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Abe’s Japan and NATO


NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (NATO)

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — The return of Shinzo Abe to the Japanese premiership was expected to lead to renewed efforts to build ties with fellow democracies, albeit within a pragmatic framework designed not to give the appearance of an explicit containment policy vis-à-vis China. The early foreign trips by some key members of the administration, including Abe himself, to Southeast Asia, made it clear that this would indeed be on the agenda. However, Tokyo’s objectives go much further and may also include a deeper relationship with the Atlantic Alliance, as illustrated by the decision of the prime minister to write a personal letter to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The letter was hand-delivered by Katsuyuki Kawai, chairman of the Lower House Foreign Affairs Committee of Japan, during his recent trip to France, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.

NHK reported that the letter emphasized the shared democratic values between Japan and NATO, while the Yomiuri Shinbun pointed out that it would refer to the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands. The former also said that the text would indicate a willingness by Japan to undertake a more active role in maintaining stability and prosperity in East Asia.

The references to growing tensions around the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, increasing Chinese naval power more generally, may be part of a charm offensive designed to put Japan’s case before world public opinion in a bid to avoid being labeled as the aggressor should the conflict continue to escalate. On the other hand, Japan and NATO have already worked together in areas like Afghanistan, and therefore the missive may also be seen at least partly as an attempt to build upon previous cooperation, paving the way toward a closer relationship.

Whatever the precise contents and purposes of the letter, it did not go unnoticed either in China or in the Philippines, a fellow maritime democracy also engaged in a territorial dispute with Beijing.

Speaking to Chinese daily Global Times, Liu Jiangyong, deputy director and professor of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, warned Tokyo that “Japan would not succeed in uniting NATO,” adding that “many member countries of NATO are facing economic problems, which they hope to fix with the help of China.”

The Euro crisis led many to believe that China may seek to acquire strategic assets in Europe and use its financial clout to lobby for an end to the EU embargo on weapons sales to Beijing (imposed in the aftermath of Tiananmen). However, things seem to be a bit more complex and China has been cautious when it comes to, for example, holding public debt issued by countries peripheral to the Euro zone. On the other hand, discreet Chinese moves to end the embargo have continued. It remains in place to date, although not enforced as strictly as official statements may suggest, as clear from Chinese participation in the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

In the Philippine Islands, the Facebook group Defenders of the Philippine Sabah & Spratly Claims praised Abe’s initiative, stating that Manila should also seek the support of other countries.

Abe visited NATO headquarters in 2007 during his first stint as prime minister. Last year, Japan signed agreements on weapons industry cooperation with both the United Kingdom and France. Some observers note, however, that while NATO has survived the end of the Cold War, and expanded and engaged in a number of expeditionary missions, it lacks political cohesion with member states not always on the same page. This was clear during the Libyan intervention and is once again evident in French-led operations in Mali, with countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom providing logistical support to Paris while Berlin chooses not to become involved. For this reason, some Japanese officials may be tilting toward bilateral agreements with key NATO members without expecting too much from the Alliance as a whole.

In the case of North Africa and the Sahel, Japan has some economic interests in the region and was hard hit by the latest hostage-taking terrorist incident in Algeria. Since the United States seems to be relying more on regional allies to confront non-state threats, which in that area means France, it may make sense for Tokyo to seek tighter links with Paris and with countries supporting French efforts like the United Kingdom.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona.