Last month, the ruling coalition in Japan won a resounding electoral victory in the Upper House elections, giving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, New Komeito, control over both houses in the parliament. With little opposition to speak of, the Abe cabinet can now get to work on the difficult domestic policy choices Japan faces—restoring economic growth, contending with an aging population, and determining the sources of Japan’s future energy supply.
Yet, it is Prime Minister Abe’s diplomatic choices that could have the greatest impact on Japan’s future. Three relationships in particular warrant his attention. The first, and the most obvious, is to set Japan’s relations with China back on a predictable footing. Ever since last summer, Beijing and Tokyo have been at odds over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea, a dispute that has simmered for decades but erupted recently. Japan’s security planners have increasingly noted the modernization and expansion of Chinese military capabilities, but it is the growing presence of Chinese ships—research vessels, paramilitary, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)—in and around Japanese waters of late that has caused concern. The intensified national sentiments over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu for China and Daioyutai for Taiwan) dispute have also made political management of this dynamic relationship between the world’s second and third largest economies difficult. Prime Minister Abe needs to find a framework with President Xi Jinping that not only acknowledges their differences over these uninhabited islands but also allows Tokyo and Beijing to address their real concerns, their own national economies.
The second, and perhaps more difficult, task is to find a new foundation for Japan’s relations with its other neighbor in Northeast Asia, South Korea. Since their bilateral peace treaty in 1965, Seoul and Tokyo have expanded their economic and political cooperation. As democratization and economic success transformed Korean lives, Japanese and Koreans have increasingly shared similar lifestyles and consumer values. Even in the security realm, these two U.S. allies have worked together on North Korea, and were on the verge of signing a very important set of agreements last year that would have enhanced information sharing and logistical support between their two militaries. Historical reconciliation—especially over the South Korean demand for formal apology and compensation for the Korean women who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers in military brothels throughout the Pacific War—again has interrupted this growing pragmatic strategic cooperation. Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Takeshima Island (Dokdo for Korea) last year had set off another round of antagonism, and Prime Minister Abe came into office with a bilateral relationship deeply soured. Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, has yet to visit Tokyo, and indeed has made diplomacy with Japan a second-order priority, making high profile visits to Washington and Beijing instead. Prime Minister Abe will need to engage President Park, and will be unable to avoid a difficult conversation over how to reconcile the South Korean desire to revisit the issue of wartime sexual slavery as the fiftieth anniversary of the Japan-ROK peace treaty looms in 2015.
The third relationship that will claim Prime Minister Abe’s full attention is, of course, the one with Washington. Strategic cooperation in the U.S.-Japan alliance will be on the agenda, but so too is Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and an expanding alliance interest in energy cooperation. However, there are some long overdue conversations to be had about Japan-U.S. military cooperation, including a review of the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, which will require some of the Prime Minister’s attention. Prime Minister Abe’s political capital, too, will be sorely tested by some of the legislation he needs passed in the parliament to allow Japan’s military, the Self-Defense Force, to take a larger role in regional humanitarian and disaster relief cooperation and shared alliance missions.
Abe has not focused on individual relationships alone. Instead, he has sought to marry his economic policy goals with his diplomacy. Nowhere is this more important than in Southeast Asia where Japan has long had deep economic ties. Abe has made repeated visits there since he came back into office. Economic diplomacy was also at the top of his agenda when he visited Washington in February to announce Japan’s interest in joining TPP. In Russia and the Middle East, Abe argued for new economic and diplomatic cooperation, including many initiatives related to energy. With President Putin, Abe sought to reopen discussions on the disputed Northern Territories while announcing Japan’s interest in a long-term deal over LNG and oil. In the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Japan’s prime minister turned his attention to nuclear deals, oil and gas, and the potential for expanding Japanese medical services.
In a rapidly changing Asia, Japan needs new friends and partners, and Abe’s willingness to seek those from neighbors of China suggests a proactive effort to adjust to the realities of Beijing’s own regional aspirations and interests. Nevertheless, Japan also needs to address the hopes of the Japanese people and energize its economic competitiveness. Much of what Abe has already sought to do in his travels abroad is to argue that “Japan is Back” as a global player, and this will depend on Tokyo’s ability to continue to wield significant economic influence. The new economic coloring of Japan’s diplomacy thus suggests that the Abe cabinet is looking outward, as well as inward to stimulate its energy and investment opportunities.
Despite some regional concerns about Mr. Abe’s geopolitical ambitions, the Abe diplomatic vision to date looks more like a return to Japan’s much vaunted economic diplomacy, with much more emphasis on commerce than containment.
Sheila A. Smith is Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.