Recherche FFJ Research Statement Reinhard DRIFTE

Reinhard DRIFTE

La politique étrangère du Japon : Réalisme réticent ou passivité d'un pays en déclin?

Reinhard Drifte is an emeritus professor of Japanese Politics at University of Newcastle, UK
Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute, London
Visiting Professor at various Japanese and French universities

Japan's foreign policy seems to show two conflicting tendencies: On the one hand we find indications for an increasingly assertive policy, but at the same time there are signs of a weaker and less active policy. Among the indications for the former, one can mention Japan`s quest for a permanent UN Security Council seat, a stronger stance against China in the territorial conflict in the East China Sea, more nationalism, a greater emphasis on Japan`s role in the Japan-US security alliance and in international peace-keeping, and a general weakening of Japan`s pacifism. At the same time one cannot fail to observe a relative as well as absolute decline of Japan`s economic strength, particularly after almost three decades of economic problems, reinforced by the triple disaster of 13 March 2011. This weakening of Japan`s economic power has led to a radical reduction of Japan`s Official Development Assistance (ODA), a loss of competitivity with China and a delay in the conclusion of Free Trade Agreements, particularly compared with China and South Korea.

There are many constraints on Japan`s foreign policy which make it difficult to overcome and offset the above problems and to adapt to new international challenges. Despite its deep involvement in the global economy if not global politics, Japan is still rather insular. The inward-looking political system, notably the weak position of the prime minister, the relative loss of power by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the low priority of foreign policy, do not help. Problems like the issues of the `comfort women` (ianfu mondai) or the territorial conflicts with China and Korea are confronted in a very legalistic way. Japan`s foreign and security policy is still very much focused on its only alliance partner, the US, and even its multilateralism is sometimes dictated by the demands of this partner. Although the Japan-US alliance is being reinforced in order to deal with security challenges from North Korea and China, it faces many problems. A fundamental and systemic challenge is the dilemma of `entrapment` and `abandonment`: if Japan follows too closely the demands of the US it might get entrapped in US policies which are against its national interest or which are not sufficiently supported by public opinion, but if it does not respond sufficiently to US requests, the latter may abandon Japan, particularly in view of China`s rise and growing importance for US global foreign and security policies. There is an impasse in the realignment of US forces from Okinawa, although the possibility of a major incident (e.g. the crash of an airplane in densely populated areas of Okinawa) may endanger the whole security relationship. There are also many issues where both countries take divergent positions, e.g. on climate change, North Korea, the International Court of Justice, Japan`s quest for a permanent UN Security Council seat, or most recently sanctions against Iran which is providing 10 % of Japan`s oil supply.
At the same time the Japanese-Chinese economic relationship is becoming ever closer, interdependent and equal. China is now no. 1 trading partner of Japan and no longer the US. The economic relationship is not without problems which range from intellectual property rights, Japan`s increasing concern about food safety and security of food supply from China and the general increasing competitivity of China. China poses challenges to Japan in many non-traditional as well as traditional security areas. There is a much greater concern in Japan about the political, economic and ecological sustainability of China`s rapid economic rise than in Europe. This rise aggravates also competition on the international market for energy, raw materials (e.g. rare earth!) and food. Rising legal and illegal migration of Chinese to Japan threatens Japan`s myth of its homogeneity. In the traditional areas of security there is concern about the rise of China`s defence expenditures and their non-transparency. There has been an unending series of confrontations in the East China Sea because of territorial conflicts (Senkaku/Diaoyu islands) and the failure to delimitate the sea border between the two countries. Japan counters these challenges with its engagement policy which, however, has elements of economic and political inducements, but is at the same time hedged by its own defence efforts and the military alliance with the US. The lack of security dialogues, the growing negative perception of the other country in both Japan and China as well as the inability of Japan to come to terms with its past in a way which satisfies China do not help to address the bilateral problems and the contradictory signals of Japan`s engagement policy.

The relationship with the Korean peninsula is also full of complexities. Public opinion in South Korea towards Japan improved very much after the triple disaster on 13 March 2011 but soon afterwards the territorial conflict over Dokdo/Takeshima flared up again despite the initially promising leadership constellation in South Korea under President Lee and many common foreign and security interests. The planned bilateral FTA has not been making any advances, and there are policy differences on how to approach North Korea. North Korea`s security challenge to Japan has kept increasing and there is a complete deadlock over the abduction issue and North Korea`s military policy (e.g. the missile test in April 2012).

With regard to the conclusion of FTAs Japan is very much hampered by its domestic politics, and in particular the strength of the agricultural lobby which is far beyond its economic significance. The agreements so far concluded only concern minor trading partners, their utilization rate is very low and they exclude sensitive sectors like agriculture.

In conclusion one can say that there is at the same time a reluctant realism as well as the passivity of a declining economic power. As a result of Japan`s economic weakening and its difficulty to adapt to the challenges of a new regional and international environment it is not easy to maintain its influence in Asia just at a time when it would want to orientate itself more towards the region in order to counter balance China`s political rise. Still, Japan is a high performance economy with the highest Purchasing Power Parity in Asia. Its importance for multilateralism is continuing but it has to learn how to make more with less.