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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a joint press conference, Darwin, Australia, Nov. 16, 2018 (Kyodo photo via AP Images).

Abe Has Become the Pitchman for Maintaining Multilateralism in Asia

Friday, Nov. 16, 2018

World leaders gathered in Singapore this week for the 13th annual East Asia Summit, the premier meeting for regional heads of state to discuss political and security issues. It comes amid rising tensions between Asia’s two largest powerbrokers, the United States and China. Their standoff has left Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a position to take the lead as the advocate for maintaining and even expanding a multilateral order in the region. His full-court press, at a time of trade wars and rising nationalism, is a litmus test for international rules and free markets.

The Abe administration continues to trumpet the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as Japan’s long-term approach to the region, backed by international rules and norms. It is hardly a new development, despite some recent promotion and symbolic buy-in from the Trump administration. Indeed, Abe introduced the idea more than a decade ago, during his first stint as prime minister in 2007, in a speech to the Indian Parliament. He declared then that Japan and India were natural partners through the “confluence of two seas”—the Pacific and Indian Oceans—that were “bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.”

“A ‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form,” he added.

But years later, Japan’s leadership in the region is at a critical juncture, with its ally in Washington determined to promote its own, albeit very similar version of an Indo-Pacific strategy in order to mitigate the risks of rising tensions with China. Before arriving in Singapore, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stopped in Tokyo and outlined the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance as the “cornerstone” for regional stability. The U.S. has ramped up pressure on China, labeling it a “strategic competitor” in the latest National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, on top of its ongoing trade war.

In a policy speech unprecedented for its confrontational public tone last month, Pence outlined a laundry list of American concerns about China, from its unfair trade practices and foreign interference to its regional aggressiveness in the East and South China Seas. “When it comes to Beijing’s malign influence and interference in American politics and policy,” Pence insisted, “we will continue to expose it, no matter the form it takes.” Many observers reacted with talk of a new Cold War.

Despite its own concerns with the Trump administration on trade, Japan nevertheless sees some opportunity in this harder American line. Abe was successful in being the lead foreign pitchman on the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific in the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, helping to change the strategic messaging coming from the White House, which wanted to distance itself, at least cosmetically, from the Obama administration’s policies of a “pivot” and “rebalance” to Asia. If nothing else, the result has been a noticeable change in language, as high-level U.S. descriptions of the region have shifted from the “Asia-Pacific” to the “Indo-Pacific.” The Pentagon even renamed the Pacific Command, based out of Hawaii, the Indo-Pacific Command.

Such gestures of American interest are welcome in Tokyo, but there is still a legitimate concern that the U.S. doesn’t have a clear strategy for the region, as it says one thing but does another. Nowhere is this more evident than on trade. The Trump administration has been promoting “free and fair trade” as the main plank of its America First mantra, while putting up tariffs and threatening more. On top of the tariffs, Japan is still stinging from Trump’s immediate withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership after he took office. Of all the TPP partners, Japan was arguably the most affected by Trump’s decision. Abe put major political capital into negotiating and pushing the Japanese Diet to pass the expansive multilateral trade deal before Trump came into office. Japan subsequently took the lead in getting the remaining 11 members to renegotiate it. The salvaged TPP-11—rebranded the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP—was recently ratified and will take force in late December.

Having been burned by Trump before, Abe realizes he cannot rely on the U.S. to develop and underwrite a long-term regional foreign policy.

Across the region, eyebrows continue to rise as Trump keeps shaking down key allies, including Japan and South Korea, and declaring an allergy to any form of multilateralism. Trump’s absence during this week’s key summits, at the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, only adds to those concerns.

In response to this uncertainty, Japan’s role as regional stabilizer is crucial. It still maintains solid relationships across Asia as it builds increasingly firm quasi-alliances with India and Australia. While Tokyo’s interests are not identical to those of New Delhi and Canberra, there are enough convergences, along with reservations about Chinese behavior, that there is fertile ground to pursue the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Indeed, after a 10-year hiatus, the Quadrilateral Dialogue—with Japan, the U.S., India and Australia—has resumed, much to China’s chagrin. But the “Quad,” as many experts call it, is only one small element of Japan’s regional vision. Tokyo continues to engage with a host of smaller multilateral arrangements, such as the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with the U.S. and Australia and other trilateral initiatives with the U.S., Australia and India.

These are all are complemented by Japan’s focus on Southeast Asian countries, which was on display last month when it hosted the 10th Japan-Mekong summit in Tokyo with leaders from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Tokyo has helped improve the maritime capacities of the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea, selling them coast guard vessels and patrol planes. Over the past few years, in shows of support for freedom of navigation, Japan has also increased the frequency of its high-level port visits and sent its largest two naval vessels through the South China Sea.

At a time when the U.S. appears focused on the region in principle, while its dealings with allies and partners remain inconsistent and fragmented at best, Japan’s leadership matters more than ever. Abe has already been burned by Trump before, so Tokyo realizes it cannot rely on the U.S. to develop and underwrite a long-term regional foreign policy. This does not mean that the Abe administration has given up on Washington’s role. Rather, Japan’s objective continues to be aimed at keeping the U.S. engaged in the region with the simultaneous acknowledgement that leadership in promoting free trade and a rules-based order must be more dynamic and diverse, relying on other partners that can complement the U.S.-Japan relationship. ...

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