Country Report: Japan (November 2020)

The late fall of 2020 was eventful for Japanese foreign relations because it meant the start of a new relationship with a US president—this time with a new Japanese prime minister; renewal of diplomacy with China—more intent than before on driving a wedge between Japan and the US; the signing of a broad trade agreement—RCEP was perceived as giving China greater clout even as China raised the goal of joining the Japan-led CPTPP; rising concern about Australia under pressure from China and Hong Kong being stripped of its autonomy by China; and signs of South Korea seeking to find a pathway to improved relations in the face of Japan’s skepticism. After a period of diplomatic inertia media coverage had suddenly intensified in anticipation of a burst of diplomatic energy as the Biden administration shows renewed US interest in diplomacy.   

Japan-US relations

On November 12 Suga’s phone conversation with Biden drew editorial scrutiny. Mainichi stressed that because US foreign and security policy is expected to change course it will be necessary to rebuild the Japan-US alliance. Abe had concentrated on forging a close personal relationship of trust with Trump, fearing that the alliance would be shaken. However, he was criticized strongly for “following the US,” as in mass purchases of US-made arms. In contrast, Biden confirmed by phone that he intends to strengthen the alliance. Yet Mainichi warned thar US national power is relatively declining, which means the alliance is changing. The US defense budget will be cut, and Biden will seek more burden sharing. Japan needs to prevent a power vacuum in the Asia-Pacific and retain the US role. While Biden said that Article 5 of the Security Treaty, which stipulates US defense obligations to Japan, would apply to the Senkaku Islands, the Status of Forces Agreement has more inequality than the agreements the US has with other allies, and it is time to start discussing revisions. Also noted was that Trump’s policy toward North Korea was conspicuous only for summit diplomacy, and the problems of nuclear weapons and missiles did not see any progress. Biden has indicated that he will not have a summit unless North Korea moves toward denuclearization; Japan needs to work closely with him to find clues to the abduction issue, while now taking the initiative in thinking about regional peace and prosperity.

On November 18 Iizuka Makiko wrote in Yahoo Japan on the Suga-Biden exchange, focusing on Biden’s position toward China and noting past statements that downplayed the China threat. Yet in the phone call Biden declared, in line with Obama’s initial assurance in 2014, that the Japan-US Security Treaty would apply to the Senkaku Islands. Obama’s policy of reconciliation with China was seen as a failure, and Biden’s hard line may be just a performance for allies. This is because care was taken not to offend China. In a summary of the telephone talks the transition team said that Biden emphasized the US is deeply committed under Article 5 but did not mention the specific name of the Senkaku Islands. He thus may be eager not to offend China in order to resolve Trump’s US-China trade war. On November 4 the same source carried Rokutsuji Shoji’s warning to be wary since Biden is neither pro-China nor pro-Japan. In light of the atmosphere in the US, Biden is likely to pressure China, putting Japan in an awkward position, e.g., on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, since its government barely touches human rights issues. Moreover, Biden does not appear to be “pro-Japanese” enough to take Japan’s caution into account. Trump put Japan in difficult positions, and Biden may force difficult choices, too.

In the same source on November 17, Imai Saori discussed Biden’s plan to revive a coalition of democracies via a "World Summit for Democracy to Renew the Spirit and Common Purposes of the Countries of the Free World.” It is unclear if this means an anti-China alliance under US leadership, or a real effort to renew democracy after years of recession and authoritarian threat. The Abe administration and LDP have been skeptical of the Western “universal human rights that all human beings have by nature,” but now that China’s military hegemony is a problem, will the Suga administration actively participate in the “democracy summit”? Without Japan’s participation, US-backed security would not be available, but participation will put Japan in a difficult financial position and increase military tensions with neighboring countries. The “time of decision” may come. An era of trying to get along with any country with Abe’s “omnidirectional diplomacy” is over. That is why Japan may have rushed to conclude RCEP, suggests Imai.

