Asia in Review Archive (2018)


Date of AiR edition

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4 December 2018

Japan: Contentious immigration bill passes Lower House

(dql) Japan’s Lower House passed with the votes of the ruling coalition of Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito as well as other parties the immigration reform bill proposed earlier last month by the Abe administration, amid fierce criticism and opposition of opposition parties which – in order to block the bill  – even resorted to an unsuccessful no-confidence motion against Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita, who has been overseeing the drafting of the bill, over his alleged failure to deliver proper explanations on the bill. [Nikkei Asian Review] [Mainichi]

The bill, which is now under debate in the Upper House and expected to be enacted next week [Japan Times], introduces two new visa categories with one for unskilled workers who would be allowed to stay alone for five years without possibility of extension, and the other for skilled workers which would permit family reunion and visa extension. [AiR 1/11/2018]

4 December 2018

South Korea: Arrest warrants against ex Supreme Court judges filed

(dql) For the first time in South Korea’s history, arrest warrants have been filed against two former Supreme Court justices over allegations of their involvement in the ballooning power abuse case linked to the country’s top court and its leadership. [AiR 3/9/2018] Ko Young-han and Park Byong-dae are accused of working at the behest of then Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae to interfere in politically sensitive trials in order to court then President Park Geun-hye’s (2013-2017) approval of the establishment of a separate court of appeals, Yang’s personal project. [Korea Times]

With regards to one of these sensitive trials, prosecutors raided offices of two lawyers at the country’s top law firm Kim & Chang who are suspected of having helped Yang’s court in delaying proceedings in a compensation suit of Korean forced labor victims against Japanese companies in which the law firm represented the Japanese companies and which the Park administration appeared to have deemed as damaging South Korea’s relationship with Japan. [Korea Herald]

In a related development, the chief of the National Court Administration (NCA), the Supreme Court’s governing body, confirmed that an announcement by a judges’ council endorsing parliament’s push for impeachment of incumbent judges implicated in the power abuse scandal is not legally binding.  Representative judges from district courts demanded the impeachment of sitting judges implicated in the case. [Yonhap]

4 December 2018

Japan angered over Chinese maritime and air force actions

(dql) Japan lodged a protest against China over Beijing’s deployment of a gas drilling vessel to the Chinese side of the Japan-China median line between the two countries in the East China Sea. [Japan Today]

In another development, Japan’s Ministry of Defense confirmed that the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) scrambled fighter jets to intercept Chinese electronic warfare and surveillance plane crossing the Tsushima Strait, a channel linking the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea last week. [The Diplomat]

Meanwhile, Japan last week revealed its plan to modify its two Izumo-class helicopter carriers in order to support F-35 Lightning stealth fighters. [National Interest] In a related development, Tokyo is reportedly planning to order a mix of 100 Lockheed Martin F-35As and Bs to supplement the 42 F-35As which are already in service or ordered. [Australian Aviation]

4 December 2018

India’s ‘trilaterals’ with USA and Japan, and with Russia and China at G 20 summit

(dql) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday participated in the first trilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump at the sidelines of the G20 summit. He reaffirmed India’s close cooperation with the USA and Japan on the basis of a shared vision and goal in the strategic region among the partners. [Times Now News]

Meanwhile, Modi also met with Russian and Chinese Presidents Putin and Xi for the second Russia-India-China ‘RIC’ Trilateral Summit after 12 years. According to a statement of India’s Foreign Ministry, the “leaders discussed cooperation and coordination in various areas which could contribute to global peace and stability”, in an atmosphere “characterised by warmth and positivity”. [Scroll]

Modi’s trilateral meetings signals the necessity of India’s diplomacy to be nimble if New Delhi wants to preserve country’s national interests under the pressure of the US-Chinese rivalry. [The Diplomat]

27 November 2018

Japan: Working until 70?

(dql) In a move to promote economic growth under the pressure of a fast-aging society, the Abe administration announced plans to raise the working age limit from the current threshold of 65 to 70.  The plans are expected to be decided at a meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy on Monday to serve as a basis for an action plan to be adopted summer 2019. They signal   Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first step towards reforming the country’s social security system over a three-year period to better cover all generations. [Mainichi]

27 November 2018

Japan-Russia talks on peace treaty to end territorial dispute

(dql) Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart agreed last week on close cooperation toward progress in talks to settle the countries dispute over what Japan calls Northern Territories, four islands that the former Soviet Union seized following Japan’s surrender in 1945. They are known as the Southern Kurils in Russia. The dispute has blocked a peace treaty to formally end World War II until today. [Mainichi]

20 November 2018

Japan: New visa regulations expected bring in up to 345.000 foreign workers

(dql) Pressured by the opposition, the Abe administration has come up with numbers of foreign workers expected to come to Japan if the cabinet’s bill on new working visas, proposed earlier this month [Air 1/11/2018], passes parliament in December and the new law comes into force in April 2019. Among an estimated overall number of more than 345.000 foreign low-skilled workers in five years, the nursing care sector is believed to receive an influx of between 50,000 to 60,000 workers, following by the restaurant industry (41,000 to 53,000), the construction sector (30,000 to 40,000) and the building-cleaning firms (28,000 to 37,000). [Japan Times]

In a major change of the country’s traditional immigration policy, the new law would allow foreign workers to live permanently in Japan. Abe’s bill is, however, facing fierce criticism denouncing it as hastily prepared and lacking necessary details, in particular with regards to the increased pressure on the country’s social security in the wake of the workers influx. [Japan Today]

13 November 2018

US-Japan relations: Alliance reassured amid trade tensions

(dql) During his meeting with Prime Minister Abe on Monday,  U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised the US-Japan alliance as a “cornerstone of the region’s peace and prosperity” and reassured that Japan “is not only an ally but a friend”. While he agreed with Abe to continue to uphold economic sanctions against North Korea, he, however, also insisted that Tokyo needs to increase efforts to reduce the bilateral trade imbalance. As of September, the US trade deficit rose to 50 billion USD. [Japan Times] [US News]

Earlier last week, President Trump accused Japan of unfair trade practices, claiming that “they send in millions of cars at a very low tax. They don’t take our cars, and if they do they have a massive tax.” [Straits Times]

6 November 2018

Japan: New immigration law to ease labor shortage on the way

(dql) Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet last week approved a bill for the revision of the country’s immigration law which, if approved by the parliament, would admit more foreign workers to Japan. In a move to cope with a serious labor shortage, with around half a million people annually exiting the working-age category of 15-64, the new law would introduce to two visa categories with one for unskilled workers who would be allowed to stay alone for five years without possibility of extension, and the other for skilled workers which would permit family reunion and visa extension.

Parliamentary passage of the bill is expected for December, implementation for April 2019.  [Nikkei Asian Review] [GCR]

6 November 2018

Japan: Ratification of huge FTA  with EU on the way

(dql) The Abe administration has submitted to the parliament a bill for ratification of a Japan-EU free trade agreement which would be one of the world’s largest FTA covering 30% of global gross domestic product and roughly 40% of world trade.

With the FTA, the Japanese government eyes an increase of its real GDP by more than 44 billion USD and the creation of 290,000 jobs. [Nikkei Asian Review] 

6 November 2018

China and Japan competing over infrastructure investments in the Philippines

(jk) President Duterte, who wants to significantly increase infrastructure spending, is looking to both Japan and China for investment. Both have pledged to help the Philippines build new railways. While China has expressed willingness to bankroll long haul railway projects, the Philippines and Japan early this year signed a loan agreement for the construction of the Philippines’ first subway in Manila. [PhilStar]

30 October 2018

Abe’s visit to China confirms thawing Sino-Japanese relations

(dql) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to China last week, the first visit of a Japanese Prime Minister since 2011, signaled a new height in both countries’ improved relations which have steadily developed since last year.  Asia’s two biggest economies pledged to beef up economic ties and promote free trade and inked more than 500 business deals with a total value of more than 2.6 billion USD, 50 joint infrastructure projects, as well as a three-year currency swap agreement of up to more than 30 billion USD. Amid trade tensions with the USA, Abe, who was accompanied by nearly 1,000 delegates from Japanese companies, and Chinese Premier Li agreed to speed up negotiations on a three-way free trade agreement with South Korea and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Both sides also agreed to abstain from threats or direct aggression at each other and to increase high-level diplomatic and military exchanges through constructive dialogue. [South China Morning][Straits Time][East Asia Forum]

30 October 2018

Modi-Abe summit in Japan

(ls) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his holiday home in Japan. They held a more formal summit on Monday in Tokyo. Relations with China are a major issue shared by Modi and Abe. In a sign of closer relations, India and Japan are also set to hold their first joint military exercises involving ground forces, starting next month. Although Japan has long seen the U.S. as its main ally, especially in defense, Abe is courting other ties. He has also been vocal about free trade, which runs counter to Trump’s moves to raise tariffs. [Japan Today]

The warm Modi-Abe relationship has been built over 12 meetings, including four summits, since 2014. Such symbiosis, unusual in international relations, has heightened interest in this 13th India-Japan Summit. Close cooperation with a democratic India, located mid-way along trade-routes connecting East Asia with the Middle East and Africa, would be advantageous to Japan. At the same time, a technologically deficient India has much to gain from a relationship with a country like Japan. [Indian Express]

30 October 2018

Japan, South Korea and USA militaries reaffirm regional cooperation

(dql) At meeting last week Japanese, South Korean, and US military chiefs Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, Gen. Park Han-ki and Gen. Joseph Dunford held talks on cooperation on regional contingency and peace issues and agreed to continue working together on mutual security issues and strengthen multilateral cooperation for peace and stability in the region, with Gen. Dunford reaffirming  Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to defend Seoul and Tokyo “if called upon and to provide deterrence guaranteed by the full spectrum of U.S. military capabilities.” [Yonhap 1]

In a related development, U.S. forces in Japan – in an apparent move directed against North Korea and China – have begun stationing personnel as part of the launch of a new command in Japan responsible for directing operations of the Army’s X-band radar units [Japan Times], while South Korea’s defense authorities confirmed that a Chinese military aircraft entered on Monday South Korea’s air defense domain without notice, making it the sixth flight inside South Korea’s air defense domain in this year. [Yonhap 2]

Japanese-South Korean relations, meanwhile, will be put under stress following a landmark ruling of the South Korean Supreme ordering a Japanese firm to pay compensation to four South Koreans for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula before the end of World War II. [Time] Prime Minister rejected the much anticipated ruling, which took more than five years of deliberation, as “an impossible judgment under international law”, while Foreign Minister Kono called in the South Korean Ambassador to protest the ruling and to warn to bring the case before an international court should Seoul not immediately take appropriate measures. [Rappler]

23 October 2018

Japan: Newly appointed minister under pressure over graft allegations

(dql) Two weeks only in office, Satsuki Katayama, Japan’s newly appointed Minister for Regional Revitalization and Female Empowerment, is facing graft allegations of an investigative magazine according to which she received 1 million Yen (appr. 9.000 USD) from the owner of a manufacturing company in return for her support in lobbying tax authorities for preferential tax treatment of the company. Katayama, the only female Minister in Abe’s new cabinet reshuffled early October after his re-election as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, denied the allegations and announced to sue the magazine for defamation. [Kyodo] [Japan Times]

23 October 2018

China and Japan strengthen military and financial ties

(dql) Signaling the ongoing thaw in Sino-Japanese relations, the Defense Ministers of both countries at the first Japan-China defense ministerial meeting in three years have agreed to bolster closer ties between their countries’ defense authorities and troops and to immediately start to work out specific programs for interactions between defense ministers, high-ranking officials and troops as well as for policy dialogue. The agreement comes shortly ahead of the highly anticipated summit between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week. [Japan Times]

In a related development, Japan and China also agreed on the resumption of the currency swap agreement for the Japanese Yen and the Chinese Yuan with a cap of around 3 trillion Yen (appr. 26 billion USD). The previous agreement of 2002 expired in September 2013 following Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea which China also claims. [Manichi]

23 October 2018

India and China signing security agreement while Japan and India enhancing military cooperation

(hg) India and China are about to sign a bilateral agreement covering counter-terrorism operations, fighting drug and human trafficking, strategic intelligence sharing and natural disaster mitigation, the first-ever security agreement between the two countries. [Livemint]

More important, however, appear preparations of a military cooperation agreement between Japan and India that will be discussed when the countries’ Prime Ministers meet later this month on occasion of the 13th India-Japan summit in Tokyo.

The agreement aims at allowing the reciprocal exchange of supplies and logistical support for the countries’ forces based on mutual access to ports and bases.

For India, that would allow the use Japan’s base in Djibouti between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, overlooking one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors. Djibouti also hosts a major US special-operation forces outpost at Camp Lemonnier and, just a few miles away, China’s first overseas military base.

In turn, Japan could access Indian bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, close to the sea lanes west of the Malacca Strait where India started to position advanced P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes and maritime surveillance drones.

Besides, Japan and India might also discuss at the summit later this month India’s purchase of 12 Shinmaywa US-2i search-and-rescue and maritime surveillance planes, which would also be stationed at the Andaman and Nicobar islands. [Business Insider]

16 October 2018

Japan-India relations: Joint maritime exercises resumed

(dql) Signalling improving military ties between Japan and India, both countries resumed the Japan-India Maritime Exercises after a break of five years. The weeklong drills from 7-15 October involved Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) Ships Kaga, an Izumo Class Helicopter Destroyer and Inazuma, a guided missile destroyer and three indigenously designed and built warships and a Fleet Tanker on the Indian side. [SLD]

For  a critical assessment of India’s “inconsistent” approach towards the Indo-Pacific “confus[ing] both India’s partner as much as China”, see Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan in [The Diplomat].

9 October 2018

Japan: Ruling LDP gears up push for constitutional revision

(dql) Following Prime Minister Abe’s re-election as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last month, party executives announced LDP’s decision to submit a proposal for constitutional reform to the constitutional commissions of both houses of the Diet at the upcoming session later this month without prior talks with its coalition partner Komeito which remains hesitant about changing the war-renouncing Article 9. The decision backs Abe’s push for a swift revision of the constitution which he was campaigning for in the run-up to the LPD leadership election. [Japan Today]

Japan Today     

9 October 2018

Japan: Countering Chinese influence in Southeast Asia

(dql/ls) Reflecting Japan’s efforts to expand its economic foothold in the Mekong region to counter China’s growing influence, Japan at the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo together with the Mekong countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan vowed in a joint statement to promote development programs and further improve “connectivity” and “quality infrastructure” projects in the region while also confirming the importance of maintaining the rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. [Japan Times 1]

In a related development, Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Prayuth Chan-ocha ahead of the Mekong-Japan summit affirmed both countries’ cooperation in promoting free trade, with the latter voicing Thailand’s readiness to participate in the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. [Japan Times 2]

Meanwhile, Japanese troops participated in joint exercises in the Philippines with US and Filipino troops. The exercise, code-named Kamandag (Venom), marked the first time Japanese armoured military vehicles were used on foreign soil since the country adopted a pacifist constitution after its 1945 defeat. A US Marine communications officer said, “it has nothing to do with a foreign nation or any sort of foreign army. This is exclusively counterterrorism within the Philippines.” [South China Morning Post]

9 October 2018

India – Japan hold maritime military exercises

(jk) The third instalment of the JIMEX exercises between Japan and India are taking place this week. The last time these exercises were held was in 2013. It is aimed at improving inter-operability and understanding as well as learning from each other’s best practices. [Economic Times]

2 October 2018

Japan-China relations: Agreement on North Korea’s ship-to-ship transfers and military muscle-flexing in the Indian Ocean

(dql) In a sign of thawing ties between China and Japan, both countries reached an agreement at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week on cooperation and information sharing in handling ship-to-ship goods transfers by North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions. Both sides also agreed to increase cooperation in advanced technology and strengthen efforts towards the resumption of a currency swap arrangement to provide funds in times of crisis [Japan Times]

At the same time, however, Japan’s biggest warship, the Kaga helicopter carrier, joined naval drills with Britain’s HMS Argyll in the Indian Ocean signaling Japan’s efforts to ally with the UK (and the USA) to counter growing China’s influence in the region and to prevent key commercial sea lanes coming under Beijing’s control. [Reuters]

In a latest development the helicopter carrier sailed into Colombo harbor of Sri Lanka, a move signaling Japan’s readiness and capability to dispatch its most powerful military hardware to the strategically important region. Japanese naval vessels have made 50 stops in Sri Lanka in the past five years. [Channel News Asia]

25 September 2018

South China Sea update – and fresh examples of embedded reporting

(ls) China has criticized Western nations’ recent operations in the South China Sea. Beijing’s ambassador to Britain said that big countries from outside the region were abusing their freedom of navigation rights and causing trouble in the region. Moreover, he insisted that China and ASEAN made progress in formulating a code of conduct, demonstrating that countries in the region had the confidence and capability to resolve disputes. The comments came after the British warship HMS Albion sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands, a group of islands controlled by Beijing in the South China Sea on August 31. [South China Morning Post]

Also, a Japanese attack submarine and three warships took part in exercises in the South China Sea for the first time, suggesting Tokyo’s growing concern over Beijing’s expansion of man-made islands and military assets there. The Japanese submarine then went on to a visit to Vietnam, bolstering Japan’s efforts to solidify ties with Southeast Asian countries that have disputed China’s claims in the region. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing next month. [New York Times 1]

The South China Sea conflict is interesting also from a media perspective, as we can see fresh examples of so-called “embedded journalism”. CNN published an interactive multimedia feature a few weeks ago, as we also reported in AiR. [CNN] Now, the New York Times followed suit with first-hand reporting from “near mischief reef” aboard a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane. [New York Times 2] While the term embedded journalism could be applied to many historical interactions between journalists and military personnel, it first came to be used in the media coverage of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The practice has often been criticized for a possible lack of objectivity. [Wikipedia]

25 September 2018

Japan: Boosting military capabilities

(dql) Officials of the Japanese Defence Ministry announced that Japan is Japan is to develop a new generation of supersonic gliding bombs to enable the military to deliver a warhead from a safe distance if outlying islands it controls are attacked or occupied by an enemy force, with a fully functional weapon to be deployed by 2025. [Japan Times]

25 September 2018

Japan: Abe wins 3rd term as Liberal Democratic Party president

(dql) As widely expected, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a commanding victory in last week’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election against former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba receiving 553 out of a total of 810 votes of rank-and-file party members. [The Mainichi]

Abe’s win came despite the challenges he faced in the wake of domestic political scandals in which he was allegedly involved, stagnant wages and his declining influence in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. [New York Times]

18 September 2018

Japan: Abe set to win LDP president election

(dql) Two days ahead of the election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Thursday Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to win the election against his contender former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba in the light of a comfortable lead of 20 points according to latest polls conducted last week. If elected, Abe would assume the post for a third consecutive term. [The Japan Times]

For a critical assessment of Abe’s third term LDP leadership and the prospects for Japan’s domestic and international policies see Tobias Harris for whom Abe’s victory would mean the “beginning of the end of his time as an effective prime minister instead of inaugurating a new era of energetic leadership”. [East Asia Forum]

18 September 2018

Japan-Russia relations: Putin proposes peace treaty “without any preconditions”

(ts) During the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok last week, Russian President Putin took Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by surprise with a proposal of a peace treaty “without any preconditions” by the end of the year on the basis of which both sides would continue talks on solving the decade-long territorial dispute over a chain of pacific islands called on the Russian side Southern Kurils and on the Japanese side the Northern Territories. While Abe, citing the need for continuing the dialogue between both countries to lessen hostilities and scepticism, refrained from directly responding to proposal at the forum, his Chief Cabinet Secretary was outspoken in declining Putin’s offer reassuring Japan’s stance of solving the territorial dispute first before concluding a peace treaty. [Nikkei Asian Review][The Japan Times]

18 September 2018

Japan: Submarine drill in South China Sea made public for the first time

(dql) In a rare move, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force for the first time ever revealed that a Japanese submarine conducted a drill in the South China Sea accompanied by a helicopter carrier and two destroyers. The exercise was conducted within the Nine-Dash Line, China’s self-declared maritime claim, prompting a rebuke by the Chinese Foreign Ministry warning outside-countries of doing “anything that would harm regional peace and stability.” [Global Times]

While Prime Minister Abe tried to downplay the significance of the drill and assured that it was not directed against any specific country, the move is widely seen as an attempt to counter Beijing’s military muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, signaled not least by the fact that following the end of the drill the submarine crew made a port call to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam which strongly opposes China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asian Review][Bloomberg]

11 September 2018

US tariffs threats against China and Japan

(dql/ts) With tariffs of 50 billion USD worth of Chinese imports existing, US President Trump on last Friday announced that tariffs on 200 billion USD worth of Chinese goods would take place soon, the latest move in the tit-for-tat tariff rounds in the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. Trump added that another 267 billion USD are “ready to go on short notice if I want”. [Business Insider]

China promised retaliatory measures, signaling an unyielding stance. [South China Moring Post]

Meanwhile, President Trump is reportedly determined to hit Japan with tariffs to reduce the trade deficit with the world’s largest economy. In Wall Street Journal he is cited by reporter James Freeman saying “I tell them [Japan] how much they have to pay” in a phone with the reporter. [Wall Street Journal]

Trump’s statement comes at a time in which the USA is renegotiating trade deals with partners, so the trade deal with Canada and Mexico, in order to reduce the respective trade deficits. [Sputnik News]

11 September 2018

Australia and Zew Zealand deploy aircrafts to Japan

(ts) The governments of Australia and New Zealand announced on Friday their plan to deploy three maritime patrol aircraft to Japan in order to help to enforce the sanctions against North Korea which have been imposed by the United Nations. The aircrafts will conduct maritime surveillance to search for signs of activities in international waters that break U.N: sanctions. Australia will add two AP-3C Orion to an already existing aircraft. New Zealand intends to deploy a P-3K2 plane.

