SSU Forum with Visiting Professor Hitoshi Tanaka

Date: Friday, February 16, 2018, 10:30 - 12:00
Venue: Lecture Hall B, 4th Floor, International Academic Research Bldg.
Subject: “Japan's Foreign and Security Policy under the Changing Threat Perceptions”
Lecture: Hitoshi Tanaka, Visiting Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo
Chairman, Institute for International Strategy, the Japan Research Institute, Ltd.,
Senior Fellow,the Japan Center for International Exchange
Language: English
hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo
Abstract: East Asia faces many security challenges. How likely is military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula? Would China become threatening in the process to realize "the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation"? Would the US security commitments in the region continue to be credible? Under these significantly changing threat perceptions, Japan must pursue proactive foreign and security policies.

The Security Studies Unit was honoured to host Professor Hitoshi Tanaka, Chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at The Japan Research Institute LTD. Professor Tanaka, who is a retired diplomat with an extraordinary career and also former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan, was a Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Public Politics (GraSPP), The University of Tokyo.

Akio Takahara, Professor of Chinese Politics at UTokyo and member of SSU chaired the session. He introduced Professor Tanaka as an outstanding diplomat, as well as a brilliant commentator on foreign affairs, who has himself trained numerous young diplomats.

Professor Tanaka thanked the host and immediately proceeded to illustrate the content of his talk, namely an overview of the most important perceived threats that Japan faces at the present and in the foreseeable future. Those perceived threats are currently coming from uncertainties in four different areas: the political and military situation in the Korean peninsula; the political situation within China and its foreign policy; the developments in the US; and finally those in Japan.

Starting from the situation in the Korean peninsula, Professor Tanaka focused on North Korea as a first source of uncertainty, stating that the key problem is the future trajectory of the Pyongyang regime and its nuclear armament and missile programme. The international pressure on the regime has remarkably increased in the most recent phase, with more sanctions aimed at forcing North Korea to return to a path of denuclearisation. Will Pyongyang yield to international diplomatic and military pressure, or will instead continue with further nuclear and missile tests? This is a key question, and the answer will come soon, probably in the next six months. While there have been rounds of sanctions in the past, this is the first time China joined in a serious way the collective effort to apply pressure on Kim’s regime. It is unclear what is going to happen, albeit most experts of North Korean affairs think that Pyongyang is unlikely to give in.
A second source of uncertainty is South Korea. The current president seems to have a strong conviction that effective sanctions against the Northern neighbour will be required, but at the same time he clearly wants to enhance the diplomatic dialogue with Pyongyang. A moment of truth will come with the future South Korea-US joint military drills in April. The South Korean government appears to be wanting to separate the North-South dialogue and the nuclear question. This may be legitimate, but South Korea must understand other countries’ concerns that pressure on North Korea is not to be lessened at this juncture.
A third source of uncertainty is whether and when the US will feel compelled to use military action to counter the North Korean threat. One cannot underestimate the American resoluteness to use its military when they perceive that there is a threat to the US mainland, to which they will certainly respond. They will act if they are going to feel that vital security interests of the US are in danger.
A fourth source of uncertainty concerning the Korean peninsula is China. While it was a common idea in the community of international scholars and practitioners that China was not going to abandon North Korea as a buffer state, this may no longer be the case. It is possible to imagine that the Chinese leadership may consider a nuclear armed North Korea as not acceptable for its own security as well. This seems to be the concern underpinning Beijing’s decision to join the sanctions against Kim’s regime. However, it is unclear to what extent China will remain committed to this diplomatic course.
After providing this analysis of the situation on the Korean peninsula, Professor Tanaka illustrated his policy recommendations, which he summarised as the three Cs alongside with pressures: coordination, contingency, and communication. Coordination means that four countries (Japan, US, China, South Korea) need to coordinate and consult about the formulation of an exit strategy from the Korean predicament, which is based on exerting effective pressure on Pyongyang. Contingency means the preparation of contingency plans for the eventuality of a North Korean collapse, plans about refugees, weaponry disposal, nuclear material and so on. Communication means that there should be a channel to communicate with North Korea, as miscommunication or lack of communication can easily lead to misunderstanding with potentially severe consequences.