In the Gaiko September/October issue Jinbo Ken reviewed Japan-US relation in the Trump era, stressing change due to decoupling on North Korea, the shift in the Japan-US-ROK triangle, and the impact of Trump’s burden-sharing demands. He asks what must be done to keep the alliance effective. Apart from the many accomplishments recognized in this 60th anniversary year of the alliance, Jinbo asked if the US would still defend Tokyo if it were in danger of having its own cities attacked, a question that arose in 2017, and if Trump’s subsequent diplomacy was leading to a more independent approach by Japan from 2018. This raised difficult questions for US-ROK and Japan-US-ROK relations. Although there has been agreement on the FOIP, the US sees the relationship with China as more competitive than Japan does, the worsening Japan-ROK ties mattered, and the US disregard for ASEAN centrality does, too. China is rising, support in the US for foreign involvement is declining, and Trump has left in doubt the traditional US approach to maintaining order through alliances. Now the alliance must change its dynamics with more equal responsibility for managing the regional order, concludes Jinbo.

On October 22 in Ronsa Jipyo Okabe Noboru wrote about Suga’s China policy in the context of US policy. It noted that Nikai Toshihiro,  the secretary-general of the Suga administration, insists on cooperation with China, while Miyake Kunihiko, who was appointed special advisor to the cabinet by Suga, asserts that the reason why Abe’s diplomacy blossomed was due to the historic opportunity of the US creating a “power vacuum” in East Asia—first by its “war on terrorism,” then by downplaying the threat from China, and later by “America First” downplaying both multilateralism and values. Japan picked up the mantle of multilateralism and universal values. Now Suga intends to have it both ways, saying, “We will build stable relations with neighboring countries while building on the Japan-US alliance." Yet Teshima Ryuichi is quoted as saying that the balancing act between coexisting with China and strengthening the Japan-US alliance is now more difficult. The article foresees a minefield for Suga. China seeks to drive a wedge between the allies as the US takes a more hardline stance toward China, both pressuring Japan more.

Sankei on November 25 commented on the incoming Biden administration’s China policy, calling his rollout of security officials a “solid lineup.” Insisting that Biden must take the lead among countries that value freedom and law to pressure China in order to stop its expansionism, human rights crackdown, and economic transgressions, it faulted the Obama administration for doing little to back up its declared “rebalance” and Trump for being ad hoc and selfish despite the just, bold confrontation. While agreeing that the new support for countermeasures against global warming are important, the article warns that prioritizing US-China cooperation in that area would undermine world peace and stability,

On December 4 Evening Fuji discussed Japan-US relations under Biden. It warned that Biden’s call to Suga may only have been lip service on standing with Japan on the Senkakus, asking if the US would really protect Japan and doubting the image in Japan’s political and business world that Biden is a “centrist.” It feared that Biden would be too optimistic about China and did not trust the business world, pointing to the gap in Japan between public opinion, which is 90 percent unfavorable toward China, and the Keidanren chair, who said, “We shouldn’t allow the current political situation to overturn the success of decades of building business partnerships.” Biden, it was suggested by Miyazaki Masahiro, would tip the balance to the merchants who disregard national interest and the spirit of the people alarmed by China’s behavior.

On December 5 Newsweek focused US-European technology export controls and human rights sanctions, wondering if Japan will be isolated from the new framework, including the proposed
“Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council." It mentions a mechanism similar to the Magnitsky Act for Human Rights Day on December 10 to draw together countries with common values, which would make use of the strengths of European diplomacy cast aside by Trump. The article concludes by asking, “Will the Japanese government keep pace with the trends of the United States and Europe and join both frameworks,” questioning if the diplomatic skills of the Suga administration in response to the Biden era will be up to the task.

On December 7 FNN primeonline discussed Japanese pipes to Biden’s administration. It claimed that Tomita Koji, currently ambassador to South Korea, would replace Sugiyama Shinsuke as ambassador to the US. Tomita was director of the North American Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when Obama visited Japan in 2014 and has many contacts in the new administration. Under Trump the direct linkage was at the top with little talk of networking lower in the hierarchy, but Japan is gearing up for more traditional ties between top officials in 2021.

On December 8 Yomiuri reviewed the findings in the new Armitage-Nye report on US-Japan relations, noting the stress on greater joint efforts in the face of threats: shifting away from Trump’s pressure on burden-sharing; getting Japan to completely share US concerns about Taiwan and tightening political and economic ties with it; prioritizing greater deterrence of North Korea, including through trilateralism with South Korea and a new forward-looking framework for Japan-ROK relations; and advocating US entry into TPP despite political obstacles for now. The paper highlighted the bipartisan authorship as a hopeful indicator of a US policy consensus.


