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Japan’s Engagement with the Pacific Nations


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems determined to carve Japan’s future security profile and thereby reshaping the security scenario in the Asia Pacific region which is already vitiated by China’s belligerent and assertive posture. Since he assumed office in December 2012, Japan’s profile has dramatically altered as his government has taken some sweeping policy measures such as relaxing the ban on weapons export, reinterpreting Article 9 of the Constitution and giving a new meaning to the idea of collective self-defence. Though his visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 to mark the first anniversary of his government evoked sharp reaction in China and South Korea and disapproval from the US, this aberration did not deter Abe to pursue his long term goal of rewriting Japan’s role as a responsible global player that would help secure peace in the region.

The fallout of some of these measures means souring Japan’s ties with China and South Korea. Apart from the Yasukuni visit issue, the excesses committed by the Japanese military on the Chinese and Korean people during the World War II continue to haunt. Previous Japanese governments have expressed remorse of such deeds but Beijing and Seoul are never satisfied and continue to complain that Japanese expression of remorse lacks sincerity. The perceived intention of Japanese government to revise the Kono Statement expressing admission of military’s role on sexual exploitation of Korean women, euphemistically called the Comfort Women, drafted to work as brothels in the war fronts further angers the Koreans.

Amidst these developments, while South Korea and China are drawing closer, Japan is trying to reach out to North Korea as Abe is committed to resolve the issue of abduction of Japanese national by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. This also coincides with straining of ties between Beijing and Pyongyang because of Kim Jong-un’s defiance to pay respect or even listen to Beijing’s counsel on how to conduct Pyongyang’s domestic and foreign affairs. With a view to get some result on the abduction issue, Abe government has even partially lifted some sanctions imposed against North Korea following the latter’s third nuclear test and continuing nuclear weapon programs. What this means is disunity amongst the members of the Six-Party Talks, which remains suspended since 2008. Though Beijing is keen for restarting this dialogue process, that chance seems to be remote now.

If this is the situation in the Northeast Asia, situation in the Southeast Asian region is no better. It is here Chinese expansionism manifests in the ugliest form. South China Sea is an area where about a dozen countries of the region have contending claims to some portion or other. On the other hand, China claims the entire South China Sea as its territory. Two claimants – Vietnam and the Philippines – have upped the ante and confronting Chinese assertion on this area. While the Philippines have filed an appeal to the International Court of Justice at The Hague for adjudication, Vietnam is prepared to take on the Chinese might and strongly protesting Chinese oil rig in areas claimed by Vietnam and demanding for their removal. As tensions build up, it is an enormous responsibility of other stake holders not only to de-escalate the situation but also find common grounds that are in conformity with international norms.

Given this background, Abe’s recent foreign policy activism in the Asia-Pacific needs to be understood in right perspective. Domestically, he has revised some of the long-held policies not in tune with present realities that constrained Japan from playing a pro-active foreign policy role. First Abe took measures to correct such aberrations. His simultaneous measures have been reaching out to allies and friends with whom Japan could work together in the interests of regional peace. Abe travelled extensively to many ASEAN member countries and assiduously tried to build and deepen economic and strategic relationships. He has build close understanding with leaders of Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and others. He is waiting to receive the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with whom he shares the same nationalistic image. In the past Abe has worked with Modi closely and hosted him when the latter visited Japan as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. That visit was instrumental for many Japanese companies to set up shops in Gujarat. Now as Prime Minister, Modi will work for a stronger and deeper Japanese involvement in India’s economic development and much more. Potential areas for stronger collaboration between the two countries are in the field of defence production, sale of defence technology and equipment, nuclear energy if the pact is signed, and other areas. These ought to remain in the realm of conjecture till Modi travels to Japan and shares with Abe with his vision of a future Asia and what blueprints both can bring on the table.

Japan and Oceania

Abe’s efforts to reach out for friends did not limit to the Southeast Asian region. His diplomatic outreach was extended to the Oceania region where Abe travelled days after the decision taken to reinterpret the exercise of the right to collective self-defence. He travelled to all three major countries in Oceania reaching out to the leaders of New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea in that order. While he himself took off for the three Pacific nation tour, he sent Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera to Washington. Onodera reiterated Japan’s position that while Japan does not want confrontation with China and was always open to dialogue with Beijing, Japan would respond firmly to “unilateral behaviour” that disrupts regional order.

