Japan’s new international role Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre in Brussels For decades Japan has allowed its economy to do the talking in global affairs with its security guaranteed by the United States. But now, with a rapidly changing international environment exemplified by the rise of China, Japan is seeking to take on more responsibility for its own security and to expand its international role. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has put forward guidelines to allow Japan to engage in collective security within the provisions of its pacifist constitution. Japan has always been a strong supporter of global institutions and for years has lobbied for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It is a prominent actor in the WTO and is negotiating a raft of trade agreements with Asia-Pacific partners (TPP), with neighbours China and Korea, and with the EU. Japan is chair of the G7 this year and a key member of the G20. Abe’s foreign policy has benefited from activism – expressed in 63 overseas visits in three years – with a focus on the alliance with the US, a strengthening of ties with Australia and India, plus ASEAN and NATO. The government has also established a new national security council and publish new strategic guidelines. Later this year it will host the 6th Tokyo International Conference on African Development. This article considers the reasons for this more active global role and assesses the implications for EU-Japan relations. A gentle trade giant Assessments of Japan’s economy often include reference to the country’s heydays of the 1980s and early 1990s when books were written about Japan ‘taking over the world.’ Japan’s economic post-war development was indeed very impressive. As depicted in the chart its GDP per head had overtaken the US GDP per capita in the 1990s. Its share of world trade based on purchasing power parity rose from 7.8% in 1980 to 8.9% in 1990. In 2000, Japan accounted for 6.6% of world trade based on purchasing power parity and in 2014 for only 4.5%. Instead of ‘taking over the world’ Japan slipped into gentle stagnation with rising debt, a situation that had bedevilled Japanese policy makers for the past two decades. There are also understandable concerns in Japan about the implications of China’s astonishing economic rise. Japan’s GDP to debt ratio has now grown to unsustainable levels of over 200%, the highest among all OECD countries. Many analysts blame this trend on failure to tackle long-standing structural weaknesses. Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to tackle these weaknesses have been dubbed ‘Abenomics.’ Abenomics has lifted Japan’s economy out of deflation and recession, leading to 0.5% GDP growth in 2015. This is likely due to the first two arrows of Abenomics, fiscal stimulus and quantitative easing conducted by the Bank of Japan, which lately went as far as imposing negative interest rates. The third arrow of Abenomics, comprehensive structural reform, is yet to hit its target. This is well illustrated by the significant gap between Japan’s GNI and GDP. According to the World Bank, in 2014, Japan’s Gross National Income per capita was 16% higher than its Gross Domestic Product per capita. This indicates that Japanese corporations are doing very well while they are operating abroad. What keeps them from investing at home, and thereby driving up wages and domestic consumption, is Japan’s lack of productivity. A recent McKinsey report holds that ‘even Japan’s advanced manufacturing industries, which once introduced the world to the concept of ‘lean,’ lag behind the comparable US and German sectors in labour productivity by almost one-third.’ The upside is that ‘Japan can reach some 50 to 70 percent of its productivity goal simply by adopting practices that are already in use around the world.’ A second cause of low productivity is the acclaimed longevity of the Japanese people. As a consequence the share of labour force to general population is comparatively small, a trend that is reinforced by the very limited participation of female citizens in the labour force. Abenomics is also seeking to tackle protectionist forces in agriculture, the post office, railways and cut down the excessive bureaucracy. But pushing through with these ambitious reforms requires continued domestic support and a favourable international environment. Fostering enough support at the Upper House elections in July 2016 is therefore just as important as a continually low oil price or the successful implementation of the TPP. The liberal agenda of the latter reinforces Abe’s agenda at home and so do the other seven free trade negotiations Japan is engaged in, fostering the opening up of its economy. Abe and EU leaders have declared that they wish to see the EU-Japan FTA negotiations concluded this year. According to officials in DG Trade this will be a tough deadline to meet. Multilateralism Japan’s impressive post-war economic growth was largely dependent on exports which meant that Japan supported a liberal international trading system and was a founder member of GATT and the WTO. Even today Japan is heavily dependent on overseas market. Toyota, for example, sells seven out of every ten vehicles produced outside of Japan. But there was always a reluctance to open Japanese markets, something that irritated both the US and EU. To deflect this criticism and to make up for its self-imposed military restrictions, Japan became a strong supporter of multilateralism reflecting a broad consensus that this was an active Japanese contribution to world peace. Japan is a member and substantial funder of all major global institutions including the UN, IMF, World Bank, OECD, G7 and G20. In 2015 it provided 10.8% of the UN budget making it the second biggest contributor to the UN and likewise 10.8% of the budget for its peacekeeping activities in the period 2013-2015. As a result of this steady commitment and its economic power Japan has campaigned to become a permanent member of a reformed UNSC. It has lobbied extensively together with Germany, India and Brazil for such a new status but so far without success. As a major democracy, Japan has also been a strong supporter of the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This ties in with a similar normative agenda promoted by the EU and US and it is not unusual to see these three actors working together in bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council. Japan has also