The Almost-Normal Country: Japan and the Use of Force

The enactment of Japan’s new national security bills was a long time in the making.  The bills, already passed by the lower house of the Japanese Diet in July, were approved by its upper house last week.  But ever since Shinzō Abe became Japan’s prime minister in 2012, he had sought legislation that would enable Japan to engage in “collective self-defense,” the ability to aid friendly countries under attack.  While that may seem routine in most countries, it has been anything but in Japan.  Many were unhappy with the legislation’s passage.  Those who opposed it feared that it would lead the country into war; and even some of those who supported it grumbled that it did not go far enough to make Japan a truly “normal” country, one where the use of force is considered as a legitimate tool of international politics.

Japan Collective Self-Defense

Unsurprisingly, China was quick to condemn the legislation’s passage.  China’s Ministry of National Defense declared that Japan’s new security laws ran “counter to the trend of the times that upholds peace, development and cooperation.”  The ministry chastised “Japan’s war mentality, its reinforcement of military alliances and attempts to send more troops abroad.”  Chinese media was less charitable.  Xinhua carried the headlines: “China Voice: Is Japan bound up to battle chariot?” and “News Analysis: Japan’s pacifist ideals stripped as Abe steps closer to resurrecting old war machine.”  One commentator at The People’s Daily blamed the “unyielding spirit of militarism” of Japanese leaders who were “breaking [Japan’s] pacifist promise and getting ready to send its troops to battles again.”[1]

Of course, China rarely passes up an opportunity to remind Japan of its imperial aggression.  Thirty-six years of Japanese economic aid to China—now nearly $1.2 billion per year—has yet to restrain its reflex.  In part, that is because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has often used anti-Japanese sentiment to buttress its own political legitimacy.  (Only recently did the CCP even credit its longtime Chinese rival, the Kuomintang on Taiwan, for its contribution—arguably larger than the CCP’s—to resisting Japan in World War II.)

That it took so long for Japan to pass this sort of legislation is a testament to the strength of Japan’s postwar pacifist sentiment.  While militarist elements may still lurk in Japan, most Japanese are decidedly uncomfortable with the use of force in international politics.  That was clear during Japan’s negotiations with Russia over the Northern Territories (or southern Kuril Islands in Russia) in the 1990s.  Though Japan had already begun its long economic stagnation, its military and political might was still near its peak.  In contrast, Russia, following the fall of the Soviet Union, was at its nadir.  Things were so bad in the Russian Far East that it was questionable whether Moscow could provide enough food or heat for its population on Sakhalin Island, let alone defend it.

Yet, Japan did not try to use its military or political capital to pressure Russia into a settlement.  Rather, Japan solely relied on the persuasive power of its economic assistance.  That tactic ultimately came to nothing.  After Russia’s economy recovered, Japan’s window of opportunity to settle the dispute on favorable terms closed.  Today, Russian leaders act without concern over Japanese reaction.  They cavalierly flout Japanese interests.  This year, a series of senior Russian officials visited the four disputed islands, despite repeated protests from Tokyo.  Russian Prime Minister Dmitry even toured one of them in August.  While there, he underlined that the Kuril Islands “are part of Russia… That is how it is and how it will be.”[2]

Japan’s self-imposed limitation on its use of force has also impacted its ability to secure its place in a changing East Asian geopolitical environment.  China’s economic rise has drawn other Asian countries closer to its orbit, while its seemingly relentless military rise has upset the regional balance of power.  Without the ability to form true security partnerships, Japan has risked becoming isolated.  Hence, Abe has eagerly cultivated new political and economic ties across the Asia-Pacific, from Australia and India to the countries of Southeast Asia.  Japan has certainly become more sensitive to changes in Asia’s geopolitical balance.  Last year, after Thailand’s relations with the United States soured, offering China an opening, Tokyo leapt into the breach with pledges of economic engagement with Bangkok.

