Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Low Expectations For Abe's Foreign Relations

In the first essay of the year published by the PacNet Newsletter, former Ambassador to the Netherlands, Russia specialist and academic wanderer Togo Kazuhiko elaborates upon a point that Okumura Jun made a two weeks ago (Link) -- that contrary to fears expressed before the December 16 election, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is working to assuage regional and international worries about his return to power. (Link)

Abe's commitment to his program has been admirable. He could have flown off the handle in response to the South Korean Supreme Court's decision, handed down just as his envoy to South Korea Nukaga Fukushiro was meeting President-elect Park Geun-hye (Link) to not extradite a Chinese national who set fire to Yasukuni Shrine (Link). The reasoning used by the Court, that the Japan-South Korea mutual extradition treaty falls into abeyance because the man had attacked a symbol of Japan's militarist/imperialist past, was worthy of a rant and a sharp reduction in government-to-government contacts. Abe let the storm pass, though, saying only that his government will vigorously protest the outcome.

Let us be honest: having maundered and thundered during the campaign about Japan's need to stand up military to regional threats, Abe comes into office with very low expectations. We are, sadly enough, being asked to clap for his not starting an armed conflict with China or South Korea during his first two weeks in office. His reputation of militancy wins him a free pass on every concession he makes to the political needs of other governments or his every failure to react to provocations.

In other words, when he acts like someone other than himself, he wins accolades.

It also bears noticing that none of the envoys are card-carrying Friends of Shinzo. Abe probably does not trust his closest allies with important relationships. The FOS certainly have no credibility on the international stage. So instead of the usual pattern of dispatching of loyal retainers with close personal connections to sound out other governments, Abe is sending as his representatives senior politicians who have their own agendas.

It will be up to the other governments to either listen to these envoys or lend them only half an ear out of recognition that they are not part of Abe's inner circle.

An Abe administration pushback against other governments will likely remain on hold until after the House of Councillors election in July. The LDP-New Komeito alliance's defeat in the 2007 House of Councillors election spiked Abe's first premiership. If Abe learned anything from his first turn as prime minister, it is to win the House of Councillors election first, then unleash the hounds of his reactionary, revisionist revolution. Given that the onus will be on the Democratic Party of Japan to defend seats traditionally held by the LDP, the obvious strategy is to sit tight for the next seven months in anticipation of the DPJ's almost certain electoral implosion.

Finally, one should avoid getting too hopped up about Abe's appointing smart and sober persons to advisory posts and advisory councils. Yes, he is surrounding himself with well-regarded academics and former bureaucrats. No, he does not have to listen to any of them.


Anonymous said...

[Yes, he is surrounding himself with well-regarded academics and former bureaucrats. No, he does not have to listen to any of them.]

Japan, 2013 =/= Japan, 2011
China, 2013 =/= China, 2011.

Abe benefitted from nationalist appeals during the campaign because that's where the country's sentiment is. But leaders left and right must increasingly realize that Japan's national interests appear to be in increasingly greater risk in a real and immediate way.

This new thought must somehow be reflected in national policy.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

Are you telling me that Abe, who believes that pre-August 15, 1945 Japan was spiritually better than anything after that date, has a consciousness of historical circumstances having changed? That he says one thing all his life, changes his stripes when he becomes prime minister, sees his premiership collapse, spends the next five years professing the rightness of his original faith, only to changes his stripes again in his second chance at leaving behind a historical legacy?

Boggling, it is.

Anonymous said...

[Boggling, it is.]

You are not describing extraordinary behavior among national leaders. This is not so much a crass appeal-to-base-move-to-center strategy as it is a recognition of the more general reality that on certain matters people in power feel greater constraints than people outside it.

When the DPJ came to power, Japan was interested in pivoting away from the US and toward China to increase its diplomatic and economic leverage. The LDP is returning to power in part because the nation as a whole feels that this option is no longer available nor desired. If Japan wants to balance the US with another power, it would have to choose India, which China is also openly courting. The Indians may like the Japanese, but China is their most important relation.

I do not think total war will happen in the region, perhaps ever again. But if a brief skirmish somehow breaks out resulting in China seizing the Senkakus, no one knows for certain today who would assist Japan. Though the stakes are insignificant (Senkaku, really?!), it is also severe (possible exchange of live ammunition as opposed to mere seawater). And actually, it is because the stakes are both insignificant and severe in this way that there is doubt. I just do not see China harming Honshu nor Japan hitting Shanghai over these rocks. But I can see how the Chinese may move to take them by force. And who wants to die to maintain Japan's sovereignty over these rocks? It is even worse when you consider the seemingly severe logistical advantage that China would have over any military adversary in this hypothetical fight.

So, anyone entrusted with leading Japan will move delicately. Alternately, less intelligent politicians like Ishihara will probably not be entrusted with leading Japan.

I strongly disagree with your assessments of these last few days regarding what is happening in Tokyo. In concert, monetary, fiscal, nationalist, and diplomatic policies preferred by Abe makes sense to me. I do not mean that I think Abe is correct on everything. I mean that these policies taken together seem to me a good faith attempt to strengthen Japan's regional position in relation to China. Whether these policies will actually work is another matter.

Anonymous said...

Crud...I don't know if that response posted properly.


MTC said...

Anonymous -

You write - "In concert, monetary, fiscal, nationalist, and diplomatic policies preferred by Abe makes sense to me."