Promotion of free trade has remained one key pillar of Abe administration’s growth strategy. While in New Zealand he held talks with his counterpart John Key and confirmed that they will work proactively for a conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks. Opening up the markets on farm produce and other products are some key impediments and the leaders are working hard to reach agreement on this. While in Australia, Abe and his counterpart Tony Abbott agreed to cooperate to bring about the early conclusion of the TPP multilateral trade negotiations.

Abe has already built a strong personal bonding with the Abbott in sharp contrast to his strained relations with the leaders of South Korea and China. Because of his pursuance of perceived nationalistic agenda, Tokyo’s ties with Beijing and Seoul have gone to their lowest point in decades. Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to address the parliament in Canberra, and the 11th by a foreign leader, where he explained his historic shift on collective self-defence. Abe was aware that Australia will welcome his latest move to create a more robust military as also other countries in the region. China’s rapid military rise and its increasing assertiveness in its external relations with regional neighbours have created a sense of unease and this is driving these adversaries to come closer to face the China challenge. One could not miss the political synergy and friendship between the two leaders when they travelled together to resource-rich Western Australia to visit an iron ore mine. This was Abe’s second meeting with Abbott in a matter of months. It was in April 2014 that Abe had hosted Abbott in Tokyo and both had also met in Brunei in October 2013.

Free Trade Agreement

One major achievement of Abe’s visit was when Abe and Abbott rubber-stamped the free trade agreement – the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement. It was agreed in principle during Abbott’s April visit to Tokyo. The deal is Japan’s first with a major economy. Australia is Japan’s second biggest trading partner.

What does the free trade agreement mean to Japan? While it will see tariffs cut for Japanese exports of electronics, white goods and cars, Australis’s exports of beef, dairy, wine, and horticulture and some other products will gain increased access. As the trade deal takes effect on 1 January 2015, Abe took along with him a large business delegation to prepare the groundwork for expanding business opportunities as the objective is to boost economic growth. For record, Japan was eclipsed by China as Australia’s biggest trading partner in late 2007. Now Japan needs to take advantage of the free trade agreement to restore some of the share it lost to China, and thereby boost resource intake. Japan is still Australia’s second biggest trading partner, buying $34.6 billion worth of liquid natural gas, coal and iron ore from Australia, and with total trade reaching $66.4 billion.

At personal level, Abe retains some family legacy in his country’s relationship with Australia. The first commercial agreement was signed in 1957, later revised and extended in 1963, when Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi was Japan’s Prime Minister and Robert Menzies was Australia’s Prime Minister. After the War, Kishi was arrested but not charged for alleged war crimes. Kishi himself was a critic of the Constitution that was ‘imposed’ by the US but could not do anything to change as the post-war situation did not allow him to oppose openly. Not surprisingly, Abe was greatly influenced by Kishi’s political philosophy more than his own father Shintaro Abe, who was Japan’s foreign minister in the early 1980s. Such feeling of nostalgia could be propelling Abe more to be drawn towards Australia, aside other factors. Indeed, Japan-Australia relationship has grown strong during the past seven decades after the War. In the 1970 when Australia discovered enormous amounts of raw materials and was looking for a market, Japan provided the necessary outlet to Australian resources as Japan was undergoing the process of economic boom. That time, Japan-Australia relations were predominantly and overwhelmingly economic and the complementarity was visible. The security and defence aspects did not figure anywhere in the calculus of either country. After China started its economic modernisation program with policy of market economy, it too found Australia as a reliable source of supplies of precious resources that its economy needed. The trend in Australia therefore shifted towards China. Soon China emerged as Australia’s biggest trading partner. But when China started adopting an assertive posture impacting the security of the region, diplomatic interests of Tokyo and Canberra converged seamlessly.

The symbolism attached to his visit to resource-rich Pilbara region of Western Australia in recognition of the key role its minerals played in Japan’s economic growth in the 1970 and 1980s cannot be lost sight of. It was something similar to Abe’s visit to Kolkata in 2007 as prime minister to meet the family members of Justice Radha Binod Behari Pal to express thanks for his favourable judgement during the Tokyo trial. He travelled with Abbott to Rio Tinto’s West Angelas mine and saw personally the use of Japanese technology in state-of-the-art equipment.

