Japan's Search for a New Equilibrium in Asia – Valdai Discussion Club

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Since returning to power at the end of 2012, the Abe administration had taken active engagement policy with Russia. It coincided with the period when the President Putin officially declared “Turn to the East” as his administration’s official policy. What vision was behind former PM Shinzo Abe’s active diplomacy toward Russia?

Abe’s vison behind his Russian policy

How could we build a new regional order of peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, while dealing with China rapidly increasing its national power in terms of economy, technology, and military? This has been the most difficult challenge facing Asian countries including Japan since the late 2000s.
     
In my view two approaches have been taken by Japanese government to tackle this challenge.

  In terms of security, to preserve a strategic balance with China by encouraging the active involvement of the “inward-looking the United States”, an allied country of Japan, in the Asian region, and at the same time by expanding the network of strategic partners to countries other than the United States, including Russia.

  On the economic side, to seek ways for cooperation with China while taking competition in rulemaking for trade, investment and etc.
 
In September 2015 the Abe administration strengthened Japan-US alliance by enacting security-related laws that allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense in a limited manner. In August 2016 P.M. Abe advocated the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) in the keynote speech of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Nairobi, Kenya. The three pillars of FOIP are (1) promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, free trade, etc., (2) pursuit of economic prosperity by improving connectivity, etc., and (3) commitment for peace and stability by capacity-building assistance to countries in the Indo-Pacific region, etc.. The US Trump administration inaugurated in January 2017 also expressed its support for FOIP in a presidential speech and a strategic document at the end of the same year, and incorporated it into its own regional strategy. Japan and the US promote the quadrilateral security dialogue, or Quad with Australia and India as core part of FOIP. 
 
The Abe administration’s active engagement policy with Russia should also be understood in the context. This was before the inauguration of the Abe administration, but it was in 2010 that the East Asian Summit (ASEAN+6) decided to expand to ASEAN+8 by welcoming US and Russia as official members.

The decision was led by Vietnam, the presidency of the 2010 ASEAN Summit, and Japan also supported the Vietnam initiative. At the end of 2009 Vietnam signed a purchase contract with Russia for six Kilo-class submarines. It was the time when China began activating its maritime expansion into the East China Sea and the South China Sea. In October 2012, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Security Council of Russia, visited Japan for the first time and made an agreement to establish a framework for strategic dialogue with Japanese counterpart. It was in such a strategic environment that the Abe administration was inaugurated and started its active engagement policy with Russia. In that sense, it deserves special mention that at the summit meeting in Moscow in April 2013, the Abe administration even stepped up to the establishment of Foreign and Defense Ministerial meeting (“2+2”) with Russia. Russia has been the only country other than allies and quasi-allies with witch Japan holds “2+2” meeting. Thus, Japan and Russia has taken the first step to foster a common understanding of the security situation in Asia and eventually to reconcile each other’s visions for a future security architecture in the region.

Japan-US-China relations and RCEP 

Now, on November 15, the final day of ASEAN summit meetings, the 10 ASEAN countries and the five countries of China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, have finally agreed and signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) after eight years of negotiations since November 2012. India, another member of ASEAN+6, had dropped out of the negotiations last year.

In the early 2000s, the concept of the free trade zone among the ASEAN + 3 (China, japan and South Korea) emerged. However, as China’s GDP overtook Japan in 2010 and gradually began to have a prominent presence in Asia, Japan became more cautious about losing control of rule-making in the free trade zone.
 
Therefore, the Japanese government proposed a framework for a free trade zone in ASEAN + 6, including Australia, New Zealand and India. So at that time, two frameworks, China-backed ASEAN + 3 and Japan-backed ASEAN + 6, were competing. 

When the US Obama administration launched an Asian rebalancing policy and began to lead the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, China, which was wary of this move, accepted the ASEAN + 6 framework, and in November 2012, the launch of the RCEP negotiations was declared and negotiations began the following year. However, due to the further expansion of the Chinese economy and the deterioration of Japan-China relations, the Abe administration preceded the TPP negotiations led by the US Obama administration and signed it in February 2016 under the Abe administration. Participating countries were Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. 

However, the US Trump administration, which was more inward-looking, announced that it would withdraw from the TPP as soon as the administration was inaugurated in January 2017. Nevertheless, the Government of Japan has successfully led the negotiation of Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP-11) with 11 countries excluding the United States and signed it in March 2018. The Japanese government then returned to the negotiation on RCEP, and despite the unexpected event of India’s withdrawal from negotiations last year, it was able to sign it with 15 countries excluding India. 

Japan’s FOIP and ASEAN

Regarding FOIP Japan’s FOIP has a major feature that US’s FOIP doesn’t have. Japan’s FOIP doesn’t rule out the possibility of cooperation with China’s BRI, let say, in an infrastructure-related project in a third country, if it is in line with international standards such as openness, transparency, economic efficiency, and financial soundness of the target country. In other words, Japan’s FOIP has not only a strategic competition aspect, but also an economic cooperation aspect with China.

It was in June 2017 that PM Abe first mentioned the possibility of cooperation between FOIP and BRI conditionally. Then, in October 2018, PM Abe’s first visit to China within a bilateral framework was realized. At this time, the leaders of Japan and China agreed on economic cooperation in third countries. It should be noted that shortly thereafter, the Japanese government began to call FOIP a vison rather than a strategy. This was a message to ASEAN that Japan’s FOIP didn’t rule out the possibility of cooperation with China. Japan clearly understand that ASEAN countries don’t like to be forced to choose between Japan or U.S. and China.

  In June 2019, ASEAN announced “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” initiated by Indonesia. It was highly likely that this document was published by ASEAN largely due to the fact that Japan’s FOIP began to shift its weight from strategic competition to economic cooperation with China.

Russia and strategic balance in Asia

Let’s return to Russia’s turn to the East and Japan-Russia relations. In terms of economy Russia has already established itself as an important partner of major countries such as China, Japan and South Korea in Asia as a key supplier of energy resources. Russia has not participated in RCEP, a huge economic integration process that accounts for about one-third of the world economy, but the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), led by Russia, has signed FTAs ​​with two ASEAN countries, Vietnam and Singapore. 

On security side, according to SIPRI reports, Russia ranks as the No.1 arms supplier to ASEAN countries by producing 28% of the arms in value terms procured by them between 2010 and 2019. These countries include Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, which are in territorial dispute with China. It is worth noting that this trend has not dramatically changed over several years despite that fact that Russia has deepened its strategic ties with China since the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Russia’s continued involvement in Southeast Asia in the field of arms sales gives ASEAN more diplomatic options against the backdrop of intensifying US-China competition in the region.

As previously mentioned, since 2013 Japan and Russia has attempted to foster a common understanding of the security situation in Asia. However, the strategic environment surrounding Japan and Russia has dramatically changed over the period of time after the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and four years of the US Trump administration. Since then Russia has continued to worsen its relations with US, Japan’s ally and strengthen its strategic relations with China. Russia tends to see FOIP and Quad as a containment policy toward China and disregard the difference between Japan’s FOIP and that of the US. That means there has been still a huge gap between Japan and Russia over the vision for a new security architecture in the Asian region.

Nevertheless, in January 2020, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted joint anti-piracy exercise with the Baltic fleet of Russian Navy in the Arabian Sea, which is the northern part of the Indian Ocean. The Abe administration couldn’t resolve the long-standing territorial issue and conclude a peace treaty with Russia during his tenure, but the successor prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, is expected to inherit Abe’s foreign policy and go on his engagement policy with Russia over a medium-to long term time frame. Japan’s search for a new equilibrium in Asia will continue.