Surely, the most immediate beneficiary of Japan’s new security laws is the United States.  For the past half century, the United States has borne the entire security burden of the alliance between the two countries—if Japan is attacked, the United States is obligated to defend Japan; but if the United States is attacked, Japan has no such reciprocal obligation.  Even during the Cold War, that uneven arrangement rankled some Americans.  To make it more equitable, Japan accepted the lion’s share of the financial burden to host American forces in Japan.  But with the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of a substantial portion of American forces from Japan (to Guam and elsewhere), the relationship was about to tilt again.  Thus, it was hardly surprising that Washington welcomed the legislation’s passage.

But beyond the United States, the legislation also enables Japan to more effectively cooperate with other countries on security matters.  If Japan’s relationships with Australia, India, the Philippines, and recently Vietnam mature into security partnerships, those countries can now count on Japan as a full partner.  In fact, in the days before the upper house vote on the national security bills, Abe met with Vietnam’s communist party secretary to discuss stronger security ties, in light of Vietnam’s dispute with China in the South China Sea.  Abe pledged more patrol boats for Vietnam.  Such promises is partly what worries Japanese opponents of the bills.  Getting Japan entangled in the disputes of other countries could pull it into a conflict, perhaps with China.  On the other hand, the possibility of facing a regional network of security partners might restrain China’s aggressiveness.  After all, China’s own economic prosperity (tenuous as it has become this year) requires peace and stability.

Even with the enactment of its new national security bills, Japan seems unlikely to seek the active use of military force far from home.  After all, Japan’s debt-laden government is in no position to rapidly expand its self-defense forces without hurting its still-weak economy.  Moreover, the conditions under which Japan can use force to support American expeditionary efforts abroad are still narrowly circumscribed.  The new legislation may be a step toward a Japan that is more comfortable with the idea of the use of force.  But the road to an actual use of force remains a long one.  Ironically, China may be the one country that could propel Japan faster down that road.

[1] “China Voice: Is Japan bound up to battle chariot?” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; “News Analysis: Japan’s pacifist ideals stripped as Abe steps closer to resurrecting old war machine,” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; “Japan’s new security bills against trend of the times: defense ministry,” Xinhua, Sep. 19, 2015; Wen Zongduo, “Abe’s win is Japan’s loss,” Chinadaily.com, Sep. 19, 2015.

[2] “Moscow officials ‘have always and will continue to’ visit Russian Kuril Islands – PM,” RT.com, Aug. 23, 2015.

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Wanting It Both Ways, Principled and Practical: U.S. Policy toward Thailand

The increased strain between the United States and Thailand, longtime allies in Southeast Asia, was evident during their 34th annual Cobra Gold military exercise last week.  The size of the U.S. contingent was noticeably smaller than a year earlier and the scope of the exercise was limited to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (normally it includes an amphibious landing component).  At the exercise’s opening ceremony, the U.S. representative directly commented on the “challenging” times that “has necessitated a modified Cobra Gold.”[1]

The reason for that strain was the American reaction to the Thai military’s coup d’état, which overthrew Thailand’s democratically-elected civilian government in May 2014.  From its perspective, the Thai military believed that it had little choice but to do so.  The civilian government was, at best, emptying the national coffers with an ill-conceived rice-payment scheme and, at worst, allowing (or even encouraging) the political paralysis that had already gripped the country for six months to continue.  Washington responded to the coup by suspending a symbolic $4.7 million in military aid and cancelling a number of joint military and law enforcement activities.

Southeast Asia Kunming Bangkok Singapore Railways

What made the American reaction all the more awkward was that the United States had been trying to bolster its relationship with Thailand.  Just a few years ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton envisioned that Thailand would be at the core of her Lower Mekong Initiative—a bid to boost American engagement with continental Southeast Asia.  Add to that the fact that those in Thailand who backed the coup (including most of its urban middle class and business elites) represent some of the country’s most pro-Western elements.  During the Cold War, the Thai military supported U.S. efforts to counter communism in Southeast Asia (when it was decidedly unpopular to do so) and even hosted 27,000 U.S. military personnel at seven of its bases—from which the U.S. air force flew strategic bombing missions over Vietnam.  Afterwards, the Thai military cooperated with the United States in its campaigns against drug smuggling and human trafficking in the region.