As said, both Japan and China have sourced the bulk of their raw material requirements from Australia. In the process, all three countries have benefitted enormously. Economic growth boosted demand, leading to increased exports by Australia. But Australia does not forget that resource-poor Japan was one of Australia’s first mining clients and remains a key buyer of its iron ore. In fact, Pilbara is where the minerals revolution began and iron ore from this place helped built much of modern Japan and thus laid the foundation of much of Australia’s prosperity. Though Japan remained its enduring relationship with Rio Tinto for almost half a century symbolising the strengthening of economic and trade ties between Japan and Australia, China has since leapfrogged to emerge as the biggest market for Australian iron ore.

The Rio Tinto mine, a joint partnership with Japanese companies, symbolises the relationship between the two countries. This historic collaboration between Australian mining “knowhow” and Japanese capital and technology is a long term one built on trust. Rio Tinto boss Sam Walsh was honest to admit that the company’s iron ore business was born from Japanese investment and the company acknowledged this fact.

Defence technology agreement/Strategic factor

The biggest achievement was, however, the defence technology deal that was signed and sharing of perception on regional security issues. The defence agreement, Japan’s first with a country in the Asia-Pacific region, tells much about Abe’s priorities since he became prime minister for a second time. This would facilitate Japan to play a key role in the construction of a fleet of Australian submarines.

The timing of Abe’s visit seemed perfect. It was in April, restrictions on weapons exports were lifted. Without this, the defence equipment deal would not have been possible. It also helped Abe to explain the Australian audience his stand on the collective self-defense, which means that Abe is simply adding Japan to the club of “normal” democratic states, and able to defend its interests at home and abroad, with force if necessary. As expected, even while China and South Korea issued predictable words of condemnation, Australia was willing to support the policy shift. Critics of Abe’s policies saw a departure in Japan’s post-War commitment to pacifism and that Japan was now set about building a well-equipped, but strictly defense-oriented, military.

From now on, the defence technology deal could help Japan snare a lucrative contract to work on Australia’s new fleet of stealth submarines. Notwithstanding Australia’s deepened economic ties with China, deepening military ties with Japan irked and caused consternation in Beijing. Beijing has a fractious relationship with Japan including tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea. But Abe took pain to clarify that his push to “change its legal basis for security” was because Japan could work with other nations and “build an international order that upholds the rule of law”, thereby “more willing to contribute to peace in the region and beyond”. He justified this as the reason why his government has “raised the banner of proactive contribution to peace”. One finds difficult not to appreciate Abe’s commitment to uphold freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law, the issues Beijing is known to have been flouting with impunity. Australia had been looking for partners to build a fleet of 4,000 ton-class quiet-running diesel-electric subs to help extend its maritime surveillance deep into the Indian Ocean. Their presence could also help Japan keep better tabs on Chinese activity. With this in mind, both the countries also agreed to start joint research on marine hydrodynamics. When Australia expressed interest in acquiring submarine technology from Japan, the Maritime Self-Defense Force resisted this. Abe overcame this reluctance by agreeing to hydrodynamics as an initial area of joint research instead. This first step opens door for trade in defence technology.

The larger dimension of Abe’s speech in the Parliament was that he was articulating Japan’s new strategic stance to the world audience, part of which was broad alignment of Japan with Australia. Abe also attended a confidential session of the cabinet’s National Security Committee – an invitation not extended to then Chinese President Hu Jintao after his address to the Parliament during his visit in 2003.

In return, Abbott offered reassurance to China by observing that Japan-Australia partnership is only for peace, prosperity and for the rule of law and is not against anyone. Indeed, like Japan, Australia’s objective is open engagement as was exemplified by China’s participation in the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) naval exercises in 2014.

China’s A2/AD strategy

Even when China’s maritime expansion continues, its ties with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines continue to deteriorate. More worrying is that China has started reaching out to the Pacific island nations, where the US, Australia and New Zealand have so far maintained a peaceful order. To further its objectives, China has adopted an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy against the US forces. It therefore establishes a so-called first island chain that extends from Honshu to Okinawa, past Taiwan. The second island chain in China’s strategy stretches from Guam to Papua New Guinea and Micronesia. Palau and other island countries are located in between the first and second island chains.

Like in South Asia where China is trying to build a string of pearls around India’s surrounding to strangulate India, China’s approach to the Pacific is something similar. The strategic positioning of the Pacific island states is so important that these states could be vital for China as they could offer anchorage sites for China’s warships in the Pacific Ocean and thus can facilitate China’s maritime expansion plan. With the realisation of this strategic imperative, Beijing has been trying assiduously to win over the governments of those island nations by pouring in funds liberally towards construction of government buildings and other public facilities.

