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New Year's predictions of the Land of the Rising Sun

In East Asia, Japan is facing problems and upheavals

New Year's predictions of the Land of the Rising Sun

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
Traditionally, in Japan on December 12, residents choose the "character of the year." The hieroglyph should symbolize the most noticeable event or important problem under which a year has passed. This time the hieroglyph 北 (North) turned out to be such a sign. The word 北 朝鮮 (North Korea) begins with it. The hieroglyph reflects the sentiments prevailing in the outgoing year of the Japanese society, which was unusually agitated (in many ways artificially) by the so-called nuclear missile threat from the DPRK. However, it seems that in the next few years he will be able to lay claim to such an honorary title, since hardly anyone will undertake to predict the timing of solving Pyongyang's nuclear missile conundrum. It was she who was raised by the official Tokyo in the outgoing year to the unprecedented rank of a "new level threat." However, in the foreseeable future, Japan in its native Asian region will have to face not only the "North Korean threat", but also many other problems.

Indeed, the shift in the center of world politics and economy to the Asia-Pacific region, and above all to East Asia, makes this region extremely important for Japan from the point of view of ensuring its vital political and economic interests. On the one hand, East Asia provides a region of the world where the tasks of the ruling circles of Japan to increase the country's political role in the international arena and bring this role in line with its economic power can be most successfully implemented. On the other hand, it is East Asia that harbors the greatest challenges and threats for Japan, both in the economic and security spheres.

The strengthening of right-wing conservative tendencies in the country's political life in recent years has allowed the country's ruling circles not only to toughen the state's foreign policy, but also to strengthen the military component in it. In 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will continue to pave the way for a revision of Japan's peace constitution with a view to legitimizing the current Japan Self-Defense Force as a full-fledged army by 2020. This will pave the way for Japan to become a powerful military power, which could seriously reformat the regional security situation in the future. Japan's just-passed record military budget for fiscal 2018 marks the next big step along the way. It will be 5,19 trillion yen ($ 45,7 billion), up from 5,13 trillion in the previous year. The budget, in particular, provides for the strengthening of anti-missile defense through the purchase of the American land-based Aegis Ashore system, as well as the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles. These missiles can be used not only to protect the country's territory from aggressive actions by enemy ships, but also to deliver preventive strikes against military targets in the DPRK (is it?).  

In addition, Tokyo intends to develop its own cruise missiles, which, according to the Japanese media, will surpass the American Tomahawks in their capabilities. Finally, the most recent sensation is the report of the same media that Japan intends to purchase American F-35B fighters to be placed on the decks of its helicopter carriers. These ships, thus, actually turn into aircraft carriers, the possession of which, like other types of offensive weapons, is prohibited by the so-called Peaceful Constitution of Japan. The rapid strengthening of Japanese military potential that is taking place before our eyes will be received without enthusiasm in China, South Korea and other countries of the region. In 2018, they will actively exaggerate the thesis of the revival of Japanese militarism.

However, for Japan itself, today the United States of America is the "cornerstone" of its security policy. Donald Trump's surprise arrival in early 2017 as President of the United States initially caused great alarm in Tokyo over a military alliance with that country. But over the past year, this alliance has strengthened both qualitatively and quantitatively and will remain in the long term the most important factor in the international political situation in East Asia. At the same time, bilateral Japanese-American relations will be overshadowed by the huge US trade deficit in trade with Japan and the problem of the US withdrawal from the emerging trade bloc - the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The balance of contradictions and cooperation in relations between Japan and China, the two largest economic powers in Asia, will largely determine the economic and security situation in the East Asian region for the foreseeable future. Since returning to the prime minister's seat in 2012, Shinzo Abe has spent much of his diplomatic effort building an anti-China network of countries around China that could contain the region's emerging power. This comes against the backdrop of cooling relations between Tokyo itself and Beijing, which from time to time heat up due to their territorial dispute in the East China Sea. However, at present, the Abe administration, in parallel with the formation of an anti-Chinese coalition in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, is persistently looking for an opportunity to significantly improve relations with Beijing through constant dialogue at different levels and in various fields, such as security, as well as economic and environmental cooperation. ... Perhaps, in the coming year, the dream of the Japanese prime minister will come true to host Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and in a year to go to the PRC himself.

