Japan’s Feelings of Marginalization in Spring 2017 and the US Factor

At this time of extraordinary flux, for some, Japan looms as an embodiment of stability and sound realist judgment. For others, it remains mired in the post-Cold War trap: stagnation without serious reform, revisionist obsessions without moves toward genuine reconciliation, and insularity without timely internationalization. In this article, I avoid these extremes to concentrate on the short-term mood beneath a surface of complacency. Many in Japan see itself as an Asian great power, competent beyond its own region to interact on a level playing field with the three global actors—the United States, China, and Russia. Nonetheless, others are becoming nervous that Japan is being buffeted by its own actions as well as rapid shifts on the Korean Peninsula, which Japan lacks the resources or strategy to handle.   

Shocks to Japan in April to June of 2017 include: 1) the results of the Trump-Xi summit; 2) Moon Jae-in’s election in South Korea and the ever-closer menace of North Korea’s threat; 3) the dead-end nature Abe’s visit to Moscow; and 4) the loss of confidence in US policy toward both the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. After Abe’s summit with Trump in February and Trump’s strong posture toward both China and North Korea in March, which helped reassure the Japanese, the setbacks perceived over the following months were not anticipated. In this article, I review Japanese views toward each of the four incidents before drawing conclusions on their overall impact.

Overall, the alliance relationship remains strong even if Trump’s willingness to take a firm stand toward Xi is in doubt. The Korea challenge is deemed the most urgent and even intractable, placing a premium on US diplomacy to limit the fallout of another downturn in Japan-ROK relations. Japan’s Russia connection is regarded as on hold, best left in its current state for as long as possible. As for the networking and firmness to shore up Asia’s southern tier, there are conflicting signals from within the Trump administration, giving Japanese reason to keep pressing their viewpoint. If Japanese realists seek to convince officials in these other states that they know the best strategies to proceed, they are not having much success in making their case. 

Increasingly, Japanese scholars see geopolitics through the prism of triangles, comprising of Japan, the United States, and countries ranging from the northern to southern extremities of the west. To achieve its goals in each triangle, the Abe administration realizes that reaching bilateral consensus with its sole ally is essential. Thus, Abe is fixated on Trump, despite his talk of pressuring even the closest US allies to support the “America First” policy or signs of emerging policy options regarded as anathema in Japan, including: a G2 with China in which the United States trades allies’ interests for its own; a preemptive strike on North Korea to counter a threat to the US mainland at the expense of probable retaliatory attacks on South Korea and Japan; or some grand bargain with Russia that would not correspond well with Abe’s initiative for the return of the “Northern Territories.” All roads go through both Washington and Tokyo as they veer in multiple directions toward targets in Asia.    

The Aftermath of the Trump-Xi Summit and the Sino-US-Japan Triangle

The upbeat mood in Tokyo after Abe’s February summit with Trump was unmistakable. Abe had solidified what he began just days after Trump was elected by becoming the first foreign leader to develop a personal bond with the US president, whose foreign policy was not yet set in motion. Japan would be the keystone of US policy in East Asia, and have a freer hand than when Obama kept aloof from Abe’s quest for closer personal relations and sought to narrow Japan’s divides with South Korea and China by refraining from supporting Abe unconditionally. Given the tough tone Trump was taking toward China, the likelihood that a new progressive president in South Korea would connect poorly with Trump, and the obvious indifference Trump had to Abe’s revisionist moves— such as his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine—Abe had reason to be upbeat.

The mood changed abruptly following Trump’s April summit with Xi Jinping. While the prospect of increased Chinese pressure on North Korea was undoubtedly welcome, Japan was skeptical that China’s help would be genuine, worried that Trump might be easily manipulated, and feared that US-China relations would veer in directions both unpredictable and unfavorable for Japan. Indeed, Trump’s actions had remained suspect despite his reassuring claims. However insufficient Obama had appeared, Abe found him a predictable partner. Abe welcomed Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia, sought more resolute security moves, and joined the TPP enthusiastically. In addition, Abe deftly managed issues arising from Japan’s historical memory—from Hiroshima to Pearl Harbor—after passing the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII with little controversy, and made collective self-defense a source of bilateral trust. The facade of closeness with Trump forged on the golf links was no substitute for the hard-earned mutual confidence established with Obama.

