Tomonori Yoshizaki: Japan takes a pragmatic approach in foreign policy


Interview by Erik Eenlo, BNS

Japan did not join its Western partners in expelling Russian diplomats in response to the chemical attack in Salisbury. Does this reflect Tokyo´s intention not to provoke Moscow while it is pursuing intensified dialogue with Russia in the hope of concluding a peace treaty?

As clearly shown in Prime Minister Abe’s telephone conversation with PM Theresa May of Great Britain last March, Tokyo’s position was neither to be soft on Russia nor to tolerate any use of chemical weapons. Although not yet decided to expel any Russian diplomat on a “tit-for-tat” basis, Tokyo has shown a toughest stance vis-à-vis Russia in the above case. After Ukraine, our chances of making a substantial progress in territorial issues have been clearly narrowed. Current approach by Tokyo is primarily pragmatic one, with strategic dialogue at vice-ministerial levels, to explore common agenda in global challenges such as DPRK (Democratic People´s Republic of Korea – North Korea – BNS) denuclearization issues and Syria, in order to keep the window open for our future dialogue.

The diplomatic thaw underway on the Korean peninsula has surprised many. How do you assess the results of the Korean summit and which concessions could the international community realistically hope from the North Korean regime? Can Japan that has been somewhat sidelined in the process expect its concerns to be addressed without a Tokyo-Pyongyang summit?

Given the deep-rooted, antagonistic North-South divide since the 1940s, we should have no illusion about a dramatic breakthrough in this complex game. U.S.-DPRK Summit meeting, if successfully held in Singapore this coming June, would be a first step forward; but there will still be a long list of “gaps” in their negotiating positions, such as ambiguous definition of “denuclearization” or the guarantee for the regime survival of DPRK. The Trump Administration’s strategy of “peace through strength” introduced a new logic of “perfect” verifiable, irreversible disarmament of DPRK’s nuclear arsenals, which set a much higher bar for Pyongyang. At the same time, Trump’s unilateral refusal of JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – Iran nuclear deal – BNS) clearly shows that the U.S. would abolish multilaterally-agreed nuclear deals if they fail to meet its vital interests. In this volatile situation DPRK will need to avert a direct confrontation, and again, seek to complete its long-time ambitions of independent nuclear arsenals.

For Tokyo, it’s not very surprising that Japan is not a first and direct responder to these diplomatic crises. Historical origins of military tension across the 38th (38. parallel – separation line between North and South Korea – BNS) date back to the Korean War Armistice of 1953, where major four powers (two Koreas, China, and the U.S.) were signatories. Japan’s long-standing policy toward the Peninsula has been to promote North-South dialogue and to provide a logistical support for US Forces Japan, which is an integral part for ensuring “maximum pressure” vis-à-vis DPRK in case of need.

China has become increasingly assertive under strongman leader Xi Jinping. Flexing muscles on the South-China Sea, in the Taiwan strait and near Tokyo controlled Senkaku islands has been frequent under his rule. Can we expect use of force from the president to reclaim what China considers its territory or is Xi too prudent for such a reckless behaviour at a time when he is just at the beginning of his lifetime presidency?

“Prudent” behaviours among major regional powers will be a key to avoid a worst-case scenario in Asia’s future. “Asia’s Cauldron” by Robert D. Kaplan’s or “Asia’s Mediterranean” by Michael Auslin clearly describe a pessimistic outlook, where China’s military predominance could bring an end of a stable Pacific if unchecked. As to maritime security domain, Chinese A2/AD (Anti-Access and Area Denial) capabilities to counter U.S. naval supremacy is on the rise. In this context, competitive military edges are still critical to ensure deterrence and defense in such volatile regions as the Indo-Pacific and Europe after Ukraine.

Our regional strategy should foster a more stable international order based on common values and norms. This overall idea is deeply inspired by European experiences during and after the Cold War, e.g., Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). Mutual restraints and non-use of force should also be a bottom line for managing regional crises, as reflected in our interest to ensure a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. We must admit, however, the inherent limitations of these normative approach when challenged by an emerging power by force. Then we need to think again about “hard power” such as U.S. “hedging and balancing” strategy.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to forge a warm working relationship with US president Donald Trump. How do you assess the state of US-Japan alliance at the moment?

Unlike his controversial rhetoric during election campaign, Trump now underwrites the enduring value of regional allies, including Japan-U.S. Current relationship between Washington and Tokyo is highly pragmatic and business-like. U.S. purpose, as clearly set in his National Security Strategy, is to ensure a favorable balance of power to counter major strategic competitors in the region. In dealing with repeated North Korean provocations, for example, U.S. Forward Based Systems in Japan could serve as the best security guarantee in our volatile region.

How would you characterize Japanese relations with the European Union at the moment and what kind of importance is attributed to these relations in Tokyo?

François Heisbourg (French foreign policy expert – BNS) once described Japan as “the mirror on the wall”, which has lot of common features with the EU as a global civilian power. EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement) and SPA (Strategic Partnership Agreement) would be most meaningful for us mainly because these agreements would facilitate our mutually enhancing relationship based on universal values such as human rights, rule of law and peaceful resolution of conflicts. In addition, the EU is a significant player in the diplomatic and normative sense; in the case of agenda setting with regard to new challenges, e.g., global warming, Arctic issues, energy supplies, or Iran nuclear deals, the EU is so powerful. Its soft power rests on numbers: the strength in number of its member states, with more than 20 advanced countries, to form a “majority” in critical policy debate. EU member states have long supported the idea of regional and economic integration based on common principles and values. This is where we should seek some commonality with the EU because the Asia-Pacific region still lacks inter-locking multilateral institutions; and the US doesn’t have it either. The EU is the only international institution that can enjoy the majority of countries supporting multilateralism, even after the BREXIT.

 

Tomonori Yoshizaki is Director of Policy Simulation at the National Institute of Defense Studies of Japan.

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