The Khmer Times, 6 May 2016
Starting in early 2013 under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has critically reformed its foreign policy to assert the country’s regional role in the region and the world at large.
While Japan’s resurgent role in Asia is generally welcomed by many Asian countries, differing public opinions in Japan with regards to the expansion of Japan’s international security role need to be observed.
The two thorny issues which carry political weight are the controversy over the reinterpretation of the peaceful article 9 and Japan’s military commitment and engagement abroad.
“Whether Japan declines, re-emerges as a great power, or ends up somewhere in between will depend not on the words and deeds of its leaders, but on the willingness of the Japanese people to face their country’s problems,” wrote Tobias Harris in Foreign Policy magazine.
Mr. Abe has scored significant diplomatic points in the region. He is the first Japanese Prime Minister who has visited all 10 ASEAN member countries within his first year in office. It clearly shows Japan’s firm commitment to ASEAN and Southeast Asia.
Japan has also paid close attention the Mekong sub-region. During his recent visit to Thailand, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida committed development assistance of $7 billion within three years to the lower Mekong countries.
“Japan would like to work the countries in the Mekong region to create a framework to support efforts by the Mekong countries in a detailed manner, on a region-by-region basis or on a theme-by-theme basis,” stated Mr. Kishida in his speech in Bangkok.
On the South China Sea disputes, Mr. Kishida emphasized a rules-based regional order and the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct. “We must establish a regional order whereby the principle of the rule of law is truly upheld and practiced,” he said.
Japanese-Indian relations have been remarkably deepened over the last three years, from trade and investment to security cooperation. The leaders of both countries agreed late last year to transform the Japan-India Special Strategic and Global Partnership into a deep, broad-based and action-oriented partnership.
While Japan has effectively cemented close ties with many Asian countries, Japan is facing mounting challenges in forging close ties with South Korea and normalizing ties with China, due to complex and long-lasting unresolved historical issues, nationalism, territorial disputes and the differences in regional strategic and security calculation and approach.
Efforts have been taken to deal with remaining historical issues and trust building.
In December last year, Japan and South Korea reached a landmark agreement on “comfort women.” They announced that they had “resolved finally and irreversibly” the comfort women issue, the legacy of World War II.
But the politicians from the opposition party in South Korea rejected the agreement. The victory of the opposition party in the South Korean parliamentary election last month may strain bilateral ties over the comfort women issue.
Early this week, Foreign Minister Kishida met with Premier Li Keqiang, State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing to pave the way for future cooperation. It was a positive step towards mutual trust and confidence building.
The upcoming summit between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, expected to take place on the sidelines of the G20 leaders meeting in Hangzhou this September, will symbolically mark a new beginning in Sino-Japanese relations.
Cooperation and competition will continue to characterize China-Japan relations.
Japan’s robust diplomacy is in response to fast changing regional geopolitics largely driven by the rising power and influence of China. The continuity and change of such foreign policy will depend pretty much on domestic political dynamics in Japan.
The South China Sea and the Mekong region are the two important platforms for major powers to compete to gain strategic and economic benefits. Japan will continue to play its role in these two fronts for its own economic and security interests and long-term survival.
Japan needs to show more commitment and efforts in promoting multilateral institutions, particularly supporting an ASEAN-centric regional order and assisting ASEAN in narrowing the development gap.