Shinjo Abe’s unrelenting tough approach towards China is arguably the second most important development in recent years in East Asia after the growing military might of China. There is lots of support across the region for his policy of ‘staring at China’ on the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands disputes, especially among those countries, which have been uncomfortable with growing ‘Chinese assertiveness’ in the region but unable to stop it. The US stance has also been overall supportive to the changed posture of Japan.
However, Abe’s indiscriminate assertiveness, which hurts South Korea and other regional players, would be unable to achieve desired results. There are critiques of Japanese foreign policy, who point out that Japan has not been able to create trust in any of its neighboring countries such as South Korea, North Korea, Russia, and China. Thus, Japan needs to moderate its assertiveness and make it more nuanced to make it more palatable and wide-based.
The biggest problem in Shinjo Abe’s approach is that it entirely disregards ‘goodwill capital’ of Japan, which has been accumulated in the post-World War-II period. Japan evokes a very different kind of state behaviour, which denounced use of force in resolving inter-state disputes and concentrated on welfare of people inside its own territory and beyond. The concept of official development assistance (ODA) became synonym of the Japanese economic assistance to many Asian, African and Latin American countries. Japan could and must utilize this ‘capital’ for creating a network of relations across the region along with economic interdependence and people-to-people contacts, which would make it costly for China or any other countries to becoming assertive. It does not mean that Japan could be complacent on its defense preparedness, however, it does need to be approached in a framework of cooperative security involving as many as possible like-minded countries of the region. Japan has been respected for its peace-constitution and enough deliberation must happen before abandoning the alternate model of Japan.
Even if, Japan decides to make a paradigm shift in its foreign policy approach, which seems to be the case under Shinjo Abe, it must be more careful in articulating it. First and foremost, it is advisable to Japan to work on its defense preparedness without too much rhetoric directed against one or other country. In 2013, Japanese defense budget was increased to Yen 4.77 trillion which was an increase first time after 2002. The increase in itself is enough to create suspicions in the minds of observers and any sharp words are further going to create mistrust in the regional countries. Probably, Japan could learn from China, which continues augmenting its defense capabilities but keeps talking about ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious development’.
Secondly, even if Shinjo Abe administration intends to be tough towards ‘Chinese assertiveness’, Japan needs to be more careful about its other neighboring countries including South Korea. In last one year of his term, South Korea-Japan relations have further deteriorated. It would not be enough to say that South Korean government has either been too much sentimental or playing the game of domestic populism. When Japanese ministers, members of parliament and Shinjo Abe himself visits Yasukuni shrine, it is well-known that South Korea would not take it easy. When, insensitive statements are given and confrontational actions are taken on the issues related to history disputes, comfort women and Dokdo/Takeshima islands disputes, it is going to affect South Korea’s perception about Japan and its intensions. Rather than expecting South Korea to be more accommodative to the new posture of Japan, a more conciliatory approach must be adopted in dealing with South Korea. By using all possible channels of communication, it must be conveyed to South Korea in a credible manner that in the Japan’s contest with China, Tokyo would seek cooperation from South Korea.
Thirdly, Japan also must re-emphasize that it would like to have more cooperation with the US and other democracies in the region such as South Korea, Australia and India. It would be a different paradigm for the Asian security architecture in which a multipolar, inclusive, open and rule-based structure is sought for. In case, Japan tries to counter ‘Chinese assertiveness’ by it own assertiveness, it might be considered no different than China. To have a different framework needs emphasis on involving all possible partners and creating regimes, institutions and structures rather than having a tit-for-tat approach.
The recent visit of Shinjo Abe to India probably could be used as the beginning for a more nuanced Japanese assertiveness in the regional politics, which would try to create network of multilateral partnerships. India, though has avoided to express any opinion on Japanese indiscriminate assertiveness, would be more comfortable if Japan tones down its rhetoric. Similarly, it would be easier for the US to keep both Japan and South Korea, two of its closest allies in the East Asia, together. The changed Japanese approach would also be in consonant with Australian foreign policy approach. Japan needs to realize that to contest with China on the turf created by China would not only be dangerous but also be an isolating exercise and it must be avoided.
The author teaches at the University of Delhi and is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS)