 1 had said that responding to North Korean missile launches is hard for Abe since he is seeking a summit with Kim Jong-un to resolved the abductee issue, and on October 3 it focused on three-party disarray as each had a different approach to seeking talks with Kim and dealt with bilateral coordination differently from GSOMIA, abductees, short-range missiles, to a peace regime. Yomiuri had long been complaining about the Japan-US divide on missile launches as well as the North taking advantage of trilateral discord (October 2), adding that voices in the LDP are appealing for more pressure on the North, while the opposition appeals for a revival of trilateralism in the face of the increased threat, as Trump and Moon loomed as barriers to that. Sankei was most assertive in appealing to face the threat, blaming a soft US posture traced back to Chris Hill under Bush (September 27). Little was said in Japan on how to convince its allies.

Japan-ROK relations

A Sankei article on August 29 referenced a speech by former ambassador to Seoul Muto Masatoshi that Moon was taken by surprise by Japan’s response to the decisions on forced labor and “comfort women.” He had not predicted the consequences of his actions, readers were told. A Yomiuri editorial on September 3 bemoaned the cancellation or postponement since July of events organized through local government exchanges—middle and high school homestays, sports, and cultural activities. It noted that Seoul, blaming public opinion, bears responsibility. Also, a Japanese sports team felt a need to remove from their polo shirts the Hi no Maru flag, when in Korea. The paper appeals for a revival of mutual understanding as well as exchanges. In Tokyo Shimbun on September 6 Sato Masaru noted that in the Diet and on the Internet there is talk of resolving the Takeshima issue through war, but he calls for demarcating the border and that of the Northern Territories as necessary for establishing a seven-country framework (including Mongolia) to manage conflict in Northeast Asia.

On September 30 Yomiuri summarized some articles on Japan-ROK relations, suggesting that there is no exit from the current impasse of one side appealing to international law and the other to historical consciousness. The essence of the difference is found in views of Korea’s annexation by Japan seen as in conformity with international law of the time and not as colonialism. A separate issue is Japanese politicians who link the export control issue to the forced labor issue, undermining Japan’s WTO case. The article stresses that Japanese and Koreans are very different in their thinking and feelings, but it calls for exchanges to limit the clash at the citizens’ level, even if at the government level the conflict cannot be resolved.

Various newspapers covered the one-year anniversary on October 30 of the first court case demanding compensation from Japanese companies for wartime forced labor, mentioning rallies in South Korea the previous day insisting on payment. Yomiuri reported that the two sides talked past each other on the legal merits of the case. On October 31 Asahi claimed that a way forward exists, but Yomiuri and Sankei saw no improvement in sight on November 2 when, after delay, parliamentarians of the two countries had met on the 1st. In Tokyo Shimbun on the 3rd Park Cheol Hee noted that Moon has begun to seek a pathway to dialogue and, happily, contacts have resumed, but in Korea anti-Japanese feelings have turned into an anti-Japanese movement, boycotting Japanese goods and travel, while a negative image of South Korea has spread in Japan as some journals have moved from “hate Korea” to “cut off Korea.” The entire region has been negatively impacted regarding peace, stability, and prosperity, Park observed.

On November 4 Gendai Business reported on Moon Jae-in’s alarm at economic troubles and shift to seeking improved ties to Japan. It showcased first US distrust in Moon, then the rise in Korean household indebtedness to a high level. In this context, Moon is adjusting his policy toward Japan, seeking a pathway to dialogue, as well as rushing to reconsider his policy to date of separating from the US. Moreover, his priority soft policy toward North Korea has come under criticism. Inside Korea, business circles are gradually growing more uneasy. Yet Moon is the sort of politician who cannot be trusted; Japan must calmly consider his real intent. In economics Moon’s hiking of the minimum wage has damaged business, as the semi-conductor industry and steel have fallen with the global economy, especially China’s slowdown. The loss of support from the case of the justice minister who was fired is another problem for Moon. In October Moon sent a letter declaring that the path is open for a summit with Japan with an eye to clearing up the forced labor and semi-conductor export control issues before the April 2020 elections. Yet this is for regaining domestic support, not a sign of a real shift in posture toward Japan, the article contends. The possibility remains that Japanese firms in January will be forced by the courts to sell property in Korea. For trust, Moon must abide by past ROK promises, it is asserted, which cannot be expected of him. The Sino-US trade clash hits the South Korean side hard due to its high export dependence, ROK conservatives and business circles are growing more worried about their country’s future, and Japan sees a chance for internal change in Korea to lead to better bilateral relations. Clearly, this article sees time being on Japan’s side.