Hence, these elements of Thai society have seen the American sanctions, regardless of their size, as an affront.  They also bristled at the pointed criticism made by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel as an attempt to interfere with the internal affairs of Thailand.[2]  Despite earlier Thai military coups, the United States had not treated Thailand this way before.

China has been happy to capitalize on that Thai sentiment.  A month after the coup, China assured Bangkok that it would continue to support Thailand’s development and hosted a delegation of senior Thai military officials in Beijing.  China Mobile followed with a $900 million investment in a Bangkok telecommunications company.  But more importantly, China won approval for a new railway that will connect Kunming and Bangkok, through northeastern Thailand.  Once completed, that railway will tie Thailand’s economy (and interests) more closely to China, just as Thailand’s seaports had moved the country closer to the West in an earlier time.  Late last year, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former army chief who led the coup, urged Thais to “stop bickering” and look to China for inspiration.  In February 2015, he agreed to strengthen Thailand’s military ties with China over the next five years.[3]

Of course, Prayuth may simply be making the point to the United States that it should not take Thailand for granted.  Still, he has opened the door for China to make real inroads into Thailand’s economy and politics.  Concerned about growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, Japan appears to have rushed into the breach opened by the United States.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe flew to Bangkok early last week to emphasize Japan’s continued interest in Thailand and pledge Japanese support in developing the country’s rail networks and promoting its joint venture with Myanmar, the Dawei Special Economic Zone.[4]

The clarity of Japan’s approach to Thailand stands in contrast to the awkwardness of U.S. policy toward the country.  To some extent, that was unavoidable.  Washington wants it both ways.  It wants to preserve its practical interests in the region.  But it also wants to make a principled stand for democracy.  The problem for the United States is that its principled stand may come at the expense of its practical interests, particularly its strategic ones (as happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring).

Ultimately, Washington hopes that Thailand’s military will restore the country’s democracy; and American relations with Bangkok can return to what they were before the coup.  But doing so essentially leaves the future direction of U.S. policy in the hands of Thai military leaders.  Plus, the longer it takes them to restore Thailand’s democracy, the more opportunity China will have to change the facts on the ground.  With new trade routes already being built through Laos and Cambodia, the direction of Thai trade (and interests) have already begun to be drawn away from its southern ports to the West towards its northern roads (and future railways) to China.

By levying some minor sanctions against Thailand but carrying on with a scaled-down Cobra Gold exercise, Washington might have believed that it struck the right balance between promoting democratic principles and preserving practical American interests.  Perhaps there were few better ways to reconcile the two in this case.  But it does demonstrate to Southeast Asia how unreliable the United States can be as a long-term partner.  Making principled stands regardless of their practical consequences are a luxury.  The United States could afford to make such stands in the unipolar world of the 1990s.  But it is less wise to do so today, especially if they leave the United States beholden to events beyond its control or leave it in a weakened state.

[1] “Cobra Gold 2015 Opening Remarks by W. Patrick Murphy, Chargé d’affaires,” U.S. Embassy, Bangkok, Feb. 9, 2015, http://bangkok.usembassy.gov/020915_cda_cg15remarks.html.

[2] Prangthong Jitcharoenkul, “Foreign Ministry summons US over visiting diplomat’s comments,” Bangkok Post, Jan. 28, 2015, http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/461168/foreign-ministry-summons-us-over-visiting-diplomat-comments; Amy Sawitta Lefevre, “Thailand warns U.S. to mind its own business over politics,” Reuters, Jan. 28, 2015.

[3] Amy Sawitta Lefevre, “Thailand boosts military ties with China amid U.S. spat,” Reuters, Feb. 6, 2015.