The United States and North Korea have entered into negotiations about the nuclear weapons program, but up to now no further progress has been made. New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said his government would welcome the dialogue , but „until such time as North Korea abides by its international obligations full implementation of the United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions will be essential”. [Reuters]

11 September 2018

EU-Japan agreement on data transfer

(dql/ts) The world’s largest area of safe data flows is in the making, as the EU announced that it has launched procedures to add Japan to the white list of countries exempt from stricter rules governing personal data transfers. The move follows an agreement in July 2018 in which both sides recognize each other’s data protection systems as adequate.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, enacted in May, prohibits the transfer of personal data out of the European Economic Area. A violation by a company could result in a fine up to 20 million Euros or 4% of ist annual sales. [Nikkei Asian Review] [European Sting]

The agreement on data transfer adds to Japan–European Union Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) of 17 July 2018. If ratified (with ratification expected by March 2019), this free trade agreement would cover 640 million people and 28% of world GDP, compared to 13% of world GDP for TPP if all 11 countries ratify it. [East Asia Forum]

4 September 2018

Relaxation in Sino-Japanese relations over US trade unilateralism?  

(hg) China’s Vice-President Wang Qishan, a trusted ally of President Xi, received a high-level Japanese delegation where the secretary general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party issued an invitation to Wang said to prepare Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to China that could be followed by Xi visiting Japan afterwards.

Signs for a relaxation in the countries´ tensioned relations first emerged late last year and have been followed by a series of high-level diplomatic contacts subsequently involving both countries’ foreign and finance ministers.

After Japan had been a driving force to revive the quadrilateral anti-China alliance between Japan, the US, Australia and India, Abe’s shift to a friendlier China policy is to a great deal motivated by the Trump adminstration´s protectionist unilateral trade approach that also harms Japan which supports a free and multilateral trade mechanism that forms some common ground with China. [SCMP]

The ongoing rapprochement between the world’s second- and third-largest economy is part of a reordering of economic relationships around the globe that partly supersedes the outlines of an emerging security order which focused at containing China. On the other hand, it has to be very much doubted that the recent signs of Sino-Chinese rapprochement signal a fraying of the US–Japanese alliance. [Financial Times]

Serious disturbances, however, are undeniable. Unannounced shifts in Trump administration policies have exposed some of Japan’s core economic and security interests. Besides conflicting trade policies, Japan has been surprised by the US turn in its North Korea policy in March this year. Against this background, the careful rebuilding of relations with China is at least partly a tactical move born of repeated frustrations while it hampers at least the momentum of US strategic adavancments. [East Asia Forum]

4 September 2018

Japan’s continuous military assertiveness with regard to China

(hg) The notorious simultaneity of paradox trends in international relations is once more exhibited by Tokyo showing its military assertiveness at several occasions after it has released a defense white paper which highlights a growing threat from China as a major issue guiding the country’s military strategy while a careful rapprochement policy towards China continues to unfold.

One of these signs of military assertiveness is the recent decision to have a military joint exercise of Japan’s newly formed marine Brigade with US and Philippine troops in October off the coast of Okinawa and in the South China Sea. Japan’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade of the Ground Self Defense Forces which has been launched this March has roughly 2,100 members and is designed to take back islands in the case of a foreign occupation. [Nikkei Asian Review]

Moreover, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force have just deployed three ships in late August to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The flotilla includes the helicopter destroyer Kaga – Japan’s largest warship -, and the escort destroyers Inazuma and Suzutsuki. It will make port calls in the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India. [The Diplomat]

Lastly, at the very same day a Japanese delegation visited China’s Vice-President Wang, the Japanese Ministry of Defense released a defense budget which, if passed, would be the most expensive in the country’s history. The biggest position in the spending proposal is on missile defense, amounting of more than twice the total from the year before and including Aegis Ashore radar missile tracking stations built by Lockheed Martin. [Asia Times]

4 September 2018

The next step on the way to RCEP amid improving Sino-Japanese relations

(ls) Economic ministers from ASEAN countries and China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and Korea announced that they made “good progress” at the latest round of talks aiming to create the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would be the world’s largest trade pact. ASEAN leaders said that they were willing to substantially conclude the pact by the end of this year, but India has expressed reservations about the liberalization of trade in goods and services without a corresponding liberalization of the movement of people. [The Straits Times]

The optimistic prospects of the pact are backed by improving ties between China and Japan reflected by talks between both countries finance ministers last week who agreed to bolster economic cooperation and confirmed to strengthen efforts to “maintain and promote the multilateral trade system” against. [Mainichi]

4 September 2018

Japan’s defense white paper (I):  Modern defense capabilities in cyber and outer space highlighted

(dql) In its annual white paper of last week, Japan’s Defense Ministry  – besides identifying “security challenges and destabilizing factors in the Asia-Pacific region” represented by North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, China’s unilateral escalation of China’s military activities and Russia’s intensified military activities – revealed Japan’s the efforts of to strengthen defense capabilities in the fields of cyber and outer space citing the launch on X-band defense communications satellites in 2017 and 2018 as well as an high increase of personnel within the military in charge of responding to cyber attacks. [Ministry of Defence, Japan]

A day after the release of the white paper Prime Minister Abe at a meeting of a governmental advisory panel on reviewing national defense buildup guidelines confirmed the need to strengthen the country’s defense capabilities in modern cyber and outer space warfare in the wake of the rapidly changing security situation in the region. [ABS-CBN]

4 September 2018

Japan’s defense white paper (II): Pyongyang still an serious security threat 

(dql) Despite ongoing negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearization, Japan continues to view North Korea as serious threat to itself and the region. In its annual white paper released last week, Japan’s Defense Ministry suggests that military developments in North Korea represents an “unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat to Japan’s security, and significantly damage the peace and security of the region and the international community” citing Pyongyang’s deployment of “several hundred Nodong missiles capable of reaching almost every part of Japan” and “advancements in the development and operational capabilities of nuclear weapons and missiles through repeated nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches to date.” The paper further assumes that Pyongyang seeks to “(1) advance long-range ballistic missiles’ technological reliability, (2) enhance the accuracy and operational capabilities necessary for saturation attacks, (3) improve its ability to conduct surprise attacks, and (4) diversify the forms of launches” and warned to “closely monitor specific actions by North Korea to eliminate nuclear and missile capabilities. [Ministry of Defence, Japan] [Japan Times]

In a related development, the Defense Ministry proposed a record spending of 48 billion USD next year to beef up defenses aimed at shooting down down North Korean ballistic missiles, including two ground-based Aegis Ashore radar missile tracking stations built by Lockheed Martin Corp. [Reuters]

4 September 2018

Japanese minister meets Pakistan’s new Prime Minister

(hg) Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs Kazuyuki Nakane called on Prime Minister Imran Khan expressing Japan’s desire for enhancing bilateral cooperation and stronger ties also conveying Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s commitment to work closely with his Pakistani counterpart. The visit is significant as a soft indicator of losing ties among countries forming the quadrilateral alliance that involves Japan and India, Pakistan’s arch enemy. [The Business]

4 September 2018

Integrating Taiwan in an East Asia Defense Plan via War Games?

(hg) Stephen Bryen contemplates to include Taiwan in a coordinated defense planning with the US, Japan and South Korea. For those staying alerted amid China’s rise Taiwan represents more than a sensitive issue in diplomatic terms but also a strategic asset that has been left out of the strategic calculus although offering significant military potential – at least in terms of military hardware.

What Taiwan has to offer in this regard is for instance a modern jet fighter force of 286 planes, compared with Japan’s Air Self Defense Force’s 373 and South Korea’s 466 fighter aircraft. Together with the US Air Force’s 130 front line fighters deployed to Japan plus the US Marines’ F-18s and F-35s Bryen sees the Taiwanese arsenal as a significant contribution to counter-balance China’s 1,482 fighter aircraft of which many are obsolete for front line combat.

This potential notwithstanding, there is no effective defense coordination currently at place that would include Taiwan. Instead, however, the author recommends to decisively include Taiwan in military simulations such as NATO’s operation series Spartan Alliance. [Asia Times]

4 September 2018

External Powers increasingly vying for influence in Sri Lanka

(jk/jm) Japan’s defense minister has recently been on a 2-day trip to Sri Lanka where he as one item on the agenda visited some of the island’s port facilities. Japan as well as other nations are concerned over Chinese influence in the strategically important area in the Indo-Pacific, especially after the much reported on issue surrounding the Hambantota port facility. Sri Lankan officials have talked in particular about plans to develop Trincomalee port, a former British naval and air base and then commercial deep-water port, potentially with help from Japan and India, but nothing specific has been announced yet.

Following the defense minister’s visit, the Japanese foreign minister oversaw the commissioning of two naval vessels that have been gifted by Japan to the Sri Lankan Coast Guard recently. [Forbes] In related news, the US coast guard has also gifted a vessel to Sri Lanka. The US Coast Guard cutter will be the Sri Lankan Navy’s largest ship when it will be handed over in 2019. [Economy Next]

 China and India in the meantime are also competition over the development of rural areas in Sri Lanka as China announced its plan to build 40 000 houses in Northern Sri Lanka, in an area where India built some 44 000 houses already.  [The Economic Times]

Sri Lanka has some evident opportunities here while it wants to be careful not to over-rely on one partner or another. Another strategic opportunity for Sri Lanka is its upcoming chairmanship of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a regional organization that gathers Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, discussed here [The Diplomat].

28 August 2018

Japan sails through South China Sea as China continues infrastructure build-up

(ls) The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force will dispatch three ships to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The fleet will first sail through the South China Sea and pass through the Strait of Malacca before proceeding to the Indian Ocean. Along with the United States, Japan has been consistent in its stand against China’s militarization activities in the disputed waters. [PhilStar 1]

Meanwhile, the US Department of Defense, in its annual report to US Congress, noted that Beijing has stopped its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea but has continued to build infrastructure at three outposts. The Pentagon also reported that Beijing invests resources to maintain and modernize a “limited, but survivable” nuclear force to ensure that the People’s Liberation Army will have a capacity to deliver a responsive nuclear strike. [PhilStar 2]

Fascinating aerial footage and special reporting on the Chinese build-up on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands is provided by [CNN].

28 August 2018

Japan announces plan to open an embassy in Seychelles

(jm) Japan plans to open an embassy in the Seychelles. While the embassy is expected to open in January, the Japanese ambassador to the Seychelles will remain based in Nairobi, Kenya. A local chargé d’affaires will take care of daily business. [Seychelles News Agency]

28 August 2018

Sri Lankan-Japanese cooperation in the spotlight

(jm) On the occasion of the Japanese Defense Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka last week, Sri Lankan officials invited Japan to support the country’s maritime strategy. They also assured that the China-financed Hambantota port will be open to every country and that Sri Lanka will not allow China to use the port for military purposes. [NHK World Japan] [Daily Mirror]

21 August 2018

Japan: Ruling party’s presidency race heats up over revision of Art. 9

(dql) In the race for the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, Prime Minister Abe’s main contender, has come out of the wood and urged his party not to follow Abe’s call for a quick revision of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, citing a lack of understanding of the article among the public. [Japan Times 1] Ishiba’s warning comes a few days after current LDP president Abe called on his party to speed up work to compile its plan to amend the Constitution and to submit the plan to the next Diet session, expected to be convened in fall. [Japan Times 2]

For an account on the historical background of the revision of Art. 9 and the current issues at stake see [The Diplomat].

21 August 2018

Japan-India relations: Expanding defense ties

(dql) Facing China’s increasing maritime assertiveness, the defense ministers of India and Japan agreed to begin talks as soon as possible on an agreement that would allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and India’s military to provide each other with supplies, such as fuel, transportation and other services. Both sides also agreed that the Air SDF will be observer at the next joint drills of U.S. and Indian air forces. The agreement signals a new stage in national security cooperation between the two countries. [Nikkei Asian Review]

Meanwhile, the Japan’s Defense Ministry’s Maritime Staff Office announced that it will dispatch three destroyers to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean from Sunday through October with port calls in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. [Japan Times]

21 August 2018

Japan: Tokyo in talks with Berlin and Paris to sell patrol plane technology

(dql) In attempt to boost its defense-related exports, Japan has entered into talks with the governments of France and Germany to provide parts and technology for a patrol aircraft the European countries are developing together. Berlin and Paris are reportedly interested in advanced technology used in Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ P-1 patrol aircraft, used by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. [Nikkei Asian Review]

14 August 2018

China-Japan relations: Congratulatory messages to mark peace treaty anniversary

(dql) Illustrating improvement in bilateral relations between China and Japan, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exchanged congratulatory messages on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries. The congratulatory messages were the first since 2008. [The Mainichi]

Sino-Japanese relations have been strained over a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea, but began to improve last year, in particular due to efforts to strengthen economic cooperation in the frame of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the ASEAN member states and the six Asia-Pacific states having free trade agreements with ASEAN including Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. [South China Morning Post]

Prior to the raid, an internal probe of the court brought to light more than 400 documents related to the court’s alleged wrongdoings, including pressuring judges to rule in favour of the president’s office. [Yonhap 2]

7 August 2018

South Korea: Investigations into judiciary power abuse

(dql) Headquarters of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were raided in the frame of an investigations into allegations that former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae and the National Court Administration (NCA), the administrative body of the court, tried to use politically sensitive trials as bargaining chips for favours from the Park administration for his plan to establish a new court of appeal. Among the trials under suspicion is a compensation suit filed by Korean victims of Japan’s forced labor during World War II against two Japanese firms. The Supreme Court had already decided the case in favour of the victims in 2012. However, its re-appeal had been pending at the court for unclear reasons until the resumption of the hearing last year. The prosecution suspects that Yang proposed to the Foreign Ministry a ruling in their favour in return for providing judges more opportunities for state-funded overseas studies. In 2015 the conservative Park government concluded an agreement with Tokyo under which Korea will no longer seek an apology from Japan for the 1910-45 colonial rule in return for a 8.95 million USD provision. [Yonhap 1]

Prior to the raid, an internal probe of the court brought to light more than 400 documents related to the court’s alleged wrongdoings, including pressuring judges to rule in favour of the president’s office. [Yonhap 2]

7 August 2018

Japan: Ruling party pushes for organizational reform of ministries and government agencies

(dql) The ruling Liberal Democratic Party decided to propose a reorganisation of the current 13 ministries and government agencies. Particularly targeted is the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, considered a colossal bureaucracy with an extensive portfolio incapable of responding to the complex needs of an ageing society. The reform plan comes after a series of scandals involving central government entities, including the now-defunct Social Insurance Agency, a unit under the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which failed to keep proper records of more than 50 million pension accounts. [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Mainichi]

7 August 2018

Japan, Russia at odds over Tokyo’s plan to deploy missile defense systems  

(dql) The latest, third round of “two-plus-two” meetings between the Foreign and Defense Ministers of Japan and Russia after 2013 and 2017 concluded with mixed results. While both sides agreed to cooperate in realizing the denuclearization of North Korea and increase security cooperation, they remained opposed over Tokyo’s plan to introduce two Aegis Ashore missile defense systems by 2023, a move Moscow views as strengthening U.S. missile systems in the Asia-Pacific region. [The Japan Times]

31 July 2018

China/Japan: Advancing military capabilities

(dql) According to Russian news agency TASS citing a military diplomatic source, China has received the first batch of Russian-made S-400 Triumf missile systems, Russia’s latest long-range antiaircraft missile system in service since 2007 designed to destroy aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles, including medium-range missiles, and surface targets. [TASS]

Meanwhile, Japan launched the first of a new class of guided-missile destroyers with ballistic missile defense capabilities. The first of two 8,200-ton, 170-meter–long  27DDG-class destroyers has the capability to detect and track low-flying, high-speed, low-observable anti-ship missile targets in heavy-clutter environments. [Defense News]

Furthermore, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera announced that Japan over the next 30 years would spend estimated 4.2 billion USD on purchasing and maintaining Lockheed radars to upgrade its Aegis Ashore missile defense. [The Defense Post]

31 July 2018

Japan: Large majority of ruling party lawmakers in favor of Abe’s party presidency bid

(dql) Prime Minister Abe’s re-election as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) can be regarded as secure. A poll among 450 LDP lawmakers revealed that more than three-quarters indicated that they would vote for Abe in the election scheduled for 20 September. Although intra-party factions might play a role in shifting votes and sixty-eight respondents either mentioned that they were undecided, or declined to answer, or said that they will vote according to their faction leader’s advice, it will be difficult for any contender to overtake Abe given his large lead. In case of his re-election as party leader, Abe would assume the post for a third time since late 2012 and become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. [The Japan Times]

24 July 2018

Japan-India relations: Deepening security cooperation

(dql) According to Kyodo News, citing Japanese government sources, Japan and India are expected to agree to conduct the first-ever military drill involving both country’s ground forces when both defense minister will meet in August in India. The exercise is believed to be scheduled for end of the year. [The Diplomat]

The news comes after U.S. Navy mine countermeasure units, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) MCM units, and Indian Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) units began the joint mine countermeasure exercise 2018 near Ominato, Japan [Stars and Stripes] and India and Japan held the fourth round of Maritime Affairs Dialogue in New Delhi last week to discuss core issues related to the Indo-Pacific region and maritime security. [The Times of India]

24 July 2018

Japan: Controversial laws on electoral reform and casinos enacted by ruling coalition

(dql) Japan’s Lower House, controlled by a majority of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), approved a reform bill to the Public Offices Election Act to increase the numbers of seats of the Upper House six from currently 242 to 248. While the bill has been criticised by opposition parties as a partisan move of the LDP to secure the re-election of incumbent lawmakers in certain districts, the LDP defended the passage of the bill as a measure to ensure more fairness in Upper House elections by narrowing the vote-value disparity – the difference in the weight of a single vote between urban and rural constituencies. [The Mainichi]

In another development, the Diet enacted a law allowing the establishment of casinos against fierce criticism from activists and the opposition which even filed an unsuccessful confidence vote against the Upper House President in a last ditch attempt to block legislation. Opponents of the law have cited Japan’s already well-documented gambling addiction and concerns over an increase of crime to reject the law. The government, however, argued that casinos will boost tourism and economic development in regions outside Tokyo. [Channel News Asia]

In a latest poll, two-thirds of the respondents rejected the passage of the casino bill emphasising deep-rooted public concern about gambling addiction and additional crime. [The Japan Times]

17 July 2018

Japan-France relations: Deepening security cooperation

(dql) In a move deepening security cooperation, Japan and France signed an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement under which both military forces share defense and other supplies such as food, water, fuel and ammunition to each other. Japan signed such an agreement also with the USA, Australian and the United Kingdom. [The Mainichi]

For an account on Japan’s military strategy and the need to shift from the current strategy of “forward defense” to one of “active denial” in the wake of China’s rise and its territorial ambitions in the East China Sea, see Eric Heginbotham and Richard Samuels in [Foreign Affairs].

