Japanese Realpolitik: The Thorn in the Side of US Asia-Pacific Political Strategy

A spectre has been haunting US diplomats for the past month; the spectre of a hawkish Japan, tired of playing its role as a subservient geisha to Washington's soft political power games with Beijing, and seeking to carve out its own intransigent niche in East Asia geopolitics.

A spectre has been haunting US diplomats for the past month; the spectre of a hawkish Japan, tired of playing its role as a subservient geisha to Washington's soft political power games with Beijing, and seeking to carve out its own intransigent niche in East Asia geopolitics.

And the White House's least desired outcome has emerged triumphant.

The Japanese Liberal Democratic party's landslide general electoral victory on Sunday now threatens to entirely undermine fraught bilateral relations with China if the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, follows through on promises made during the campaign trail - specifically relating to the two nations' territorial row over the Senkakus Islands, and generally to the nation's position in the strategically important region.

While the Sino-Japanese relationship is already on the unhinged side of strained, the outlook post-election is concerning, and is likely to take up a significant amount of the new US secretary of state's brief over the next year.

The result will only serve to sharpen Obama's so-called 'Pacific pivot', with the focus of US soft power diplomacy likely to be Asia-Pacific, not Europe, so as to strengthen bilateral ties with China. Meanwhile, the election of a hawkish government in Tokyo, not afraid to flex hard diplomatic muscle in east Asia and further afield, will set pulses racing in Washington.

And as such, the LDP's accession to power this weekend could have a visible impact on the UK's position in the White House's league table of geopolitical power players.

Moral or political support of Britain's diplomatic fumbling in the eurozone will be pushed further down the agenda of the State Department to-do list; the very real possibility of major fall out between Japan and China over the Senkakus Islands could escalate beyond the emergence of a new cold war in East Asia, and into direct military intervention, will be a very real and pressing issue for Hillary Clinton's successor in 2013.


The accession of the new LDP administration is likely to significantly alter the course of US geopolitical priorities in East Asia over the next 18 months.

Shinzo Abe is a student of realpolitik and a champion of Japanese sovereignty and hard diplomatic power. Security policy and strained relations with Japan's neighbours were key themes of his campaign and the conservative consistently repeated that there was no doubt his his or his party's mind that the uninhabited East China Sea islands were Japanese.

His manifesto made stately pledges to defend Japan's lands, seas, and remote islands. In speeches on the campaign trail, Abe called for the protection of Japan's "beautiful land" and "beautiful territorial waters" from China's predatory movement in the region.

Moreover, in the run up to elections, the LDP promised not to reduce tensions with China, but to proactively increase them. Importantly, Abe called for the permanent basing of so-called "civil servants" on the Senkakus islands, a move that has been interpreted by foreign policy analysts as a means to by-pass an article in the Japanese constitution that forbids the maintenance of overseas armed forces by the government.

A secure Japan with a low military profile has been an effective yet autonomous instrument of post-World War II US foreign policy in East Asia. Japan has been an ideal strategic partner for developing (and developed) nations globally. Over the last few decades, Japanese diplomacy (both political and corporate) has been founded on an important and strong stock exchange, a significant role as an a overseas investor, and a major source of bi- and multilateral aid.

All of this is set to change if Abe acts on the rhetoric displayed thus far.

In the short term, US diplomats will be scurrying between Tokyo and Beijing ahead of Abe's first visit (of his second term) to Washington in March, in an attempt to calm Chinese nerves and soften Japanese posturing. A stable Sino-Japanese relationship will be seen by Washington as a good antidote to developing tensions with North Korea, Pakistan or Iran; and much of Obama's second term is set to involve the development of stronger bilateral trade relations between the US and China.

Meanwhile, analysts' focus will be on the real outcome and fiscal plausibility of so-called 'Abenomics', the new prime minister's economic vision founded on big-scale monetary and budget stimulus, seeking to end deflation and shield the export-dependent economy from the impact of a strong yen and the global economic slowdown.

But the high-level impact of Sunday's result will the continuation of a trend that will see the development of China-US relations sit alongside the Middle East Peace Process as the central geopolitical narratives of the next five-10 years. The internal machinations of the European Union, save the bloc's role as an important foreign relations workhorse, pale in comparison.


Where the UK sits in all of this is unclear at present. But with Washington's focus, time and energy increasingly invested towards the shores beyond the US west coast, Downing Street may find itself slipping down the political priority list, in spite of the special relationship.

Developing strong foreign relations ties with the EU may be one solution to the Pacific Pivot problem. Many in the US see the UK's role as a critical player in an emergent United States of Europe as a defining feature of 21st century international affairs.

But with No.10 apparently pursuing a somewhat isolationist agenda, and anti-Brussels rhetoric on the rise, it is not unfeasible that the current administration's persistent geopolitical tunnel vision, (not helped by the UK media's downsizing of international coverage) will result in regular bilaterals with No10 replaced by frequent presidential visits to Shanghai, Tokyo, Delhi and even (possibly) Pyongyang.

Coupled with forthcoming US withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, and Obama's less-than engaging attitude towards NATO, the time for British foreign affairs chiefs to get their houses in order and align themselves with the new normal is well overdue. Failure to do so could see the UK swept up in a tide of provincial irrelevance dictated by the domestic news agenda, pushing British interests abroad down the geopolitical pecking order and doing real and lasting damage to the FCO's diplomatic firepower.


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