[4] Masaaki Kameda, “Abe, Thai junta leader agree to cooperate on railway development, special economic zone,” Japan Times, Feb. 9, 2015.

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Railway to Somewhere: Thailand’s Politics and China’s Reach in Southeast Asia

Despite elections last Sunday, Thailand remains riven by political conflict.  On the one side is the current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (and nominally her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in 2006).  Their supporters dominate Thailand’s north and northeast.  On the other side is the Democrat Party, whose adherents are largely drawn from Bangkok’s middle class, southern Thailand, and the royalist establishment.  While many issues divide the two sides, the outcome of their struggle may have an impact on China’s reach in Southeast Asia.

Countries have long dreamed of a railway connecting China and Southeast Asia.  A century ago, both the British and French governments hoped to link their Southeast Asian colonies with China.  But ultimately terrain and war halted those ambitions.  The Cold War poured further cold water on the idea, as revolutionary China seemed more intent on exporting communism than trade.

But a decade after China implemented its market reforms, things began to change.  By the mid-1990s, the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation revived hopes for a railway between China and Singapore.  But a lack of funding prevented its progress.  Finally in 2011, the Asian Development Bank, working with the region’s countries, agreed to finance a circuitous railway that ran from China, down the length of Vietnam, across Cambodia, through Thailand, and finally down to Malaysia and Singapore.  Railway construction costs were held down by the fact that the route knitted together several existing railway lines, though a substantial sum would be needed to upgrade existing rails and rolling stock.

But China has since upended the plan.  It sought a more direct route to Southeast Asia.  It had already built a railway from Kunming (in southern China) to its border with Laos.  Then China’s railway minister pushed for $5 billion worth of Chinese financing to extend that railway to Vientiane, the Lao capital.  The early 2013 downfall of that minister on corruption charges (and the elimination of his railway ministry) left some to wonder whether the proposed railway would proceed.  But that uncertainty was lifted a few months later when Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the creation of a China-backed Asian infrastructure development bank, part of his new charm offensive in Southeast Asia.  One of the infrastructure projects that he highlighted was the proposed railway.  However, even if its financing looks more settled, the railway still faces the challenge of construction.  While its route is more direct, it will require scores of bridges and tunnels to wend its way through Laos’ mountains.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the hoped-for railway, China has expressed interest in the expected tender for the Malaysia-Singapore segment later of it in 2014.

Such a railway would have strategic value for China.  Just as the transcontinental railways across the United States helped bind its eastern and western halves in the late 1800s, China’s north-south railway would help better integrate Southeast Asia—a mainly seaward-facing (and American-leaning) region—with its economy and political interests.  In addition to being more direct, the route that China’s railway has chosen would tighten the connection between it and its ally Laos and entirely avoid Vietnam, a country with which China shares a long and quarrelsome history.

Whether the north-south railway from Kunming to Singapore is completed depends on Thailand, which sits in the middle of its projected path.  Thailand’s current government has already discussed with China the possibility of building a connecting line between Vientiane and Bangkok, using concessionary Chinese loans.  (Rather than replace the existing railway, a new high-speed one would be built next to it.)  That connecting line would bring construction jobs to Thailand’s economically-lagging northeast.  But there are those in the region who are concerned about the schemes of China and Laos, due to their unfettered hydroelectric dam development on the Mekong River and its tributaries (those dams could cause droughts or floods on their agricultural lands if they are poorly managed).  Should the Democrats succeed in displacing the current government from power, one might expect that talks with China over the railway would continue, given that many of their Bangkok supporters also favored hydroelectric dam construction on the Mekong River.  However, in the tit-for-tat nature of Thailand’s politics, grudges can be deeply held and if the proposed railway between Vientiane and Bangkok is too closely associated with the current government, the railway could become a casualty of the domestic politics between the two factions.