17 July 2018

China-US trade dispute: Beijing and Washington challenging each other at the WTO

(dql) In the escalating trade dispute between China and the USA, both sides challenged each other at the World Trade Organization. Beijing lodged a WTO challenge to US President Donald Trump’s plans for a tariff increase on 200 billion USD of Chinese goods. [ABC News]

At the same time, the USA brought forward complaints against China, the European Union, Canada, Mexico and Turkey at the World Trade Organization for retaliatory tariffs on US goods as countermeasure on US tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. [Chicago Tribune/AP]

Meanwhile, the Beijing and Brussels at the China-EU Summit on Monday in Beijing vowed to cooperate in opposing protectionism and unilateralism in trade. Both sides, however, were also quick to stress not to strive for a coalition against Washington. [South China Morning Post]

In a latest move reflecting assertiveness of the European Union amid souring ties with the USA over protectionist trade policies, the European Union signed with Japan a landmark free trade agreement which will remove 99% of tariffs on goods both sides trade with each other. The agreement is one of the largest covering a third of the global economy and markets of more than 600 million people. [Bloomberg]

17 July 2018

Japan: Controversial election law reform bill approved by Upper House

(dql) Amid fierce criticism from oppostion parties, Japan‘s Upper House with the majority of the votes of the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito Party last week passed a bill to reform the country’s Public Offices Election Law calling for an increase of seats in the Upper House by six. While the ruling bloc argues that the reform aims to reduce disparities in a gap in the weight of a single vote between rural and urban constituencies, the opposition rejects the bill as a move to secure the election of incumbent LDP lawmakers in sparsely populated prefectures. [The Mainichi]

In a latest development, a Lower House panel approved the bill opening the door for its passage in the Lower House plenary session. [The Japan Times]

3 July 2018

Japan: US Lockheed Martin Corp’s advanced radar selected for purchase

(dql) According to Defense Ministry source, Japan has picked Lockheed Martin Corp’s advanced radar for the country’s multibillion-dollar missile defense system. Japan intends to purchase two Aegis Ashore batteries for deployment in 2023 in a move to upgrade its missile defenses against the arsenals of North Korea and China. [Asahi Shimbun]

Asahi Shimbun




3 July 2018

Japan: Law on labor reform enacted

 (dql) Aimed at tackling the problem of death by overwork, Japan’s legislature passed a labor reform bill which for the first time introduces a limit on overtime at 100 hours monthly and 720 hours annually as well as punishments for noncompliant employers. The new law also aims to improve the lot of the country’s increasing pool of “non-regular” workers in temporary or part-time jobs who do not enjoy the job security of full-time regular employees. According to the law workers are to be paid equally for the same work, regardless of workers’ status. [The Straits Times]

26 June 2018

Trump-Kim summit follow up: US, South Korea, Japan suspend ‘anti-Pyongyang’ military exercises

(dql) Following President Trump’s announcement to suspend US-South Korean joint military exercises at the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore earlier this month, the Pentagon announced that Washington and Seoul have indefinitely halted two marine exchange program training exercises scheduled to be conducted over the next three months. In an earlier move both sides stopped the planning of Freedom Guardian Exercise in which 17,500 American and more than 50,000 South Korean troops participated last year. [The Guardian]

In a related move, Japan suspended military exercises scheduled for this week and plans to suspend further nine civilian evacuation drills to prepare residents in Japan for possible missile attacks scheduled for later this year. Tokyo’s move is to be seen as major concession to open the door for direct talks with Pyongyang. While Kim Jong-un met leaders of China, South Korea and the United States in the recent past to discuss the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a summit with Prime Minister Abe has not been set yet. [CBS]

De-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was also a topic at the summit between South Korean President Moon and Russian President Putin last week in Moscow. Moon reassured that his administration will “closely consult with the Russian government and work with it to completely and swiftly implement the outcome of the South-North Korean summit and the North Korea-US summit.” Furthermore, both sides agreed to work to initiate talks on a free trade agreement between both countries with a view to arrive at trade worth 30 billion USD by 2020, twice the turnover in 2017. [The Korea Herald]

A third summit between China and North Korea within less than three months last week reveals Beijing’s increasing efforts to play a key role in the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. During the talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Chinese President Xi Jinping reassured that “no matter how the international and regional situations change, the firm stance of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government on consolidating and developing the relations with the DPRK remains unchanged.” [The Korea Times]

Meanwhile, North and South Korea held talks on connecting their railways across the inner-Korean border, the first on this issue since 10 years. The talks reflect growing efforts to implement longstanding envisioned economic cooperation between the two Koreas. However, to actually embark on economic cooperation would require the lifting of international sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile testing. [The Mainichi]

26 June 2018

Japan: Voting age in national referendum lowered

(dql) Fulfilling an obligation under the revised National Referendum Act of 2014, the minimum voting age for national referendums on constitutional amendments was lowered to 18 from 20 last week. The step follows related legislation on lowering the voting age in elections from 20 to 18 in 2016. [The Japan Times]

The legislations are part of an attempt to boost civic participation among Japan’s youth. The two latest general elections had seen the lowest voter turnouts in Japan’s post World War II electoral history with 52.66% and 53.69% in the House of Representatives election in 2014 and 2017 respectively. [Nippon]

17 June 2018

Trump-Kim Summit: Takeaways and reactions

(dql) The much anticipated summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore concluded with a joint statement according which “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” [The New York Times for the full text of the statement]. Responding to questions at the press conference following the signing of the statement Trump further confirmed that while the sanctions against North Korea would remain for the time being, they would be taken off once “we are sure that the nucs are no longer a factor”. He also announced considerations of suspending the longstanding military drills with South Korea, calling them much to the surprise of the ally “expansive and provocative” “war games”. [Youtube]

The outcomes of the summit have been met with mixed reactions among North Korea’s neighboring powers. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in hailed the summit as “historic event” that will “break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth” and “write a new chapter of peace and cooperation” between the two Koreas. [Yonhap] However, Trump’s statement on considering a halt of the joint annual military exercises caused much confusion in Seoul, as the exercises has traditionally been used as an instrument of deterrence and bargaining chip against North Korea. Following a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Moon and Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of US Forces Korea, to verify “whether Trump’s reference to ‘war games’ meant the joint military exercises [The Korea Herald 1], a South Korean government source on Sunday announced that Seoul and Washington are expected to announce their decision to suspend large-scale combined military exercises in the days ahead. [The Korea Herald 2]

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe welcomed the statement as starting point of in the denuclearization of North Korea [Reuters] and signaled Japan’s support in bearing the cost of North Korea’s denuclearization under an international funding framework which. However, similar to South Korea, Tokyo appeared much irritated by Trump’s announcement on the halt of joint US-South Korean military exercises as such a shift would have huge impact on Japan’s national security and the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Trump’s announcement came especially as surprise after Japan’s head of the National Security Council in a meeting with Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton in Singapore was assured that the summit would not deal with the topic of U.S. troops based in South Korea. [Asahi Shimbun]

China, on the other side, was quick to point to its “positive and constructive role in getting the situation on the peninsula to where it is now” referring in particular to the suspension of US-South Korean joint military drills in exchange for North Korea’s stop of conducting nuclear and missile tests, proposed as ‘freeze for freeze’ initiative to the USA by China last year. [The Guardian]

Russia, meanwhile, stressed that the outcome of the meeting “needs to be thoroughly assessed”, but also welcomed the meeting itself as “beginning of a direct dialogue” with direct talks seen as only way for a political settlement. [TASS]

Analysts and experts cautioned against misplaced euphoria and optimism, stressing that the statement between Trump and Kim is vague and that only a follow-up negotiation process securing tangible results in term concrete steps, measures and timelines of the denuclearization process will make the summit a success. [CNBC] [East Asia Forum]

17 June 2018

Mahatir: Opting for Japan, less for China?

(ls) Malaysia’s prime minister Mahatir was on a working trip to Tokyo which also involved a meeting with Japanese premier Shinzo Abe. The visit was also seen as a sign of Malaysia’s move away from China, which contentiously pumped billions of dollars into the scandal-tainted previous Najib Razak administration. Japan is Malaysia’s largest foreign direct investment contributor at $13 billion last year. But also ties with China peaked in the last few years after Beijing stepped in with a $2.3 billion deal to buy 1MDB assets. This was followed by several infrastructure projects which were won by Chinese state-linked firms. [Reuters]

While in Tokyo, Mahatir said when the “Look East Policy” was first formulated when he was prime minister back in the 1980s, it was not just about drawing investments from Japan or coming to study in this country, but also about “acquiring the Japanese work ethics, the Japanese sense of shame whenever they fail to deliver what they have promised to deliver”. [Bernama]

However, Mahathir also announced that he will review Malaysia’s membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TP-11), the multilateral trade deal that was brokered under Japan’s leadership, after the United States withdrew from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Mahatir warned that weaker economies like Malaysia were at a disadvantage under the current terms. Nevertheless, in the unlikely event of a Malaysian pull-out of TPP-11, the treaty would remain in force as long as at least six countries have ratified it. [The Straits Times]

10 June 2018

China-Japan relations: Maritime security hotline launched

(dql) In a sign of a deepening rapprochement between China and Japan, both countries launched a communication mechanism between their defense authorities to prevent accidental clashes at sea and in the air. Besides the hotline, Beijing and Tokyo will host in turn annual senior official and expert-level meetings to monitor the system’s operation and technical problems.  Furthermore, both sides agreed that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese military will continue to abide by existing communications protocols between vessels and aircraft to prevent an escalation of tensions. [Kyodo News]

10 June 2018

Japan: Finance Minister ready to accept pay cut to take responsibility in document forgery scandal

(dql) In the ongoing scandal over documents forged by the Finance Ministry in the context of the sale of land belonging to the state [AiR 5/4/2018] Finance Minister Aso, while refusing to resign from office over the scandal, announced that he is ready to renounce the ministerial component of his annual pay amounting to 15,500 USD to take responsibility for officials under him who altered documents. [Bloomberg]

In a related development, Prime Minister Abe instructed his cabinet to work out measures to improve government official compliance with standards of proper handling of official documents. Abe’s instruction is a reaction on a number of scandals that have damaged public confidence in the government. Besides the land sale document forgery case, Abe has also come under pressure after a failed cover-up of activity logs for Ground Self-Defense Force troops in Iraq between 2004 and 2006 which were first declared discarded, but were found later. [The Japan Times]

3 June 2018

Japan-US-Australian anti-China agreement on maritime security in the South China Sea

(dql) At the IISS Shangri-La Summit this weekend in Singapore the Defence Ministers of Japan, the USA and Australia announced their agreement to cooperate in dealing with any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the South China Sea. The agreement includes working out a strategic action agenda providing maritime security guidelines for the three countries. [The Japan Times]

In a related move, US Defense Secretary Mattis, speaking at the summit, warned against China’s intentions of intimidation and coercion while referring to China’s recent deployment of military hardware in the South China Sea. [BBC News] For an account of the concretization of ‘China’s amphibious ambitions’ in the South China Sea see [Asia Times].

In a latest US move to counter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, two US warships this week sailed near islands claimed by China. [The Guardian]

3 June 2018

Japan: Whale slaughter

(am) A total of 333 minke whales were killed as part of the country’s so-called “scientific” whaling programme, effectively an annual summer hunt in the Arctic Southern Ocean.

Japan has signed the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) moratorium on whale hunting, but exploits a loophole each year by saying its hunt is conducted for scientific research.

Among the slaughtered whales of this year´s hunt, 122 were pregnant and another 114 juveniles. [Independent]

3 June 2018

Dealing with Japan’s aging population: Adulthood at 18 and easing immigration regulations

(dql) In an attempt to boost political participation among Japan’s rapidly shrinking and aging population, the country’s lower house approved on Tuesday bills lowering the age of adulthood from 20 to 18. [Kyodo]In related measure to tackle to the country’s shrinking population and workforce, the Abe administration intends to further ease immigration restrictions for foreign workers hoping to attract more half a million foreign workers by 2025. According to new guidelines, expected to be finalized in June, language requirements for foreign workers in construction, agriculture, elderly care and other sectors will be loosened. It will also be possible for trainees to extend their stay for up to 10 years. [Nikkei Asian Review]

27 May 2018

Eurasia: Shifting geopolitical realities from Europe over Russia to India

(hg) After President Trump´s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the US is dramatically losing geopolitical ground in Europe and Asia over the past weeks.

Clearest indicator of a revered trend is Russia´s international position after staunch US ally UK hastily built an anti – Russia alliance after the Skripal spy affair, the poisoning of the former British spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March. The US, UK and French attacks on Syria for the alleged use of gas against civilians by the Syrian government which is militarily supported by Russia and Iran, reinforced this front with the concerted Western response resembling Cold War times.

Surprisingly quick though, this situation took a drastic turn with the international response to the US announcement to leave the Iran nuclear deal and its threats to impose massive sanctions against Iran. All other partners to the deal immediately declared to still support it, including France and Germany triggering also a rethinking of their relations with Russia and China, also partners to the nuclear deal. Against this background, recent trips of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to Russia represent a switch in their engagement with Moscow.

After Chancellor Merkel had what might be described a ‘rational discourse’ with President Putin in Moscow, French President Macron even topped that with demonstratively cordial manners when meeting Putin last week.

That is was more than just a nice façade is evidenced by France’s Total sealing a gas deal with Russian Novatek, owned by Putin’s friend Gennady Timchenko, at the St Petersburg Economic Forum at the same time. [National Public Radio] – Not accidently, Total is currently threatened by possible US sanctions concerning its $2 billion investment in the Iranian South Pars gas field.

Moreover, the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum was a success in other regards as well. After all, President Putin could gather French President Macron together with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde at a plenary session of the forum demonstrating that he is back on the international stage.

An important message for Prime Minister Abe was Putin´s proposal to jointly look for a solution that would allow Japan and Russia to finally conclude a World War II peace treaty. [Euronews] In context of Abe´s visit to Russia the Japanese Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry highlighted Russia-Japan economic ties had gained an unprecedented momentum. [TASS].

Most important however, is the conspicuous re-affirmation of Indian – Russian friendship on occasion of an informal summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Putin.

Pictures of the meeting that are telling of a fully relaxed and cordial atmosphere between the two leaders are underscored by Modi´s message to Putin: “Russia is India’s old-time friend. We share long-standing historical ties, and Mr. President is my personal friend and a friend of India” added by the affirmation: “For the past four years, you and I stood side by side in the bilateral format and on the international stage … I am very glad that it was so.”

For President Trump, this affirmation of Indian – Russian friendship counts as a double punch. First, after having engaged Russia internationally in a decisive zero-sum game manner, Russia re-gaining an important friend means an according loss for Trump. Second, the US have to fear to lose a cornerstone of their own strategy to consolidate Asia´s geopolitical order against China. At least at the moment, a firm anti-China front seems to be only wishful thinking after month of promising developments. Now, after especially India seemed to have decisively turned towards the US and Putin having been almost isolated internationally, the situation changed since the escalation of the Skripal affair, followed by more aggressive US policies on trade and Iran.

Before visiting Moscow, the Indian Prime Minister hold informal talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping as well due to which both leaders relaxed bilateral relations, showing also that Delhi sided with China in the emerging shadow trade war with the US. Now, India is demonstrating that it wants to continue its partnerships with both Russia and Iran. Ties with Russia represent a long-standing and robust relationship of neighbouring countries with India having extensive energy and defence relationship with Russia. Russian and Indian economic ties have just experienced a highlight last year with the biggest foreign acquisition ever in India when Russian oil major Rosneft closed a $12.9bn purchase of Indian refiner Essar Oil. Diplomatically, Russia has also facilitated India’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and endorsed its demand for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Similar to Russia, Iran is another old friend of Delhi which has strong strategic interest to keep this friendship. [Al Jazeera 1]

While India will probably try to not let its friendship to Russia and Iran impact the more nascent ties with the US, the US seem not to have priority for India anymore. In other words: If the US is actually pursuing its relationship to India as a zero-sum-game regarding Iran and Russia, Delhi cannot be expected to side with Washington.

The general picture indicates that US foreign policy under President Trump  and National Security Advisor Bolton seems to have overplayed its – originally favourable – hand, exerting too early too much pressure on too many allies on too unpredicted terms.

A first fissure emerged in the wake of the Skripal affair whose handling prompted China to explicitly side with Russia at the April security conference in Moscow where the Chinese defense minister unanticipatedly declared effectively military solidarity with Russia in direction of Washington. India´s defence minister acknowledged at the same occasion that “Russia has re-established its role and influence in global strategic and defence matters”, a remark that implied appreciation for the Russian role in Syria.

Then came both the withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal and the increasingly aggressive US trade policy. In its wake, India is facing hefty import tariffs while sanctions on Iran upset India’s relations with Tehran, including its operations and investments at a strategic port project in Iran. Currently, Delhi is still waiting for an exemption from higher tariffs on steel and aluminium imports to the US which is also imposing tougher visa rules that target India’s information technology industry. [Al Jazeera 1]

At the same, India felt its new friend´s pressure already when dealing with Russia over the acquisition of the state-of-the-art S-400 missile defence system facing the threat by the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

The chief of India’s national security advisory board and former Indian envoy to Russia analysed the situation as follows: “We are witness to a very acrimonious standoff between the US and Russia which has gone on to levels that didn’t prevail even during the Cold War. These anti-Russia sanctions have an extra-territorial applicability – this draws in everybody”. [Al Jazeera 1]

Currently, India is obviously rethinking its foreign policy and in the meanwhile walking a tightrope between Moscow and Washington, that might soon be ended to the disadvantage of India – US ties. That, however, could contribute to a sustaining revival of the BRICS – the association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – plus Iran.

 Anyway, a next step in Indian – Russian relationships is a mega economic Summit of 100 CEOs as a follow up of Prime Minister Modi´s to Sochi. [The Economic Times]

Meanwhile, Russia´s position in Europe is also improving with strategic projects such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline running under the Baltic Sea and TurkStream crossing the Black Sea both advancing. Both Germany and Turkey, Gazprom’s most significant customers, seems to resist pressure from the Trump administration to refrain from the pipeline projects.

