Japan has acquired an image as an influential albeit reluctant and somewhat withdrawn world power, especially after the economic crash of the 1990s, but this seems to be changing. In a flurry of activity, Japan has recently been scrambling to deepen commitments and double-down on its strategic agenda abroad.
Just in the past two years Japan has, along with Australia and New Zealand, spearheaded the revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In conjunction with the EU, it has championed free trade and globalization, signing a massive free trade agreement with the regional block. In development, Japan has increased its engagement with the ASEAN nations, jointly announcing a stunning 150 new infrastructure projects for its ‘Tokyo strategy 2018’ just last week. It has even expanded its commitments to regional security, announcing the return of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with likeminded strategic partners India, Australia and the US. These deals are not only important for its legitimacy as a large global economy and big regional player, but are also instrumental in its efforts to pushback against spreading influence from Beijing, with which it has always had an uneasy relationship.
However, there is another perhaps more pressing reason for this sudden resurgence in Japanese engagement. Along with its other concerns, Japan has spent the past two years fending off demands from the Trump administration for a renegotiation of bilateral trade deals – caving just at the end of last month after Trump threatened to impose auto-tariffs on the Japanese auto-industry. It has watched as the new US administration has rolled back Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, placing less emphasis on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea amongst other matters. Perhaps most importantly, it has also been left out in the cold on the issue of North Korea – one of Japan’s most pressing security concerns.
Recently, North Korea has switched the focus of its internal propaganda machine from Washington to Tokyo, calling Japan a “war criminal nation” headed by a “corrupt kingpin”. Tokyo has repeatedly been frozen out of any kind of meetings, negotiations, and deals, while the North Korean leadership meets with Trump and South Korean President Moon. Normally, the Japanese leadership would not have so much to worry about as they could count on the US administration to, if not guarantee them a seat at the table, at least voice their strategic interests on their behalf as their most intimate security partner. However, Trump’s ‘America first’ rhetoric and antagonistic way of confronting even close allies leaves much uncertainty in this regard, and with his at times perplexing foreign policy methods of combining security issues with economics, this issue worries Tokyo now more than ever. These actions have strained ties between the two and put pressure on the US-Japan security alliance which has been the foundation for both countries’ approaches to regional security for over 50 years.
Meanwhile, Japan has also been facing harsh pushback from South Korea. Though government insiders have revealed that the Moon cabinet would rather shelve the thorny issues in their shared past and move forward, pressure from voters has forced them to cast doubt on the future of the deal that the two reached over compensation for wartime comfort women with the previous Park cabinet.
Weary of China, increasingly isolated by its closest strategic partner, and facing hostility from its only democratic neighbor, Tokyo looks increasingly isolated – and this could not come at a worse time. Though it has shown solidarity with the international community in imposing sanctions on North Korea, changing political currents could see the US and South Korea cutting separate deals with North Korea on sanctions in exchange for protecting their own national interests. It is not difficult to see why this is concerning - the Trump administration, for example, could agree to relieve pressure on the hermit kingdom in exchange for limits on the long range nuclear-tipped warheads that can reach the US. However, this would completely overlook Tokyo’s apprehension about North Korea’s larger and more reliable short and intermediate range warhead collection, leaving Japan over-exposed to threats from the Korean peninsula.
While renewed Japanese engagement has been the silver lining of these events so far, the broader consequences of a cornered and isolated Japan are easy to see. After all, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has long been pushing for a reform of the constitution that legitimizes the Japanese self-defence force and removes the clause that forbids the country from going to war. A remilitarized and more assertive Japan would completely transform the geopolitical and strategic landscape of the region. For one, it may cause some additional friction with China, though recent warming relations between the two suggest that Beijing would rather keep Japan on side to further isolate the US. However, more importantly, a remilitarized Japan would have less need for the US-Japan Security Alliance, and with nearly half of all US deployments in Asia stationed primarily in Japan, this could have far-reaching repercussions for the US presence in Asia. A greatly diminished US presence, split between South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore would not just embolden the US’ regional rivals, but would also cement Trump’s global step-back, as any following administration would find it difficult if not impossible to recover from this strategic setback.