Editorials on RCEP on November 17 reflected on the significance of its signing by 15 nations, Asahi noted that this is the first time that Japan has signed an FTA with China, its largest trading partner, and South Korea, the third largest. Yet the article warned that as a result of prioritizing agreements with countries at different stages of development, the agreements are unwelcome if left unchecked. It added that the tariff elimination rate on Japanese industrial products is 91.5 %, which is inferior to the TPP and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU, each were almost 100%. Tariffs on finished vehicles have been postponed in both China and South Korea, leaving about 20 years from the entry into force to their elimination. Also, India’s absence leaves a scar on RCEP, and Japan should cooperate with its industrial development and persistently encourage its participation. The editorial blames the US for the crisis in free trade but holds out hope that RCEP can be a stimulus to ease the US-China conflict and bring the US back to international cooperation.

Mainichi called RCEP an opportunity to rebuild free trade, noting that Japanese companies have established a supply network by placing half of their overseas bases in the RCEP area. If import and export costs such as tariffs are reduced, competitiveness can be enhanced. It praised the provision to prohibit the coercion of technology transfer, but sought new regulations on preferential treatment for state-owned enterprises and distribution of digital data. Japan needs to continue efforts to raise the level of liberalization even after the agreement comes into effect. Mentioning that Japan had drawn up a strategy to work with India and Australia to prevent RCEP from being led by China, it regretted that India, wary of expanding its trade deficit, withdrew. Ahead will be a dispute over whether RCEP or TPP will become the standard for economic rules. Japan needs to raise RCEP to the TPP level of standards.

Yomiuri also praised RCEP for expanding trade. Investments will expand and the supply chain will become more efficient. It will be utilized to revitalize the stagnant Japanese economy. It is expected that tariffs on automobile parts, such as battery materials for electric vehicles, will be gradually reduced to about 90% for China, which will greatly benefit Japan. Yet, unlike TPP, there is no item that prohibits the request for disclosure of the “source code” that is the blueprint of software for electronic commerce. Japan should work on making stricter rules. As for India, Japan needs to persistently encourage participation while cooperating in strengthening India’s industrial competitiveness.

Sankei on November 16 was somewhat negative, warning in its headline that RCEP may increase dependency on China. Yet it said that, amid concerns about the rise of protectionism worldwide, Japan, which is waving the flag of free trade, has been able to strengthen its foundation. It could also put the Japanese economy, which has been depressed by the corona wreck, back on a growth track. Overdependence on China’s economy carries high political risk; there is concern it will accelerate the pursuit of hegemony in the military and economic areas, plus India’s non-participation is extremely disappointing. Still, China has made concessions, such as prohibiting technology requests from foreign companies, probably because it was in a rush to create its own economic zone given the conflict with the US.

Endo Homare on November 28 in Yahoo Japan, interviewing Son Hiroaki, asked how seriously we should take the announcement of China’s desire to join TPP, which has been suggested since
the moment the US withdrew from it.  Li Keqiang stated this intention on May 28, but this time it was Xi Jinping who voiced the serious attitude of China, indicating determination to open up to the outside world, but also a powerful signal to reform China’s economy, Enso reports. The US has retreated from the international community, giving China great space to organize it, especially RCEP. Thanks to Trump, China has the opportunity to make a leap forward in internationalization. The US is not part of TPP11 at present, and about 20 strict provisions that the United States has strongly requested are frozen, so the hurdles for China are low. Now that RCEP has been signed. China’s strategy is next to enter into TPP11.  Having a very good relationship with ASEAN countries, if relations with Japan improve, China’s voice in RCEP will increase. It will try to persuade Japan on the “reform of existing state-owned enterprises” and “protection of intellectual property rights,” which will be easier than the US, given its criticisms that the state is advancing and the private sector receding. Many of the matters frozen in TPP11 are related to intellectual property rights, On November 24, the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council of the State Council jointly announced “Opinions on Strengthening the Protection of Intellectual Property Rights.” This strengthens the penalties for infringement of intellectual property rights and increase the arrest rate—a sign of intentions.