From April through June, behind the carefully crafted image from Abe’s time at Mar-a-Lago, concerns prevailed over Trump’s reliability—in particular, how his actions correspond with words—and his personnel decisions that would directly impact the US Asia strategy. The most important issue was how Trump would manage ties to China. In fact, the message from Washington throughout the spring of 2017 was to give China time to establish its relationship with the new US administration, though without clarity on Trump’s chain-of-command and policy priorities. This obfuscation extended to US policy toward North Korea, where much depends on how cooperative China decides to be. Obliged to wait on some vital decisions effecting its regional security, Japan naturally felt nervous.

Often, Japan’s approach in uncertain times is to accentuate the (relatively) positive developments. The afterglow of the Abe-Trump summit was extended throughout the spring with scant acknowledgment of emerging shadows that could quickly reverse the situation. Little has been said so far to indicate disappointment with the lack of progress in Abe’s overtures toward Russia. Japan continues to expect the United States to prevent Moon Jae-in from reneging on a minimum of trilateralism to bolster the Japan-US deterrence capacity. All of this amounts to a dearth of serious reflection on the strategic challenges facing Japan in a strikingly different and rapidly changing environment.

While today’s doubts about US strategy in East Asia are greater than in Obama’s last years, there remain underlying confidence in the strength of the alliance. The bilateral relationship center on military ties with no serious pitfalls in sight. Thus, attention has shifted to triangular relations. Most important triangle is with South Korea, where its new president arouses deep concerns for Japan. Bilateral ties with South Korea will not be clarified until Moon first meets with Trump, setting a path for US-ROK ties.

Moon-Trump Summit and the US-Japan-ROK Triangle

The meeting of Abe and Moon’s special emissary on May 18 went well. The key announcement was the resumption of shuttle diplomacy. The two leaders are set to meet in Germany at the G20 in July and then to resume shuttle meetings, which took last when Lee Myung-bak was president.1 Moon’s early phone chat with Abe did not fuel new concerns either. Yet, his campaign rhetoric and association with Roh Moo-hyun, with whom Japan had a troubled relationship, left suspicions, which exacerbated with Moon’s intense criticisms of Park Geun-hye over three years and the Japanese media warnings in 2016 that Korean progressives were determined to revive the “comfort women” issue and object to Japan’s collective self-defense.

Japan is unsure how Moon would deploy the “comfort women” issue in talks with Abe. Viewing this as a “human rights” question, some wondered what credibility Moon would have. Given his stance toward North Korea and China—both infamous for their shares of human rights violations—would Moon be taken seriously in dressing historical charges against Japan as a human rights issue? Sankei Shimbun noted that 70% of the “comfort women” surviving at the time of the December 2015 agreement had accepted the money Japan offered.2 It also argued that Japanese leaders had made a good-faith compromise, and paid the promised money before the removal of the “comfort woman” statue in front of its embassy. In light of Seoul’s security needs—the necessity of improving its ties with Tokyo and pursuing trilateralism with the United States—why were South Koreans trying to hinder reconciliation? Few in Japan understood this.

Partly influenced by recent developments, right-wing groups in Japan have been obsessed with demonizing South Korea, calling it “Red South Korea.”3 They assert that South Korea is preoccupied with the cultural gap with Japan, downplaying national interests as a source of policy differences. Right-wing Japanese believe that there is no meaningful distinction between Park and Moon or, broadly, conservatives and progressives in South Korea. However, the advent of the Moon administration has led to redoubled efforts by right-wing groups in Japan to expose what are in their view the nefarious South Korean thinking and policies. South Korea’s antipathy toward Japan is treated not as a result of Japan’s failure in reaching a shared understanding about history, but to emotions that Japan has no way to placate, attitudes toward North Korea that are at odds with national interests, and to misguided and inexplicable thinking about China.

What does Japan fear from South Korea? First, Seoul’s policies toward North Korea, China, and the United States can be troubling for Tokyo, by unsettling the region, weakening deterrence, and emboldening aggressive states. Moon’s foreign policy thinking is already drawing repeated warnings. Further, his policies on education as well as anti-Japan media coverage could deepen critiques of Japan over both history and ongoing developments. Much is written in Japan about slanted writings on their country. Finally, Japan fears the revival of “history wars,” in which South Korea joins with China and also treats the United States as a battlefield for pressing its criticisms against Japan.

