Country Report: Japan (June 2017)

Despite his unsettling campaign rhetoric and transitional moves, Trump rekindled hope among the Japanese right and the left in his first two months in office; but in April and May, he once again dashed much of it. For the right, Abe’s February meeting with Trump and the sense that US policy toward China and North Korea would be less patient boosted their optimism. However, the US trade-offs with China following the Xi-Trump April summit, saber-rattling toward North Korea, and Trump’s incompetence on daily display cast a dark shadow. For the left, Trump’s neo-isolationism linked to “America first” gave hope that Asian states (now so closely integrated economically) would cooperate more. In the April issue of Journalism, Lee Jong Won wrote optimistically that as US hegemony recedes in Asia, a new era is arriving where Japan, China, and South Korea have a chance to forge a regional order including an intra-regional security system. He sees a path to overcoming nationalism, a power transition leading to an equilibrium, a deepening of mutual dependency, a process of moving beyond Xi Jinping and Abe Shinzo’s divisive moves, and a way to reach beyond the North Korean issue (which is less serious than the Iranian one) since that state is just focused on maintaining regime survival and countering marginalization. Blaming Obama’s shift toward the containment of China, Lee welcomes the opening Trump offers for Asians to find a mechanism to manage competition. This thinking is characteristic of the left’s tendency to blame US entrapment for Japan’s problems in Asia, to anticipate China’s cooperation on regionalism, and to see a way around the North Korean problem—although such idealism has waned in recent years.

In the same issue, Takahashi Kosuke called for reviving the East Asian community idea, accepting the US-Japan alliance for balance against China, but seeking to limit excessive Japanese dependence on the United States when Trump is making demands with zero-sum elements. Now that there is Sino-US reconciliation after the Xi-Trump summit, Japan too should improve ties with China, avoiding linkage of the South and East China seas and seeking a grand bargain with China aimed at constructing a regional community in which Japan would play a leading role for RCEP. For Japan’s progressives, Trump’s policies offered hope of refocusing on regionalism. Yet, the message from the mainstream was much less hopeful, particularly as time ensued.

After Trump ordered missile strikes in Syria, Japanese newspapers responded with some linkages to US resolve on North Korea and China. Asahi Shimbun and Nihon Keizai Shimbun were most critical with the latter preferring cooperation with Russia to stabilize the Middle East. On April 19, Sankei compared the responses, concluding, as had Yomiuri and Mainichi, that Trump did the right thing, sending a strong message on US relations with Russia, China, and North Korea, about what should be expected from Trump’s diplomatic and security policies. Such a reading of the US use of force, however, also raised some concern that it could be unilateral and extreme, while others argued that Trump was not assertive enough after all.

The second half of April brought saber-rattling to a high pitch, as US “maximum pressure” strategy with possible military action was widely reported and the risks to Japan as well as South Korea were anxiously discussed, as in Yomiuri on April 22. If there was some talk of Chinese cooperation on sanctions, as in limiting oil exports, doubts that China would do what Trump wanted prevailed, as in Yomiuri’s April 26 report on Wu Dawei’s visit to Japan and appeal for a calm response. While that day, its editorial referred to Abe’s third phone call with Trump on April 24, in which he supported Trump’s saying “all options are on the table,” the editorial stressed tougher sanctions as well as a show of force. Four days later, Yomiuri’s editorial rather desperately appealed for tougher sanctions, soberly acknowledging that Russia is only interested in dialogue while China, despite the fact it could have serious impact on sanctions effectiveness, seeks restraint if there is not a 6th nuclear test. Another article that day summarized the new US approach and noted China’s forward-looking response, but it concluded that there is no encirclement of North Korea.

On April 24, Yomiuri Shimbun reviewed many Japanese sources covering the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula. Most were pessimistic, worrying about the election results in South Korea and uncertainties from Trump’s policy shifts and the North’s increasingly erratic behavior. A major theme was the alarm over pro-North Korean Moon Jae-in being elected. Ideas for Japan ranged from becoming a pipe to Asia to assist Washington on the sidelines in assassinating Kim Jong-un, preparing for a new cold war between China and the United States, to waiting for the US retreat from hegemony in Asia for an opportunity to play a new role in regional security. Developments that month, especially the Trump-Xi summit and Trump’s punitive missile strikes on Syria, left the Japanese grappling with uncertainty, particularly regarding the ongoing struggle over North Korea. Yet, after the Tillerson-Wang Yi meeting on April 28, the focus turned to seeking a peaceful resolution. Given doubts about China’s intentions, the Japanese worried about Trump’s gullibility.