In Bunshun on line on November 3 inability to contain the scandal over the arrests of members of Minister Cho Kuk’s family was cited for the drop in Moon’s support. With the cancellation of the APEC summit, Moon lost his chance to meet Abe. The article argues that the contradictions in Moon’s management have been exposed. He has been betrayed by: 1) recent employment data, given the fall in jobs for those in their 30s and 40s and the artificial rise in older persons working only a few hours; 2) failure to run a clean government despite post-Park Geun-hye expectations for which five examples are cited; and 3) his relationship with North Korea, which has turned sour despite his prioritization of it. Moon is clearly in deep trouble. Why then do 40 percent of Koreans still support Moon? It is argued that ROK media became inflamed over Park Geun-hye and drew close to Moon to the point that leftist media could not criticize him. Yet this honeymoon with the media is reaching its limits despite the Hankyoreh veterans working for Moon. Turning against Moon, Koreans are giving new hope to Japanese, the article suggests.

On November 3 Asahi wrote that 30 years of efforts by Tsushima to build tourism with South Korea have gone up in smoke as flights from Busan—just 50 km away—have halted, fewer ships are making the one-hour ten-minute trip, and tourism has fallen by 90 percent in September. The onsen region of Kyushu, where more than 60 percent of foreigners were Koreans, has suffered a similar fate. Tokyo and Osaka are trying discount public relations appeals in this atmosphere. On October 7 Sankei had raised the prospect of bailing out Tsushima, whose economy has taken a big hit, including the port which had become tops in ship passenger traffic with more than 50,000 a month. The fact that a hotel funded by Korea is being built near a Self-Defense Forces military base is treated as a security problem at the front line of the country’s borders.


After the INF Treaty lost effect on August 2 Yomiuri reported on the 21st of the intensifying arms race of the US, Russia, and China, noting that China had not been bound by the treaty, had intermediate missiles that could hit Guam, and sought to exclude US forces from the Western Pacific. US countering this was seen as necessary, but China sees the real aim of leaving the treaty as ensuring US military superiority and is alarmed about such missiles in its vicinity.

On August 15 Sankei insisted that China is intensifying its offense against Japan close to the Senkaku Islands, while on August 16 Tokyo Shimbun asserted that in advance of Xi’s visit in 2020 China is being careful to avoid trouble by the islands, not sending fishing boats. China wants the visit to be successful and is striving to improve relations, argues the newspaper. On August 24 Ambassador Kong in Mainichi argued that it is in Japan’s interest for Hong Kong to return to the path of normalcy. It is Japan’s fourth trading partner with 1400 companies there, and Japan will benefit by the emergence of the Greater Bay area including Guangdong and Macao too. A legal position of maintaining “one country, two systems” deserves understanding.

On September 1 Yomiuri covered Abe’s ambivalence in improving ties to China but countering the risk to security, as in the conversion of the Izumo into an aircraft carrier to accommodate F-35B planes, which Chinese media have criticized. In June the Izumo joined the Ronald Reagan in maritime exercises in the South China Sea. On Huawei and ZTE 5G technology, Japan has been firm in excluding them and in the “Osaka track” announced at the G20 on insisting on the free flow of data, reflecting a desire to counter China. Japan and China favor expanded economic ties and have agreed that their security rivalry should not stand in their way, Yomiuri asserts.