Additionally, the European Commission has ruled in an anti-trust case against Gazprom which looks favourable for both sides. While Gazprom had to bow to Brussels’ conditions, the Commission eventually accepted a settlement offer instead of imposing a hefty penalty which could have been as high as 10 percent of Gazprom’s turnover as the Commission did with Google which was handed out a record-breaking 2.4 billion-euro fine for violating the EU’s anti-trust law. [Al Jazeera 2]

Moreover, Russia’s economy seems to be better than casual observers might expect regarding tough sanctions and a political isolation that, however, seems to run to be markedly softened. For Russia, the major economic risk would be a sharp drop in global energy prices, which are on the one hand currently on the upswing while a drop would also hit major US ally Saudi Arabia severely. [CNBC]

The upcoming World Cup in Russia might also turn out to further stabilize the positive trend for Russia with President Macron having already announced to come to Russia if the French team makes it to the final. These changes notwithstanding, there is serious pressure on Russia remaining. Besides the US, this pressure is mainly driven by the UK with her majesty’s foreign secretary having even compared the Russian World Cup with Hitler’s 1936 Olympics.

Earlier this month it was reported that the UK plans to use four major summits – those of the G7, G20, NATO and EU – to deepen the UK/US led alliance against Russia. Calling Russia’s response to the gas attacks in Syria and Salisbury a turning point that warrants a broad Russian containment strategy, aim of the British advancement is a comprehensive strategy and to urge a rethink over traditional diplomatic dialogue with Moscow. [The Guardian]. If the UK will continue with this plan remains to be seen, a great deal of its momentum is currently gone.

British politicians are, however, not alone in claiming Russia would make traditional diplomacy ineffective. They are especially supported by some Eastern European governments such as Poland or some Baltic politicians. [The Guardian]

While the debate over the claimed Russian or Syrian responsibility for the gas attacks in Salisbury and Douma is silting and convincing evidence still lacking, the Netherlands and Australia have just accused Russia of being directly responsible for the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 which was shot in 2014 over the Ukraine. Moreover, putting some real pressure on Russia, NATO is advancing two exercises “Atlantic resolve” and “Sabre Strike” that will improve interoperability of NATO forces and serve NATO’s deterrence mission towards Russia. ‘Saber Strike’ is an annual, U.S. Army Europe-led cooperative training exercise focusing at te Baltic states that will take place in multiple locations throughout Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland May 28-June 24. This year, 11,000 U.S. and NATO military members from 20 countries will participate including forces from Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States. [US Army Europe 1]

Held since 2010 which once involved only 2000 troops, the 2016 exercise was criticized by German Federal President and then Foreign Minister Steinmeier as a provocative confrontation policy. [FAZ] Atlantic Resolve is a demonstration of the U.S. commitment to collective security through a series of actions designed to reassure of America’s dedication to stability in the region in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine. [US Army Europe 2]

In sum, global order has manifested in the last two weeks as even more fluid and open to surprises with the latest US moves concerning especially Iran causing some flurry adjustments of diplomatic relations all across the globe. More important, there is a possibility of sustaining change with unpredictable impact for global order while major conflicts remain unresolved.

27 May 2018

Changing attitudes on women and sexual harassment in Japan?

(jk) After last month’s sexual harassment scandal in Japan, women are finally hopeful that things will change. Last month, a high Finance Ministry bureaucrat formally resigned over allegations of having sexually harassed female journalists. Many of his advances were actually caught on audio recordings by one harassed journalist, although he initially denied that the recorded voice is his own. While there is a culture of overlooking or not reporting sexual harassment in Japan, the incident has begun to change attitudes and more and more female journalists are revealing sexual harassment in the workplace.

A recent survey, and the first of its kind has found that almost 1/3 of women have experienced sexual harassment in their workplace [The Guardian]. With the #WithYou campaign taking off and protests in the streets for more equality, more heads are rolling. The governor of Tokyo has on Wednesday announced his intention to resign over similar allegations [The Japan Times 1].  Despite recent advances, the unequal treatment of women is still deeply ingrained in traditional Japanese society [The Daily Beast].

In an effort to balance male and female participation in politics, a new law has been enacted which states that political parties and groups should aim to make the number of male and female candidates as equal as possible. It is a careful effort for now, not stipulating any penalties and calling for voluntary efforts, such as setting up targets, to increase the number of women in politics. [The Japan Times 2]

20 May 2018

Japan-Russia relations

(jk) Last week, we reported that Prime Minister Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a meeting in Moscow on May 26, aiming to reach an agreement on joint economic activities and the Russian-controlled islands of Hokkaido, a dispute over territory that has lasted over 70 years.

In a broader sweep of Japan-Russia relations, this piece provides some background on Japan’s balancing act with regards to its relations with Russia, especially after the latter’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. On the one hand, in the tradition of the “western powers”, Japan joined the sanctions and condemnations of Russia after it seized Crimea, but on the other hand it bets on engagement and good relationships with what is a key player in East Asia’s regional order. Amongst other reasons for strong Japanese-Russian ties, the avoidance of strong Sino-Russian axis ranks high. [Atlantic Council]

20 May 2018

Japan passes law to get more women into politics

(am) The Diet on Wednesday passed a bill seeking to boost the number of female lawmakers and assembly members in a nation where women have long been underrepresented in politics.

The measure, approved unanimously by the Upper House, urges each political party to make every effort to try and “equalize as much as possible” the number of male and female candidates it fields for national and local elections. [The Japan Times]

But the law includes no penalties for parties that fail to do so, nor incentives to encourage them. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made increasing female participation in the workforce a key plank of his economic policies as Japan struggles with a labour shortage. [The Business Times]

“I hope this law will make a big change in Japanese politics,” said Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda, one of the members who drafted the legislation, according to public broadcaster [NHK]. “I hope women who were hesitant to become candidates will be courageous” and run for election, she said.

13 May 2018

Consequences of the US nuclear deal withdrawal for the Asian geopolitical order

(hg) Two – arguably related – major events, the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and the relatively massive Israeli military attack on Iranian positions in Syria will have some impact on the processes defining the current global geopolitical order and especially the Asian one. The two events can be seen against the background of the English – Russian tensions about the poisoning of UK spy Skripal and the ensuing diplomatic retaliation by major Western countries as well as the recent airstrikes launched by the US, UK and France against Syria. Both major events are embedded in a process of worsening relations between the West and Russia and a possibly emerging Turkish – Iranian – Russian – Chinese axis while Saudi – Arabia is going to show even growing assertiveness against Iran.

Especially, the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, officially named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), brings some new dynamics to the currently significant processes relevant for the present state of global order. What is about to happens now, is that the other signatories try to save the deal with notable activities.

While the chief inspector of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), unexpectedly resigned [Times of Israel] after the IAEA has highlighted Iran´s cooperation with the nuclear watchdog over recent years, the Iranian foreign minister is embarking on a diplomatic tour, first to Beijing and Moscow, and then to Brussels to meet his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany. At the same time, Russian President Putin has spoken with the government heads of Germany and Turkey, Merkel and Erdogan, to keep the nuclear deal alive [Times of Israel], whereas German Chancellor Merkel said in a phone call with Iranian President Rohani that her country would adhere to the 2015 nuclear deal. Additionally, Russian and German foreign ministers talked in Moscow about how to constructively proceed. After all, this is the joint position of all other signatories, namely Russia, Germany, China, Britain, France and Iran [Radio Free Europe] with the three European powers having issued a joint statement criticizing the American pullout [Government Europa].

In Europe, both France and Germany have seen a sharp rise in exports to Iran since sanctions were lifted in 2016. Especially France has sharply condemned the re-imposition of sanctions as “unacceptable”. Its Economy Minister even said Europe had to defend its “economic sovereignty” and called on the European Commission to look into possible retaliatory measures. [BBC News] Even America´s staunchest allies in Asia, Japan and Australia, still support the deal [US News]. The Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono underlined Tokyo´s support for the nuclear deal in a phone call with his Iranian counterpart urging all other parties to remain committed to the multilateral agreement. [Tehran Times]

Now, Berlin, Beijing and Moscow are the given brokers to create a platform for talks on the future of the Iran nuclear deal, a constellation that cannot please the American interest. It might, moreover, be argued that the Trump move, which reflects the new security environment in Washington with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton in key positions, will backfire in case it has no clearly defined short-time purpose. Otherwise, the unilateral withdrawal from the deal is likely to benefit especially China, possibly even bring Moscow closer to Europe again, endanger the developing US ties with India and generally lower the US´ weight in Asia´s shifting security order.

First, Beijing is prone to evolve as the first inter pares to foster an international reaffirmation of the deal after it had played a crucial role in bringing Iran to forge the deal in the first instance.

Additionally, China will gain in terms of energy access and make more trade and infrastructure inroads to Iran. China will anyway be able to continue business with Iran without being much harmed by sanctions. It is, in fact, highly experienced to circumvent sanctions and will probably just create companies that will operate only in or with Iran to avoid them. [Sputnik News 1] For China, with its potentially all-controlling central authority and low level of market transparency, such workarounds are much easier to realize than for European companies.

Iran sells already more to China than to any other country and celebrated a 25 percent increase in exports there last year already while the value of Chinese exports to Iran also increased by more than 21 percent last year, according to Islamic Republic of Iran Customs Administration’s statistics. Now, China – Iran trade and infrastructure ties are very likely to even grow more. Generally, China will gain strategic space with regard to the Middle East to be used to advance its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Just now, Beijing has officially opened a new train route to Iran likely to go through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. [Sputnik News 2]

Moreover, the US might effectively force European companies out of the Iranian market – to the benefit of China. The US sanctions which will especially aim at Iranian crude oil will limit its global trade opportunities to the special advantage of China as the world’s largest importer of crude oil that might even get it cheaper now. The gain to take over a lead role in directly exploiting Iranian oil and gas fields might be even worth for China to directly invest without circumventions. [The Japan Times] just reports that China’s state-owned energy major CNPC is ready to take over French giant Total’s stake in the giant Iranian South Pars gas project if the French company leaves due to the US sanctions. The Iranian South Pars field has the world’s biggest natural gas reserves ever found in one place and the possibility of Total’s pullout is reportedly quite high now. [The Japan Times]

Lastly, and particularly important, China will reinforce the petro-yuan as more than just a spoiler attack on the dominance of the dollar-denominated Brent and West Texas Intermediate benchmarks. According to the latter, oil is priced and traded in U.S. dollars which is of crucial importance for the US economy. The increase in the use of the renminbi in global financial trade following a Chinese lead role in the Iranian oil market would be much more relevant than the immediate benefit of energy supply and pricing imports in yuan to the end that it would spare China the cost of exchanging dollars. After all, the development reinforces the Chinese move in March this year to launch a futures exchange in Shanghai that aims to become a yuan-denominated global benchmark, which itself is part of a larger strategy to establish the renminbi as the leading global currency. [Reuters]

The relevance of these developments is highlighted by China´s sheer market power having overtook the US as the world’s largest oil importer last year already and hoping to beat that achievement in 2018. At the same time, the yuan-denominated crude exchange in Shanghai will offer another path for Iran to get past US sanctions, which are typically enforced when banks attempt to clear dollar-denominated trades in New York. [The Business Times]

Second, besides empowering China, the US withdrawal strengthens Iranian resilience and weakens the US own strategic ties as partly indicated already above. Regarding Iran the change is obvious. Summer last year, Washington could hope to empower the Iranian opposition while it created a new Iran Mission Center at the CIA to “turn up the heat on Iran”. [The Wall Street Journal] Now, the Trump administration has managed it to further unite Iranian politics. More important is the effect on Europe. Even if key countries like Germany and France will eventually not be motivated to rebalance their strategic focus after a series of unilateral moves by President Trump, European leaders will have to work closely with Beijing and Moscow in the newly created situation while Iran, Russia and China will be pushed closer to each other once more.

Especially interesting is the effect on India which has great interests in Iran. The question is, in how far India will side with the US. Harsh V. Pant gives an interesting analysis of the situation from an Indian policy perspective highlighting India´s stakes regarding the presumably even intensifying Iran – China relations. [The Hindu] India´s immediate stake in Iran is mainly its investment in the Iranian Chabahar port that had often been projected as India’s response to China´s investment in the Pakistani Gwadar port. Recently however, Iran invited both China and Pakistan to join in, which highly frustrated Indian policy makers. Counterintuitively to consult a siding with the US, Pant analyses the possible Indian policies in the current scenario on the basis of the already existing deep economic and defense ties between Teheran and Beijing. His analysis starts with an understanding for the Iranian pro-China perspective especially in the presently given situation: “Given the overt hostility of the Trump administration towards Iran, it is imperative for Tehran to maintain cordial relationship with a rising power like China”. From here, the author, a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London, advises New Delhi “to navigate its interests in the region accordingly” with a realistic view to accept some form of Chinese participation in the Chabahar project while India and China are anyway exploring joint economic projects in Afghanistan. [The Hindu] Such a continuation with Indian – Iranian ties that would even include a limited Chinese – Indian rapprochement could put US – Indian relations under serious stress however. Whichever path Delhi will actually take in the given situation, the ‘Iranian factor’ is likely to have a significant impact on the overall Asian order regarding the Indian relations with both China and the US.

Third, the US, by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, are weakening their clout as a global norm setter once more. For the US, to leave from a multilateral agreement – effectively a disarmament treaty – that has been endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution (No 2231), will further weaken the US´ strategically important position as a central driver of an international law – based order, an opportunity that will be seized by China to the largest extent possible.

Moreover, by increasing its arsenal of sharp sanctions, the US might find themselves caught between either alienating some key partners or undermining the credibility of their normative approach in general. The Iran sanctions that will add to the sanctions against Russia recently enabled by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) [US Dep. of Treasury] cause important allies to seek exemptions from sanctions, a step already initiated by both the French and German government regarding Iran. A similar request has been submitted by India regarding the CAATSA relevant purchase of the Russian S-400. In times of a shifting geopolitical order, to deny the respective waivers will worsen bilateral relations, to grant them undermine the authority of the respective regimes in the first place.

13 May 2018

North Korean denuclearization: Doubts and hopes

(hg) North Korea has announced to dismantle its nuclear test site between May 23 and 25 before the planned historic summit between Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore. In an official statement North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that all of the tunnels at the country’s northeastern testing ground will be destroyed by explosion, and that observation and research facilities and ground-based guard units will also be removed. [Time Magazine]

The assessment of the move which surprised the world is, however, mixed. First, the closure of the site might be an important but is no sufficient step toward denuclearization. Second, North Korea’s major nuclear test site turns out to be more damaged after its latest test than previously thought. Scientists have said that due to a partial collapse of a mountain near the test region that part of the site was no longer useable. New research published in Science magazine confirms now, that this is likely to be the case, claiming that a very large domain has collapsed around the test site, not merely a tunnel or two. [Independent]

An underground test bomb that was claimed by North Korea to be a small hydrogen bomb shook the surrounding landscape so violently that it changed the shape of an entire mountain. This test was conducted early September last year causing a 6.3 magnitude tremor on seismographs in the surrounding region. Data collected from Germany and Japan were combined to create a before-and-after map of the area surrounding the 2,204 – meter mountain in North Korea’s north-east painting a picture of a mountain under stress, displaying what is called ‘tired mountain syndrome’ caused by repeated underground explosions. About 8.5 minutes after the initial tremor, detectors noticed a second, smaller shake, and what was left in its wake was a significantly shorter mountain. [Science Alert]

The findings illuminate both the probabilities of North Korea´s nuclear capabilities and the possible background of the regime´s bargaining agenda. Based on measurements, the regime’s claim that it was testing a small hydrogen bomb can’t indeed be ruled out as the blast is within the range of larger atomic detonations. [Science Alert]

Moreover, the value of Kim Jong-un´s promise to shut down the site, which has been viewed as a significant concession, might have to be adjusted if it turns out that the site is entirely unusable. [Independent]

This could reinforce some doubts about the scope of the agreement and its actual implementation. After all, it is yet not even clear what the bilateral denuclearization agenda actually comprises.

Following the Moon-Kim summit, Moon’s office said Kim was willing to disclose the dismantling process to international experts, but the North’s statement Saturday did not include any mention of this but foresees to invite journalists from the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Britain to witness the dismantling process. Moreover, beside the promise to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, there were no agreements on references to verification or timetables. [Time Magazine]

Given this, lingering doubts about whether Kim would ever agree to fully relinquish the weapons he likely views as his guarantee of survival are not unjustified.

After all, North Korea has been pushing for decades a concept of “denuclearization” that just bears not even slight resemblance to the American definition, having also been conditioned by requesting Washington to remove its 28,500 troops from South Korea as well as its nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan. In June 2008, international press was invited to witness the demolishing of a cooling tower at a reactor site a year after North Korea agreed with five other nations to disable its nuclear facilities in return for an aid package of about $400 million. But in September 2008, the government declared that it would resume reprocessing plutonium as Washington wasn’t fulfilling its promise to remove the country from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. After the George W. Bush administration did this in October 2008, another attempt to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program collapsed that December when North Korea refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods and started its second nuclear test in May 2009. [Time Magazine]

Another issue is the scope of Kim´s capabilities. His claim that his nuclear force was complete following North Korea’s most powerful nuclear test to date in September and three flight tests of ICBMs designed to reach the U.S. mainland, is complemented by claims that his scientists have managed to conduct “subcritical” nuclear tests. Such experiments involving a subcritical mass of nuclear materials allows to examine the performance of weapons without triggering a nuclear chain reaction. North Korea’s recent reference to such activity has been interpreted as an attempt to communicate that even without underground testing, the country intends to maintain its nuclear arsenal and be a “responsible” steward of those weapons at the same time. [Time Magazine]

Adding to the uncertainties about the North Korean agenda are those pertaining to the involved great power interests. For China, which Kim has consulted two times now, North Korea has offered a valuable platform to ‘safely’ put pressure on the US and Japan, while a threatened South Korea is a justification to maintain US military infrastructure that easily reaches China. Moreover, the rapprochement has just started and denuclearization is a long process which still can fail with any newly approaching step.

Nevertheless, for the meanwhile, the US on their part, support the process. During his visit to Pyongyang, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has offered to help rebuild the North Korean economy if Kim gives up its nuclear weapons. [BBC News]

13 May 2018

East Asian regional order: China, Japan and South Korea work together on denuclearizing North Korea

(hg) The political leaders of China, Japan and South Korea have agreed to cooperate on ending North Korea’s nuclear program and promoting free trade at the first summit for the Northeast Asian neighbors after a hiatus of more than two years. [Time Magazine] Notably, Chinese – Japanese relations seem to improve markedly in context of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang´s three-day state visit in Japan, the first by a top Chinese leader in eight years. [CNN] [SupChina]

13 May 2018

Abe and Vladimir Putin to hold talks in Moscow on May 26

(hg) Adding to the improving ties with China, Prime Minister Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a meeting in Moscow on May 26 with both governments aiming to reach an agreement on joint economic activities and the Russian-controlled islands of Hokkaido that are at the center of a decades-old territorial dispute. [The Japan Times]

13 May 2018

Japan and UAE sign defense cooperation agreement

(hg) The UAE Minister of State for Defence Affairs and his Japanese counterpart have signed a joint cooperation agreement in security and defense affairs in Tokyo. [Gulf News]

13 May 2018

India: Foreign policy shift as a result of China’s role in the region, opting for Western allies over Russia in defense cooperation

(ot) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s increasingly proactive role in regional military cooperation is the result of China’s rising military, economic, and political engagement in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, says Jeff M Smith of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

In the past decade, many of China’s operations in the region are seen as a strategic encirclement of India, including its involvement in politics in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, and a planned Chinese naval base on the coast of Pakistan. As a result, PM Modi’s administration has been moving away from the country’s traditional non-alignment policy, by shifting its stance towards strategic collaboration with the United States and its security partners. The country has shown interest in the resurrection of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a multilateral partnership with Australia, Japan, and the United States. The project, which has been dormant for nearly a decade, aims at deterring the rising influence of China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition, India has entered into defense-related agreements with France and other naval cooperation with Japan and the United States. [Asia Times 1]

In terms of its defense policy, India, once Russia’s top defense partnership, is now opting for Western arms. India-Russia’s joint Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft project has been called off. The defense cooperation between India and Russia also hit hurdles as a result of the United States’ Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The country’s relationship with Russia was put under test when it jointed Western countries to condemn the Skripal poisoning case in England.

