In a speech to the Japanese parliament on Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to “strengthen Japanese defense power, including missile defense capabilities, in order to protect the people’s lives and peace” from the threat posed by North Korea.
Fox News and the Associated Press note this is not a new position for Abe during a time of what he called “escalating provocation” from Pyongyang. The interesting news is that Japan appears to be working on rapprochement and a closer relationship with China due to the North Korean threat.
Fox notes that Abe made no comment about South China Sea territorial disputes with China during the latest ASEAN summit, “even though the issue has been a key concern of his for the past five years.” On the contrary, he talked about meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve relations, and has indicated Japan might be willing to participate in Chinese projects like its massive “One Belt, One Road” trade route initiative.
Japan makes no claims in the South China Sea, but does dispute the Senkaku Islands of the East China Sea with China. A Chinese loss in the South China Sea could set a precedent that helps Japan establish firm control over the Senkakus.
“The change in the security atmosphere in East Asia, especially when confronted by an increasingly provocative Pyongyang, made the two leaders sense the urgency to meet and cooperate,” observed Japan expert Zhou Yongsheng of the China Foreign Affairs University.
Abe is coming off a landslide victory in snap elections last month and seems to enjoy a good relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has placed a high priority on selling more advanced American weapons technology to Japan to both improve interoperability with U.S. forces and protect Japan from North Korea.
The New York Times, on the other hand, postulates that Japan is drifting into China’s orbit because “President Trump has created unease among allies about the role the United States will take in the region.”
“In gesturing toward a new friendliness, Japan is motivated in part by the recognition that as the United States retreats, it needs stronger trade with China. Having watched Mr. Trump heap praise on Mr. Xi in Beijing last week, Japan is also propelled by fear that the United States may develop a closer rapport with China that would exclude Japan,” the Times asserts, adding that Japan is nervous about Trump’s “erratic swings in opinions and loyalties.”
Conversely, from this perspective, China is confident Trump will not interfere with its plans, so it can afford to be more generous in wooing Japan as an ally or at least working out an understanding that will keep Japan from interfering with its regional ambitions. Abe may likewise believe that better relations with China will make it easier for Japan to develop its competing alliance of Pacific Rim nations.
Analyst Hugh White suggests China is “making nice to Tokyo” to “show the Americans can’t be relied on,” and get everyone in the region used to the idea of Beijing as the new hegemonic power.
The Times nevertheless quotes experts who say Japan’s distrust of China’s growing power has not abated, and they have no illusion that China’s loathing for the Japanese has diminished. Also, an interesting point is made that China’s “mixture of coercion, diplomacy, and money to pull nations to its side” will not work as well if Japan can present itself as a powerful alternative ally in the region, so there is a limit to how prosperous and influential China wants Japan to be.
The bitter irony in all of this is that China stands to benefit handsomely from its decades of indulging North Korea as a threat to the security of the world. If the threat of North Korea prompts the United States to make concessions to secure Chinese cooperation and nudges Japan into China’s orbit, then the years Beijing spent allowing Pyongyang to become a nuclear menace will prove to be one of the shrewdest geopolitical investments in history—of course, that President Xi can prevent Kim Jong-un from starting a nuclear war.