Early September saw a spate of articles on Trump’s plan to add a fourth round of tariffs on China and what it would mean for China as it retaliated with steeper tariffs of its own. Sankei on the 2nd examined Japanese companies, including Ricoh, Sony, and Nintendo, and their plans to move production outside of China, especially to Vietnam. With clothing tariffs to rise, Uniqlo is considering Vietnam and Bangladesh, readers were told on August 3 in Yomiuri. Notice was taken of not only the blow to Japan in trade but also the financial blow as the yen rises in value amid risk avoidance (Asahi, August 7). All of this is compounded by the drop in consumption as taxes are raised in October. Tokyo Shimbun on September 2 reported on the decline in Japanese exports to China every month in 2019 and on Vietnam’s huge jump in investments over that same period. Yomiuri suggested that day that China’s role as the “world factory” is in doubt now that daily use goods are being hit with tariffs. While tariff increases were postponed by Trump and Japan and the US agreed on a trade deal alleviating some concerns, the sense of disorder in Japan’s economic environment was not laid to rest in the late summer and fall.

On September 22 Yomiuri presented bold pictures and graphics on the advance of the Chinese model in the world as the European and US model retreated. Dictatorship plus rapid growth in the economy stands against the liberal international order, which Trump has not defended. AI surveillance is spreading in developing countries. Sankei on September 28 pointed to East Asia in disorder, warning that the US and Japan do not have the same crisis consciousness, citing the possibility the US would make a deal with China sacrificing the Senkaku Islands and the impact of populism and “my country first.” The Sino-US “new cold war” and the switch of South Korea from Japan and the US to unification with the North and drawing closer to China and Russia bring the danger of regional imbalance. The advice for Japan is to go beyond the Abe-Trump nexus to reconsider the national strategy, including partnering with Australia, India, Taiwan, England, and France—with shared values.

On September 30 Tokyo Shimbun assessed China on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. It noted China’s ranking in freedom of information as 177th of 180, barely above North Korea and Turkmenistan, and its political system lacking transparency. Showcasing five events since the founding, it mentioned the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen “incident” of 1989 along with the 1978 launching of reforms and openness and the Beijing Olympics. Added below was the 2018 Sino-US conflict, showing its importance already.  In an October 2 editorial Yomiuri asked if China’s development will continue under a strong-man rule, given rising international pressure and domestic dissatisfaction. It argued that Xi’s regime is at a crossroads. Trump’s protectionist methods are problematic, but lots of countries think China is a danger for international rules. The piece ends with a call for Japan to be responsible when Xi visits next spring, an indication that Tokyo’s strategy is to engage heavily, cooperating with China, in contrast to the more confrontational approach that Washington has been taking.

On October 4 Tokyo Shimbun reported on an interview with Chinese ambassador Kong Xuanyou, noting that bilateral relations are moving in a good direction and building trust will continue as Xi’s visit in the spring awaits. More than 10 million Chinese tourists are expected in 2019, offering new consciousness of Japan. That same day Yomiuri cited a July 30 meeting in Beijing where Xi had said China should consider whether to join TPP after pressing for early conclusion of RCEP, both without the US and multilateral means of containing Trump’s policy. The article notes that TPP demands for economic openness are substantial, and China would have to fundamentally alter its economic system, citing leaks from the Japanese government doubtful of China’s entry.

On October 10 Yomiuri reported on Xi Jinping’s support for the North Korean economy, noting the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. It discussed underground trade across the border, five summits over 15 months, and strategic relations targeting the US. Indicative of high-level contacts, Wang Yi was in Pyongyang on September 2. In the Rajin port, investments are arriving for a golf course, hotel with casino, and commercial area, facilitated by a joint venture investment law passed in August. Sankei on October 7, along with reporting on the harsh North Korean statement after the breakdown of working-level talks with the US, wrote of the October 6 Sino-DPRK celebratory telegrams for the 70th anniversary, arguing that both are using their close ties as a card versus the US. A new era in the relationship has dawned as the two have reached in their five summits a series of common understandings, it observes. Tokyo Shimbun on October 4 wrote of a North Korean plan to send students to China and other countries to replace the cash-earning workers who must return home by year’s end according to the sanctions regime. They will work in the service industry in hotels and restaurants, using an agreement reached between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un at their June summit, earning only half as much as the workers being sent home but still providing needed currency to the state.