On May 4, Asahi Shimbun wrote about the turn toward realism in US policy from a focus on ISIS through Russo-US ties, when upon Michael Flynn’s departure, Trump began taking daily intelligence briefings instead of 2-3 times a week and recognizing the priority of the North Korean threat while seeking a deal with China. Yet, the article concluded that if the deal fails and no answer is found concerning the North’s threat, relations with China will necessarily worsen. Sankei on May 3 claimed that US allies are suspicious of US dependence on China, questioning changes in policies toward Taiwan, and warning of uneasiness about policies toward the South and East China seas. The article noted that Chinese firms and banks were violating the sanctions and blocking the issuance of a report from the UN expert committee to that effect. It appeared to seek quick application of secondary sanctions on Chinese firms. Quoting an Indian author, it hinted India’s doubts the US wooing of China.

On May 15, Yomiuri pointed to a struggle over conditions for dialogue between the US and North Korean sides, as the Trump administration declares that all options are on the table. It questions what Japan should do, given Washington is unable to take either extreme position—military action or a freeze. China will not abandon the North completely, cutting off its oil lifeline. Moon Jae-in will seek a softer approach. Trump is not experienced—rendering Japan’s role more important. But the article does not say what that is. On May 28, Miura Ruri wrote in this paper that Trump has raised Japan’s fear of US abandonment, and that Japan must now revise its constitution, including strict legislative control over the armed forces to make this acceptable.

By May 29, alarm about US policy toward China had risen, as Haruo Mikio reported in Yomiuri, warning of a crisis in US-ROK relations, the abdication of US leadership with the formal introduction of China’s BRI, and Trump’s unrelenting amateurism. Separately, Jimbo Ken called for more deterrence in Northeast Asia, but warned that North Korea has gained in confidence and US deterrence is more problematic. In the background are more hints of Japanese willingness to cooperate with China on economic projects such as BRI, for instance as indicated by LDP leader Nikai’s visit to the BRI forum, but unlikely conditions were attached to such moves.

Tanaka Akihiko on June 4 in Yomiuri distinguished two tasks for Japan’s foreign policy: to strengthen the Japan-US security system, welcoming Trump’s priority for dealing with the North Korea question; and to maintain the world’s liberal order at a time Trump has left it in confusion. This two-track approach boosts autonomy—once again showcasing that Japan has a major role to play, although now more so due to the retreat of US leadership. In Gaiko he wrote of a Japanese version of the Armitage-Nye report, aimed at avoiding rattling the Japan-US alliance at a time of increasing geopolitical volatility in East Asia and of much-needed adjustment in the world system and defense against China’s maritime advance.

Will Japan be able to pick up the mantle of TPP, leading a 11-state rump agreement? Sankei on May 23 said that this should be Japan’s role, as it forges a bridge awaiting US rethinking. This would limit China’s moves to form an economic circle. Yet, some of the 11 states are wary, readers are told. In the case of Vietnam, it had counted on increased exports to the United States. Other states want China to be included. The article was inconclusive on the prospects. On May 23, Sankei also discussed plans announced the previous day to complete RCEP in 2017, celebrating the 50th anniversary of ASEAN. Yet, problems were noted, as the target date had slipped from 2015 and then in 2016, notably between Japan’s quest for high standards in liberalization (backed by Australia and New Zealand and other states in TPP) and China’s as well as ASEAN’s drive for a quick result. In this tug-of-war, China aims to replace the United States as the leader of free trade, taking advantage of the failure of TPP. Japan had lobbied the ASEAN states in April, inviting their economic officials to Wakayama-ken to forge personal relations of trust.

In the May/June Gaiko, Ito Motoshige disagreed with media gloominess about the economic impact of the political backlash against globalization in the United States and Great Britain. This is not the end of the postwar economic order, he argued, as a “Trump rally” lifts stocks and Japanese firms remain forward-looking, but there is unease about Trump’s economic direction as US automakers are on the offensive against Japanese car companies, projecting difficult negotiations ahead. The article calls for Japan to persuade Vietnam and Malaysia on TPP 11, welcomes Japan joining RCEP, and warns against accepting a CJK FTA with lower standards. Rather than China leading a new economic order, it sees a leaderless order emerging in East Asia.