On the other hand, India’s neighbors are looking towards China. With its coercive tactics, unpredictable policies, and domineering attitudes towards its neighbors, India has caused further anxieties in the region. [Asia Times 2]

6 May 2018

Thailand hoping to join new TPP

(ls) Thailand has expressed its hope of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). “Thailand has made it clear that it wants to take part in the TPP,” Japan’s Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry, Toshimitsu Motegi, told reporters after meeting with Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak. Following the US pullout in January 2017 with the launch of President Donald Trump’s administration, the remaining 11 participating countries signed a revised TPP in March this year and are proceeding with domestic processes. Prior to the US pullout, Thailand had long rejected becoming a member of TPP. [Bangkok Post]

29 April 2018

Japan: Opposition parties boycott parliamentary session

(dql) Six out of seven opposition parties boycotted this week’s House of Representatives’ session, in a move to increase pressure on the government coalition to meet their demands for full clarification of a series of cronyism scandals in which Prime Minister is suspected to be involved. They also demand Finance Minister Aso’s resignation to take responsibility for the forgery of documents by officials of the Ministry in the Moritomo school operator favouritism scandal as well as for appointing the Ministry’s highest bureaucrat Junichi Fukuda who stepped down over allegations of sexual harassment of female reporters. However, the ruling parties commanding a two-thirds majority, appeared unimpressed and convened on Friday in the Diet to begin deliberations on the work-style reform legislation while Prime Minister Abe dismissed speculations about a dissolution of the House of Representatives to pave way for snap elections. [The Mainichi] [The Japan Times]

29 April 2018

Indian strategic ties after the Modi-Xi meeting: the case of the US, Russia, and Australia

(hg) After the first ‘informal’ summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping was concluded with a careful rapprochement between the countries, it is interesting to assess Indo-Pacific´s strategic environment on more general terms. Worth mentioning in this regard are some recent developments concerning India´s relations with the US, Russia and Australia.

Starting from the finding “it appears the Asia-Pacific region is due for a grand strategic makeover”, a recent article in the [The Diplomat] takes a historical perspective to highlight the dynamics of the current Indian-American alignment. Regarding the ongoing strengthening of military, diplomatic, and economic ties between India and the US, the author is looking at “the last time the US and India were this aligned”, namely in the 1780s when both tried to jointly contain the British Empire.

The article´s quintessential conclusion – “if history rhymes, it tells us that a U.S.-India strategic alignment is not so new” – sounds a bit trivial though. After all, it seems debatable if a short and unsuccessful strategic alignment around 220 years ago makes a strong case for the actual prospects of US-Indian relations and their impact on China. The point is, however, that it is exactly the fact that the still limited depth and momentum in Indian-American relations warrants the sort of narrative underpinnings the article is trying to provide. From this point of view, media attention might be read as part of the very pattern that are forming or accompanying the competing trends of the currently emerging geopolitical order of Asia.

Another article focuses on the Indian withdrawal from plans to jointly develop a stealth fighter jet with Russia earlier this month, tracing back the long decline in bilateral attempts between the countries to finalize the project. Against this background and given the fact that “New Delhi shares more political interests with Washington than it does with Moscow”, India´s further steps concerning its air force modernization will be of interest “as a gauge of how comfortable New Delhi is with further deepening its relationship with the United States”. [The National Interest]

The picture is complex indeed. On the one hand, the US wish that Delhi might decide for American weapon systems. At the same time, the US Countering America’s Enemy’s Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is a disincentive for Delhi to deepen its already profound relations with Russia regarding arms supply from Moscow. Section 231 of the CAATSA mandates secondary sanctions to any nation entering into high-value deals to procure military hardware from Russia.

Whereas a Bloomberg report suggests the US – probably Lockheed Martin – might provide the Indian Air Force with its combat jet technologies in the near future [Bloomberg], [Sputnik] features an Interview with Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa, who says that “it is incorrect to report that we are interested in F-35 [or F-35 technology to equip F-16]”. The Indian Air Force chief has also categorically denied any threat to India-Russia defense deals due to the American CAATSA. [Sputnik News]

Meanwhile, India seeks US exemption to buy the legendary Russian S-400 air defense missile system from Russia worth about $5.5 billion. Reportedly, the Indian government has informed the US that India cannot abruptly scale down its reliance on military hardware from Russia after decades of bilateral defense cooperation and applied for a waiver from sanctions. The S-400 long-range air defense missile system with its capability to destroy incoming hostile aircraft, missiles and even drones at ranges of up to 400km can fire three types of missiles and simultaneously engage 36 targets to create a layered defense is also effective against stealth multi-role fighter jets. The system, which Russia has started supplying to China, is expected to be delivered to Turkey next year and has also been deployed by Russia in Syria. [The Economic Times]

The Indian application for a waiver to obtain the S-400 is a sensitive issue due to the reputation of the S-400 as setting the gold standard of comparable weapon systems including American ones, its success in action and the fact that Turkey as a major NATO member decided to buy the system before Turkish-American tensions grew to the current degree.

An example for the high benchmarks set to obtain a CAATSA waiver is the Trump administration´s announcement last Friday that it would not issuing waivers to U.S. companies, including oil giant Exxon Mobile, authorizing drilling in the Black Sea prohibited by current sanctions against Russia. [The New York Times]

Moreover, on the sidelines of a NATO gathering April 27, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just explicitly warned his Turkish counterpart against purchasing the S-400. [Radio Free Europe]

Against this background, the ongoing attempts of the Pentagon to enable a waiver for India are remarkable. US Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis appealed last Thursday to the Congress to urgently provide India the requested national security waiver, saying imposing sanctions on it would only hit the US. [The Times of India]

In other words, the ongoing Indian S-400 story is worth to be further observed. This is even more true as Vietnam, another regionally important country, is generally in a similar situation as India, both being interested to lever a strategic partnership with the US against China, while being highly depended on Russian arms supply.

A serious setback for the emergence of a solid anti-China coalition formed around the US- Indian-Japanese-Australian axis has meanwhile just manifested regarding Indian-Australian relations. Australian Defense Department spokesman has confirmed Australia won’t participate in a major Indian-lead multilateral naval drill, reportedly because it has not been invited by the Indian government.

The Indian silence is significant after India, the US, Japan and Australia have revived their plan to form a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the so-called Quad, a military partnership to contain China. In January, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said discussions on Australia returning to multilateral naval exercises with India were progressing well. The eventual non-invitation by Delhi might be seen as a casualty of India’s just improving relations with China and is definitely a blow for the Quad. [The Australian]

Concerning the long-term character of Sino-India relations, the recent, basically positive meeting between Modi and Xi should not be overloaded with highflying expectations for the long-term future. A temporary betterment of bilateral relations seems to express both countries´ current strategic considerations. This notwithstanding, India seems too important as a strategic weight, its leadership too determined, and its South Asian backyard too volatile, to not eventually being inclined to decide either in favor or against China and the US respectively. This, at least, is the perspective reflected by the headline and conclusion of a [Forbes] article that conjures up “the coming clash between China and India” without, however, providing much substantive arguments.

22 April 2018

Japan: Prime Minister Abe’s faces resignation demands

(dql) Battered by ongoing investigations into two cronyism cases in which he is suspected to be involved [AiR 3/4/2108] and an approval rate at 31% against a disapproval rates at 52% [Asahi Shimbun], Prime Minister Abe is facing demands to step down. While 50000 people last weekend took their anger over the cronyism scandals to the streets and demanded his resignation [The Japan Times], former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from the same ruling Liberal Democratic Party i n an interview suggested Abe to step down at the end of the parliamentary session in June to prevent damage on the party in the 2019 Upper House election. [The Economic Times]

22 April 2018

Japan: Diplomatic missions to US and China with mixed results

(dql) Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Washington this week brought mixed results. While he was reassured by Trump that Japan’s security concerns would be communicated during his impending meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he failed to achieve his main economic and trade related goals, name an exemption from new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum and the USA’s return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. [The Washington Post]

Meanwhile, during the visit of Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Japan, both Foreign Ministers agreed to increase efforts to improve economic ties between both countries and to stick with U.N. resolutions aimed at putting pressure on North Korea’s denuclearization.

Wang’s visit is the first visit of a Chinese foreign minister to Japan in a bilateral context in the nine years and reflects recent developments of improving Sino-Japanese ties. [The Diplomat]

22 April 2018

Annual Philippine-US military drills to include Japan and Australia

(jk) This year’s US-Philippine “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises will include Japanese and Australian forces for the first time. Last year, the US – Philippines exercises were scaled down amid some strategic re-alignment under President Duterte who has also invited Chinese and Russian forces for exercises [The Straits Times].

15 April 2018

Cambodia´s upcoming elections, Japan´s role and the China factor

(hg) The Cambodian elections scheduled for July 29 will be run without the oppositional Cambodia National Rescue Party of self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. The party was banned November 2017 in an incraesingly repressive climate bringing the country closer to what could be called a de-facto one-party state run by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the world´s longest reigning Prime Minister, and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Sam Rainsy, on tour in Tokyo, has urged Japan, one of his nation’s biggest donors, to use its leverage to ensure that the elections will be democratic. While Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has urged Cambodia to hold free and fair elections when visiting PM Hun Sen, he was not touching on the repressive, undemocratic environment in the kingdom.

In February, Tokyo announced an $7.6 million grant to Cambodia to support the elections  including Japanese-made ballot boxes and other election-related equipment, adding to the 12,000 ballot boxes that Japan donated for the 1998 elections. [Japan Today] Last week, Japan issued also a $90 million loan to fund electricity and other economic projects.

The Japanese support for both the government and the elections has caused mixed reactions. While the US and EU are highly critical with some countries leveling sanctions against Cambodia’s Hun Sen government, Japan is seen as keeping quiet on the increasing repression and instead throwing money behind a farce of elections. [The Diplomat]

Major reason for the Japanese stance is an ever advancing Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region with Cambodia being China´s closest ally in ASEAN.

15 April 2018

Japan: A second scandal pressuring PM Abe

(dql) Amid the ongoing Moritomo Gakuen land sale scandal over forged documents by the government and a heavily discounted price due to alleged relations between school operator Moritomo Gakuen and Prime Minister Abe’s wife [AiR 2/4/2018], a second scandal threatens Abe’s political position, the so-called Kake Gakuen scandal in which Abe is suspected to have used his influence in favor of the Kake Education Institution´s application for the construction of a veterinary medicine faculty in the National Strategic Special Zone in Imabari  in 2016. Kake Gakuen eventually won the bid and opened the faculty early this month.

After Abe has constantly denied any involvement, two documents, dated back in 2015, have now appeared increasing the suspicions of Abe’s involvement. [The Japan Times]  [Asahi Shimbun]

15 April 2018

Trans-Pacific Partnership: No renegotiations if US wants to join CPTPP

 (hg) Members of the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – formed by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam – have jointly opposed any re-negotiations to accommodate the US should the country decide to participate in the trade deal. This notwithstanding several ministers including those representing Japan and Australia, welcomed President Donald Trump directing officials to explore the possibility of returning to the CPTPP. Japan´s Finance Minister said he expected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Trump to discuss the trade deal at their summit meeting next week. Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s minister in charge of TPP, said it would be difficult however to change the deal, calling it a “balanced one, like fine glassware”. Similar, Australia Trade Minister stated: “We welcome the US coming back to the table, but I don’t see any wholesale appetite for any material renegotiation of the TPP-11.” [New Straits Times]

15 April 2018

Japan-Vietnam relations: Security cooperation to be enhanced

(dql) This week, Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich visited Japan for talks with his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera on strengthening bilateral security cooperation. [Vietnam Net]

The visit, concluded by a Joint Vision Statement of Vietnam-Japan Defense Relations, comes against the background of a series of Hanoi’s recent reach out activities to partners with similar concerns about China´s increasing clout in the region. This has been recently reflected for instance by the Vietnamese President’s trip to India, or a historic U.S. aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam, all steps shedding light on the dynamics of the ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ concept as well as the ‘Quad’ initiative both formulated to contain China’s growing influence in Asia [The Diplomat]

15 April 2018

Sri Lanka fostering relations with Japanese/US forces

(hg) Sri Lank a Navy welcomed a Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer of the Murasame class at Hambantota Port on a goodwill visit with a delegation led by a Rear Admiral (Commander Southern Naval Area) and the Director Naval Operations. [Colombo Page]

Meanwhile, a delegation from the US Pacific Command (PACOM) met with the head of Sri Lanka’s army to discuss “career development prospects in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region” and “further expansion of security cooperation”. [Tamil Guardian]

The visit reflects increasing inter-service relations between Sri Lanka and the US after a US military delegation ‘saluted Sri Lanka’s War Heroes (August 2017), the US Marine Corps inaugurated a medical training program with the Sri Lankan Navy, Sri Lanka and the US co-hosting an air force exercise (both September 2017), the US conducting anti-terrorism trainings for Sri Lankan troops and USS Nimitz and its strike group making a port call on Colombo, as first U.S. aircraft carrier to do so in three decades (both October 2017), the US including Sri Lanka in its second year Pacific Partnership visit program (February 2018), and the US agreeing to reestablish Peace Corps in Sri Lanka (March 2018). See also [Stars and Stripes]

8 April 2018

Japan: Land sale scandal continues to pressure Abe administration

(dql) Fearing repercussions of the Abe administration’s handling the cronyism-centered Moritomo Gakuen land sale scandal [AiR 1/4/2018] in the 2019 nationwide prefectural, municipal, and town assembly elections, local governments and assemblies have voiced dissatisfaction with the central government arguing ‘that the government’s explanation of the facts, including who ordered the deletions, when they ordered them, under whose orders, and why, is completely insufficient’ and that the ‘rewriting of documents by the bureaucrats … could greatly shake the foundations of democracy and the Diet process.’ The municipal assembly of Kyoto Prefecture went further and demanded the prime minister’s wife and others named in the documents to testify over suspicion of their involvement in the scandal. [The Japan Times 1]

Prior to these announcements, the opposition in the Diet also called for sworn testimonies of Abe’s wife Akie as well as Hidenori Sakota, director-general of the Financial Bureau at the time of the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen on the land deal, and Saeko Tani, a government bureaucrat serving as Akie’s aide when the negotiations were taking place. [Asahi Shimbun]

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the first day of the 2018 fiscal year, and amid the ongoing document-forgery investigation, new government rules for managing public documents came into force, requiring agencies and ministries to keep administrative documents needed for examinations of decision-making processes for at least a year in principle. Pressured by the investigation, Abe already a week before the new rules took effect announced a thorough review of the management of public documents in the past to adjust the new rules. [The Japan Times 2]

In a latest related development, the Defense Ministry revealed that daily logs from Ground Self-Defense Force units dispatched to Iraq have been found making then Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s statement in the Diet in February 2017 that the logs ‘no longer exist’ incorrect. The logs cover 408 days of the GSDF mission to Iraq from January 2004 to September 2006, amounting in total to around 14,000 pages. The files are believed to contain details about GSDF personnel’s daily activities and the security situation in the area. [The Japan News]

8 April 2018

Japan: New defense era?

(dql) In major ocean policy shift, the Abe administration has come up with a proposal shifting the focus of Japan’s basic ocean policy from resources to security and elevating coastal security and remote-island defense to top policy priority. The proposal identified as reason for the shift from the current focus on maritime resources development and management repeated intrusions of Chinese government ships and warships into Japanese waters as well as North Korea’s firing of missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The draft highlights the importance of the creation of a maritime domain awareness system for sharing information collected by Japanese government agencies and other countries used for monitoring unidentified vessels and handling natural disasters. More specifically, it seeks to strengthen radars set up on Self-Defense Forces aircraft and along coasts and utilizing advanced satellites belonging to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). [The Japan Times]

The announcement of the policy shift plan comes after Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) on Wednesday celebrated the launch of its first ever full-fledged amphibious force with a ceremony as Japan grapples with the task of defending its remote islands in the southwest amid China’s growing maritime assertiveness. The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, dubbed the Japanese “Marines,” starts with around 2,100 members is part of the GSDF’s largest-ever organizational overhaul [AiR 1/4/2018] made in an attempt to deal more flexibly with the shifting regional security environment. [NHK]

8 April 2018

Inter-Korean relations: Search for dialogue formats after Kim Jong-un accepts return to six-party talks

(dql) After Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday reported that Kim Jong-un told Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing that he was ready to resume six-party talks to discuss denuclearization [Nikkei Asian Review], Seoul’s reaction to the news reflects cautiousness as it on Friday reaffirmed that negotiations on denuclearization should be discussed first among the two Koreas and the US during planned summits, before involving other nations. [The Korea Times]

The six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan began in 2003. However, they failed in 2008, largely because the North refused to allow inspectors to verify that it had shut down its nuclear programs.

8 April 2018

Asia: US interest/US concerns

(hg) An interesting perspective on the US strategy towards Asia has been taken in the [The National Interest]. With a view on an economical primate, it highlights the high stakes the US still have in the larger region. Irrespective of having pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, the US are in fact decisively seeking to balance against a rising China under the label of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Strategy and especially by leveraging a growing India as a counterweight to China. In doing so, the US continues established Western strategies in its commitment to a normative conception of freedom that is substantially underpinned by Western values centered at good governance as manifest in terms of fundamental rights, transparency and anti-corruption. At the same time, so the article, it has become clear that parts of the Trump administration do effectively frame American grand strategy by national economic interest which would render a trade deal that has strategic value but no benefit for the American economy of only limited value. [The National Interest]

As much as this reflects an obvious ‘American business first’ strand in President Trump´s foreign policy, it might, however, be doubted that economic benefit would ultimately trump security. Contrary, the new US national security strategy regarding great power competition, not terrorism, as the central challenge to US security and prosperity looking at China and Russia as the major adversaries will arguably develop the decisive momentum in engaging the Indo-Pacific, not a ‘business first’ policy.

Secretary of the US Army, Mark Esper, a former vice president for government relations at Raytheon, a major US defense contractor company, stated last week: “The future we face is increasingly uncertain. China and Russia, which have been identified as our strategic competitors, as part of this era of great competition … are modernizing. They are eroding our overmatch, and they are improving their ability to threaten our interests.” [The Daily Signal] and for a video clip [The Heritage Foundation]

The weight and implications of the present shift in security strategy are huge. A recent article of Michael T. Klare in [The Nation] claims “The screaming headline you should have seen in any paper (but haven’t) is this: The US military has made up its mind about the future. It has committed itself and the nation to a three-front geopolitical struggle to resist Chinese and Russian advances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East”. For the Indo-Pacific theater, PACOM Commander Adm. Harry Harris Jr., has just painted a grim picture of America’s strategic position in the region, highlighting that China was emerging as a formidable threat to America’s vital interests with People Liberation Army´s capabilities “progressing faster than any other nation in the world, benefitting from robust resourcing and prioritization.” [The Nation]

At multiple points along the Eurasian maritime zone – at the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea – US forces “are already in significant contact, often jostling for position in a potentially hostile manner. At any moment, one of these encounters could provoke a firefight leading to unintended escalation and, in the end, possibly all-out combat. From there, almost anything could happen, even the use of nuclear weapons.” [The Nation]

Against this background, two recent assessments of risk scenarios concerning the South Pacific and the East China Sea are interesting.

