19 July 2019
Japan’s leader has gained political capital by leveraging the complex dynamics of China-US relations
Japan’s leader has gained political capital by leveraging the complex dynamics of China-US relations

Abe turns geopolitical ‘lock-up’ into opportunity

By Bryan Wong and Peter So

China’s attempt to establish the East Sea Air Defense Identification Zone has touched nerves in the United States and Japan. The concerns prompted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reverse his nation’s post-Second World War stance against possessing, producing and allowing nuclear weapons within the nation’s border.

Last month, Abe indicated that the US could bring its nuclear armaments into Japanese territory in the event of a serious threat to its security. He also said his party’s previous administrations had committed a “mistake” by not acknowledging the Cold War-era secret US-Japan agreements which allowed the US to bring nuclear-armed submarines into Japanese ports.

Meanwhile, in spite of the US’ continued commitment to assuring Japanese security, there have been lingering concerns in both China and the US about Japan’s already-mature technological advancement in developing nuclear weapons. Japan is therefore expected to ink a deal this month at a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands to hand over its plutonium stockpile to the US.

Through recycling the post-war arrangements for ensuring a pacifist yet capable Japan in the western Pacific as a pivot to contain the two major Eurasian land powers China and Russia, the US has been putting Japan in a particular ‘geopolitical lock-up’.

In international relations, ‘geopolitical lock-up’ refers to the natural geographical features that have constituted unchangeable constraints and determinants to state leaders in policymaking. Through the lens of geopolitical lock-up, we argue that Abe has been able to turn the post-war lock-up against Japan into his own political capital to support a right-wing domestic and foreign policy since his return to office in 2012.

Post-war Japan has been encountering three frontier problems that have constituted its geopolitical lock-up: the sovereignty disputes of the Southern Kuriles (also known as “Northern Territories”) island chain in the north, the Tokdo (or “Takeshima”) island in the west, and the Diaoyu (or “Senkaku”) islands in the south.

By not defining the territorial dispositions clearly so as to retain some potential sources of discord between Japan and its neighbors, the US had intentionally left the mentioned sovereignty disputes unresolved in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Settlement as a potential “wedge” for defense against the communist expansion of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.

For example, over the course of the Cold War, former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had threatened to strip Japan’s residual sovereignty over Okinawa to prevent rapprochement between Japan and Russia over the Kuriles in 1950s. Although the competing ownership claims over the Diaoyu islands was triggered in the 1972 Okinawa Reversion Treaty between the US and Japan, Washington has been trying to stay away from dispute between Tokyo, Beijing and Taipei while using the Diaoyu islands dispute as a “wedge” against China and Japan concomitantly.

However, Abe has been able to find a delicate but tactical foothold by surfing on the competing waves of a returning US and a rising China, enabling him to transfer these escalating energies to craft domestic and foreign policies.

Instead of being swallowed by these powers and energies, Abe skillfully manufactures his popularity based on right-wing nationalism through visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and the revision of school syllabus on Japanese war-time history, the identification of external threats of China and North Korea, and the politics of economic affluence brought by “Abenomics”. In other words, Abe has been able to turn the three frontier problems that have constituted Japan’s post-war geopolitical lock-up into his own surprisingly rich resources, enabling him not just to survive, but actually thrive.

In the Diaoyu islands dispute, Tokyo emphasizes the “China threat” to the Japanese public while Beijing exploits domestic fears of reviving Japanese militarism. Such “double wedging” has given both Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping an extra propelling energy source of nationalistic sentiments for sovereignty claims, thus tempting bilateral armed conflict. It also provides stronger ground for Abe to propose strengthening his armed forces and changing the constitutional provision that has been limiting Japanese military activities.

Shortly before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games last month, Abe met Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss ways to resolve the conflicting sovereignty claims over the Kuriles. It was the fifth meeting between the two leaders in just over a year, and Abe was quoted as saying that the pace of negotiations in recent months “has been very fast” and that Tokyo was keen to maintain that momentum to strengthen bilateral relationship.

Meanwhile in Europe, it remains to be seen whether the current tensions in Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula will escalate into an armed conflict. The US and its European allies will be preoccupied with efforts to isolating Russia through diplomatic and economic sanctions. If the crisis continues, Japan could be a key player on the chessboard in the Far East to check and balance the awakening bear. So, the wind still seems to be behind Abe as major powers play their political games.

Bryan Wong Pak-nung is an assistant professor at the Department of Applied Social Studies, City University of Hong Kong.

Peter So Hin-ting is research assistant at the Department of Applied Social Studies, City University of Hong Kong.




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