On October 25 Sankei reported on the Genron public opinion poll showing 85 percent of the Japanese respondents do not have a good image of China whereas the corresponding Chinese figure toward Japan had fallen to 53 percent after the anti-Japan campaign was suppressed from exceeding 90 percent in 2013. There is a sharp contrast in views of current relations, reflecting an enormous gap in attitudes as China advocates a “Japan-China friendship mood.”

On November 2 in Asahi Takahara Akio saw a dark cloud in Sino-Japanese exchanges due to the arrest of a Hokkaido University professor invited to China by CASS’ modern history institute. He notes that national security laws have tightened in China, that reasons for the arrest remain unclear, and that this sets back exchange plans, leaves relations unstable, does not create the right atmosphere for Xi Jinping’s forthcoming visit to Japan, and has been a shock to academics.

On November 4 Sankei warned that with the US absent from the EAS, discussion of China taking the lead should be avoided. True, the Trump administration’s talk of support for freedom and democracy in Asia and opposition to China’s authoritarianism and hegemonism is in doubt, but the fierce tug-of-war between Japan and China at the EAS continues, and neighboring countries see the presence of Japan and the US in the South China Sea as essential. With Trump absent, Abe should recognize the added responsibility he has. While Pence has spoken on China policy, this does not suffice. Abe must maintain trust in both Japan and the US in countering China.    

Japan-Russia relations and Mongolia

On September 17 the new NSS director Kitamura met Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s security council, who has long handled relations on the Russian side. Tokyo Shimbun on the 20th posted Sato Masaru’s take on Kitamura, saying that his recent post was equivalent to the director of the CIA as the head of the intelligence community and that he is well known in the world of secret diplomacy and security pros. Sato expected him to play a big role in negotiations on the Northern Territories, omitting the fact that there are no such talks under way. On the 27th the same paper posted Sato’s optimistic take on the intent of both sides to boost mutual trust, in which Sato notes Patrushev’s view of the professionalism of Kitamura’s intelligence office and expects an acceleration of negotiations on the Northern Territories. Sato sees Russia’s biggest concern as US troops being stationed on the two islands after their return amid uncertainty over whether Japan can act in accord with diplomatic autonomy under the Japan-US security system. Sato expresses his expectation that under Kitamura there will be a turning point in trust with Russia. Implicit is the notion that Abe’s staff under Yachi did not pursue Russia adequately and that the lack of progress in negotiations is due to Japan without mention of what was not offered by Russia. Thus, Kitamura appears as a possible savior of this recently troubled process.

On November 3 Yomiuri headlined expectations of accelerated Japan-Russia talks on a legal framework for joint activities on the disputed islands now that the June agreement between Abe and Putin for Japanese tourists to travel there has been realized through a two-day visit (shortened by one-day due to the weather). The Japanese side sees this as a means of building trust for peace negotiations beyond the visa-free travel allowed for the former residents. Abe and Putin had been expected to hold talks at APEC on a new system, but now Motegi and Lavrov will have to discuss later this month when a summit can take place.

A September 4 article in Yomiuri pointed to the heated battle under way for Mongolia between China and Russia on one side and Japan and the US on the other. President Battulga, in office since 2017, seems to be positively inclined to joining the SCO, as he is being strongly encouraged by China and Russia, and the US is alarmed that Mongolia will join the Sino-Russian camp in place of its “third neighbor” balancing since the 1990s. In July when Battulga visited the US he was offered closer economic cooperation, and in August, Secretary of Defense Esper visited Mongolia. Kono visited in June, winning acceptance for FOIP. Putin’s visit on September 3 is part of an intense tug-of-war, as he commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Nomonhan battle, and Putin drew on the long history to try to get Mongolia to lean to the Sino-Russian side in this competition.