South Korea-Japan Relations

On April 21, Yomiuri wrote about Seoul’s negative posture toward contingency plans to evacuate Japanese nationals from Korea in case of war. Japan’s preparations see the need for SDF planes and ships for speedy evacuation of about 57,00 persons, but the Korean government refuses to discuss this. Nagasawa Yuko wrote in Asahi Shimbun on May 4 about Korean cultural treasures that were taken to Japan by the pirates in the 13th-16th centuries, by Hideyoshi’s invasion of the 1590s, and during the 35-year colonial era. Citing a court decision in January which awarded a Tsushima treasure stolen by a Korean to its original Korean temple, she describes Korean national pride over the return of such items. Of 160,000 Korean treasures scattered around the world, more than 70,000 are in Japan. Since 1965 about 1,300 have been returned, but experts note that not many were the high-value items. (One example was a gift by Tokyo University to Seoul National University.) The article is supportive of a joint study in the hope of achieving a breakthrough in dealing with this problem.

Japanese conservatives were in despair over the Korean Peninsula, pointing to the missile launches of North Korea and the anti-Japanese drift of South Korea. Moon Jae-in was demonized. The North’s aim is “red unification,” and the South is playing into its hands, an article in the May Bungei Shunju warned. Hopes from a year earlier for closer Japan-ROK ties, tighter sanctions on North Korea, Japan-Russia rapprochement, and TPP and ASEAN solidarity on the South China Sea, have all been dashed, as Trump introduced a wild card that added to the region’s growing nervousness. Thus, hopelessness over South Korea was but one more negative development. (See the Introduction to the Special Forum for more on Japanese views of South Korea.)

South Korea-China Relations

An April 28 Yomiuri Shimbun article discussed China’s retaliation for South Korea’s deployment of THAAD, depicting empty shops in Seoul due to mass cancellations of tours from China, as well as sharp drops in the sales of Korean products in China, notably at the 100 or so Lotte Marts (about 90 percent of which were shut down on such pretexts as fire code violations.) In the first 9 days of April, Chinese tourism to South Korea fell by 64 percent compared to the preceding year, exceeding the drop of 40 percent for March. Hyundai car sales in China were reported to have fallen by half in March too. Compounded by the effects of slower Chinese economic growth and change in the structure of China’s economy as well as replacement of Korean parts in final assembly, these retaliatory steps have added to sharp increases in South Korea’s unemployment rate, particularly among those aged 15-29 (now at 9.8 percent). This has led to the “kangaroo” phenomenon of college graduates, who continue to depend on their parents after graduation. Grappling with harsh economic downturn, many young Koreans talk of “hell Korea.”

The June issue of Chuo koron discussed a scenario of US-DPRK rapprochement, as Japan and South Korea continue to struggle with ambiguity. Having abandoned in 1994 the possibility of a military strike on the North, to which allies as well as China stood opposed, the US side has now chosen the policy of “America first,” which is Japan’s worst dream. This is seen as leaving North Korea to China, which seeks to preserve its buffer area. In this issue, Kimura Kan noted the intense alarm in Japan’s media and the Kantei over Moon Jae-in’s election, fearing he would lean toward China, be anti-American, and end the US-ROK alliance. He disagrees, calling Moon not leftist, but centrist or center-left in foreign policy. He expects a more nationalist rather than conservative statist approach to lead to humanitarian assistance to the North. South Korea has two types of heroes, he adds: champions of democratization or economic development. Public debate has vacillated between which is more valorized. Kimura appears to be little concerned that the renewed stress on democratic heroes and nationalism will undermine the US alliance, since the ROK will be careful not to damage alliance trust. Park tried to work with China on North Korea; so that is not likely to be repeated. He urges Japan to improve ties with South Korea, with which it shares values in Northeast Asia, while warning against the prevailing view that the South is troublesome or that their historic disputes preclude any hope for cooperation. Given the polarization with two triangles in this region, the South Korean view that Japan is accelerating this process instead of seeking peaceful limits on it is damaging. Instead, Tokyo should reach out to Seoul, beginning with dialogue between intellectuals, despite different views of China. Japan should not drive South Korea to its west. Since Korean progressives have long had closer ties than conservatives to Japan, “pipes” exist, and relations can be improved, concludes Kimura in defiance of prevailing sentiment.

