William Grimes is chairman of the International Relations Department at Boston University. A graduate of Yale University and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Grimes has taught at Boston University since 1996. Before becoming department chair in 2010, he helped to found the BU Center for the Study of Asia and served as its first director from 2008-10. Previously, he was a researcher and a visiting assistant professor at Harvard University.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is your overall impression of Japanese diplomacy and foreign policy under the Abe administration?
GRIMES: I think of Abe’s foreign policy in three different categories. The first includes the things he is trying to do to build confidence regionally. The second is security policy. And the third is the unintentional messaging from the administration regarding “history.”
The controversies regarding the history question stand in stark contrast to the efforts Abe is making to advance a more strategic foreign policy. One doesn’t have to always agree with Abe to recognize that the efforts he is making on the economic front and on security policy seem quite strategic in nature.
The history issue, on the other hand, keeps creating problems for the credibility of the strategic-oriented policies.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The US and Japanese governments went to considerable lengths to present Abe’s February visit to Washington as a big success. But I wonder to what extent Abe misread Washington by expecting greater receptivity to a hard-line policy toward China. He wanted the Obama administration to openly criticize China, and to openly embrace his push for collective self-defense, and neither happened.
GRIMES: I thought his visit was fairly successful. Abe made the case that he is doing something different with the economy, which is important to having a sustainable foreign policy. Abe’s willingness to bring Japan into the TPP was very attractive to the Obama administration. Abe’s desire to show alliance solidarity and to promote collective self defense definitely has appeal in Washington.
But excessive hostility toward China is very different. I think the administration was wary of this. This aspect of Abe’s foreign policy is not very attractive.
Overall, Abe’s message seemed largely constructive and coherent.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about China policy?
GRIMES: When it comes to China policy, Abe has a few problems. Many people in the region, especially in China and Korea, as well as a lot of people in Japan, do not trust or approve of his view of history. That creates a lot of suspicion around the region.
In some sense, Abe’s view of history will not make a big difference in how Japan actually acts in the region. Whether he believes the Nanjing Incident was real or not won’t directly determine Japanese foreign policy.
But Abe’s views do adversely impact the impressions people have of him around the region. It raises questions about his intentions and therefore will have a negative impact on the effectiveness of Japan’s foreign policy, particularly in Northeast Asia.
Abe seems to believe that confronting Chinese power is going to be critical for Japan’s future.
Even going back to the period before Abe was prime minister the first time, he was already advocating a much more vigorous confrontational stance in reaction to what were then pretty minor activities by China around the Senkakus. But Abe does not seem to have an end game. He is thinking only one step ahead, which is that Japan should confront China because it will represent Japan standing tall. But he doesn’t seem to have thought through what would happen if someone starts shooting, or if Japan’s firm stance leads to a much more robust Chinese response. It is an approach to China that could get pretty dangerous, pretty fast.
DISPATCH JAPAN: President Obama seems to have decided to treat China’s leader Xi, and South Korea’s Park with more pomp and ceremonial respect than he did with Abe. Obama did not even hold a joint press conference with Abe during the February visit.
GRIMES: The really striking contrast is between the treatment of Park and the treatment of Abe. President Obama spent time with Abe, but Abe certainly was not invited to give an address to Congress,
There was understandable concern in Washington about how Abe might use a high-profile, public event. Abe personally is a symbol for many in China and South Korea, personifying their lingering deep concerns about Japan. He has a tendency to say extraordinary things about historical matters, including his unwillingness to use the term “aggression”, or his view of the “comfort women” issue.
At the same time, even when Abe voices a strategic commitment to South Korea, he does it awkwardly. One example was the moment in Washington when he referred to his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, as having been good friends with President Park’s father, Park Chung-hee.
Actually, this comment was extremely insulting to many South Koreans. It just reinforced the doubts that many in Korea have about Abe’s understanding of their feelings as well as his ultimate intentions – doubts that are reinforced when he make extraordinary comments about history.
So, even though Abe does not necessarily have prejudicial views of Korea or Koreans, and does see the strategic importance of South Korea to regional security, he continues to be remarkably blind to matters of history. Abe has consistently demonstrated an inability to speak about matters of history in a way that is not guaranteed to get people in Korea upset.
In this context, the Obama administration did not want to reward Abe or give him a platform that would imply US approval of his beliefs. For the US, strong alliance relations with South Korea are really important to effective dealing with both North Korea and China. Giving Abe an opportunity to shine publicly with Obama would likely have annoyed the South Koreans at a time when we are trying to maintain and strengthen strategic ties with Seoul.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is Abe an obstacle to the strategic policy underlying the US “pivot” to Asia?
GRIMES: Abe is at least a partial obstacle. Ironically, Abe is now implementing many of the specific policies the US has desired of Japan for quite some time. For example, “Abenomics” in many ways is in line with policies the US Treasury has long recommended for Japan. Abe is pursuing a more open trade policy by having Japan enter the TPP talks, and he is saying some of the right things on structural reform. On security policy, Abe is moving to enhance Japan’s military capabilities, and to better integrate US and Japanese forces.
All of this is attractive to many American officials.
But Abe as a person is an enormous problem.
On the one hand, he seems to have stabilized the political scene in Japan, and is therefore often seen as the one guy who might be effective in reenergizing Japan.
On the other hand, Abe creates a large set of problems with Japan’s neighbors, undermining Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. From the US point of view, Abe’s actions are very hard to defend.
The US is on record as saying Japan committed war crimes, Japan committed aggression, and the “comfort women” issue is real. That view of history will not change to accommodate Abe or other revisionist nationalists in Japan.
