07.07.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Problems with Japan’s Course of Movement “Toward the Southwest”


In the strategic game that is playing out in the area around the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the presence of Japan is growing more prominent. The nature of this presence is reflected in both the aspect of Japan re-establishing itself as a leading world power and the swift transformation of the political puzzle taking shape here.

Back during the first prime-ministership of Shinzo Abe (from 2006-2007) the main vector for Japanese foreign policy activity started to take on a fairly unequivocal focus: first to the south toward the Southeast Asian subregion, over to Australia, then pivoting west toward the Indian Ocean basin and up to the Persian Gulf subregion.

We should note that this is not a peculiar trend in Japan’s history over its most recent period, which began (in the second half of the 19th century) with the so-called Meiji Restoration. It manifested itself more definitively as the patriarchal country (which had turned inward in the beginning of the 17th century and remained so for the next 250 years) turned into a modern power that joined in the game across the world’s political space.

The rapidly developing country needed inexpensive natural resources, which were almost completely absent inside its borders. And both resources and cheap manpower are located (even today) in the direction of the vector stated above.

Self-affirmation for Japan at the table with the world’s players was accompanied by a series of wars, and among those the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was (in this author’s opinion) completely unnecessary for both sides. Nonetheless, the war broke out due to the confluence of several circumstances. Not the least of which was the adventurism and avarice of the so-called Bezobrazov Circle that included members of the Tsarist family.

At first agreeing to play the role of Great Britain’s “hand in the Far East”, Japan gradually (in the 1920s and 1930s) turned into a full-fledged member of a pack of international wolfhounds that was capable of going for the jugular of both its former benefactor and the latter’s ally embodied in the United States.

That is why Japan’s movement along that vector that became defined in the 1930s (and was firmly established by the autumn of 1941) ultimately led to the opening of the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of combat operations during World War II. The main events in this theater of operations occurred over the space occupied by the Indo-Pacific, which is now becoming the center of current transnational processes as well.

Resuming its movement in the same direction nowadays, Japanese leadership is refraining from using prewar terms in its public rhetoric, such as the concept of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, which back in its day was designed to “liberate Asian peoples from the power of European colonialists”.

Nowadays, the main instrument to implement that same concept is not military power, but rather being the world’s third-largest economy, which makes this movement much more attractive for those same “Asian peoples.” Incidentally, to a large extent one consequence of using the Japanese (prewar) concept of the “flying geese paradigm” was the appearance back in the 1980s of the so-called “Asian economic tigers” in the form of modern-day South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

As it did 80-90 years ago, Japan’s current movement “toward the southwest” is occurring under conditions that involve a certain sort of cooperation with leading world players. This means with the United States and China above all others. As far as Britain goes, nowadays it clearly lacks any geopolitical ambitions.

In relations between Tokyo and Washington over the past two decades, there has been a certain trend toward the gradual equalization of the “weight” both parties have in the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security from 1960, which fits with the general process of Japan rebuilding itself as an independent, authoritative, transnational player.

The problem of America’s trade deficit with its key Asian ally, which amounts to about 70 billion USD annually, is becoming more severe in Japan-United States relations. The author sees this factor as linked chiefly to the bilateral agreement that was signed some time back to build an Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system on Japanese territory.

The goods produced by US defense companies are in a not very long list of products that can, for now, elicit at least some interest from Japan to help compensate for that trade deficit. With an acid smile, and without any particular eagerness, the country’s minister of defense silently nods in response to the total enthusiasm in the proclamation from the American president on the “agreement” to buy an “additional shipment” of 100 F-35 fighter jets from the United States. Washington is letting it be known clearly that otherwise Japanese Toyotas and Nissans will start to have problems on the American market.

As far as the Aegis Ashore project is concerned, from the practical military point of view it also caused a wave of disbelief from the very beginning. This is because it contradicted the baseline concept espoused by the United States itself of transferring missile defense systems to maritime carriers, which possess numerous advantages. For example, no foreign partners need to be asked for permission to station missile launching systems, the ability of mobile launch systems to survive increases markedly, and it is possible to concentrate the necessary quantity of missile defense carriers in a region where a heightened threat level exists. Immediately following the United States, Japan itself deployed those same Aegis systems on destroyers, which are continuously increasing in number.

That is why the decision to refuse to implement the Aegis Ashore project, ultimately arrived at on June 24 during a Japanese National Security Council meeting chaired by Shinzo Abe, seemed perfectly logical. The vulnerability of ground-based missile defense systems to potential missile strikes from North Korea was pointed to as the main justification for the decision. Pyongyang continues to suitably fill the role assigned to it as the regional enfant terrible, and one to whom all the region’s woes can be attributed.

Incidentally, concerning Korea – but South Korea, whose political relations with Tokyo are really no better than North Korea’s. Virtually everything is noxious in the “Japan-Republic of Korea” package. The last reason for bilateral swordplay was when UNESCO mentioned in its list of world heritage sites a certain industrial facility (from that same Meiji Restoration period of time) that Korean workers were recruited to work at during WWII “illegally”, as Seoul affirms.

Yet another scandal in relations with South Korea only solidified the negative attitude taken by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs when Donald Trump proposed inviting, among others, the South Korean president to G-7 summit.

As Japan becomes a powerful, independent player, the significance for it to develop relations with the People’s Republic of China sharply increases – and this appears to be no less complex than with the United States. The positive trends witnessed over the past few years bear some impressions of certain foreign policy steps taken by Tokyo that cannot help but put Beijing on guard.

New Eastern Outlook has already reported on the gradual growth of Japan’s presence on Taiwan. Very recently, Tokyo has begun to express more interest in what is happening in Hong Kong as well. Anything having to do with the situations in Taiwan and Hong Kong are categorized by Beijing solely as internal matters, and it reacts sharply to any “external” interference.

Japan has long been involved in close cooperation with all countries in Southeast Asia, an area China shows particular interest in as well. Along with that, the “objects” of this kind of interest try their best to mitigate the harshness that arises in this regional competition between China and Japan.

For example, at the end of June this year Indonesian president Joko Widodo invited Japan to participate in implementing a multi-billion dollar construction project for a high-speed railway line on the island of Java – and one that China has been involved in since 2016 (and with considerable schedule delays). New Eastern Outlook previously discussed the complex vicissitudes of Chinese companies and Japan vying to receive orders to help implement this project. The Japanese, who lost back then, are now evaluating this new proposal.

As far as the latest noteworthy events are concerned that mark Japan’s course of movement toward the west, away from the Southeastern Asian subregion, one discussion that has drawn particular attention to itself (since the end of February this year) is the legal basis for a Japanese destroyer to enter the Arabian Sea’s waters, as well as the objectives that it is attempting to fulfill there. We should recall how one month before that an evaluation of the “situation on the ground” was done by Prime Minster Shinzo Abe himself during a tour through various countries in the Persian Gulf region.

We should take note that the very fact that a vessel from the Japanese Navy has made an appearance in this area attests to the birth of a fundamentally new stage in the process of Japan’s resuming its course of movement “towards the southwest” in this postwar period.

Let us hope that this time the process will be mostly peaceful, meaning not an inflammatory one.

Vladimir Terekhov, an expert on the problems in the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.