After Moon Jae-in was elected, Japan received reassurance that security as well as economic ties would be kept on a separate track from history. Over the next month there were repeated calls to intensify triangular coordination in facing North Korea, both in pressing for Security Council sanctions (where Japan, but not the ROK, is a member) and in boosting secondary sanctions and deterrence. The United States and Japan are insisting that this is a time for pressure not dialogue, but Sankei and Yomiuri on May 27 left unclear whether China and South Korea would concur. On June 4, after new sanctions were approved by the Security Council, Seoul received credit for coordinating with Washington and Tokyo, but Beijing was faulted along with Moscow for insisting on the importance of dialogue and refusing to stop oil exports to the North, Yomiuri reported. With missile defense added to the picture, Seoul’s role was left ambiguous, as was its place in pressing China to cut the oil. The South China Sea was now being linked with the North Korea issue as pitting China against Japan with the US position there uncertain since cooperation over the North is prioritized, even as Secretary Mattis strongly opposed China’s actions in the South China Sea, and South Korea’s position was muddled by its avoidance of the maritime topic and new hesitation regarding THAAD.

Tokyo Shimbun reporting on May 20 about Moon Jae-in’s special envoy’s visit to China, wrote of both sides seeking parallel tracks of sanctions and talks, and Xi Jinping’s expectation that he could work with Moon on North Korea, even as China continues to wield economic pressure against South Korea for THAAD. Sankei on May 23laid out a scenario of intensified sanctions, stopping oil imports and also third-country financial transactions with close cooperation between Tokyo and Washington, but Seoul’s role is not interpreted as in sync with the other two. Earlier alarm about Seoul’s sympathy for Beijing, quieted in 2016, had returned with renewed urgency.

Russia-Japan Relations

The vice-ministerial talks in Tokyo on March 18 drew criticism in Japan, as in Asahi Shimbun, for Russia’s insistence that its laws must apply to the special system for joint economic activity on the islands, but Sato Masaru in the May Chuo Koron said that this was unjustified. The only goal for Japan is that its sovereignty claim not be harmed; so this is an unfair standard. In addition, Sato asserts, Russian papers show that the Kremlin is paying close attention. Thus, readers are urged to think that the talks went well and will lead to negotiations on the Northern Territories, despite little indication of how that goal is in sight or what should be taken as hopeful signs. 

On April 28, reporting on Abe’s visit to Moscow was circumspect. Even Yomiuri saw no sign of negotiations on territory and many problems with joint economic activity; rather, it was upbeat about the merits of the process—anticipating three more summits between Abe and Putin in 2017 (at the G20 in July, in Vladivostok in September, and at APEC in November) and real progress after Russia’s presidential election next March. Yet, it acknowledged that at the March 18 vice-ministerial talks, Russia had insisted that its laws be followed in the special system for the islands, while Japanese companies are hesitant to begin activity given the political concerns. The article found the North Korean issue influencing Japan-Russia relations, pointing to Putin’s hostility to Japanese military cooperation with the United States. It concluded that Japan should continue forging relations of trust without frank notice of how distrust is growing, as reported in the adjacent article on an April 24 joint symposium where Russians criticized not only Japan’s military policy but warned further that through joint economic activity Japan might try to seize the islands from Russia. In the same paper that evening, however, an article spoke of the welcome being given by former residents of the islands to the easier travel that was approved for them to visit ancestral graves. The next day Yomiuri editorialized about advancing an environment for talks on territory through this summit and a looming visit by a Japanese delegation to the islands, which would be inspecting sites for projects Abe is suggesting, including fish farming and eco-tourism. It claimed that deepening such ties will improve Russian views of Japan and possibly improve understanding for why territory should be returned to Japan. Beyond optimism about solving the legal quandary for joint development, the editorial cited Japan’s economic cooperation in other parts of Russia—a preventative medical center in Khabarovsk, joint development of oil and gas fields in Irkutsk, and more, but it calls for balance in dealing with the territorial issue without giving the impression that only economic development is going forward. Absent any sign that Russia agrees and given the shadow cast by Russia’s attitude on North Korea, the hopes raised seem greatly misplaced.