The crisis on the Korean Peninsula in 2018 and beyond will be one of the main drivers of Tokyo's foreign strategy in East Asia. Along with the so-called threat from China, which is building up its military potential and naval activity, as already noted, Japan considers the nuclear missile potential of North Korea to be the biggest challenge to its own security. In recent months, Tokyo has boosted its rhetoric about the North Korean threat to what is arguably unprecedented. This rhetoric is accompanied by full-scale preparations to repel a nuclear missile attack from North Korea. At the same time, assessments of the reality of such an attack, as a rule, remain outside the framework of rhetoric. Tokyo will continue to pursue a policy of increasing pressure with economic and military levers against the DPRK in order to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear missile potential. The so-called North Korean nuclear missile threat is also one of Japan's main arguments in favor of building up its own military potential, as well as strengthening its alliance with the United States.

Japan's relations with South Korea will remain rather difficult in the coming year, despite the fact that both countries are the most important US military allies. Two, so to speak, hard-to-extract thorns of this relationship are the problems of "women of comfort" and the territorial dispute over the Takeshima Islands (Dokdo, in Korean). With the coming to power in South Korea of ​​President Moon Jae-in, the differences in Tokyo and Seoul's approaches to North Korea have become more noticeable. Abe demands to deal with Pyongyang as harshly as possible without any dialogue, and Moon does not rule out dialogue. Their patron, Washington, will try next year to do everything possible to ensure that its two most important military pillars in the region are not shaken by bilateral feuds.   

ASEAN member countries and other states of Southeast Asia will continue to be one of the priority directions of Tokyo's foreign policy and economic activity in the region. One of the features of Japan's policy in Southeast Asia is associated with the growing role of Vietnam in this subregion. This country, in recent years, has begun to play an increasingly significant role in the international economy and politics in East Asia. Vietnam is visibly turning for Tokyo not only into another springboard for conquering new heights in the economic space of Southeast Asia, but also into the main partner in confronting China in its territorial claims in East Asia. Moreover, the Philippines, another Japanese support in the region, is becoming less reliable in light of the country's President Rodrigo Duterte's readiness to move closer to China, on the one hand, and distance from the traditional American ally, on the other.

The alignment of forces in a triangle consisting of such leading powers of the region as Russia, Japan and China, both in the coming year and in the foreseeable future, will increasingly influence the military-political situation not only in East Asia, but in all Indo-Pacific region. This alignment of forces, in turn, largely depends on the characteristics of the bilateral relationship between the vertices of the triangle.

Relations between Japan and India in the last decade are beginning to become an increasingly important factor in the political and economic situation in East Asia. In particular, this is manifested in the rebalancing of the relations of the three leading Asian powers - China, Japan and India. One of the directions of this rebalancing is the complex rapprochement between Japan and India, which is taking place at such a pace that it is already possible to talk about the folding of the new Tokyo-New Delhi axis in the basin of the two oceans - Pacific and Indian. This new structure formally transcends the geographic framework of East Asia, but its significance for the Asian region in the future will only increase. One of the factors contributing to the creation of the axis are concerns about the growing economic and military power of China shared in both capitals. This trend will continue in 2018 year. 

With regard to Japan's economic relations with the countries of East Asia, the problem of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the creation of which is currently being negotiated, comes to the fore. As early as next year, the TPP may become the leading trade and economic agreement in the Pacific basin, despite the withdrawal of a key player in the person of the United States. To ensure that the TPP remains viable and operational, Japan will do its best in 2018 to take the lead in this emerging structure. The TPP is extremely necessary for Tokyo from the point of view of the effective implementation of the economic course, called Abenomics.

Finally, Russian-Japanese relations are becoming an increasingly significant component of the system of international relations in East Asia. Russia and Japan have moved significantly closer in politics since 2016, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Tokyo's "new approach" to relations with Moscow. Despite a significant cooling in relations between Russia and the United States and other leading Western states that imposed sanctions on Russia over Crimea and Ukraine, 2017 was marked by active exchanges between Russia and Japan, both in the political and economic spheres. Close personal contacts between Abe and Putin allowed for an almost continuous dialogue on the joint development of the four islands of the southern Kuriles (northern territories, in Japanese terminology), which Tokyo claims.

Already in May 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will once again come to Russia to continue territorial negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and at the same time to open the cross years of Russian and Japanese culture with each other. It's funny that the May meeting next year between President Putin and Prime Minister Abe was unconditionally announced by Russian officials, not only long before the presidential elections in March 2018, but even before Putin announced his nomination as a candidate in those elections.  

However, the prospects for resolving the territorial issue in relations between the two countries remain unclear. In this regard, it is still impossible to make any predictions regarding the conclusion of a peace treaty between them. In light of the above, the hieroglyph 北 has another reason to be the main symbol of an indefinite number of years to come. After all, the term 北方 領土 - northern territories begins with him. Namely, their Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe promises to return the country during the lifetime of the current generation.  

Happy New Year!
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