Indo-Pacific concept, Southeast Asia, and RCEP

Yomiuri on September 3 praised Abe’s success in rulemaking, showcasing the trilateral summit with Modi and Trump at the Osaka G20 despite Modi’s serious concern about the US. Modi has called the summit the JAI, a word that means “victory” in Hindi, adding an Indian touch to the FOIP as he pushes back against China’s BRI. The article recognizes the twisting path of FOIP. Its origin is traced to Abe’s speech in August 2008 to the Indian parliament, calling for an expanded Asia joining the Pacific and Indian oceans, to his December 2012 call for an “Asian, democratic, security diamond,” to his softer FOIP concept introduced in August 2016, with the biggest FOIP transition occurring after Trump came to office with a harder line toward China and replaced Obama’s “rebalance” by embracing FOIP. In 2008 and 2012 Abe’s ideas were not embraced by India or the US and Australia as if they signified containment of China. After Trump echoed the concept, Abe made sure to clarify that this was not a “strategy” and even that China could participate. In June 2019 ASEAN adopted a similar concept, the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.” Abe is credited with rulemaking through TPP after Trump pulled out and FOIP, which spread through the change of administrations in the US, and finally TICAD, a proposal to Africa in response to dissatisfaction that Japan’s investments were falling far short of China’s.

On August 5 in response to the US-Australia 2 + 2 the previous day, Yomiuri’s headline pointed to the two countries rushing to contain China in opposition to BRI and to China’s hardened stance toward Australia. Mention was made of the US urging ASEAN to be wary of BRI and of Australia’s response to China’s intensified activities in the South Pacific, cooperating with the US to try to prevent countries in that area from becoming dependent on China. On September 24 Yomiuri editorialized on the need to expand their influence, with a warning about China. This is an important region for FOIP, close to Hawaii and Guam, for economic and security ties.

Yomiuri on September 15 traced, one-by-one, how countries in Southeast Asia are striving to lure companies affected by the sanctions fallout of the Sino-US trade war. On November 3 the same paper described China’s fragmentation of ASEAN with bilateral diplomacy, recently via economic cooperation with the Philippines and Malaysia with the objective of isolating Vietnam. This includes joint development of oil and natural gas deposits in the South China Sea with the Philippines and a new cooperative maritime framework with Malaysia as Mahathir won support for expanded exports to China of palm oil. Using economic and military pressure, China is now forging an order in Southeast Asia in which each country pursues its own interests, suppressing its criticisms of China, while China is simultaneously upping the pressure on Vietnam. Sankei on November 2 remarked that the Fourth Plenum in China barely touched on Xi’s signature policy, the BRI. Seeing the growing alarm in the US and elsewhere about it, China wanted to avoid any arousal in its communique, while it showcased Xi’s call for a “system of common destiny for mankind.” On October 24 Pence had warned of the ultimate military aim of the BRI amid talk of the debt trap for countries. China is being more cautious in its rhetoric is the conclusion drawn. Yet Yomiuri on September 24 was scathing in its commentary on China’s infrastructure projects in Indonesia, saying that they are shoddy and behind schedule, arousing considerable distrust.

Sankei on August 28 said that Xi Jinping is abandoning a “friend,” citing the way China handled the visits of the Pakistan and Indian foreign ministers three days apart earlier in the month in regard to the Kashmir situation. Wang Yi stressed the importance of relations with India, only the Indian visitor was given a meeting with Wang Qishan. China’s “India shift” is traced back three months to a UNSC vote on terrorist activities, where China failed to protect its ally with a veto. Sankei finds a parallel in China’s new treatment of Japan but warns of its real intentions.

Asahi on September 28 observed that the fate of RCEP depends on China and India, noting too that Mahathir has called for proceeding without India, Australia, and New Zealand as ASEAN + 3, returning to a format Japan had opposed in the 2000s by pushing for ASEAN + 6. In the article, a barrier to Trump’s unilateralism is welcomed as having great significance, notably for FTAs between Japan and China, Japan and South Korea, and China and India, but India fears unemployment effects from increased Chinese imports. Mention is made of Japan exploring the idea of ASEAN + 3, favored by many ASEAN states, and that China is in a hurry for a deal, given its deepening conflict with the US. With RCEP, Japan together with China can forge rules. Asahi on October 31 had explained that India will not join due to a $53 billion trade deficit with China and alarm that increased pressure will be placed on India’s small and medium-sized firms from reduced tariffs on China’s exports and their entry through other RCEP countries. India had asked for safeguards to be allowed to reimpose tariffs; Modi faces strong domestic pressure. On October 26 Asahi carried a Chinese author advocating both RCEP and a Japan-China-South Korea FTA as the answer to lessen US pressure, welcoming China’s exploration of TPP entry too.