That is the problem, in a single sentence.

If the program, or more properly the ostensible program, did not make sense to you, would you believe it?

Anonymous said...

[If the program, or more properly the ostensible program, did not make sense to you, would you believe it?]

This speaks to your disagreement in policy. But you are pushing the position that self-interest is the primary if not the only driver of the new administration ("Abenomics is larceny"). Sometimes, it may just be that the policy makers are wishful and misguided even to the point of bringing on national calamity.

On foreign affairs, I do not think we disagree much. Considering the risks, I am sure you prefer that Abe move delicately in diplomacy that departs from an ethno-nationalist persona.

On the fiscal side, I do not know what kind of public works project is being proposed. I am sure we are in near agreement that the potential for downsides is greater than upside. But governments regardless of its position on the left-tight spectrum frequently tolerate boondoggles, even if it is plain that it contributes empty GDP growth with a temporary unsustainable rise in jobs that ultimately impoverishes the nation to varying degrees.

In China, there are empty cities, some of which you can sort of tour on Youtube.


In Korea, there are those empty airports.


Then there was the attempted awful audacious Lee Myung Bak plan that would have cut South Korea in half upon completion of a canal which would have connected Pusan with Seoul. And the leftists initiated an awful plan to relocate the capital to an unnecessary brand new city now called Sejong City. Today there is a city being completed without a clear reason as to its purpose. Then there is Saemangeum. Who knows what that will turn out to be. Does Abe intend some boondoggle on the scale seen in neighboring lands? I hope you will share some of the more interesting proposals.

The monetary side is a complex issue. Richard Koo is worried.

[“Mr. Abe is playing a dangerous game,” Richard Koo, chief economist at the Nomura Research Institute, said in a research note on Dec. 11. “A sharp increase in government bond yields could lead to fiscal collapse in countries with a large national debt. For Japan, where the national debt amounts to 240% of GDP, the results would be catastrophic.”]


But what is Abe weighing the risks against?


This report is ultimately about what a strong yen means for the future of Japanese export. Hitachi's comeback was successful in large part because they no longer employ as many Japanese. Sony and Panasonic are multi-nationals. They too will be more successful by employing fewer Japanese. The alternative is death as may be the case for Sharp.

My disagreement with you is not about the new risks Abe is promoting, but rather your characterization that there is no significant in good faith motive behind this.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

I was with you until the last line:

My disagreement with you is not about the new risks Abe is promoting, but rather your characterization that there is no significant in good faith motive behind this.

If one professes an internally coherent creed, campaigns for public office vowing to realize the dictates of that creed, then, upon assuming high office, abandons (or, in my assumption, temporarily lays aside) significant chunks of said creed, then one is, by definition, ruling in bad faith.

Anonymous said...

[I was with you until the last line:]

Ah! I see where you are coming from. I think my disagreement with you stems from me being cynical to a proper degree and you being too idealist!


MTC said...

Anonymous -

Idealist? Moi?

"If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything."

Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, lines 4-7

Anonymous said...

[This matters above everything.]

I think your quote stinks as such absolute postures must necessarily fail to reflect complex real concerns.


[A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.]
--RW Emerson

In the US, these little statesmen and philosophers and divines are presently calling themselves members of the Tea Party and libertarians and evangelicals. Many now hold congressional seats. And they are willing to destroy the full faith and credit of the US and injure the economy as a whole for the principles on which they successfully ran.

It's not that consistency is inherently bad or good. But no good can come of being consistent on nice sounding but meritless principles.

Abe seems to be consistent on promoting his economic plan. But if he turns out to be more adroit on foreign policy than his campaign's base-pandering has led you to believe, this may end up being a good example of the wisdom of being inconsistent when you say you will do counterproductive things.

But Japan's foreign policy will not be driven completely by Tokyo. It will be driven also by changing circumstances in the region and the state of the domestic economy. I am assuming that Abe's first objective here is to try to improve his diplomatic leverage and circumstance. Improving relations with South Korea is an obvious thing to do. It may give him better options as China increases its military pressure over Senkaku. At the least, it may decrease risk where there ought to be none. If Park Geun Hye reciprocates his intent to improve relations, this would only improve Japan's situation. If Abe can form a useful amount of trust with PGH, she may not try to inflame Korean ethno-nationists the next time a certain shrine gets visited.

That would be a good thing especially for Japanese and Koreans who would like to see better relations.

[Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.]
--Sayre's Law

Who knows how the LDP as a party will behave. But the LDP leader must tread lightly internationally. I said the Senkaku stakes are small. The flip side is that China may try to punish Japanese industry by barring Japanese products and harming China-situated Japanese factories and estalishments. Then the stakes would matter above quaint philosophy.

Abe's ultimate ambition is likely not as you say to destroy Japanese public wealth to enrich a few supporters but to actually improve the state of the nation as a whole, domestically and internationally. Whether he succeeds will depend on policy details and execution.

Anonymous said...

I hope above post did not come off as personally aggressive. This is the only blog I comment on so maybe it is because I'm not in practice but my comments seem aggressive...

MTC said...

Anonymous -

No problem. Just be careful when setting "Self-Reliance" against the Lunyu.

As for the members of the Tea Party, their fundamental problem is that they use words stripped of any meaning.

Abe's ultimate ambition is to prove that he was correct in everything he has ever said and did. He is an escalator child and escalator children are, for good reasons, bereft of any sense of accomplishment.