Saturday 17 August 2019

Japan manoeuvring for a more influential seat at the world's top table

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Picture: AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Picture: AP

Andrew Hammond

Some 75 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Shinzo Abe will become the country's first prime minister to visit the US base today and tomorrow. He meets Barack Obama for what will be one of the US president's last sessions with a world leader before he hands over power to Donald Trump on January 20.

For Mr Abe, now four years into his second stint as prime minister, the meeting is a symbolic way to showcase to the world, especially China, the enduring strength of US-Japan relations in the post-war period. It is all the more potentially powerful as the second leg in a year of historic reconciliation with the United States following Mr Obama's visit to Hiroshima in May.

The visit is also significant coming so soon after Mr Abe's recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A key common thread being the respective concerns that Tokyo, Moscow and Washington have about a 'rising China' in Asia and beyond.

Mr Abe has particular worries, right now, about China's growing influence in the context of the uncertainties that Mr Trump's presidency will bring, with the billionaire businessman's previous pledges to review longstanding alliances and make allies "pay for American protection".

Already, Tokyo has been alarmed by the unravelling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in recent weeks, which opens up a window of opportunity for Beijing to assert itself into the vacuum of power that now exists around the trade and investment deal's apparent collapse.

China's alternative vision to TPP is for a Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific (FTAAP) plus a pact, for which discussions have been under way since 2012, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would not include the United States, mirroring the exclusion of Beijing from the previously proposed TPP. At the heart of the debate on this issue has been not just competing trade treaties, but contrasting US and Chinese visions to shape the regional order and cement their influence in it.

From China's perspective, RCEP and FTAAP would be much more conducive to its national interests (not least because it would be explicitly part of the new economic agreements and shape their design) by creating free trade areas with China potentially at the centre. By playing a lead role in championing these initiatives, Beijing aspires to burnish its regional leadership credentials.

And this dynamic is playing out in the context of broader tensions in Asia-Pacific which could be exacerbated by the unpredictability of Mr Trump's impending presidency. Already, China has been taken aback by his questioning of Washington's longstanding 'One China' policy, and his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, believed to be the first direct contact between a sitting US president-elect or president and his Taiwanese counterpart since the 1970s.

Moreover, there are also continuing tensions in the South China Sea where Japan has been planning to ramp up its activities through joint training patrols with the United States and exercises with regional navies. In this theatre, it is not just Japan and the United States, but also other countries such as Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei, that are in dispute with China in the sea through which some $5trn €4.78trn) of ship-borne trade passes each year.

This geopolitical context is also shaping Mr Abe's domestic political strategy too. He knows that his historic trip to Pearl Harbour could give him a lift in the polls (his approval rating is already around a strong 60pc) in advance of potentially calling a snap general election early next year. While a ballot is not technically required until 2018, Mr Abe's team is currently calculating whether an earlier poll could minimise losses for his ruling alliance, which currently holds around a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber.

In the current fluid geopolitical landscape which is being re-shaped as key countries manoeuvre for advantage, Mr Abe is seeking to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country's post-war pacifist security identity so that it can become more internationally engaged, an outcome he senses that Mr Trump could favour.

One big, specific measure Mr Abe wants to push for is abolition of Article Nine. This is the clause in Japan's post-war constitution which constrains the country's military to a strictly defensive role rather than a conventional army, and has meant that defence spending has most often remained below 1pc of GDP.

To overturn this, Mr Abe would need not just a two-thirds majority in the lower house, and upper house (the House of Councillors), but also a simple majority in a national referendum.

Straight-forward as that may sound given Mr Abe's high approval rating, it may yet prove a major challenge given the large body of Japanese public opinion which still values its post-war pacifism in the only country in the world to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons.

Taken overall, the Pearl Harbour meeting is Mr Abe's latest move to fortify Japan's external alliance system in the face of China's rise.

He now senses that four years into his second prime ministership, he may have a window of opportunity to also secure landmark domestic constitutional change around the country's post-war pacifism which will enable it to become more internationally engaged, but potentially raising regional tensions with Beijing.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics, and is an Adviser to Reputation Inc

Irish Independent

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