Just how concerned should observers be about a railway that ties Southeast Asia more closely to China?  In the short run, they probably need not worry too much.  After all, China financed and built a port and pipeline in Myanmar that linked its coast to China’s border, but Myanmar still sought to build stronger relationships with Japan and the United States.  But over the long run, as economic interests in the infrastructure become entrenched and if they come to influence a country’s government, then national interests can shift.  Thus, it would be wise for Japan and the United States to encourage the speedier construction of the Asian Development Bank’s railway route through Vietnam.  That route would not only encourage stronger Cambodian bonds with Thailand and Vietnam, but also enable Cambodia to become less reliant on Chinese foreign direct investment for its economic growth.

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Fox Hunting: China’s Response to Japan’s Diplomatic Campaign

Last November, I wrote a blog entitled What Does the Fox Say? that outlined once-hesitant Japan’s efforts to raise its stature abroad.  Since then, those efforts have continued at a relentless pace.  Following a multi-country tour through Southeast Asia after the APEC summit, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe capped off his regional efforts with an ASEAN-Japan summit in Tokyo.  Without missing a beat, he then took Japan’s active diplomacy beyond Asia and has taken steps at home to better orchestrate its implementation.

During a well-publicized tour through Africa two weeks ago, Abe visited Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Mozambique.  But wherever he went, he could not escape Chinese criticism of Japan’s Second World War history.  China’s representative to the African Union went as far as holding a press conference to denounce Abe as “the biggest troublemaker in Asia,” while holding up old photographs of Chinese civilians that he said were massacred by Japanese troops.  Chinese ambassadors around the world made sure that that message was pressed home.  In so doing, China has attempted to respond to Japan’s diplomatic campaign with one of its own.

Paying little heed to China’s rebukes, Abe has forged ahead.  In a demonstration of its strategic engagement in Asia, Tokyo made a substantial contribution to the reconstruction efforts in the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan devastated that country’s central islands last year.  Through the Japan International Cooperation Agency, it signed an agreement with Manila to establish a Post-Disaster Stand-by Loan worth about $500 million.  For those in the Philippines, it further distanced Japan’s response to the disaster from China’s meager one.

Still, Japan’s foreign policy coordination has historically been challenging to do.  But in late November, Abe pushed through the Diet a bill that established Japan’s National Security Council (NSC), modeled on similar ones in the U.S. and Europe, to improve that coordination.  (China created its own at about the same time.)  And so, one would assume that going forward, Japan’s foreign policy setting and execution will work more smoothly.

But there are still kinks left to work out.  A month after its NSC was formed, Japan appeared to stumble when Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine without first explaining to Japan’s neighbors and allies the reasons for his visit.  The shrine commemorates all of Japan’s war dead, including—as the Chinese are quick to remind—fourteen “Class A” war criminals from the Second World War.  Abe’s visit drew predictable condemnation from China (and South Korea).  But it also prompted the United States to express its “disappointment” over the visit, which China was all too happy to re-broadcast.  Only afterwards did Abe offer an explanation of his intent “to pay his respects and pray for the souls of the war dead and renew the pledge that Japan shall never again wage war.”  Though the practical damage from his visit was limited, it did appear to take some wind out of Japan’s diplomatic sails.

Is Japan trying to, in the words of China’s ambassador to the United States, “change the verdict” of the Second World War or was Abe using his visit to make it clear that Japan was willing to stand firm, even on contentious issues?  No doubt, there are a few in Japan who would like to whitewash its imperial past, but as time passes a growing number of Japanese have come to view China’s criticisms as a way to push Japan around.  Still, many in China believe that Japan has not yet properly atoned for its wartime record that resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese.  (Though they might also ponder how much the Chinese Communist Party has done to atone for its part in the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution.)  Perhaps, Abe, like earlier West German leaders who visited the sites of German atrocities in neighboring European countries, should consider also paying his respects at places like Camp O’Donnell in the Philippines (the terminus of the Bataan Death March).