Being less in focus of conventional risk assessments, the South Pacific remains strategically vital to the US for two key reasons that are lastly forming two sides of the same coin, the interests “to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon” and the maintenance and expansion of the US sphere of influence under the label of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

Interestingly, Charles Edel, a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre and former associate professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College, has voiced concern that the three Pacific Island nations of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau which are joined with the US in Compacts of Free Association that are allowing the US a strategically highly important military presence in the Pacific might come under eventually disruptive stress. [War on the Rocks]

More manifest, however, seem concerns of increasing conflict in cross-strait relations and the Est China Sea as recently expressed by a panel of maritime experts from the US, Japan and Germany hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington. From this perspective, China is seen as stepping up both its submarine presence in the East China Sea and its use of aerial drones for intelligence collection operations, while it is also said to engage in almost daily probes of Japan’s air defense including simulated cruise missile attacks on Japanese mainland. The said panel expressed in particular concern that President Xi Jinping could act towards Taiwan as President Putin did towards Crimea. Such a perception is even more significant as President Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, is a strong opponent of the US ‘One China’ policy anyway (and one of Washington´s most hawkish security experts). [Asia Times]

1 April 2018

Japan: Diet testimony exonerates Prime Minister Abe in land sale scandal

(dql) Former Finance Ministry Financial Bureau chief Nobuhisa Sagawa’s much-anticipated Tuesday sworn testimony at the Diet exonerated Prime Minister Abe as Sagawa categorically denied Abe’s involvement in the alterations in the documents in the context of the cronyism-centered Moritomo Gakuen land sale scandal on which AiR reported [AiR 2/3/2018]. He also denied Abe’s influence in the procedures leading up the sale. [The Mainichi]

Abe has come under pressure over this scandal and is facing plummeting approval ratings and even resignation demands endangering his bid for a third term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party. In a recent opinion survey, 48% of the respondents believe that Abe and his government should stop down over the scandal while 32% view such a move not necessary. [Reuters]

To the anger of opposition lawmakers who suspects that possibly Finance Minister Taro Aso or aides close to Abe are involved in the forgery of the documents, the testimony, however, failed to bring progress in the investigation, as Sagawa, citing possible prosecution, repeatedly left key questions about the masterminds and the purpose of the document forgery answered. [The Japan Times]

The scandal also overshadowed the annual convention of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held on Sunday at which Abe, following a deep bow and apology for an ongoing scandal, reasserted his pledge to revise the postwar Constitution aimed at rectifying its perceived incompatibility with the country’s Self-Defense Forces. [Asahi Shimbun]

1 April 2018

Indian Grand Strategy

(hg) Interesting especially in the context of the above described Sino-Indian economic convergence are some recent assessments of the state and potentials of Indian grand strategy.

A Stratfor piece recapitulates the conditions, potentials and direction of India’s grand strategy from a more general perspective [Stratfor], while Ravi Kant reflects on the possibility of an Indian Marshall Plan to thwart China’s expanding sphere of influence [Asia Times]. To strengthen democracy and trade in the region such an Indian Marshall Plan “must include aggressive foreign and economic policies to promote regional integration through the trade and digital connectivity” with India supposed to take “a leadership role in Asia to prove that it is an emergent power with the ambition of a superpower”. [Asia Times]

An arguably more realistic assessment is skeptical even about and Indian great power status as a country would “lack serious extra regional power projection capabilities, does not decisively dominate its own region, and is not a system shaping power in either economic or military balance terms” [Modern Diplomacy].

Arguably, India finds itself in a strategic environment shaped by an unravelling Chinese encirclement and succeeding threats to its backyard – dominance while it positions itself in the ranks of those countries decisively aiming to equally encircle and contain the Chinese sphere of influence.

Despite recent efforts in achieving increasing self-reliance in developing critical missile technologies [India Today] [Financial Express 1] [Financial Express 2], India remains largely outgunned by China [The Economist].

Noteworthy, besides a recent Chinese sale of an advanced missile-tracking system to Pakistan that may enhance latter’s ability to develop multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicle technology for its medium- to long-range missile systems [Jane’s 360], some observers see Russian-Indian relations fading with a Russian, China, Pakistan collusion. [Daily O]

Other observers highlighted that India is already so deeply entrenched in an anti-China alliance that it was not even make a major difference for this positioning if the Indian side would come to see the US as a less reliable partner under Trump then wished for initially. According to this view, the momentum of the American-Australian-Japanese-Indian Quadrilateral Security Dialogue would sustain even in its trilateral form in the case that the American-Indian partnership would face same backlashes. [Business Insider]

The American-Indian security partnership should in fact be seen as entrenched and settled as it is. The US offered India its most advanced defense equipment, training and intelligence cooperation, effectively choose it before Pakistan lauding India’s stance on ‘terrorism’, invest in India’s defense industries, engage in nuclear reactor sales, support India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and give India a prominent role in Afghanistan. Moreover, the U.S. has also designated India as a ‘major defense partner’ a unique category created specifically for India to expedite defense technology transfer while the Pentagon has also created ‘India Rapid Reaction Cell’ streamline projects for co-development and co-production of hi-tech military equipment in India, being the only country to have such a specific cell inside the Pentagon. [Modern Diplomacy]

Being that were marriage of convenience, this partnership´s benefit for India is sufficiently tangible under the given circumstances to be acknowledged in its own sustaining weight for the country´s grand strategy.

Despite everything happening on the economic front, the US are indeed treating their new major security ally with great care visible again in context of the US’ expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats for the alleged Russian Salisbury attack, when the US assured that they were not intending at sending any message to a country like India having an equally strong relationship with both Moscow and Washington. [The Economic Times]

1 April 2018

Sri Lanka´s openness to China

(hg) Under former President Rajapaksa who is working for his comeback Sri Lanka was an early participant in China’s infrastructure-building project that eventually became the Belt and Road Initiative. That created a huge debt burden for the country which was finally forced to sell the Hambantota port to China Merchants Port Holdings after Rajapaksa was gone who swiftly criticized the move. Ironically, public anger over Chinese debt had helped the present Sirisena – Wickremesinghe administration rise to power over Rajapaksa three years ago. Despite pledging to reevaluate China-funded projects which they alleged were corrupt, the new government soon saw itself negotiating concessions to China as well while pushing ahead with the inherited projects. [Bloomberg]

Now, the government seems increasingly to put its hopes in even more Chinese investment albeit desperately seeking also for Indian and Japanese investment that just does not come enough or quick enough.

Last week, the Bank of China has opened a branch in Colombo in a high-profile event attended by the Prime Minister who announced Sri Lanka would now work with China on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that would complement the FTA Sri Lanka is discussing with India. He also expressed hope that the Bank of China, which is the world’s fourth biggest in terms of assets, would create an opportunity for his country to develop into a financial hub in Asia. [Colombo Gazette 1]

Against this background, the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka has once more remembered of the fact that the China-Sri Lanka friendship dates back to ancient times and China attaches great importance to the bilateral relations. Reiterating the Chinese promise of harmonious coexistence he assured that China will never interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and never attach additional conditions to its assistance: “While pursuing building a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness and justice, win-win cooperation, China is actively working together with Sri Lanka to promote the latter’s economic and social development and bring benefit to the two peoples,”. [Colombo Gazette 2] 

1 April 2018

North Korea’s denuclearization: Diplomatic dynamics unfolding

(dql) Amid diplomatic dynamics unfolding in the wake of the inter-Korean summit on 27 April and the yet to be confirmed meeting between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the two-day visit of the latter this week in Beijing widened spaces for dialogue, at least according to China’s state-run outlet Xinhua as it quotes Kim saying that ‘the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.’ [Xinhua 1]

Kim Jong-un’s ‘unofficial’ visit at the invitation of Xi Jinping signals China’s efforts to regain an active role in shaping a potential resolution of North Korea’s denuclearization, based on a stable relationship between both countries. Asked at a press conference on Wednesday on the impacts Kim’s visit on Beijing’s stance towards the implementations of UN resolutions against North Korea, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stressed the importance of a ‘friendly and cooperative relationship’ between Beijing and Pyongyang and reasserted ‘China’s relevant principled position and China’s will to continue with its constructive role’ to ‘strive for the denuclearization, peace and stability of the Peninsula’. [The Washington Post] [Ministry of Foreign Affairs China]

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s special representative and member of Communist Party Politburo Yang Jiechi held talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul on Friday. Both sides emphasized that the Korean Peninsula is at critical juncture, and mutually reassured the willingness to cooperate on achieving denuclearization, and maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. [Reuters] [Xinhua 2]

In a related development, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revealed on Monday that Tokyo and Pyongyang has been talking to each other the possibility of meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while also touching also on prospects of opening a three-way dialogue involving Washington. [The Japan Times] Abe’s announcement follows Tokyo’s recent shift from a long maintained hardline stance towards negotiations with Pyongyang to the current more conciliatory position.

1 April 2018

South Korea-US relations: Annual joint drills kicked off

(dql) On Sunday, South Korea and the United States have started their annual joint military exercises. While the Foal Eagle field exercise, usually covering combined ground, air, naval and special operations troops, will last a month, the computer-simulated Key Resolve is scheduled for two weeks from mid-April on. About 23,700 U.S. troops and 300,000 South Korean forces would be involved in these joint exercises. Their scale would not go exceed those in previous years, according to military officials in Seoul. [Voice of America]

Japan’s Defense Minister Defence Itsunori Onodera, meanwhile, welcomed the exercises arguing they would increase pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize. [Reuters]

1 April 2018

Sino-Japanese relations: Agreement on maritime security ‘hotline’ in final stages

(dql) Signaling an improvement in Sino-Japanese relations, Tokyo and Beijing are making final arrangements in an attempt to officially agree on starting the “maritime and air communication mechanism” at a bilateral meeting of the leaders of both countries scheduled to be held in Tokyo in early May. The mechanism is a new military communication channel aimed at preventing accidental clashes between defense forces and scheduled to begin operation in May. [The Japan News]

1 April 2018

Japan: Massive shake up of Grand Self Defense Force

(dql) On Tuesday, a maasive organizational shake-up of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force took place as its command was streamlined for flexible operations nationwide and amphibious forces in charge of defending remote islands were created. The launch of the Ground Component Command providing unified command over regional armies and the 2100-strong Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, Japan’s version of the U.S. Marines, follows Japan’s efforts to strengthen its defenses against North Korea and China. [Kyodo News] Japan’s first full-scale amphibious operations unit is drawn from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Western Army’s infantry and includes an amphibious infantry regiment along with a landing unit will operate operating the AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles currently used by the U.S. Marine Corps. Japan has ordered the vehicle for itself. The unit will also be transported by Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft of the JGSDF and the amphibious ships of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. [Defense News]

1 April 2018

Updates on South China Sea conflict

(ls/dql) In a move aimed to put Washington on notice, Beijing has put on a show of force in the South China Sea after satellite images showed China’s only operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, accompanied by dozens of other vessels in the South China Sea, conducting exercises at sea and in the air south of the Chinese island province of Hainan on Monday and Tuesday this week. Prior to this move, the Liaoning aircraft carrier, last week on March 21, sailed through the Taiwan Strait towards the South China Sea. [CNN]

Meanwhile, Leslie Fong, in South China Morning Post, examines the Chinese standpoint against the background of the latest “Freedom of Navigation Operation” by the US Navy 12 miles off Mischief Reef, which China called a “serious military provocation”. According to China’s view, the US are playing up the fortification of islands as a prelude to Chinese intimidation of its neighbours, so that America can maintain or even increase its armed presence in waters not far from China’s 14,500km coastline. However, whereas China considers the South China Sea its “backyard” (comparable to the Gulf of Mexico for America), Fong argues that the US insist on freedom of navigation despite having themselves disregarded a rule-based order several times in the past. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Secretary of National Defense of the Philippines, Delfin Lorenzana, said that the Philippines’ territorial dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea remains a security challenge despite an improvement in bilateral ties. The Philippines received three donated second-hand TC90 planes from Japan to boost the navy’s capability to gather intelligence in the disputed South China Sea. [The Straits Times]

25 March 2018

Japan: Abe’s Art. 9 revision proposal accepted by his party

(dql) The month-long dispute within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over the revision of the war-renouncing Art. 9 of the constitution has ended with a victory for Prime Minister Abe after veteran LDP lawmaker Hiroyuki Hosoda, head of the party’s constitutional reform task force, announced after a plenary meeting on the issue on Thursday that the group “will work toward the direction” of Abe’s proposal of keeping the article unchanged and adding an explicit reference to the Self-Defense Forces instead of removing from the article the clause stating “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”. The latter has been proposed by Abe’s opponents within the party. [Asahi Shimbun]

25 March 2018

Japan: Ruling bloc yields to opposition calls for Diet testimony by former tax agency head in land sale scandal

(dql) Facing plummeting approval ratings for Prime Minister Abe and protesters demanding his resignation in the context of the Morotomi Gakuen land sale scandal, on which AiR reported in the last issue, high ranking officials of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito decided to meet demands of the opposition and have Nobuhisa Sagawa testify as a sworn witness before the Diet. Sagawa served as director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau when officials of the bureau falsified documents related to the leasing and eventual sale of state-owned land to private school operator Moritomo Gakuen. Sagawa resigned as chief of the National Tax Agency early this month taking responsibility after the Finance Ministry’s confessed forged documents submitted to the Diet. While acknowledging the decision on Sagawa’s testimony before the Diet, the opposition insisted that an adequate resolution of the scandal will not be achieved unless Abe’s wife will also testify before the Diet given that her name was deleted in the forged documents and her close relationship to the school operator at time of the sale. [The Japan Times]

25 March 2018

Japan-Russia: Uncertain times ahead of Abe-Putin summit in May

(dql) Visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono warned that the deployment of a U.S. land-based missile defense system in Japan could impede negotiations on the return of islands off northern Japan, occupied by Russia since the end of World War II, but claimed by Japan. Lavrov’s warning refers to Tokyo’s plans to introduce the US-made Aegis Ashore anti-missile system. Kono assured his counterpart that the system “will not pose a threat to any neighboring country, including Russia.” Both reached an agreement to hold bilateral talks between vice foreign ministers or other high-ranking officials twice in the period from April to May to discuss security matters before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Putin are scheduled to meet at a bilateral summit in St. Petersburg in late May. [The Mainichi]

25 March 2018

Japan, South Korea and China agree upon trilateral summit

(dql) South Korea, Japan and China have agreed to hold a three-way summit in May and discuss ways to strengthen economic, environmental and cultural cooperation. Chaired by Japan and attended by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae In and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the summit is planned for 8-9 May, the same month proposed for meeting of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. [The Straits Times]

18 March 2018

Japan: Strengthening bilateral security cooperation against China

(dql/thn) During his six-day visit to Japan, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena met Prime Minister Abe on Wednesday. The two leaders agreed on promoting bilateral cooperation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region and advancing bilateral defense exchanges, with Japan pledging to provide assistance in capacity building for maritime law enforcement to Sri Lanka. Abe and Sirisena also agreed on cooperation in upgrading the Indian Ocean country’s infrastructure, such as port facilities in Colombo, to boost connectivity in the region.

The agreements signals Japan’s efforts to bolster its “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” in which Sri Lanka is viewed central in the wake of China’s growing maritime presence in Indian Ocean as the country is located near major sea lanes. [The Mainichi]

At the same time, Japan is strengthening its military and diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia by sending an extra defence attaché to its embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Japan has already sent two military officers to embassies in the Philippines and Vietnam last year. The appointment in Kuala Lumpur was confirmed by a spokesman for the ministry. However, he declined to explain Japan’s act. The appointments are being seen as another move by Tokyo to counter Bejing’s military  assertiveness. This concern is shared by some governments in Southeast Asia. [South China Morning Post]

18 March 2018

Japan-North Korea relations: Tokyo’s policy shift

(dql) In a phone talk on Friday, Prime Minister Abe told South Korean President Moon thathe is considering a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Analysts view this policy shift away from a long maintained hardline position on negotiations with Pyongyang motivated by Tokyo’s wariness that it might be left behind in the wake of easing tensions between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington, reflected in the impending summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un as well as the talks between North and South Korea. [The Mainichi]

A summit between Abe and Kim would be the first summit between a Japanese prime minister and a North Korean leader since Junichiro Koizumi’s meeting with Kim’s father Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2004.

18 March 2018

Japan: LDP panel fails to form consensus over revision of war-renouncing Article 9

(dql) The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) struggle for an intra-party consensus on the constitutional revision continues. A party’s panel on constitutional revisions failed to arrive at a consensus on Thursday due to resistance to Prime Minister Abe’s proposal from rank-and-file members pursuing a more radical revision of the war-renouncing Art. 9 of the constitution.

Abe’s proposal focuses on a clause to be added to the article that would formalize the legal status of Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) and allow Japan to maintain ‘the minimum necessary armed organization’ required for self-defense while a change of the various legal restrictions imposed on military operations of the SDF would not be involved. In Abe’s proposal the current wording of Article 9 remains unchanged.

Opponents to his ideas call for the deletion of the second paragraph of Article 9 – whose disputed clause reads “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” -, arguing that that would allow Japan to fully exercise the right of collective self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which refers to the right to attack a third country if it assaults an ally nation. [The Japan Times]

18 March 2018

Japan: Abe’s and finance minister’s resignation demanded over land sale scandal

(dql) In the rapidly unfolding scandal centering at cronyism in the context of a 2016 sale of state land to private school operator Moritomo Gakuen, protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso following the Finance Ministry’s confession that 12 of 14 documents related to the sale and submitted to the Diet had been altered by staff members at the Ministry on Monday. On the same day lawmakers from the opposition presented the original and forged documents revealing the removal of the names of Prime Minister Abe, his wife and Aso from these documents. [Reuters]

In move to bend in the opposition, the ruling coalition expressed the intention to have Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau at the time of the deal and stepped down as chief of the National Tax Agency last week, testifying before the Diet. [Asahi Shimbun 1]

Abe rejected the calls to resign and also defended his long-serving finance minister who leads the second-largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) whose support Abe needs in his bid to win a third term as LDP president this autumn. [Asahi Shimbun 2]

11 March 2018

Japan: Prime Minister Abe under pressure over Finance Ministry’s forged land sale documents

(dql) The Abe administration has come under pressure over forged documents of the Ministry of Finance obscuring the sale of an 8,770-square-meter state-owned plot of land to school operator Morimoto Gakuen in 2016.

In the latest development it has been found out that an entire section containing information about the background of the sale as well as wording about negotiations between the government and Moritomo Gakuen were deleted from a document the Finance Ministry submitted to lawmakers.

