Most Americans, even those who follow international events closely, may not be aware of the energetic and wide-ranging diplomacy that Japan has pursued in recent years, beginning in 2011 under then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and accelerating under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. By playing a more active role, Japan is strengthening its ties with countries around the world, offering them economic opportunity, assisting in capacity building, and fostering greater peace and security. Japan is clearly pursuing its own interests in enlarging its diplomatic efforts, but is doing so in ways that align closely with American interests while benefiting countries around the world.
Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the United States last spring was dominated by security issues, primarily an important update in U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines for the first time in almost two decades. While China and North Korea loom large as security concerns of Japan, Tokyo’s initiatives are multi-dimensional and global.
The Prime Minister’s participation in last week’s UN General Assembly was typical. In his speech in New York, he pledged $750 million in assistance for refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. He then visited Jamaica to follow up on the July 2014 Japan-Caribbean Community Summit that included heads of state from fourteen Caribbean countries.
Japan has quietly ramped up its trade and aid efforts in Africa and the Pacific Islands. It hosts African leaders for the ongoing Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) meetings, the latest in 2013. Similarly, it regularly convenes the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM), the last held in May of this year. In addition to these multinational gatherings, Prime Minister Abe has also visited a number of African and Pacific Island countries, pledging assistance and enhancing bilateral ties.
After China achieved unexpected success with the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year, Japan announced a major increase in available financing from its lending agencies as well as from the Asian Development Bank, in which Tokyo takes a leading role.
In addition to active trade and investment in ASEAN, the Prime Minister has also increased Japan’s assistance and capacity building efforts, and improved security ties with Southeast Asian countries.
Central Asia is generally considered an area of rivalry between Russia and China, and the United States has paid little attention to the region. Later this month, however, Prime Minister Abe will visit five countries there, supporting a number of important energy and infrastructure projects in which Japan is engaged that promise broad regional benefits.
Japan has increased its focus on Russia. While Moscow has conducted aggressive and hostile policies in Europe and other parts of the world, it has taken a more cooperative approach in Asia. Japan’s interests in diversifying energy sources and resolving territorial disputes over islands it lost to the Soviet Union at the end of World War II have led Prime Minister Abe to seek a fresh relationship with Moscow.
The list of Japan’s recent international activities continues: Japan furthered its security ties with Australia with agreements on information sharing in 2012 and defense equipment this year; Prime Minister Abe’s close personal relationship with Indian Prime Minister Modi has been complemented by an agreement to strengthen the bilateral strategic partnership; in 2013 Japan and NATO agreed to closer cooperation in crisis management, peacekeeping operations, and disaster-relief efforts, as well as in defending against emerging threats in cyberspace and from missiles and piracy; on a tour of six countries in the Middle East earlier this year, Prime Minister Abe pledged $2.5 billion in infrastructure and humanitarian assistance, including support for countries hosting refugees from Iraq and Syria, and $200 million in non-military aid for countries fighting Islamic State.
The scope of Tokyo’s recent global activities demonstrating Prime Minister Abe’s commitment to making “proactive contributions to peace” is impressive. While Japan’s newly enhanced global role is designed in Tokyo’s own interests, the whole world benefits. Moreover, since the interests of the United States and Japan align so closely in so much of the world, Japan’s newly active diplomacy also enhances the vital U.S.-Japan partnership.
About the expert
Adm. Dennis C. Blair is a Distinguished Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) of Sasakawa USA, and additionally led the Foundation as CEO from 2014 to February 2017. He is a renowned expert on Asia Pacific policy and issues, having served as Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. Read his Chairman's Message column here or his other publications and analysis here