After discussing the uncertainties related to the Korean situation, Professor Tanaka turned to those regarding China.

Firstly, there are numerous uncertainties regarding the future of China’s domestic politics. Under Xi, the Communist Party (CPC) is strengthening and planning to strengthen even more its control of the population. On the other hand, there is extensive talk about economic reforms. It is questionable to what extent there can be economic flourishing under increasing political constraints which limit freedom. It is possible to imagine that President Xi will have to modify his policy in this regard.
Second is China’s foreign policy. Here Beijing has apparently played a successful game with the Belt and Road Initiative, thus acquiring a significant level of influence over a vast region of Eurasia. There is a great probability that those policies will shift in the future from influence to expansion. An expansionist China is something which Japan and the international community at large have to consider in planning future foreign policies.
What is the right policy for Japan? Japan has been pursuing policies with a much stronger emphasis on hedging. Now, there is a need for stronger emphasis on engagement of China. What will be the future environment in which Japan will have to operate? China today represents 25% of Japan’s trade. 75% of tourists in Japan are from the East Asian region. Japan’s future lies in East Asia. Japan is losing population, where is it going to find sufficient demand for its industries? China represents both a danger and an opportunity. China needs international cooperation to growth its economy and manage its political position in the world, so there are spaces for cooperation even in the Japan-China relation. A lot will depend on how leadership can shape mutual perceptions.

Professor Tanaka addressed then the uncertainties concerning the United States under the Trump administration. First is the unpredictability of President Trump himself. Analysts are still struggling to understand what sort of considerations underpin his decisions, or even just his tweets. So far one of the most plausible explanations is that his main driver is a sort of “profit making” criteria within a transactional approach. Considering that this approach is radically different from the usual political track of past US presidents, Trump’s unpredictability remains a key element of today’s global political landscape.
The second uncertainty about the US lies in the relations between the Trump administration and the traditional institutions of the US. Defence, State Department, intelligence agencies and so on have a remarkably different conception of the world and of the US foreign policy priorities from those of President Trump. The third uncertainty concerns that fact that the US government, even over one year from its inauguration, remains understaffed, and it is difficult to understand who is in charge of what policy area. This makes the dialogue with US authorities more complex.
What is the right response to this set of uncertainties from the US? The right response seems to be: trying to be serious about consultation. The Japan-US alliance relies on frequent consultation. Prime Minister Abe has been able to construct a good personal relationship with President Trump, and needs to keep it as much as possible. It appears that President Trump somehow needs a kind of “adult supervision”, not only in the interest of Japan, but in the interest of the world at large.

Lastly, Professor Tanaka explored the uncertainties related to Japan, uncertainties which may lead to disturbances in the region. The most important one is the rise of nationalism. He listed several reasons underpinning this phenomenon. 1) The end of the Cold War has meant that Japan is no longer constrained too much by the concept of the west and can be more self-assertive 2) Japan has had its “lost decades” of slow economic growth while China is rapidly growing, which is leading to feelings of suspicion. 3) The question of abductees has for the first time since WWII put Japan in the position of victim. 4) While the US used to exercise some degree of supervision against the rise of Japanese nationalism, Trump is certainly not, as he may even think that nationalism is a positive factor, being himself pursuing nationalist policies such as “America First”.
Professor Tanaka pointed out that nationalism is not after all something that should be avoided at all cost per se, but the danger lies in its combination with populism. Prime Minister Abe has been using the question of North Korea very successfully for his rise as a political leader, and he played on the nationalistic public sentiment of the public. PM Abe is certainly a smart politician and knows how to successfully handle nationalistic sentiments, but one needs to be extremely careful while going down a path which can unleash considerable unintended consequences.