Opposition lawmakers had demanded the release of original documents, suspecting the deal was made possible through favoritism involving first lady Akie Abe’s connections with the then director of Moritomo Gakuen.
In the light of these findings, Nobuhisa Sagawa stepped down as chief of the National Tax Agency as his repeated claims that there had been prior negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen over the price of the land before its sale and that negotiation documents had been discarded proved inaccurate. Sagawa was director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau at the time of the deal. [The Asahi Shimbun]

Complicating the situation, a male official of the Finance Ministry’s Kinki regional bureau, who belonged to the department in charge of the land transaction last February, in an apparent suicide was dead on Wednesday at his home in Kobe. [The Mainichi]

Meanwhile, the governing coalition parties LDP and Komeito agreed on setting a deadline for the Finance Ministry to report on the relevant documents by early next week. [Nikkei Asian Review]

11 March 2018

Japan: Obstacles on Abe’s way to constitutional reform

(dql) According to the 2018 action plan of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to be adopted at the party convention on 25 March, the party and its members are called on to take the lead in deepening public debate on Abe’s amendment proposals and to attempt a broad consensus within the Diet’s Commission of Constitution for the constitutional revisions set by Prime Minister Abe as cornerstone of his political agenda shall be attempted. [The Japan Times]

Achieving this consensus, however, seems to be a demanding challenge as Japan’s opposition parties currently refuse to join the Diet’s Commission of Constitution over diverging positions on the constitutional revisions rendering it in-active. [East Asia Forum]

In a related development, a nationwide survey revealed 48.5% of the respondents rejecting and 39.2% supporting constitutional changes under the Abe government. [Kyodo News]

11 March 2018

Japan’s government to strengthen economic ties to Africa

(jb) Tokyo plans to support partnerships between Japanese companies and firms from nations with economic influence in Africa, such as France and India, to encourage Japanese enterprises to branch out into the continent. Arrangements are on the way to hold in South Africa in May a first-of-its-kind conference for governments and firms concerned to discuss cooperation. [The Japan News]

11 March 2018

Japan: Navy to buy tanker to fuel ships patrolling East China Sea

(dql) Japan’s navy plans the purchase of its first oil tanker to carry fuel to Okinawa as it is beefing up operations in the East China Sea to counter a growing Chinese naval presence, according to sources familiar with plan. The procurement plan comes at a time when operations in the East China Sea, where Japan and China are locked in a territorial dispute over the ownership of a group of islands claimed as the Senkaku in Tokyo and Diaoyu in Beijing, are increasing and intensifying in the wake of China’s military growing strength in this region. [Reuters]

11 March 2018

North Korea: Trump to meet Kim in May and international reactions

(dql) In a stunning development after months of fierce tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over the latter’s nuclear missile tests, the White House on Thursday that President Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean Kim Jong-un face to face in May. Trump will be the first US President to meet a North Korean leader in person. [Express]

South Korean President on Friday hailed the impending meeting as a ‘historic milestone’ for peace on the Korean Peninsula and ‘opportunity that came like a miracle’. [Yonhap] However, during a meeting with party leaders on Wednesday, Moon confirmed that he has no plan to ease sanctions against Pyongyang for the sake of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un scheduled for late next month. [Korea Herald]

Less euphoric, Prime Minister Abe warned to be cautious towards the meeting in May as it could be a ploy on Pyongyang’s side to buy time and demanded concrete steps toward denuclearization to defuse Tokyo’s scepticism. Unless these concrete steps are taken by Kim-Jong-un, Tokyo would continue with using maximum international pressure to denuclearize North Korea. [The Japan Times]

Meanwhile Chinese official and government-backed media outlets report on China welcoming the news on direct talks between the US and North Korea as a chance for a return to peace and stability [Xinhua], but also on China’s readiness to ‘help protect the rights of North Korea when Pyongyang begins denuclearization talks with Washington’ and ‘prevent North Korea from being deceived or squeezed by the US once it begins to denuclearize.’ [Global Times]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov considers the agreement a ‘step in the right direction’ towards a dialogue based on mutual respect’. [TASS]

4 March 2018

Labor law reform in Japan: Government concedes essential part to opposition

(ldq) Bowing to fierce criticism of the opposition, Prime Minister Abe announced on Wednesday to remove the planned expansion of the ‘discretionary working system’ from the labor reform draft bill, a core element of the government’s labor reform according to which employees would be paid according to hours agreed upon in advance instead of the actual hours they work. Prior to this concession to the opposition, Abe had already publicly apologized for an erroneous study of the Ministry of Labor on which the intended reform of the discretionary working system was based. Analysts view Abe’s compromising stance as an effort to minimize political damage in the wake of his push for constitutional reform and the September leadership election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party at which he will bid for a historic third term. [Asahi Shimbun]

4 March 2018

Sino-Japanese relations: Signs of a thaw?

(dql) Indicating a thaw after years of strained relations between Japan and China, Tokyo announced on Friday plans to invite Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for a formal visit which would coincide with a trilateral summit with South Korea in May. The visit of Li is considered a preliminary move to get President Xi Jinping’s for state visit to Japan. Li’s visit would the first visit of a Chinese leader to Japan in eight years. [The Japan Times 1]

Meanwhile, Japanese media outlets report on Tokyo’s consideration of a plan to deploy new anti-ship missiles to the main island in Okinawa as a response to China’s growing intrusions in the Miyako Strait in the past years. While none of these actions constitute a violation international law, they have drawn the ire in Japan. At the same time, the Miyako Strait is a key bottleneck for China’s largest ambitions of dominating the so-called first island chain making it a key node for any Japanese defense strategy. [The National Interest]

In a related development, Japan’s Defense Ministry is studying the feasibility of deploying F-35B fighter jets on Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carriers, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera stated on Friday. This move is widely viewed as another sign that Japan is retreating from its strictly defense-oriented military posture. [The Japan Times 2]

4 March 2018

Tokyo ready for talks with Pyongyang

(dql) Changing its hitherto uncompromising stance its stance on talks with North Korea, the Japanese government has announced plans to take part in informal talks which do not necessarily include substantive negotiations on Pyongyang’s nuclear arms program. The shift puts Japan in line with the United States, which tried to organize high-level talks with North Korea earlier this month on the sidelines of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. Prior to this shift Tokyo repeatedly insisted that a meaningful dialogue would only be possible with Pyongyang taking concrete steps toward scrapping its nuclear arms program. The shift, however, does not result in Japan easing up on its campaign of raising economic and diplomatic pressure on the North, the government stated.  [The Japan Times]

4 March 2018

Issue of ‘comfort women’ strains Japan-South Korea ties

(dql) In unprecedentedly strong rhetoric, South Korean President Moon Jae-in described and berated the Japanese army enslavement of so-called ‘comfort women’ during World War II as a ‘crime against humanity’, in a speech on Thursday, 1 March, a national holiday in South Korea marking 99 years of the March 1 Movement, one of the first public displays of resistance to the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 and 1945. [The Korea Herald]

Moon’s speech comes amid tensions between Seoul and Tokyo over the 2015 bilateral agreement on the ‘comfort women’ issue, after Seoul came forward with a new policy in January, according to which Seoul will not seek renegotiation of the agreement with Japan, but demands Tokyo to do more for former comfort women, including an apology.

Tokyo rejected the apology demand and denounced Moon’s statement as ‘extremely regrettable’ and announced that a diplomatic protest has been lodged. [The Japan Times]

4 March 2018

Australia and Japan eager to deepen relationship with ASEAN

(ls) The ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, scheduled for March 17-18 in Sydney, will mark the first time Australia has hosted a summit with ASEAN. The event is expected to feature discussions on how the region should work toward resolving key economic and security challenges including the Rohingya crisis and South China Sea dispute. The development needs to be seen against the background of Australia’s release of a White Paper last November that did not feature any particular emphasis of close relations with Southeast Asia. Rather, it recommended keeping the U.S. engaged in Asia, reaching out to like-minded countries including India, Indonesia and South Korea, and preventing coercive ehavior from major powers such as China and Russia. [Bangkok Post]

Japan also vowed to intensify relations with ASEAN countries. This week, Japan’s defense ministry announced that it would be holding an activity focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief inviting all Southeast Asian states and the ASEAN Secretariat. Prashanth Parameswaran describes in The Diplomat that the engagement is just the latest in a series of interactions Tokyo is rolling out as part of its wider regionwide engagement with Southeast Asian countries and its broader Indo-Pacific vision. [The Diplomat]

4 March 2018

The crisis in the Maldives and mounting pressure by the international community

(hg) Maldivian ambassador to Sri-Lanka Mohamed Husain Shareef has invited the international community to visit and assess the situation of the nation, claiming that the opposition has projected a false and misleading scenario on the state on the nation.

Meanwhile, a high-level Maldives delegation sought to reassure the UN Human Rights Council that the situation remained stable suggesting the UN should focus on more preferring global issues. [The Maldives Independent]

Unimpressed of such assurances, the European Union warned the Maldivian government of potential “targeted measures” and called for acknowledging the disputed decision, to lift the state of emergency and restore civil rights of citizens including the release of all political prisoners, to engage in talks with the opposition and ensure that the coming elections will be for and free.

Notable is the report of law and consultancy firm – Persus Strategies LLC – titled “Moving from Condemnation to Action”. The report, prepared by exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed’s lawyer, recommends the EU Council to impose human rights-based sanctions in response to the constitutional crisis including targeted asset freezes and travel bans urging that “the time to act is now.” [Mihaaru 1]

After police has arrested three more members of Parliament, altogether six opposition MPs seem to have been arrested in the frame of the ongoing constitutional and political crisis [Zee News], outspokenly commented by the US ambassador to the Maldives tweeting that ‘arrests are happening so fast’ and that ‘it is hard to keep track’. [Raajje MV]

Making things worse for the government, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that a Maldivian tanker has been spotted by an aircraft of the Japanese Maritime Self-defense Forces tanker in the East China Sea, “strongly suspected” to have been engaged in ship-to-ship transfers with a North Korean vessel. The Japanese government declared that it had noted the UN Security Council Committee on the issue which amounts to breach of the corresponding UNSCR. [Mihaaru 2]

The involved vessels are the North Korean “Chon Ma San”, designated by the United States as a sanctions-target and the Maldivian-flagged tanker “Xin Yuan 18”. Responding, the Maldivian government denies the accusations, saying that the identified vessel ‘Xin Yuan 18’ would not be of Maldivian origin or be registered in the country. Moreover, the government states that it condemned “the use of our national flag in a manner so as to tarnish the good standing and reputation of our nation” and that the Maldives has prioritized the implementation of all UN Security Council resolutions including those on North Korea. [NDTV]

25 February 2018

Japan: Investigation reveals sterilization of children

(dql) An investigation has brought to light sterilization of children under the Eugenic Protection Law, in force from 1948 to 1996. Acquired records show at least 13 prefectures documented the sterilization of children aged 15 and below due to mental disabilities and other reasons, with the youngest having been aged 9 at the time of the surgery. The release of the investigation findings comes at a time when two adult victims have sued the government and sought damages over their forced sterilization. [The Japan Times]

25 February 2018

Japan: Government concedes erroneous labor reform study

(dql) Government’s push for a parliamentary approval of its labor reform plans have stagnated after the Labor Ministry conceded flaws in a study used to promote the planned reform bills on the expansion of the ‘discretionary contract system’ and acknowledge more than 100 abnormal figures related to overtime hours or other working conditions at 87 company offices or factories. Ministry Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a second time this week apologized for the faulty study on Thursday during a speech at the Lower House Budget Committee. At the same time he indicated that he would not withdraw the bills, but still try to pass the bills within the current Diet session. The flaws in study have reinforced the opposition camp’s calls for the ruling parties to scrap the reform bills. [Asahi Shimbun]

18 February 2018

Japan: Reform of pension age on the way

(dql) In an attempt to tackle labor shortages, soaring welfare spending and a shriveling tax base stemming from its greying population, the Japanese government decided on Friday to raise the retirement age for national public servants from the current 60 to 65 in stages. The government expressed that it will push for legal changes after April 2020. The change would apply to approximately 3.4 million civil servants. [The Japan News]

18 February 2018

Asia: Enhancing military defense capabilities

(hg) Heightened geopolitical threats for peace in Asia have been identified as offering significantly growing opportunities by Lockheed Martin according to its executive vice president. [CNBC]

The Pentagon has just released the National Defense Strategy and a Nuclear Posture Review, the Defense Department is preparing now to issue another key document, another Ballistic Missile Defense Review, the first one after 2010. According to an unnamed defense official the document “will take a much harder look at Iran, North Korea and China”, adding: “Each of those countries has made huge strides both in range and lethality since [the 2010] assessment, and the Pentagon’s thinking about the threat, and planning for it, […]”. [Asia Times 1]

While defense spending has actually slowed down in 2017 for Asia as a whole, IHS Jane’s expects the region to be “the driving force behind long term growth in global defense spending” in its recent assessment. [CNBC]

Global defense spending in 2018 is expected to reach the highest levels recorded since the end of the Cold War according to the annual Jane’s Defence Budgets Report. [The National Interest]

Japan has just approved the countries ever largest annual defense budget in December last year and China and India will also spend significantly [CNBC] while Russian defense spending continued to decrease in 2017, and is now 10 percent lower than in 2015. [The National Interest]

All in all, requests for advanced military systems are clearly on the rise across the entire greater region covered by AiR, made up by South, Southeast and East Asia. [Asia Times 2]

Between 2007 and 2016, according to SIPRI defense data, China had the biggest increase in military spending of 118%, followed by Russia with 87%, and India with 54%. Germany, ranking sixth had an increase of 6.8% followed by France with an increase of 2.2%. In 2015, the US spent about 36% of the total global military spending that year. In 2016, the USA spent 611 billion USD followed by China with 215 followed by Russia with 69.2, Saudi Arabia with 63.7, India with 55.9, France with 55.7, the UK with 48.3, Japan with 46.1, Germany with 41.1, South Korea is 36.8, Italy with 27.9 and Australia with 24.6 billion USD. [The Times of India]

Notably, India´s defense budget broke into the world’s top five now, replacing the UK for the first time and signaling a shift in the military balance between the two countries with India allocating more capabilities to develop its regional ambitions than the UK with the remnants of its global ambitions. [India Post] India´s rival China, however, affords the world’s second-largest defense budget after the US and remains far ahead with three times India’s defense budget. China’s real defense spending increased by nearly 25 per cent in 2016-17, whereas India’s rose by just 2.4 per cent. Since 2000, China has built more submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes than Japan, South Korea and India combined. Saudi Arabia, with a defense spending of USD 76.7 billion, came in third to complete the world’s top five behind the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India last year. [India Post]

In 2016, European Union countries transferred US$2.1 billion worth of weapons to Indo-Pacific nations, nearly the same as the United States ($2.3 billion). Russia was the macro-region’s largest supplier with $3.4 billion worth of arms, while China ranked fourth with $1.2 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. [Asia Times 1]

Meanwhile US Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harry B Harris announced for the U.S. – Indian relations that “[d]efence sales are at an all-time high”. [The New Indian Express]

Singapore’s defense minister just reaffirmed this assessment in his recent Total Defense Day message commemorating the fall of Singapore in 1942 that independence would depend on strong military defense capabilities. [Channel News Asia]

In Bangladesh, military modernization is a long-term objective. Regarding the Air Force Raihan Al-Beruni points to the need to develop an area denial strategy that he argues is lacking and urges the fast development of a reflected strategy assuming that the Chinese-made J-31 and the Russian Su-57 will dominate the Asian market in the near future. [Dhaka Tribune] 

18 February 2018

Japan-Russia relations: Finding a legal framework for agreed joint activities on disputed islands 

(dql) Following the official agreement of joint economic activities on the disputed islands, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, and Abe’s express pledge to solve the Japanese-Russian territorial dispute [AiR 2/2/2018], analysts cast doubt whether both sides will succeed to reach a comprehensive agreement. The core problem and possible stumbling block will be the question how to find a solution for its implementation which would make Russia accommodating Japan’s demand for an underlying legal framework that doesn’t implicitly recognize Moscow’s claim to the territory. Ideas developed on Japanese side permitting Japanese companies to operate on the islands outside of Russian law would be viewed as a major concession from Moscow and a possible Trojan horse. [The Diplomat]

Against the background of Moscow’s deployment of 2000 Russian for military exercises last week on the four disputed islands, against which Tokyo lodged a formal protest, heavy doubts are cast over the possibility of a territorial agreement in the foreseeable time as envisioned by Abe. [SF Gate]

18 February 2018

Conciliatory mood in inter-Korean relations: Domestic perceptions and international reactions  

(dql) During her visit of the Olympic Games Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, delivered a written note of her brother to South Korean President Moon Jae-in inviting him to Pyongyang. The invitation is the temporary climax of the conciliatory signs in hitherto strained inter-Korean relations which saw direct talks between North and South Korean high-level delegations and a joint Korean team marching in at the Opening of the Olympic Games under a unified flag. However, South Korean political parties are split over the interpretation of this possible summit between Moon and Kim which would be the third North-South summit after 2000 and 2007. While the ruling Democratic Party views the summit as a meaningful first step toward the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – a stance support by the minor leftist Justice Party, the opposition Liberty Korea Party warned that a “visit by the president to North Korea, unless it is premised on denuclearization, would be nothing more than a congratulatory delegation celebrating (the North’s) nuclear development and would amount to an enemy-benefiting act.” [The Korea Herald]

Meanwhile, a survey on the North-South summit revealed that while six in ten (61.5%) of the South Korean population support such a summit South Korea’s and view it as a step towards peace in Korea, 31.5 % favored pressure and sanctions against over the summit. [The Korea Times]

In a latest move, President Moon expressed that the time has not yet come to decide over the if and how a summit with Kim Jong-un will be arranged pointing to the need to await developments in efforts in establishing a US-North Korean dialogue. [Yonhap]

The possibility of such a dialogue has been announced by US Vice-President Pence after his return from the Olympics. In a strategy shift, Pence said that the US is ready to hold the talks with North Korea while maintaining maximum pressure on Pyongyang. The Vice President named strategy “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.” [Bloomberg]

Japan, however, remains skeptical towards the latest developments in inter-Korean relations calling on its allies and the international community to be wary and not to fall for Pyongyang’s ‘charm offensive’ and its strategy behind. Tokyo has repeatedly warned against Kim Jong-un’s use of the conciliatory mood during the Olympics to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. [The Japan Times ]. In a latest development, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump agreed in a phone call on Wednesday to continue to pressure on North Korea until the abandoning of its nuclear and missile programs. Japan’s Foreign Ministry said the Abe and Trump also agreed dialogue with North Korea would be meaningless unless Kim Jong-un consents to “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.” [Newsweek] Furthermore, Foreign Minister Kono and the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed on Thursday on join efforts to make North Korea accept IAEA inspections which had been halted in 2009. [NHK]

11 February 2018

Japan: High court rules Lower House election held in ‘unconstitutional state’

(dql) Nagoya High Court on Wednesday ruled that due to a value disparity between a vote in the most and a vote in the least populous constituencies the 2017 Lower House election was conducted in a “state of unconstitutionality”. The court’s decision refers to all 24 constituencies in the three prefectures in the Tokai region. The court, however, refrained from nullifying the poll results. It was the tenth ruling out of 14 lawsuits filed by a group of lawyers demanding the nullification of the election due vote-value disparity. All previous nine court decisions ruled upheld the constitutionality of the poll. [Asahi Shimbun]

11 February 2018

Japan: Prime Minister uncompromising in push for Art. 9 revision amid negative polls

(dql) Despite latest polls revealing a majority of the Japanese population opposed to change of Art. 9 of the Constitu-tion under Abe, the Prime Minister, speaking before the Lower House Budget Committee this week, presented him-self uncompromising in his goal to revise the disputed article which prohibits Japan’s maintenance of armed forces or resort to war as an instrument to solve inter-state disputes. Abe insisted that his proposed insertion of an explicit reference to the Self Defense Force (SDF) in Art. 9 would not alter the post-war pacifist identity of the country and would not expand the Japan’s rights to collective self-defense further than already allowed under the country’s secu-rity legislation of 2016. [The Japan Times]

In a related development, all lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been ordered by the chairman of the party’s headquarters to present writing proposals for a revision of Art. 9 within 10 days and urged to keep in mind the proposal’s chances for acceptance by the public. [Asahi Shimbun]

11 February 2018

China-Japan relations: Defense education exchanges to be resumed amid signs of thaw in Sino-Japanese ties

(dql) After a break of six years following Tokyo’s the acquisition of some of the Senkaku Islands from a private Japanese owner in 2012, a Sino-Japanese military educational exchange program will resume in spring this year. Chinese senior military officers and the Chairman of Japan’s Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which is in charge of this program, agreed on Monday on the resumption this program for the next five years. This move comes after signs of thaw in the relations between Beijing and Tokyo most recently expressed during Japan’s Foreign Minister’s visit to China and the agreement on reciprocal visits of the leaders on China, Japan and South Korea. [NHK World]

11 February 2018

Pence in Japan: Abe reassured of US robust alliance against North Korea

(dql) During a stop in Tokyo on his way to attend opening ceremony of Olympics in South Korea Vice-President Pence and Prime Minister Abe US Vice-President reaffirmed they joint stance in adhering to a policy of put utmost pressure on Pyongyang’s denuclearization. Pence expressed the US commitment to equip Japan with cutting edge defense systems. [The Japan Times]

11 February 2018

Japan-Russia relations: Joint economic activities on disputed islands precursor for a peace treaty?