Can Moon be restrained from his anti-Japanese inclinations, and if so, how? Trump’s lack of sympathy with human rights arguments means that he would not give any consideration to efforts by Moon to enlist US support on such basis. Trump’s focus on North Korea’s threat also means that he would tolerate no interference with deterrence and require South Korea to cooperate with Japan. Since Moon is expected to have a difficult relationship with Trump—much more so than Park had with Obama—and the urgency of the North Korean threat would reduce Moon’s maneuverability, Japan anticipates more support in suppressing Moon’s propensity to put Japan-ROK relations at risk. There is scant sign that they have given thought to new Japanese moves to build trust with Moon.

Abe-Putin Connection and the Japan-Russia-US Triangle

Neither the March 2+2 meeting nor the Abe-Putin summit in April brought any good news to Japanese despite official efforts to feign that relations remain on course. The three dimensions of the relationship—a territorial agreement to accompany a peace treaty, an economic agenda that would tie Japan and the Russian Far East together in a close and lasting manner, and a security understanding that would lead both to believe (instead of merely professing) that the other will not become a threat—have not registered any positive momentum. Indeed, the search for a framework for joint economic activities on the four islands has stalled, Abe’s energetic economic agenda starting with his 2016 8-point plan has reached an impasse, and the North Korean threat has only exacerbated the security divide between Tokyo and Moscow.

An article in Sentaku poured cold water on hopes for joint economic activity, saying that Russia has not intention of devising a framework with Japan that could work.4 The article also revealed the backstage story of the letter drafted on behalf of some who had been displaced from the islands meant to play on Putin’s heartstrings. For the few who had pointed to talks on joint economic projects as the slim hope for an advance in 2016, the meager results of Abe’s visit to Moscow in late April dashed all remaining hopes. This left Sato Masaru as one of the last holdouts, insisting in May that by making the islands Japanese (yonto Nihonka), a resolution of the “Northern Territories” question would be in sight.5 Others saw only Russian designs to draw investment funds, which would reinforce Russia’s grip under its legal framework.

Talk of territorial negotiations and even of economic deals more than enough to just sustain further exchanges between Japan and Russia have quieted, while security matters dominate. The Japan-US alliance and Russo-US security tensions (widening again in the spring of 2017) constitute the critical determinants for how bilateral ties between Tokyo and Moscow will proceed. The triangular context is exacerbated by new US sanctions against the Russians, a drumbeat of revelations about Russian interference in the US elections, and a recent drop in oil prices, making energy investments in Russia less desirable. The danger exists that once Putin abandons hope in Abe he may choose to resort to military pressure to show his displeasure, perhaps in coordination with China.

Contemplating Asia’s Southern Tier and Japan-US Networking in Asia

Japanese coverage of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was rather skeptical of its economic promise, with one observer calling it a well-crafted mirage, given that it appears attractive, but there is not sufficient Chinese investment to justify the hype and comparisons to the US Marshall Plan. It is a fuzzy blueprint with vague and broad contents whatever the direction. For example, the idea that this could bode well for Northeast China via linkages to the Russian Far East is dismissed due to serious problems in this part of China as well as the repeated and unsuccessful efforts to bridge this border in a manner conducive to development of the Russian side. In the case of Southeast China, while its assets are far superior and transportation infrastructure projects are well along, but the same basic problem exists, as neighbors seek investments useful for industrial growth and desire limits on the use of China’s assets and the accumulation of local debt. Others, however, doubted that BRI is a mirage, given the vast sums that China expects to spend, even if geopolitics outweighs economics in its calculus.

