In February 2013, two months after his inauguration, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in Washington, DC, “Japan is not, and never will be, a tier-two country. I am back and so shall Japan be.” In the two years since, Abe has worked to fulfill his promise to bring back Japan as a global actor. He has expanded Japan’s diplomatic presence around the world through his “diplomacy that takes panoramic view of the world map” (chikyuugi wo fukan suru gaiko) initiative. Playing the role of “diplomat-in-chief,” he has visited more than 50 countries and met more than 200 foreign leaders.
Abe has proven his commitment to this initiative and foreign policy concept by actively engaging in high-level diplomacy to foster Japan’s relationships with countries and regions that have grown stagnant in recent years. In particular, Japan has intensified its diplomatic efforts with Australia, India, Europe, and Russia. Stimson’s new publication Japan’s Global Diplomacy: Views from Next Generation is a collection of essays that offers insight into the rationale behind Abe’s moves to focus on these relationship that he deems strategically important for Japan.
With Australia, Abe deepened his strong personal relationship with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and elevated Japan-Australia relations to a special strategic relationship. Abe recognized that Japan-Australia relations, a quasi-alliance between two of the United States’ closest allies in the Asia-Pacific region, can be a vehicle for the two countries to collectively support regional frameworks in the Asia-Pacific region and preserve the existing norms and order in the broader international community.
Abe also upgraded Japan’s relations with India, to that of a special strategic and global partnership in 2014. Today’s Japan and India increasingly need each other as critical strategic partners to defend the maritime commons. While India will not forsake its strategic autonomy, still, Japan and India can develop a mutually beneficial partnership in the efforts to maintain good global governance and an open regional trade architecture in Asia.
Abe’s efforts to revitalize Japan’s diplomacy have also successfully extended beyond the Asia-Pacific region. Japan strengthened its relationship with Europe on multiple levels – Japan held its first foreign and defense ministers (2 plus 2) meetings with France and England, and it established the Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Europe has emerged as a critical partner for Japan in its quest for a diplomacy that upholds international norms and values. Japan is, as it should, taking advantage of the current momentum in the relationship to firmly develop Japan-Europe relations.
Even with Russia, Japan held its first 2 plus 2 meeting in November 2013. Despite developments in Ukraine, Abe continues to maintain the position articulated in the National Security Strategy that a positive relationship with Russia is critical not only for resolving Tokyo’s longstanding territorial dispute with Moscow, but also for the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. Japan continues to seek the difficult balance between exploring a certain level of autonomy in its policy toward Russia and providing unconditional support for universal norms and values as a preserver of the international order.
Not surprisingly, there are several factors that complicate Abe’s foreign policy approach. First is the balance between upholding the basic position of Japan as a promoter of international rules and norms, and its need to forge relationships with countries that Japan may not share such values with, in order to promote Tokyo’s diplomatic interests. Japan’s approach to Russia under Abe greatly illustrates Japan’s dilemma in this regard.
Second is the rising tension between Japan and China as an often unspoken but still major factor that impacts many of Japan’s foreign policy decisions. In Japan’s relationships with Australia, India, Europe and Russia, China acts either as a driver for closer cooperation or as a source of concern for the sustainability of the successes in Japan’s current approaches. Too much focus on China has the risk of backfiring if these countries, whether due to leadership change or differing perceptions of Chinese behavior, begin to shift in their approach toward China, away from the one that is shared with Japan.
Finally, the tragic killing of two Japanese citizens who were held hostage in Syria by the Islamic State may result in greater domestic scrutiny on Japan’s diplomacy initiative. The tragedy poses fundamental questions not only to the Japanese government but also to the Japanese public on their commitment to Japan’s diplomatic agenda around the world. Will Japan continue to pursue a meaningful role as a promoter of international rules and norms despite the potential risks, or will it cave in to the fears and turn inward? Japan’s answers to these questions in the days and months ahead will have a profound impact not only on Japan’s diplomatic relationships with its friends and partners but also its identity in the international community at large.
Ultimately, despite these questions and challenges, the vision of Japan that Abe promotes has already allowed Japan to expand its diplomatic outreach beyond the Asia-Pacific region and to provide key organizing principles for Japan’s foreign policy. Japan’s aspirations to play a key role in promoting and enforcing the existing international norms has revitalized Japan’s efforts to enhance its relations with key US allies and strategic partners and be a positive force towards establishing peace, stability and prosperity for entire international community.