Asahi on November 23 commented on Suga’s diplomacy in the context of the ASEAN-related summits, APEC, and the G20 virtual meetings. He promised to promote multilateralism while focusing on the Japan-US alliance, but so far he has mainly been strengthening security ties with China in mind. The US hardline stance toward China will not change significantly. The SDF now will protect ships of other countries’ forces based on security-related laws, with Australia added. The joint statement expressed “serious concern” about the situation in the South China and East China seas, while avoiding naming China, but Asahi warns that “excessive inclination toward the military…similar to the alliance, may lead to tension.” While Biden differs from Trump in stressing international cooperation, the paper argues that the structure of the US-China conflict is deep-rooted and the hegemony battle is unclear; Japan needs multilateral cooperation that will lead to regional stability, while calling on the US to be consistently involved in Asia. The editorial calls for strengthening ARF and treating the OSCE as a model.


Nishioka Shoji in Yahoo Japan on November 27 discussed China’s warnings to Australia that if you treat us like an enemy we will treat you as an enemy, noting China’s list of fourteen grievances. Emphasis was put on Japan and Australia signing a defense treaty including joint military exercises. The list was also a message to international society. More than ten Chinese investment projects have been held up on vague grounds of national security. Huawei and ZTE have been barred from Australian networks for the same baseless reason. Yet after temporarily responding strongly to China’s charges, Australia is showing signs of a thaw in its relationship with China. Prime Minister Morrison reacted to the claim his country was just joining the US campaign by saying it was mistaken to take only the view of the strategic struggle of China and the US. Australia is a sovereign state with its own interests. China’s economic prosperity is good for the world economy, for Australia, and, of course, for the Chinese people. This separation of the US and Australia was received well in China, the article reports.

On December 4 in President Online there was coverage of Australia’s protest against the fake photo issued by China’s foreign ministry of an Australian soldier killing a child in Afghanistan. This sort of imagery is said to destroy the international order between nations. A linkage is drawn
to illegal fishing near Japan, arguing that, eventually, China will no longer be dealt with by the international community and will be forced into an isolated state, having made its warrior diplomacy the symbol of its great power diplomacy due to the overconfidence earlier boosted from the success of its economic stimulus package in 2008 seen as saving the world economy.

On December 8 Yomiuri editorialized about China’s threat to Australia. While criticizing US protectionism, China is not exactly being the standard bearer of free trade. Australian coal, barley, wine and lobster have been added to China’s import restrictions one after another. While Japan, the US, Australia and India are strengthening ties under the banner of FOIP, China may be aiming to cut down Australia. The editorial warned that greater economic dependence on China makes one easier to target and be used as an example to show to other countries, adding that China’s method of threatening unwilling countries with economic power and forcing them to give in is unacceptable. Yet it also notes deep-rooted concerns in the Australian business community that the contraction of trade with China will hurt amid efforts to cultivate export destinations to replace China and diversify sales. Praise is offered for significantly increasing defense spending with China in mind, and for joint development of new weapons with the United States and security cooperation with India as well as cooperation between Japan and Australia. The editorial calls for strengthening the Japan-Australia framework but then cautions it is important to stabilize the area. Standing up to China is valued but only in a spirit of stabilizing the region.

Sino-Japanese relations

Yomiuri on November 23 editorialized against Chinese illegal fishing in Yamatotai off the Noto peninsula in the Sea of Japan. North Korean fishing boats operate there, leading to a collision in 2019 with a fishery patrol ship, and in 2020 4000 Chinese fishing boats have been detected, already four times more than last year. One organization calculated that in 2017-18 Chinese fishing vessels caught more flying squid in surrounding waters than Japanese vessels, leading to fear of serious stock loss. North Korean vessels in 2020 are way down due to coronavirus restrictions on its fishermen, but fishing rights may have been sold to Chinese in violation of UN sanctions. The article ends with an appeal to the Japanese government to clarify the situation.