The sinocentric nature of BRI has become ever clearer. Talk of conjoining it with the Eurasian Economic Union, which aroused Russian interest and led to it readying a list of projects, floundered over the lack of institutionalization of BRI and China’s determination to proceed bilaterally with its own desired projects. Similarly, there was no expectation that ASEAN would play a meaningful role, as China bypassed it in bilateral arrangements—even if these arrangements extended as corridors to multiple states. If the showpieces of China’s plans are high-speed railroads prioritizing transit, the priorities of many countries are nodes of industrial development along less rapid corridors. They see BRI materializing less as cross-border economic linkages than as comprehensive political-military-cultural arteries forged around economic plans. Japanese are particularly prone to doubting the economic claims for infrastructure projects and are well aware of the lack of leverage by China’s neighbors. They warn others of a vertical order being plotted, even as Chinese counterattack that Japanese envy is at the root of their response, as they are mentally unable to accept that China has far overtaken Japan as the economic leader in Asia and the state driving its new growth.

The subject of the militarization of BRI is drawing more attention. As projects go forward, Chinese explain that they need security, for instance in the troubled environment of Pakistan where the Gwadar port complex is being connected to China’s southwest provinces. If some observers in other states excuse China’s undesired behavior as a consequence of it being a newcomer, Japanese retort that China is following a deliberate strategy. China avoids ASEAN +3 and other forums where it would not dominate. If it charges relatively low interest on its loans, this is a premium to achieve greater energy security or for other non-economic objectives.

Sino-Japanese relations have been mostly on hold, stabilizing several years after the low point of no summits early in Abe’s tenure. Uncertainty centers mostly on Xi’s willingness to meet with Abe over the coming period rather than on hopes for any substantive improvement in relations. China keeps criticizing Japan for not accepting its rise, implying, from the point of view of Japanese, that Japan agreed to a vertical regional order in deference to China’s more important role. Chinese charge Japan with double-dealing—for seeking improved ties while simultaneously criticizing China’s behavior in the South China Sea. For Beijing, deference to China is assumed to be a precondition for better relations. As Japan’s leadership keeps looking for ways to improve ties, they run up against this mindset. Meanwhile, Japanese retort to China that the postwar order was based on great powers abiding by international norms. Unresponsive to such appeals, many Japanese argue that China needs to be prevented from expansionism in the South China Sea, through freedom of navigation missions and unmistakable messages.

Japanese specialists weigh heavily the US-Japan-Australia triangle as the foundation of regional security, adding South Korea in the north and India in the west. They try to convince others to recognize this reality, at least as it applies to the South China Sea. If THAAD and missile defense are the key signs of steadfastness in facing the North Korean threat, then freedom of navigation missions and maritime preparedness are in the forefront against China’s threat to the south. This message is voiced to rally states in Southeast Asia, to encourage India more, and even to try to persuade the Russians to change course. Whether talking to skeptics or to partners hesitant to act, Japanese often stress China’s intentions to form a sinocentric regional order that marginalizes all those around it. They underscore the need for US leadership and a network of partners, in which Japan is a leading voice, to oppose China. Russians are particularly wary of this message, insisting that China is amenable to cooperation just as North Korea is.  


In all directions, Japan is more beleaguered in the late spring of 2017 than it was in 2016. The US relationship is more uncertain and no longer has the anchor of TPP. Ties to South Korea are more worrisome with Washington’s unwillingness to play a mediating role. The bloom is off wooing Putin, not because of US pressure to desist but due to despair about Russian moves. Finally Japanese pay most attention to Sino-US relations, nervous about Trump-Xi ties and anxious for more shared awareness of China’s long-term threat and more coordination in preparing for it. Some Japanese hold Abe up as a force of stability, hoping that Trump will steady his own Asian policy by agreeing with Abe’s agenda. After a nerve-wracking spring for Japan, a stabilized US approach to the challenges of the Indo-Pacific region would offer a welcome respite. If not, Japanese will look wistfully at plans for a “pivot 2.0” had Hillary Clinton won, which would have included secondary sanctions on Chinese companies active in North Korea, more frequent freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and networking to back them, the possible completion of TPP, and a reinforcement of US alliances without questioning their value or undermining their key principles.

1. Yomiuri Shimbun, May 19, 2017, p. 3.

2. Sankei Shimbun, May 26, 2017, p. 8.

3. Sakurai Yoshiko and O Sonfu, Akai Kankoku: Kiki o maneku hanto no shinjitsu (Tokyo: Sankei Select, 2017).

4. Sentaku, June 2017, pp. 56-57.

5. Sato Masaru, Nichiro Gaiko: Hoppo Ryodo to Intelligence (Tokyo: Kadokawa Shinsho, 2017).