Japan's New Foreign Policy: Step Back and Focus on Asia

Fukuda tells the Washington Post that Asia is Japan’s top responsibility, sending a signal to the United States on Japan’s expired Afghanistan refueling mission. This is also a departure from Abe and Aso’s aspiration to “Eurasian” reach.

It wasn’t too long ago that then-Foreign Minister Aso Taro declared that Japan would work for an “arc of freedom and prosperity” (自由と繁栄の弧) reaching across the Eurasian landmass. Aso’s rhetoric, which was to set out a foreign policy framework for the newly minted premiership of Abe Shinzo, made some people uncomfortable because of its echoes of history—no doubt partially because of Abe and Aso’s general hawkishness.

Now, after the implosion of the Abe government and the rocky start for Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, a man who was initially seen as an agent for stability, Japan is changing its foreign policy footing. Ahead of Fukuda’s first visit to the United States as prime minister, he gave an interview to the Washington Post. “I believe the heaviest responsibility for Japan is to see to it that there is stability and prosperity in Asia,” Fukuda said, while also calling the U.S.–Japan alliance the “very foundation” of his foreign policy.

Japanese-U.S. ties have been destabilized (if only slightly) recently by the refusal of the Japanese legislature, where the upper house is controlled by Japan’s opposition, to renew Japan’s refueling mission in support of a primarily U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Predictably, this drew attention from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on his trip to Asia last week. But as Tobias Harris writes, changes in China loom large in the U.S.–Japan alliance. Here’s Tobias, quoting Gates’ speech last week at Sofia University in Tokyo:

Most pressingly, the alliance has yet to coordinate an approach to China. To some, it is a bulwark against China. To others—and I think it’s safe to include Mr. Gates in this category—the stronger the U.S.–Japan alliance, the better able it will be to reach out to China and work on incorporating China into the regional security architecture. As Mr. Gates says of China, “I do not see China as a strategic adversary. It is a competitor in some respects and partner in others. While we candidly acknowledge our differences, it is important to strengthen communications and to engage the Chinese on all facets of our relationship to build mutual understanding and confidence.”

Fukuda’s emphasis on Asia, if not an isolated statement, could represent at least an orientation toward improving its relations with regional powers. It certainly would seem to reflect the reality of Japanese politics over involvement with U.S. military action.

Footnote: Gates’ not-adversary-but-competitor line also reminds me of Obama, for what it’s worth.

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