At the foreign ministers’ meeting on November 24 Wang Yi argued that “Japanese fishing boats are frequently in sensitive waters.” Japanese media responded that Yamatotai in the Sea of Japan is a good fishing ground for Japanese flying squids and crabs, and it is in a dangerous overcrowded state that Japanese fishing boats cannot break into. If nothing is done, it may become the “second Senkakus.” Four thousand North Korean fishing boats were asked to leave last year. But this year, warnings to North Korean fishing vessels were negligible, and instead warnings to Chinese fishing vessels surged to more than 40,000, four times last year. On November 23 Yomiuri had editorialized that the Japanese government should take steps to strengthen the crackdown, capturing and driving away the fleet of Chinese fishing boats.

On Wang Yi’s visit to Japan, Mainichi editorialized on November 26, reaffirming the importance of stable Japan-China relations. China agreed to resume the traffic of business people within the month and to create a framework for discussions to abolish food import restrictions such as those from Fukushima. The leaders also agreed to prevent global warming and cooperate with the Tokyo Olympics next year and the Beijing Winter Olympics. Given the turmoil of the pandemic, the activities of Chinese vessels around the Senkaku Islands, and the suppression of democratic factions in Hong Kong, public opinion has cooled toward China. According to the Genron NPO, the number of people who answered that their impression of China was "not good" increased from last year, reaching nearly 90%. However, more than 60% of the respondents answered that Japan-China economic cooperation is necessary for Japan’s future. Mainichi concluded that it would like to increase mutual trust and foster an environment in which leader-level dialogue can be continued. Sankei used the word dangerous, finding ominous sides to Wang Yi’s words. It said that Japan should have more clearly communicated the anger and concerns of Japan and the international community over China’s behavior and urged China to reflect. While Japan and China agreed to “maintain the spirit of not threatening each other,” it is China today that has no fragment of that spirit in light of problems such as human rights, including the imprisonment of democratic activists in the Senkakus, the South China Sea, and Hong Kong. The piece added that a state guest visit of Xi is unacceptable.

In President Online on November 30 it was reported that at the foreign ministers’ meeting Japan had expressed its strong concern about the repeated navigation of Chinese authorities’ vessels in the waters around the Senkakus. In FNN primeonline it was reported that Wang Yi placed an unusual order with the Japanese media. The two sides agreed that the traffic of business people, which had been restricted due to the spread of the new coronavirus, will be resumed by the end of November, but, contrary to the positive attitude of the Chinese side, Japanese sentiment toward China is worsening. In a joint opinion poll between Japan and China released in mid-November, Chinese people’s liking for Japan remained at about the same level as in 2019, which was a record high. In Japan, the number of people who said that their impression of China was "bad" increased by 5 points from the previous time to 89.7%. 

At the online Tokyo-Beijing Forum on November 30 Wang took notice, saying, “Aside from the accuracy, the difference in emotions between the people of both countries is a fact. We should emphasize and think deeply. […] The perception of China by some Japanese people is biased due to lack of truth and full information.” Mention was made of Ambassador Tarumi Hideo, newly arrived in China, who participated online. From the ministry’s China School, he is said to be wary of Chinese authorities. Referring to the problems of the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea, it was said that the “external environment” surrounding China, such as the new coronavirus and criticism of the Hong Kong issue, is becoming more severe. Against this background, as China approaches Japan, it is not easy to build a “stable and constructive Sino-Japanese relationship that is not affected by the external environment.”

On December 3 Mainichi reported that Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu voiced
serious concern about the decision by the Chinese government to introduce national security legislation in Hong Kong, touching on the statements of the foreign ministers of the G7 and emphasizing that he would like to continue to cooperate with the G7 and other related countries. Other coverage criticized the arrest of Agnes Chow, who has a big following in Japan.

Diamond online on December 8 warned that the Senkakus are in danger of falling to China after Foreign Minister Motegi on November 24 did not respond on the spot to Wang Yi’s remarks about them. China’s explosive military strengthening has resulted in a complete disruption of the military balance in East Asia. Now that the United States is losing its “ability” and “will” to maintain its military presence in East Asia, Japan’s "geopolitical risk” has crossed the “red line.” It warned that 2020 is the year of a turning point in the international order in East Asia, as some predict that China will turn to an offensive strategy on the Senkakus, given its military edge. In 2012 Japan with US support would have won in such a war. Not now; the US is losing its ability and will to seter Chinese aggression, and Japan’s military budget has fallen way behind.

