2018 finds Japan walking tightrope with Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing — and Trump

2018 finds Japan walking tightrope with Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing — and Trump

Last month the kanji kita (north) was selected as the character best symbolizing the social issues of 2017 in Japan, as North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon threats were a constant challenge to the nation’s security and diplomacy throughout the year.

Experts interviewed by The Japan Times agreed that this year as well, the biggest national concern will be the North Korean threat.

Pyongyang looks ready to defy international pressure and keep test-firing ballistic missiles and pursuing its nuclear arms quest in 2018.

Meanwhile Japan’s bilateral relations with the United States, South Korea and China will be heavily influenced by all the diplomatic maneuvering over North Korea.

How Tokyo walks the diplomatic tightrope between these nations and the nuclear crisis will be high on the agenda of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the experts said.

“There’s no doubt North Korea will remain the biggest concern for both Japan and the United States,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).

Kotani said the main challenge Abe faced in early 2017 was “maintaining” the Japan-U.S. alliance by securing a “good” relationship with the “unpredictable” President Donald Trump.

In fact, for Abe, maintaining the powerful military alliance with the U.S. is priority one for coping with the North Korean threat.

During Trump’s first visit to Japan as president in November, Abe gave him the red carpet treatment in a bid to build closer relations.

Abe even pledged to further boost Japan’s defense budget by reaffirming purchases of costly U.S. weapons, including anti-ballistic missile defense systems and F-35 stealth fighters.

As a first step, Abe’s Cabinet last month approved a record-high draft defense budget of ¥5.19 trillion for fiscal 2018.

In the budget, ¥700 million will be allocated for the preliminary process of buying and deploying the anti-ballistic missile Aegis Ashore system.

Ken Jimbo, an associate professor at Keio University and a noted security expert, argued that slapping tough economic sanctions on North Korea and building up robust defense capabilities are both essential elements in the diplomatic game to press Pyongyang to shelve its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

“Abe has said seeking dialogue for dialogue’s sake is useless. We must create a situation whereby Pyongyang is convinced that what it is doing will only bring it a negative impact,” Jimbo said.

Aegis Ashore, a land-based version of the Aegis combat system developed for warships, consists of radars, computers and interceptor missiles.

Japan plans to deploy two Aegis Ashore batteries by 2023 at the earliest. They will be added to Japan’s current two-layer ballistic missile defense system that includes the sea-based Aegis system on destroyers and the land-based Patriot interceptor batteries of the Ground Self-Defense Force.

However, Abe’s quest to build a powerful Japan-U.S. military alliance and bolster the Self-Defense Forces will carry risks and costs.

His fellow Liberal Democratic Party members have even proposed that Japan acquire the capability to directly strike North Korean missile bases.

The Defense Ministry is meanwhile reportedly considering remodeling the Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Izumo into a full-fledged aircraft carrier with U.S.-made F-35B fighters.

All of the plans to beef up the military may foreclose on Japan’s postwar reputation as a pacifist state.

Throughout the postwar decades, Japan maintained an exclusively defensive posture and pledged not to own any weapons designed to strike territories far from Japan.

“If … the Izumo is changed to enable landings and takeoffs of F-35Bs, the vessel can be used to refuel U.S. stealth fighters anywhere in the world at any time,” the liberal Asahi Shimbun warned in an editorial Dec. 28.

“We feel compelled to sound the alarm about the intentions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, which seems bent on gradually enhancing and upgrading Japan’s military capabilities by using the security threats posed by China and North Korea as pretexts,” the Asahi argued.

Abe reportedly plans this year to revise the National Defense Program Guidelines, which set Japan’s basic defense policy and the number and kinds of major weapons the country plans to acquire over the next 10 years.

Whether and how drastically Abe will revise the guidelines will be the focus of hot political debate and intense public attention.

Abe is also facing diplomatic turbulence with South Korea, a key partner in coping with the North Korean threat.

Any damage to Seoul-Tokyo relations could make close cooperation in dealing with North Korea difficult and as a result benefit the hermit state.

Late last month an independent panel under the South Korean government released a report on the 2015 landmark deal between Seoul and Tokyo to settle diplomatic issues involving the “comfort women,” females who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels in the 1930s and ’40s.

The panel criticized the deal, saying it was clinched without much communication with the surviving former comfort women. South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared the agreement seriously flawed.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono responded in a statement that Tokyo “strongly demands” that Seoul stand by the deal.

The 2015 agreement clearly stated that all diplomatic issues involving the comfort women have been “finally and irreversibly” resolved.

If Seoul one-sidedly revokes the deal, bilateral relations “would be unmanageable,” Kono warned.

Meanwhile, a long-delayed summit involving Japan, China and South Korea is expected to take place in early 2018.

Whether Seoul can improve ties with Tokyo by the time of the envisioned event is likely to be another focus of diplomatic activity among the three countries this year.

Japan is facing difficult issues with China, a key ally and the main trade partner of North Korea.

China is probably the sole party capable of slapping severe economic sanctions that can critically damage the North Korean economy, the reason Tokyo and Washington have repeatedly urged Beijing to take decisive action to put more pressure on Pyongyang.

However, Sino-Japanese relations remain tense thanks to the territorial dispute over the Japan-held Senkakus Islands in the East China Sea.

Beijing has regularly sent coast guard ships in the area around the uninhabited islets, called Diaoyu in China, since Tokyo effectively nationalized some of them in 2012.

“Japan-China relations worsened about five years ago over the Senkaku Islands. Japan has always been available for talks, and China has just started to respond,” said Kotani of JIIA.

Kotani, however, fears Trump’s recent official decision to label China a strategic competitor may become a diplomatic obstacle for Tokyo to improve ties with Beijing.

In the U.S. National Security Strategy published in December, Trump expressed frustration over China’s increasing presence in the South China Sea, including its military expansion in the region.

“China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there,” the report said.

Kotani speculated that the U.S. strategy may prompt Japan to toughen its diplomatic attitude toward China.

“This year, Japan will be tested in reacting to the U.S. competition policy against China,” he said.

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