In sum, the US tends to be on the same page with Abe on key policy issues. But Washington finds itself in a difficult position because Abe undermines much of the moral force of the US strategic position in East Asia.
DISPATCH JAPAN: It was very revealing that a good number of well-informed people in the US thought that Abe had deliberately chosen to be photographed sitting in an Air Force jet emblazoned with the number “731” when he visited an Air Self-Defense Force base in Miyagi prefecture recently. Kantei spokesmen later explained it was purely coincidental, but Abe’s reputation is such that many were open to believing the worst.
GRIMES: When I first saw the photo, I thought: ‘This had to have been intentional.’ Then I thought: ‘No, even Abe would not have done that.’
Even granting that Abe’s handlers made a mistake, it is an extraordinary mistake. No one saw the big “731” and realized it would be a problem? Many people outside of Japan who see a piece of Japanese military equipment identified with a big “731” would just instinctively think of the infamous Unit 731 [part of Japan’s Kwantung Army that conducted horrific experiments on humans in China during World War II – ed]. And it’s not as if Unit 731 has not been widely-written about and publicized in Japan. It has. Just as 3-11 will always be remembered in Japan for the triple disaster, and 9-11 will always be remembered in the US for the terrorist attacks, the numbers “731” are sufficiently known in Japan to evoke a specific memory.
Nevertheless, the dark connotation of the numbers “731” was completely off the radar screen of Abe’s advisors. Numbers mean something, for better or worse. But Abe and his people entirely missed the hugely negative message that would quickly spread throughout the region from the appearance of Abe in that plane.
Prime Minister Abe and many of his advisors seem to lack any real awareness of how other people in the region view history.My concern is that with Abe in office, we will see more and more of this type of incident.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Looking forward, what do you see as the prospect for improved relations between Japan and the ROK?
GRIMES: There is a fairly broad consensus within the Korean and Japanese militaries, and within the respective foreign ministries, that it is in the strategic interests of South Korea and Japan to work closely on security matters. That is why the two countries came so close last year to concluding a military-intelligence sharing agreement.
In this case, the problem lies as much if not more on the Korean side. Korea’s political leaders need some kind of cover to justify carving out a special relationship with Japan in this critical area. Abe’s comments on history and “comfort women” make progress all the more difficult, but the problem runs deeper than Abe.
The best hope is time, during which confidence-building measures can take effect, with the Japanese government actively seen as trying to improve ties with South Korea.
But I am not sure that Abe can be the vessel for that.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You don’t seem too optimistic about improved regional ties in Northeast Asia.
GRIMES: The things that most worry me about the Abe administration are also the things that might otherwise be cause for some confidence.
Assuming the LDP does well in the Upper House election, Abe is likely to be in office for quite some time. Looking back over the last 25 tumultuous years of Japanese politics, the prime ministers who were able to accomplish the most were those who stayed in office the longest. Yasuhiro Nakasone was one. Ryutaro Hashimoto is arguably in this category. And Junichiro Koizumi is perhaps the best example.
No leader can have a long-term impact if, three months after taking office, his own party is trying to figure out how to get rid of him.
A convincing win for the LDP in the Upper House will give the LDP working majorities in the Diet, and will make Abe the only credible figure to run the Japanese government for a good period of time. That would allow the Japanese government to actually undertake some considerable changes and reforms.
The flip side of this scenario is that the stronger Abe is domestically, the more likely he is to be his true self – “Abe as Abe.” From the US perspective, we really don’t want Abe to be Abe. If Abe is politically free to be Abe, he is liable to try to change the Murayama Statement or take other actions that are almost guaranteed to greatly complicate diplomacy in the region.
In many ways Abe has changed the dynamic in the US-Japan alliance. For decades, Japanese felt caught in the traditional “entrapment vs. abandonment” dilemma common among small nations that are heavily dependent on larger nations. Japanese did not want to be abandoned by the US, but did not want to be ensnared in a US-led war that was outside the bounds of Japan’s national interests.
Today, it is the US that must worry about entrapment. There are real, serious concerns among American policy makers of the US being entrapped in a confrontation in Asia caused at least in part by Japan. In particular, the US very much wants the rhetoric and tension surrounding the Senkakus to subside.
This is not to suggest that Japan should in any way be ceding territory to China. It is to say that the US does not want to be drawn into an unnecessary confrontation over the Senkakus that could lead to a broader war.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How will the US deal with Abe going forward?
GRIMES: The dilemma for the US is to make clear that we have an alliance with Japan, and that the alliance is not dependent on any one individual. We faced this problem with Kurt Waldheim when he was elected president of Austria, after a committee of historians had found he had lied about his activities as a German Army officer at the end of World War II. While he was president of Austria, Waldheim was essentially banned from visiting the United States.
The US might have to consider a similar course of action in the event Abe pursues a repeal of the Murayama Statement or other actions that amount to denial of Japan’s aggression and human rights violations during World War II. Under these circumstances, Abe could be denied access to high US officials – the president, the secretary of state. Critical issues with Japan would be discussed at lower levels.
This would be enormously costly to the alliance, as it would undoubtedly be complicated to coordinate bilateral ties with the US not having contact with Japan’s top leader.
But I could easily see it happening. It would also be very costly to Abe, as the mark of American approval remains an important part of the credibility of any Japanese premier.
One only has to look at the case of Yukio Hatoyama to see that this is the case. Hatoyama was desperately unprepared to be prime minister. But American unhappiness with Hatoyama had little to do with his incompetence and much to do with his controversial views about restructuring aspects of the US-Japan alliance. The withdrawal of grace by the United States was enormously harmful politically to Hatoyama, and hastened his demise.
My hope is that fear of receiving the “Waldheim treatment” might lead to restraint on the part of Abe. We shall see.