The Strategist Six: Yoichi Funabashi
6 Apr 2017|

Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, analysts, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

1. You’ve watched the Japan–US relationship evolve for more than four decades. What’s your assessment of bilateral ties today, and how do you evaluate Prime Minister Abe’s management of relations with the Trump administration?

It was positive that Prime Minister Abe has twice been able to meet with Donald Trump, both as president-elect and after the inauguration, because the new administration is both unpredictable and appears set to challenge America’s role in the liberal international order. Japan has significant interests in maintaining that order, so I think it was imperative that Prime Minister Abe was able to share his strategic views with the new president, as well as seek certain reassurances on issues like Article 5 and the provision of extended deterrence. So on the strategic front, the Abe–Trump meetings have been quite helpful and productive, but on the economic and trade policy front, the US and Japan appear to have divergent views on how to tackle the trade imbalance and answer other economic questions. To that end, it remains to be seen how well the Aso­­–Pence economic dialogue can tackle these challenges.

2. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the scrapheap, what can countries like Japan and Australia do to ensure high-quality trade liberalisation and economic integration continues in the Asia–Pacific?

Yes, the TPP is politically dead, but I think it’ll remain a useful concept, even if it needs a different name. Japan and Australia should continue with the TPP without the US—the TPP-11—which should be used to push for higher standards of rules and norms to support regional trade liberalisation. The question is really about the role that China plays in the region’s trade affairs. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is now the “lowest common denominator” trade deal, so I think it’s reasonable for Australia and Japan to work with other like-minded TPP signatories to have some of the TPP standards incorporated into RCEP. It could also be conducive and productive for China if it were to take advantage of the opportunity to push for structural reform in their domestic economy.

3. It’s been one year since Australia’s competitive evaluation process rejected Japan’s bid to build our future submarine fleet. As a strategic partner, how important is Australia to Japan?

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with Australia’s decision to favor French over Japanese submarine technology, but I also think Japan was unprepared and became a competitive player too late. I don’t think it changed the fundamental strategic value Tokyo sees in Canberra. Cooperation between Japan and Australia has always been crucial to maintaining peace and security in the Asia–Pacific. Indeed, strong cooperation between the two countries is even more necessary today given the uncertainty around America’s commitment to region, our desire for stability in the South China Sea, and as we face the contingency phase of managing North Korea. In those areas, Japan and Australia are natural allies and must deepen cooperation.

Japan has been a bit uneasy with what it sees as Australia’s somewhat schizophrenic views on China, as it’s still yet to reconcile the two strands of its economic cooperation with China and strategic cooperation with the US. Of course, Australia isn’t alone in this situation. But it means it’s particularly important for Canberra and Tokyo to continue to share strategic assessments of regional developments, particularly around China’s risks and opportunities.

4. What does Japan see when it looks at Xi Jinping’s China?

Xi Jinping has completely ended China’s ‘peaceful rise’ strategy, and now poses serious threat to peace and stability in the Asia­­–Pacific. It has been a rude awakening for Japan to appreciate that China had ended that phase, and we aren’t so sure where China’s now headed. On the regional stage, China has emerged as a revisionist power and Japan is most nakedly exposed to its aggressiveness. On the global stage, China is still basically a free-rider that hasn’t decided yet to be a responsible stakeholder and rule-maker. It’s not sustainable, and I think that the moment of truth will come when China defines its role on the Korean Peninsula. This is the third crisis on the Peninsula since the 1990s, and so “business as usual” simply won’t work. I think we have to admit that strategic patience has failed completely, and I think China should be blamed for that failure. So how China will respond to this situation and how we can coordinate a policy to work with China on the DPRK will be the biggest test in my view.

5. Can Prime Minister Abe’s international agenda survive his prime ministership?

The stability of Japan’s domestic politics has allowed it to play a more meaningful role in supporting regional stability. It’s most likely that this domestic political stability will continue until 2021, when Abe will be forced to step down—despite the current scandal he faces, I think it’ll be a fleeting moment. I’m more worried about the political dynamics after Abe leaves. Traditionally whenever Japan has had a long-tenured government we’ve seen political turmoil follow. That might be the case again.

I’m particularly concerned about the possibility of right-wing populist sentiments being unleashed more visibly after Abe retires. Abe, as possibly the most conservative leader Japan’s had in the past 70 years, has been in a strong position to stave off pressure from right wingers. He’s certainly incorporated some of their political dynamics and aspirations into his politics, but policy-wise he’s proven to be much more centrist. That’s helped to stablise our domestic politics, as well as Japan’s relations with its neighbours, particularly China and South Korea, although those relations have continued to be strained. Actually, how well Japan manages its relationships with Beijing and Seoul is central. If those relationships become further strained it may cause a backlash from conservatives. Similarly, if Trump and Abe can’t manage their relationship, or if Trump turns out to be hopelessly unhelpful for Japan and the US–Japan relationship, then that could stimulate anti-US sentiment that radically changes Japan’s domestic politics.

6. Japan’s aging and shrinking population represents a significant challenge for the country. Does Japan need to seriously review its immigration policies in order spur economic growth and underwrite stability?

The Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation has argued that Japan should relax its immigration policies and welcome a very modest number of around 150,000 per annum for the next 30 years, or something similar. At this point however, the Abe government simply isn’t interested in introducing changes to the country’s immigration policies. While they have pursued a back-door policy to allow foreigners to come to Japan for 3–5 years, it sort of acts like a rotation system. That’s perhaps better than nothing, but they should be treated as more than laborers. And once we open that door to foreigners, they should be welcomed as fellow citizens. We need a plan to get there, because the Japanese economy simply won’t revitalise if we don’t adjust our immigration policies.