Chinese firms also have been fiercely engaged in exploitation of resources at a rapid rate in these countries. China has too deepened military exchanges with Papua New Guinea and Fiji through reciprocal visits by high-ranking military officials and other actions. By such diplomatic and economic outreach activities, China is trying to convert the Pacific Ocean to the “sea of China”.

For the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, these developments are worrying indeed. Arresting the Chinese advance has emerged, therefore, as an important diplomatic challenge for these countries. No wonder, therefore, Papua New Guinea was in Abe’s choice of countries to visit that was intended to reinforce Japan’s Pacific relations. It was for the first time in 29 years for a Japanese prime minister to visit the island nation. In talks with Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, the two leaders reached an agreement to cooperate on natural gas development. This Pacific nation has emerged as an energy source for Japan. In fact, the first shipment of liquefied natural gas to Japan was made from a $19 billion project in PNG in June 2014. Abe also offered Japan’s cooperation in such other fields as disaster prevention and human resources development. The business community of the country wait what plans the Mitsubishi Corporation and Itochu have for a $1 billion petrochemical plant and other investments. Abe was taking a 150 member business delegation with him. It is expected therefore other business fronts will open soon.

To counter the Chinese move, Abe too announced Japan’s support for building and improving infrastructure in the country through disbursement of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) programs. On their part, Australia and New Zealand as two major Pacific countries took measures to strengthen maritime security cooperation by setting up a Pacific defence ministers’ meeting with Papua New Guinea and other countries in 2013. This is in addition to the Pacific Islands Forum, where leaders of Australia, New Zealand and 14 small island countries and territories meet. Even India in the past has made financial assistance to all the small Pacific island nations to expand its Pacific reach. The US too is engaged in providing support of its Coast Guard for maritime patrol activities by the island countries.


It is the undisputed fact that the realignment of power relations among nations in the Asia Pacific is driven by China’s unilateral position on issues that demand multilateral solution. The Japan-Australia Economic Partnership agreement and their intention of Japan and Australia to enhance practical defense cooperation should be understood from this perspective. The previous Labor government gave precedence to China over Japan as it started experiencing mineral resources export boom thrown open by the Chinese market, catapulting China as Australia’s leading trading partner. The Abbott government started revisiting this position as Beijing’s surge on its maritime expansion in the East Chinas Sea and South China Sea continued. Beijing’s standoffs with Japan and several Southeast Asian nations threatened vital sea lanes. Australia saw an imminent threat as almost half of its trade is with Japan, China and South Korea and therefore started seeing common viewpoints with Japan and some Southeast Asian nations whose commercial interests were too threatened.

China’s unilateral stance to alter the status quo and repeated attempts to forcefully extend its maritime reach is a matter of concern. No wonder the joint statement issued after the talks clearly stated that “international disputes and issues should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law rather than by force and coercion”. Seen from this perspective, it would be appropriate for South Korea to be careful not to jump to the Chinese embrace but join forces which stand for global rules.

The positive part is that ties between Japan, Australia, South Korea are anchored in their alliance relationships with the US. Cooperation between these three countries will help President Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia policy to work effectively. Besides stationing US marines in both Japan and Australia, thereby protecting their security from external threat, the US has also stationed hundreds of marines near Darwin, capital of Northern Territory, since 2012. This is clearly in response to China’s maritime expansion. The three countries are now in a position to draw up scenarios to deal with a situation when that emerges through trilateral cooperation.

Japan has longstanding disputes with China over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Chinese patrol vessels often enter near the Japanese-owned islands, located amid potentially huge oil and gas deposits. Japan has also acrimonious relations with South Korea over sex slave issues. North Korea’s nuclear weapon program is another worry. Abe’s revisionist views of wartime conduct of Japan’s military, relaxation in weapons exports and reinterpretation of the exercise of the right of collective self-defence combined will draw Beijing and Seoul closer. But Abe’s vision of the future world has greater acceptance from more friends and allies. However, Abe’s real challenge remains at home. He has to assuage the concern of the public who see that a wider military posture might drag Japan into a conflict after almost 70 years of peace. (The writer Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi, is currently The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Chiba, JAPAN. E-mail: )

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