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Japan and the evolving regional security landscape

By Nicholas Fang
June 15, 2018

The world has watched with great interest and anticipation the thawing of relations between North Korea and global and regional powers like the United States, China and South Korea.

Progress on the diplomatic front that has culminated in an agreement for the leaders of North Korea and the United States to hold face-to-face talks, as well as for the first inter-Korean summit in 11 years that was held at the border truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. This marked the first time that a North Korean leader had stepped foot into the south since the Korean War.

There have also been pronouncements by the North Korean leadership on a willingness to halt nuclear and missile tests, and Pyeongyang has declared it will scrap its nuclear test site as part of efforts to instead pursue policies of economic growth and peace.

These and other developments have created a sense of cautious optimism around the world for a normalization of relations throughout the Korean Peninsula. However, the Japanese leadership remains concerned that the recent moves by the North are part of a historical legacy of attempts by Pyongyang to manipulate the rest of the world in order to achieve its own objectives. Tokyo has emphasized the need for maximum pressure to be maintained through sanctions and diplomatic efforts until concrete actions towards denuclearization are seen.

These concerns are part of broader security challenges facing Japan that include threats from both near and far. At the same time, the country is seeking to chart a course towards an enhanced contribution to peace, security and stability in the Asian region.

In a recent meeting with senior officials from the National Security Policy Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Japan’s key security priorities were discussed, with North Korea and China remaining the primary concerns.

The officials pointed out that North Korea has been facing an unstable and unpredictable environment both internally and externally in the lead up to, as well as following the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011.

This has manifested itself in the heightened focus on development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles coupled with provocative actions such as the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the Cheonan incident.

Prior to the recent thawing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, the level of military equipment testing by Pyeongyang was on an upward trend. In the past, this was typically aimed at sending political messages, but latest efforts seemed to indicated that the testing was geared towards ramping up military capabilities, which understandably raised concerns to another level for neighbours such as Japan, who lie well within the range of North Korean ballistic missiles for example.

While the current signals suggest that a sustainable plan for peace might be in the offing, leaders in Japan and other parts of the region are likely to remain skeptical until real efforts on the part of Pyeongyang are put in place to ensure complete denuclearization across the peninsula becomes a reality

In contrast, the concerns in Tokyo over China’s rising military budget are linked to a lack of transparency over what exactly the budget is used for. Official data shows that the Chinese military budget increased more than three-fold in the decade since 2006, and Beijing announced this year that it will increase military spending by 8.1 per cent in 2018, the largest rise in three years, as it sees major shifts in its national security environment.

China’s national defence budget will grow to 1.11 trillion yuan as it addresses what it calls “profound changes in the national security environment”.

In private discussions, Japanese officials have indicated a desire to see China become a responsible global stakeholder which respects rule of law and encourages the creation of space and opportunities for other actors to be able to play a role.

However, they also expressed concerns over the motivations of the Chinese leadership when juxtaposed against domestic pressures, which could lead to external decisions that can impact the international community.

These two primary security concerns, along with maritime territorial disputes and increasing actions by other actors in the region such as Russia, present ongoing geopolitical risks for all Asian nations.

In view of these challenges, Japan has been working to strengthen relationships with coastal nations in the region. This is part of its broader strategy aimed at contributing to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

This is predicated on establishing stability and prosperity for the international community through dynamism created by combining the two continents of Africa and Asia, as well as the Pacific and Indian oceans.

This overarching and comprehensive strategy aims to broaden the horizon of Japanese foreign policy, and will see it strengthening strategic collaboration with India, which has a historical relationship with East Africa, as well as the US and Australia.

Underpinning this strategy is Japan’s desire to be a proactive contributor to peace in the region and around the world, through coordination with allies and partners and international institutions like the United Nations.

At the same time, Japanese officials have emphasized that the desire to contribute even more actively in securing peace, stability and prosperity of the region and international community will never detract from Japan’s peaceful orientation.

They say that Japan’s contribution to international security and peace will never be conducted unilaterally, but always in cooperation with international partners, and will always take into consideration historical context and legacy.

Besides working with India, the US and Australia, Japan will also seek to cooperate with the Association of South-east Asian Nations, which is a critical part of the region, and hence Japan’s desire to establish a free and open Indo-Pacific.

These growing relationships will be watched and welcomed by all regional stakeholders as Japan continues to develop it national security policy amidst an evolving global geopolitical environment in the years ahead.

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