South Korea

Early December brought new attention to South Korea. One viewpoint was that Moon Jae-in is in dire straits. On December 5 in Evening Fuji, his record low approval rating was attributed to economic missteps and mishandling of a case against a prosecutor as well as decommissioning a nuclear power plant. The article suggested that he has become a lame duck. Also, despite his desire to host the Japan-China-Korea summit by year’s end, Suga refuses to attend without resolution of the forced labor “recruitment” issue as the assets of Japanese companies already seized may be cashed. Meanwhile, the pandemic is on the rise, stripping Moon of the success of which he had boasted. While others found Moon eager to improve ties to Japan, this source saw him rekindling “anti-Japanese” attitudes with photos of the disputed island on its website.

On December 5 Mainichi noted that since mid-November, the Moon administration shas been moving toward improving Japan-South Korea relations. Starting with a proposal by the top of the intelligence agency to conclude all issues under a proposed new Japan-Korea Joint Declaration, the chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentary Union called for cooperation for the success of the Tokyo Olympics. The 1998 Joint Declaration not only overcame the crisis in which the Japan-South Korea Fisheries Agreement had fallen, but also meant cooperating in reconciling historical issues, coordinating on the North Korean nuclear and missile issues, and coordinating in UN diplomacy and maintaining international economic order. It was the foundation of Japan-Korea relations with a shared vision. A former pipe during the Kim Dae-jung administration is involved, sending a message to President-elect Joe Biden that the South Korean side is making efforts in the possibility that the US will intervene again to resolve the friction between Japan and South Korea.

Another theme is to work together to encourage North Korea to participate in the success of the Tokyo Olympics, fearing that Biden otherwise would fail to sustain the top-down momentum for denuclearization. Ambassador to Japan, Nam Gwan-pyo, who has only been in office for a year and a half, has been replaced, and Kang Chang-il, the former chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentary Union who has built a high-level network in Japan, has been appointed as his successor. Kang is also a historian who studied abroad at the University of Tokyo in the 1980s and obtained a doctorate on the Japan-Korea merger process. Since becoming chair of the Korea-Japan Parliamentary Union in 2017, he has been searching for a realistic solution, but the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have not responded well to the proposal for the new Japan-Korea Joint Declaration. Only Nikai Toshihiro, the secretary general of the LDP, has shown a positive response. It is likely that he will play a role in finding out whether it is possible to form a consensus between Japan and South Korea without damaging the cause of the "victim-centered principle."

There is a growing sense of alarm that the downward spiral in relation will reignite if the funds are cashed. Various recommendations have been aired to avoid that outcome. One proposal is for a process to 2025, the 60th anniversary of the “Japan-Korea Claims Agreement,” which resolved the compensation issue when diplomatic relations were normalized in 1965. It could upgrade the 10-year-old call by Naoto Kan for an intergovernmental agreement like the 1998 Japan-Korea Joint Declaration. Former ambassadors to Japan, former diplomats, and Japanese researchers have held a total of 19 study sessions over a year and a half, seeking solutions to avoid cashing out the funds. It is rather critical of Moon’s policy toward Japan, where many conservative experts from the middle road participate. The plan is to start creating a roadmap for a new joint declaration. Although the political position is different from Moon’s, the approach of seeking a big comprehensive plan involving the North Korean issue is similar.

Om another proposal to advance relation, Park Chul-hee, who will be the coordinator of the roadmap at the Korea-Japan Vision Forum, said, “The linkage policy (linking multiple issues to draw concessions) is not politically good. However, President Moon will not move unless it is related to the North Korean issue. It makes sense to involve the North Korean issue in order to make a decision to resolve the low-priority recruitment issue for President Moon.” First, there should be a joint statement showing the political intentions of the two leaders to resolve the North Korean issue and the recruitment issue, and then a joint declaration after the Tokyo Olympics—a two-step method. The Korean government should inform Japan of measures to avoid cashing, and the joint declaration show how the Korean government (which took over the compensation of Japanese companies) would handle the reimbursement right. South Korea has strategically approached Japan in anticipation of changes in the situation in North Korea after the inauguration of the Biden administration. The Moon administration had kept away from the linkages during the Kim Dae-jung administration, which made the joint declaration in 1998 possible, but that situation appears to be changing.