On April 30, Tokyo Shimbun expressed concern at Russia’s approach to North Korea, which is critical of Trump’s resort to military pressure and prioritizing blame for the US side more than the North Korean side. At the April 27 joint press conference with Abe, Putin had called for restraint in responding to the North and sought to contain the United States, Japan, and South Korea, which follow it. The article observes that the North Korean ship, which used to ply between that country and Niigata before it was banned, will begin a regular route between Vladivostok and Rajin from May 8. This will bypass the sanctions, boost Russia’s influence, and oppose US policy.  A Yomiuri editorial on April 22 had already warned that as Sino-US cooperation on North Korea widened, Russia might seek to increase its influence with the North to use it as a diplomatic card and pose an obstacle at the Security Council to US efforts to expand sanctions. It advised Putin, for the sake of development in the Russian Far East, to seek denuclearization and stability in Northeast Asia, but it failed to address what Abe should do days later in Moscow to bring about that outcome. Cheerleading Abe’s overtures to Putin, Yomiuri was in a difficult position of expressing optimism but having to recognize problems.

Late May coverage discussed the Japanese delegation assigned to go to the disputed islands in late June. Comprised of officials and others—about 30 persons—it would inspect conditions for joint economic activities. Already on May 19 islanders and those involved in return movement had left for four days on the visa-free travel plan and heard from a Russian official about cooperation on housing, hotels, and roads as well as electricity and agriculture, but the Japanese were uneasy about the legal arrangements sought by the Russians under the rubric of a “special system,” observed Yomiuri on May 23. There was no momentum from the December summit.

On May 2 and May 4, Yomiuri reported on Japan’s effort to boost ties with Central Asia in the sixth meeting of five foreign ministers with Japan’s foreign minister in Turkmenistan. The meeting had two stated purposes: pressing countries with ties to North Korea to join Japan in a tough posture to enforce sanctions, and providing infrastructure assistance and a plan for more exchange visitors to Japan. In addition, through joint efforts with the United States and Europe, Japan promised to help counter the excessive dependence on China and Russia in Central Asia. Responding to concerns shared by some in the region, Yomiuri called for fostering open and stable development in the area. This came only two weeks before China’s Belt and Road summit, which Japan views warily would lock those countries more tightly in China’s embrace.

In the April issue of Journalism, Koizumi Yu wrote about Japan-Russia distrust in the Trump era. He cited hopes that US-Russian relations would improve, having an impact on Russia’s relations in Asia as US concern fades about a Russian sphere of influence and authoritarianism. Yet, Koizumi finds that a different outcome is now occurring, as US realism reasserts itself and Russia’s hope to be in the top five economic powers is betrayed by falling to 13th in GDP while its Far East remains largely a wasteland. This leaves Japan with economic leverage for recovering territory, while the Trump connection with Russia is in trouble. However, Koizumi doubts progress on the territorial issue, given Russian lean toward China, not the United States, and the lack of Russian interest in an atmosphere that would link economic ties and territorial issues. Most important is Putin’s security obsession and view of Japan as obligated to the United States by treaty. This is not just about a possibility of a US base on returned islands, but the strategic importance of the Sea of Okhotsk for SSBNs and the broader strategic angle from which Moscow views Japan. As talks drag on, Japan’s incentive to draw closer to Russia diminishes, while Russia plays the China card, trying to force Japan into concessions by sharpening its historical narrative (already in May and September 2015 leaning to China) and supporting China on the Senkaku issue in return for reciprocal support in its own territorial dispute with Japan. Koizumi traces shifts in Russian maritime drills with China since 2014, hinting that Russia is relying more on blackmailing Japan over what it can do with China than on an effort to find common ground with Japan to meet the goals of both countries. There is scant indication that Japan and Russia can find common ground.