But even without those visits, Southeast Asian countries, which were once occupied by Japan during the Second World War, have already begun to welcome Japan as a balancer in the region.  They seem to have largely set aside their anxieties about Japan’s 73-year old aggression and have made their concerns about China’s current assertiveness a higher priority.

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What Does the Fox Say?: Japan’s Diplomatic Campaign

After North Korea launched seven ballistic missiles into the seas near Japan in July 2006, Japan did something uncharacteristic for a country that seemed inclined to follow than to lead.  It took the diplomatic initiative.  Japan immediately called an emergency meeting of the United Nation’s Security Council and drafted a resolution that not only condemned North Korea’s missile launches, but also called for sanctions backed by force.

At the time, Japan raised eyebrows.  The world had not heard Japan’s diplomatic voice so clearly on the international stage for almost six decades.  But that was one episode.  Early this year, Japan began a sustained, high-profile diplomatic campaign across Asia.  Soon after becoming Japan’s prime minster for a second time, Shinzō Abe kicked off that campaign with a speech in January 2013 that laid out Japan’s five aims for its diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific:

1. Protect the universal values of freedom of thought, expression, and speech

2. Ensure that the seas are governed by laws and rules, not by might

3. Pursue free, open, and interconnected economies

4. Bring about stronger intercultural ties between the peoples of Japan and the region

5. Promote more exchanges among younger generations

The first two aims have direct relevance to how Japan would like the region to deal with China and its new assertiveness.  Helpfully, they are also consistent with the goals of Japan’s principal ally, the United States.  So too one could say of Japan’s third aim, in light of American efforts to create the free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The third aim has the added benefit of ensuring that the region’s countries are not drawn solely into China’s economic orbit.  The final two aims have a far longer time horizon.  Japan continues to hope that with greater engagement memories of its imperial past will recede further into history and, in Abe’s hope, that Japan can once again become a “normal country.”

But old ghosts die hard.  Japan’s imperial past still creates barriers in parts of Asia.  Every time a Japanese official (and certainly a prime minister) visits Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates not only Japan’s 2.5 million war dead but also fourteen war criminals among them, there is an international outcry.  Yet the issue increasingly seems to be one that only animates China and South Korea.  A visit by several cabinet ministers in April 2013 derailed a bilateral summit with South Korean leaders; and another by 150 Japanese politicians in August sparked protests and an official rebuke from China.  For whatever the reason, Southeast Asian countries appear to have largely put the issue behind them in their dealings with Japan.  As a result, Abe has overseen an unprecedented expansion in Japanese ties with Southeast Asia.

In fact, soon after Abe’s election, Japan began to signal that it wanted to strengthen its relationships in Southeast Asia.  Abe’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, was dispatched to visit Australia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Singapore.  Meanwhile, Abe himself travelled to Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam at about the same time.  In all, Abe has visited every Southeast Asian country this year at least once (including a swing through Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos in November).  He has tried to build on Japan’s economic links to the region with the development of new security relationships.  Japan has offered ten coast guard vessels to the Philippines and conducted joint counterterrorism exercises with Indonesia.

While President Barack Obama missed the APEC summit in October, Abe surely made his mark there.  During a sidebar meeting, he and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang agreed to greater cooperation in maritime security, given their mutual concern over “unilateral attempts to change the status quo [of maritime disputes] by force”—a not-so veiled reference to China.  Even more ambitious was Japan’s overture to Russia.  In November, the two countries held their first meeting to enhance their maritime security cooperation, a somewhat odd turn of events given their own territorial dispute over in the Kuril Islands chain.  At the meeting’s concluding press conference, Japan reassured that its new security relationship with Russia in no way diminished its ties to the United States.  (Russia said as much regarding its ties to China.)

Unlike America’s seemingly on-again, off-again approach to engagement in Asia (at least to those in the region), Japan’s diplomatic campaign this year appears steadier, if for no other reason the country must live there.  Outside of the economic sphere, the world has not heard much from Japan in a half century.  It will likely hear more of Japan’s voice in the years to come.

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