Japan’s View of an Uncertain World

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Trying to make sense of what is happening in the world is a more complex (and possibly thankless) task today than it ever has been. From the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, through to the capricious behaviour of the 45th President of the United States and former reality TV star Donald Trump, previously longstanding and reliable features of international politics have been overturned in a remarkably short space of time. These developments would be causes for concern at any time but are compounded by the destabilising influence of North Korea and Russia and the lack of consensus on how best to manage them.

Despite this complexity and uncertainty, and even though it has been written off by some as irrelevant in the past, Japan has managed to respond surprisingly well under the relative stability of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who assumed office in December 2012. From 2006 to 2012 Japan experienced an absence of leadership as a result of the ‘revolving door’ of Japanese prime ministers changing on an annual basis. Abe was himself a part of this with his first short-lived administration. However, Abe 2.0 is a very different proposition and has actively engaged with the outside world from the day he returned to office, becoming the first world leader to meet Trump after his election victory while building a close relationship with Vladimir Putin by meeting with him on nineteen occasions in total. Abe has also secured the international community’s support over combatting North Korea’s missile tests on the one hand, and the eponymously titled policies of Abenomics that are intended to reverse Japan’s relative economic decline on the other hand. Some have gone as far as to argue that the low-profile Yoshida Doctrine, which dominated Japan’s postwar interactions with the world, has been replaced with a more proactive Abe Doctrine. However, for Japan’s most important regional neighbours – China and South Korea – this new foreign policy orientation is a cause for concern.

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In this context, the School of East Asian Studies was delighted to welcome His Excellency Mr Koji Tsuruoka, Ambassador of Japan to the United Kingdom to Sheffield on 15 November 2017. Mr Tsuruoka arrived in the UK in June 2016 with a long and distinguished record of service having been posted to embassies in Washington, Moscow and Jakarta. In addition, he was the Chief Negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from 2013 to 2016. The TPP represented one of the most important multilateral trade deals of recent years, an example of US leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, and was something to which the Abe administration strongly committed itself. However, only three days into his new administration Trump withdrew from the negotiations. This has not sunk the deal and talks continue without the US, although the remaining eleven Asia-Pacific countries are probably hoping that one day it will return to the fold.

Mr Tsuruoka presented a similarly optimistic approach to Japan’s view of the world. He began by outlining the proactive contribution it has made historically and continues to make in the fields of human security and international development to combat issues such as infant mortality and build infrastructure in developing countries. These efforts are focused on the Asian region to a great extent but also Africa and the Middle East and, as can often be the case with Japan’s ‘quiet’ contribution to the international community, often go unnoticed or unrecognised. In a similarly positive tone he stressed the strength of the relationship with the UK and the commonalities that exists, and will continue to exist, despite Brexit. At the same time, he did not shy away from more controversial and existential issues including the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea and territorial disputes in the East China Sea, and Japan’s possible range of responses.