been one of the world’s leading providers of development, financial and technical assistance. In terms of official development aid gross disbursement, Japan has until the year 2000 been the most generous provider of aid worldwide and has since then only been overtaken by the US. As Chart 4 shows, it has tended to concentrate on the Asian region although its largesse has also extended to Africa, the Balkans and more recently, Ukraine. Japan was a founder of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and remains the principal shareholder. It was not surprising therefore, that Japan did not join the Chinese-led Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) when it was established in 2015. Together with the US it regarded the AIIB as a competitor to the ADB. Security issues Since 1945 Japan has relied almost exclusively on the US for its security. The US still maintains significant armed forces in Japan, mainly on the island of Okinawa. Local residents are not happy with this arrangement because of the environmental damage to the island. Japan also pays a large sum to support American troops and bases on its territory. Japan’s constitution forbids any military role apart from self-defence but this has not prevented Japan from building a first-rate military machine. The military aggression of the 1930s and 40s plus the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have ensured a deep-seated, non-nuclear and pacifist approach to security issues among the population. But with the rise of China and potential threats from the nuclear-armed DPRK, the Abe administration has sought to re-interpret the constitution to allow Japan to take on more security responsibilities and to adjust to a changed international environment. The most sensitive issue has been the government’s aim to defend allies (notably the US) if it were to come under attack. Japan has also developed closer links with NATO. In July 2014 Abe signed a cooperation agreement at NATO HQ to deepen cooperation in areas such as piracy, cyber and crisis management. There is also some concern in Japan that the US may not always be in a position to guarantee Japan’s security and hence there is recognition of trying to resolve some of the most sensitive issues with its neighbours. Abe’s new policy guidelines thus place emphasis on continued deterrence and détente. Tokyo lobbied successfully in Washington to have President Obama state publicly that the US security guarantee extended to the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea which are also claimed by China. On the détente side Abe has agreed to a statement that recognises the ‘deep remorse’ for Japanese aggression against China and Korea and accepts responsibility for the use of ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 40s. A series of meetings between Abe and President Xi Xinping in 2015 paved the way for a resumption of the trilateral talks between the three big powers in East Asia. Japan is due to host a trilateral summit later this year. The three East Asian powers are moving steadily towards an FTA which is unlikely, however, to meet the same standards of the TPP or the EU-Japan FTA. Abe has also been reaching out to ASEAN and invited all ten members to a summit in Tokyo in 2015. A visit to all ASEAN capitals early in Abe’s term has led to recent poll results among ASEAN citizens, holding that Japan was the ten states’ most trusted partner for now and in the future – even surpassing the US. In addition he has invested considerable time and effort in forging new partnerships with India and Australia. The background to all these diplomatic moves is concern about a rising China that seems intent on changing the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. EU-Japan For two like-minded actors sharing similar values, the EU and Japan have often found it difficult to work together. An Action Plan dating from 2001 was remarkable for the paucity of action. More recently, however, there has been a significant intensification of relations as both sides have recognised that in a rapidly changing global environment they have many common threats and challenges to overcome. These include the global economy, the environment, ageing societies and regional security. This is why the two sides are currently negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA), an economic partnership agreement (EPA) plus a strategic partnership agreement (SPA). The EU and Japan are already strategic partners which provides for annual summits and a plethora of dialogues at all levels. There is some cooperation in the security field (anti-piracy, cyber, terrorism) while a number of member states are involved in joint procurement of defence equipment. Both sides have taken similar positions on issues such as human rights in the DPRK, the response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and China’s island-building in the South China Sea. Cooperation on Africa is likely to be a top agenda item in 2016. EU trade with Japan is roughly in balance – each exporting about 55 billion euros of goods and services to the other. The EU is also the largest investor in Japan and Japan the second largest investor in the EU. There has been a slight decrease in trade since 2014 and it is hoped that a successful FTA will reverse this trend. Some studies suggest there could be an increase in GDP of 0.8% and a 30% increase in trade after an FTA. But the first priority for Japan is ratification of TPP. Assuming this happens in the summer of 2016 there will be a push to conclude the EU-Japan FTA by the end of the year. Conclusion Japan has gone through a difficult period of economic adjustment since the heady days of the early 1990s. Abenomics has only partially succeeded with many structural reforms awaiting a further push. This pressure may come from the new trade deals that Japan has signed (TPP) or is negotiating (EU FTA). Meanwhile Abe has sought to increase Japan’s global standing by tackling disputes with neighbours and reaching out to new partners. At the same time he has embarked on a cautious strategy of allowing Japan to take on more responsibility for its own and regional security. 2016 will be a very active year for Japanese diplomacy and demonstrate that under Abe, Japan is developing a new international role. How successful this will be remains to be seen.
2016 will be a very active year for Japanese diplomacy and demonstrate that under Abe, Japan is developing a new international role