China-North Korea Relations

The May Toa studied China’s increased pressure on North Korea after the Xi-Trump summit, detailing the appeals each side made to the other. It noted skeptically the lack of a joint statement or press conference, leaving the roots of opposition there despite parallel tracks. Xi had wanted the early summit and a promise by Trump to visit China later in the year—helpful for Xi’s power consolidation before the party congress. For Trump, success is tied to a reduction in the trade deficit, as a 100-day countdown began. For Xi, he won reaffirmation of the three communiques on Taiwan. On North Korea, Trump sought full implementation of Security Council resolutions, and Xi sought suspension of military exercises and THAAD deployment. This success was a factor in both leaders’ satisfaction with the results—with Trump offering leniency on trade in return for China’s cooperation on the North Korea issue. The article finds Putin troubled by Xi’s partnership with Trump, beginning to split the Sino-Russian honeymoon, but its longevity remains inconclusive and will depend largely on China’s next moves. 

Yomiuri on May 1 reported about Chinese shipments of prohibited goods to North Korea, indicating that lax export controls prevail, as conjectured in the April 30 coverage, which described the unwillingness of China to pressure the North stemming from China’s greatest interest in achieving power balance. North Korea is seen through the lens of the US presence in the region, making China dependent on the North just as the North is dependent on China, regardless of personal animosities. Japan is prone to view South Korea as a target of China’s balance of power struggle too, considering it to be vulnerable to China, through both using the North as a lever and playing on what is seen as the gullibility of the South Koreans. This prism leaves less room for close cooperation with China than many US analysts suggest, based on more optimistic assessments of what is driving China. Reunification is also far from Japan’s radar.

On May 18, a Sankei article expressed concern that Trump changed abruptly toward embracing China, putting absolute trust in Xi as a result of the North Korean crisis, while focus on the South China Sea has been lost just as China has been quietly advancing its pursuit of hegemony. Wang Yi made clear that China is not the key to resolving the North Korean issue, but this issue serves as the most powerful card in China’s diplomacy with the United States. Thus, China will not cut off the oil to North Korea and lose the utility of this card.

On June 4, Yomiuri reported on China’s purchase of fishing rights from North Korea outside of the framework of sanctions and offering a source of cash flow to the North’s military. In the first third of 2017, China’s imports from North Korea dropped, but its exports rose 14 percent over a year earlier, the article asserted, pointing also to thriving smuggling activities across the Yalu River and recent Chinese imports of antiques.

Increasingly, coverage of North Korea made linkages with the South China Sea. On May 26, Yomiuri reported on a US freedom of navigation operation, explaining that a long period had passed since the previous operation—despite calls for one from the Pacific Command since February—due to concern that this would affect cooperation on North Korea from China. Yet, with China and Russia blocking new sanctions more pressure is being applied, readers were told.

Sino-Japanese Relations

Yomiuri on May 4 asserted that Japan is trying to improve relations with China, not least of all because of its desire for coordination in dealing with North Korea, but in advance of the party congress wherein Xi is concerned about attacks over his Japan policy. The article suggests that in 2017 the trilateral summit with the ROK and China might be canceled again, due perhaps to the unstable political situation in South Korea. Left in the air is whether Xi would meet with Abe at the G20 meetings this summer and whether Abe would go to China this year for a trilateral summit and to mark the 45th anniversary of the 1972 normalization of relations—an event Japanese papers are seeking to mark.

On May 16, Yomiuri covered the Belt and Road forum, stressing uneasiness in some participating states about falling into huge debts with China, and Russian hopes for avoiding marginalization through three traffic arteries: the BAM, Siberian railways, and the Arctic Sea route. It suggested that Russia is wary of China’s plans in Central Asia and has been expecting investments and loans for these other routes. Yet, the article gave no indication that the funds are coming. It editorialized about the distrust toward China that exists among many states and pointed to limitations on free trade in China as well as fear of excessive debt burden among its partners. Stress was put on China’s use of BRI to improve ports for later use in China’s hegemonic maritime advance not only in the South China Sea, but potentially in the Indian Ocean.

As Japan contemplates secondary sanctions on North Korea—in addition to a full stop to all trade, prohibiting cadres of Chosen Soren from reentering Japan, and inspecting cargoes on third-country ships heading to North Korea—Yomiuri on May 23 expressed concern about China’s response. It could stop cooperation on North Korean issues. This could have an impact on negotiating the release of Japanese abductees in North Korea. The article concluded that Japan had to be careful in its sanctions implementation.