(dql) On Tuesday senior Japanese and Russian diplomats agreed to advance talks on planned joint economic activities on the four islands off Hokkaido over which both countries have been claiming sovereignty since the end of World War II. Both sides view the joint economic activities as possible steps on the way to a peace treaty. [The Japan Times] Following the talks, Prime Minister Abe on Wednesday announced his resolve to put an end to the territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty with Russia. [TASS]

4 February 2018

Japan: Government sued over forced sterilization program

(dql) A Japanese woman has sued the government over her forced sterilization at the age of 15. It is expected thousands will follow her in suing the government. Under Japan’s eugenics law, introduced in 1948 and in force until 1996, 16000 were sterilized without their consent. [The Guardian]

4 February 2018

Japan: High Courts rule snap election constitutional despite vote-value disparity

(dql) Three High Courts on Tuesday [The Japan Times 1] and Friday [The Japan Times 2] respective ruled that the results of October’s snap election are constitutional despite the vote-value disparities of maximum 1.98 times. The decision of Friday was the seventh among 16 lawsuits which two groups of lawyers have filed simultaneously at high courts nationwide to challenge the lower house snap election last October.

4 February 2018

Japan: LDP internal differences on scope of Art. 9 revision

(dql) Prime Minister Abe is facing disapproval of his proposed change of article 9 of Japan’s Constitution from within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Whereas the Prime Minister proposes to retain the existing formulation of the article and add a explicit reference to the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) into the existing paragraphs of Article 9, some LDP members want to remove the second paragraph of Article 9 which in their eyes complicates the status of the SDF as it prohibits the maintenance of “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential”. The party-internal struggle over the scope of the revision of article 9 reflects the problem of finding a proposal for Japan’s first post-war constitutional change that will serve both the party’s perceived necessity to adjust the ‘pacifist constitution’ in the context of an emerging assertive foreign policy as much as possible and at the same time gains the support of the public which remains undecided over the question whether a constitutional reform and a defection from the current pacifist constitutional is needed at all. [The Japan Times]

4 February 2018

China: Visits of Japanese Foreign Minister and UK Prime Minister

(dql) During the visit Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono to China on Sunday and Monday this week, both countries agreed to resume annual meetings of the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea. This agreement reflects the climax to date of efforts which have been taken on Chinese and Japanese side to improve bilateral relations since last year. [The Diplomat]

Meanwhile, Prime Minister May’s visit to China this week focused on trade, in the wake of Britain’s Brexit. While sidestepping a formal endorsement of the One Belt, One Road Initiative, May secured trade deals worth 13 Billion USD. Both sides also agreed to establish a review body between the Chinese and British government on investment and trade with a view on a possible post-Brexit free-trade agreement. [South China Morning Post]

In assessing May’s visit in China , analysts point to the weak position of a Brexit-pressured UK Prime Minister vis-a-vis the Chinese President who is now increasingly focusing on the European Union in the frame of the OBOR initiative. [The Guardian]

4 February 2018

Japan-Russia relations: Tension programmed

(dql) A decree of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday has paved the way for the deployment of Russian warplanes at a civil airport on the Pacific island of Iturup, as the Russian name it, or Etorofu as it is called in Japanese. Occupied by Russia since the end of World War II, Iturup, along with three other islands north-east of Hokkaido, is disputed between Russia and Japan. Medvedev’s decree accelerates the area’s militarization at a time when Moscow’s ties with Tokyo are tense over the latter’s decision to deploy a new US-made land-based missile system. [Reuters]

4 February 2018

Japan-North Korea relations: Tokyo pushes for tighter enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang

(dql) At the 14th Asia Senior-Level Talks on Non-Proliferation on Wednesday in Tokyo, Japan called upon China, India, the U.S. and other countries to increase information sharing and other cooperation in the wake of the breaches of the international sanctions against North Korea. Reflecting its increasing influence, nuclear power India attended the conference at the host’s invitation, along with Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, South Korea and the ASEAN member states. [Nikkei Asian Review]

4 February 2018

Japan expanding its influence in Sri Lanka and beyond, partly in cooperation with India

After Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to Sri Lanka the Japanese engagement in Stri Lanka takes shape as well, both economically and militarily, – partly in concert with India. Now, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority with both Japan and India plans a joint liquefied natural gas project, the first in the country, to be located within Colombo port – one of the busiest ports in South Asia. [The Diplomat]

At the same time, the Japanese government plans to expand its assistance to strengthen naval security capacities to nations in the Indian Ocean with Sri Lanka and Djibouti as first targets. [The Japan Times]

26 January 2018

Japan: Law on plea bargain to come into force

(dql) Japan’s government announced its plan to introduce the right to plea bargain by putting into effect a revised law on criminal proceedings on June 1. Under this law, prosecutors may agree that less serious offenses might not be prosecuted if the suspect or defendant provides evidence and testimony against accomplices in drug, fraud, bribery and other cases. The crimes of murder and robbery are excluded from the right to plea bargain. The response to the plea bargain system is mixed. While the system is expected to help tackle organized crime, lawyers and legal scholars point to the danger of triggering untrue statements leading to charges against innocent people. [The Japan Times]

26 January 2018

India: enhancing its military capabilities

(hg) A significant military advancement is India’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant (IAC-I), that will be ready for operational deployment by 2020. [The Diplomat]

Moreover, having successfully tested its first self-developed, long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons, India is now pursuing membership of the small club of countries with intercontinental missiles. [The New York Times]

With this strategic shift India commands the capability of hitting China’s eastern coastal cities which it could previously not threaten. [Time Magazine]

At the same time, a 2016 initiated $5 billion-plus purchase of five S-400 Triumf long-range surface-to-air missile systems from Russia seems to be frozen at present. India is currently developing an own anti-missile system that includes indigenously developed Prithvi Air Defence for high-altitude interception (above 75 kilometers) and Advanced Air Defence for low-altitude interception (below 15 kilometers) but also medium-range surface-to-air missile systems claimed to be capable of taking out an incoming missile with its range of more than 70 kilometers. Arguably, the Russian S-400 (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) which is designed to destroy aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles, including medium-range missiles, and surface targets is the currently best air-defense systems of its kind, capable of intercepting and destroying airborne targets at a distance of up to 400 kilometers. Russia has just reinforced its own S-400 in Syria and purchased the system not only to China but also to Turkey, which had created some tensions within NATO. [Defense News] [TASS]

More successful than the Indian – Russian missile deal looks the conclusion of a contract about 48 Russian Mi-17 Choppers of which India has at present around 151. [NDTV]

As a noteworthy innovation come Indian – Japanese plans to increase their cooperation in the defense, robotics and AI sectors in coming years to contain China´s expansionist including the launching of a working group on cooperation between nuclear companies. [RT]

26 January 2018

India and the revived ‘security ‘quad’

(hg) The navy chiefs of the four ‘quad’ nations that recently reconvened the old quadrilateral security dialogue of Japan, Australia, India and the US came together at a security conference in New Delhi. The admirals displayed their unity in their perception of China as a “disruptive power” in the region. Just recently Japanese Prime Minister Abe had underlined the ‘quad´s’ shared strategic values. While Japan is more inclined to actively engage in military alliances than India, India arguably is currently even more challenging to China psychologically than is Japan. [The Australian]Interesting in this context are insights offered by a former Indian secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs on how India viewed the revival of the four-country security dialogue as a necessary part of the shared containment strategy towards “an increasingly belligerent China” but with some initial hesitation. Anil Wadhwa, having been in office until mid of last year, revealed that New Delhi was initially skeptical of reconvening the ‘dialogue’ because of the Australian Rudd government’s decision ten years ago to abandon the first attempt to forge the group as a result of Chinese pressure. Seemingly, intense negotiations were needed to persuade India to re-embrace the quadrilateral dialogue amidst doubts about Australia’s reliability with Japan playing a particular role. [The Australian] 

26 January 2018

Sri Lanka caught in great power politics

(hg) With Japan and India seeking to deepen their influence in Sri Lanka, the poor country which has become an integral part of the Chinese ‘maritime silk road’, seems to be caught between the need for foreign investment and the risk to be taken away by great power competition. [AiR 3/1/2018] [The Diplomat 1] [The Diplomat 2]

Adding to its recently expressed interest in infrastructure investment, Japan also plans to increase its naval security aid to Sri Lanka and Djibouti in support for the joint Japan-U.S. “free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy” which is not just countering the emergence of a Chinese sphere of influence abstractly but representing a new willingness to actively move very close to core areas of Chinese interest and investment. [The Japan News]

Besides, Sri Lanka’s increasing geopolitical importance has also been reflected currently by the visit of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to witness the signing of the Sri Lanka-Singapore free trade agreement. [Channel News Asia]

The agreement, which is the first modern and comprehensive FTA for the South Asian nation after an attempt to reach an agreement in 2004 failed. [Today Online]

Adding to the overall picture, also Indonesian President Widodo has just visited the island to discuss matters of bilateral investment cooperation. [Daily Mirror] 

26 January 2018

Japan: Military build up, deployment of stealth fighters and Self Defense Forces operation

(dql, jl) Local media reported that Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has completed the development of its first domestically designed supersonic anti-ship missile, designated XASM-3. The begin of the mass production of the new weapon system is scheduled for the fiscal year 2019. [The Diplomat]

Meanwhile, Japan on Friday deployed its first F-35A stealth fighter at Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture to respond to airspace incursions and conduct surveillance on North Korea. The deployment of nine more F-35As at the base is planned in fiscal 2018 starting April to form a squadron of 10 fighter jets. [The Japan Times 1]In a related move, Prime Minister Abe revealed that Japan’s Self Defense Forces has conducted its first mission to defend U.S. military aircraft under the security legislation of 2016 which allows the dispatch of SDF troops abroad to provide logistical support of other forces engaged in missions countering threats to peace and security of the international community. [The Japan Times 2]

26 January 2018

Japan-France relations: Deepening security ties

(dql) Japan’s foreign and defense ministers and their French counterparts met in Tokyo for ‘two plus two’ security talks. They agreed on increasing diplomatic and security cooperation to secure an open Indo-Pacific region as well as to maximize pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. The Japanese officials welcomed a plan to conduct joint exercises in February upon the arrival of the French frigate Vendemiaire in Japan. They also welcomed progress in talks to finalize the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, which will allow military forces of the two countries to mutually provide logistical supplies and services [Nikkei Asian Review]

19 January 2018

Japan: Opposition party merger failed

(dql) Only two days after the leadership of the Democratic Party (DP) and the Hope Party had agreed to form a joint opposition group in the Diet which would replace the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) as biggest opposition group [The Japan Times 1], rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties on Wednesday disapproved of the plan due differences pertaining to security laws and constitutional revision. [The Japan Times 2]

19 January 2018

Japan: Top court allows limited disclosure of secret state funds

(dql) In a landmark decision, Japan’s Supreme Court on Friday has ordered the government to partially disclose documents related to its secret funds, a budget that can be used flexibly for the implementation of national operations. Formally known as Cabinet Secretariat compensation expenses, the secret funds are spent by the Cabinet Secretariat. The Court had been called on in lawsuit by members of a civic group seeking the disclosure on the use of a total of 24.5 million USD in secret funds spent under three chief Cabinet secretaries in 2005 and 2006, in 2009 and in 2013. Although the scope of the ordered disclosure is unlikely to reveal the names of the recipients, following the Court’s decision the public will for the first time ever have access to classified records. Court’s decision, the public will for the first time ever have access to classified records. [The Japan Times]

19 January 2018

Japan-Australia relations: Deepening security and economic ties

(dql) Australian Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit to Japan paved the way for deepening both countries security cooperation. He and Prime Minister Abe confirmed in a joint statement that a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is being negotiated allowing Australian forces to start training at bases in Japan. It would the Japan’s second SOFA  after Japan’s SOFA with the USA was concluded in 1960. This outcome of Turnbull’s visit suits Abe’s push for revision of Japan’s Constitution to insert Japan’s Self-Defence Forces formally into the Constitution. [The Conversation]

Turnbull also announced that he and Abe shared the commitment to signing an Asia-Pacific trade deal by March with countries in the region ready to forge a pact to replace the derailed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Talks aiming to overcome obstacles to such an agreement are scheduled for next week in Tokyo. [The Straits Times]

19 January 2018

Maneuvering along great power´s spheres of influence: Nepal and Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka between India and China

(hg) With the decisive election victory of the Nepalese communist two-party coalition and the defeat of the pro-Indian Nepali Congress, the new government, which is still to be formed, will most likely enhance relations with China. Despite maintaining a buffer state posture, Nepal´s relations with India have already heavily deteriorated in recent years especially due to an alleged Indian orchestrated month-long blockade of the India-Nepal border in 2015 which caused a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. [CNBC]

A recent expression of the ongoing shift towards China is Nepal´s connection to the Chinese internet which is ending India’s former internet monopoly. It is, however, only one China-supported connectivity issue amid many others. Examples are growing Chinese investments in roads and hydropower projects and the 2016 initiated use of Chinese ports by the landlocked Nepal to trade goods with third countries, ending the latter’s sole dependence on India for overland trade. Last year as Nepal officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative. Adding the new reality of a communist governed Nepal gives reason enough to ask how close the country will go on to move on towards China. [The Economic Times]

For Bangladesh, a first important background observation is its ambitious military modernization drive that took off 2009 after the country had largely focused on building its economy paying only minor attention to its defense capabilities. This changed with the 2009 released “Forces Goal 2030” which called for a massive enhancement of all three military branches that has been revised in 2017 with a significant number of arms purchases mostly involving Russian and Chinese products.

Arguably most noteworthy however was the purchase of two refurbished Ming-class type 035B submarines from China to the displeasure of both India and Myanmar with the navy planning to increase its subs inventory to eight units and set up a large submarine base while it has already started an own aviation wing. Notwithstanding that the country officially pursues a neutral foreign policy, it has had repeatedly sometimes highly tensioned cross-border issues with both neighbors, India and Myanmar. For India, its enhanced naval capabilities represent a threat the more serious the more the country aligns with China. [The Diplomat]

The complicated and fluid state of the great power competition in South Asia is once more reflected by recent reiterations of Bangladesh´s Foreign Minister stressing India as Bangladesh’s most important partner. Noteworthy however is the claim that the country will also continue to forge effective partnerships with other countries such as China on the hand and India, Japan, the UK and the US and Europe on the other. [Dhaka Tribune]

A similar foreign policy twist regarding the increasingly assertively advancing spheres of influence can currently be observed at the example of the Maldives. Here, the government just assured the Indian leadership of its ‘India first policy’ amid a trend to foster ties with China including a surprising recent FTA with China. [The Quint] [Times of India]

The same geopolitical pattern are displayed in Sri Lanka with its strategically important location in the Indian Ocean astride the main shipping lanes. Increasing great power attention has surfaced just a week ago when Japanese Foreign Minister Kono visited Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. On occasion of this first visit of a Japanese foreign minister in 15 years, Kono reiterated the Western ‘Open Indo-Pacific Policy’ to secure the freedom of navigation also offering the promotion of bilateral maritime security and defence relations. [Daily Mirror]

This, however, comes at the same time that Colombo has received 97.365 million US dollars from China Merchant Port Holdings as the second installment of the Hambantota Port deal after it had received US $ 292.1 million as the first payment only last month. Under the 99-year lease agreement, China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd. (CMPort) will agree to invest an amount of up to US$ 1.12 billion with the CMPort owning 85% while the Sri Lankan Ports Authority remains with 15% of the stakes. [Colombo Gazette] Additionally, the first phase of the China-built Matara-Kataragama railway extension project has been. [Xinhua]

Moreover, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army just visited Sri Lanka on invitation of his Sri Lankan counterpart. Besides a call on the Sri Lankan President as well as on the Prime Minister to discuss regional security issues, he visited the headquarters of all three branches of the Sri Lankan armed forces for talks with the respective commanders stressing that only Pakistan and Sri Lanka had truly understood what it means to defeat a terrorist threat. [Pakistan Tribune]

12 January 2018

Japan: National Security Council to become more important

Japan’s National Security Council, modeled after the US National Security Council, has been in charge of coordinating the country’s national security policies since its establishment in 2013. Its secretariat in particular has proved to be instrumental for the formulation of national security bills. Having gained Abe’s confidence, the secretariat is expected to play a bigger role in this year, especially in developing new national defense guidelines and revising the medium-term defense program. The talks will include controversial political issues, including whether Japan should acquire the capability to attack foreign countries. The secretariat is expected to play a major role in the consensus-building [The Japan Times].

12 January 2018

Japan: Pressure on ruling party over nuclear power policy

Challenging Prime Minister Abe’s nuclear power policy which pushes for the restart of reactors idle since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, former Prime Minister Koizumi announced a draft bill demanding the immediate and complete abandoning of nuclear power in Japan. Koizumi’s announcement follows a statement of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) last week that it would also introduce a ‘zero nuclear plant bill’ to be submitted to the Diet. Koizumi stressed that he would seek cooperation with the CDP to team up against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party [The Asahi Shinbum].

12 January 2018

Maldives/Sri Lanka: Maldivian Foreign Minister meets Japanese counterpart, who also visited Sri Lanka, and travels on to India

(jk) Amid China’s growing influence in the region, much has been said about nations of previously less strategic significance such as Sri Lanka or the Maldives and how China seeks influence there. This week, the diplomatic news out of the Maldives have more to do with hedging than betting exclusively on China. For the first time, a Japanese foreign minister visited the Indian Ocean Nation to discuss Tokyo’s interests in the Indo-Pacific. [The Japan Times]. Shortly after the visit, the Maldives’ foreign minister embarked on a three-day trip to India [The Times of India]. The Japanese FM came from Sri Lanka, where he stressed that Japan places great importance on a maritime order based on the rule of law in general and its relation with Sri Lanka in particular [Nikkei Asian Review].

12 January 2018

North/South Korea: First inter-Korean direct talks in more than two years

(dql) Following a turbulent 2017 with North Korea’s  nuclear tests and missile launches on the one side, and supplementary, stricter sanctions against Pyongyang, with even China joining in, on the other, top official delegations from North and South Korea, met on Tuesday for direct talks, the first after a halt of more than two years. The talks resulted in Pyongyang’s confirmation to send athletes and a top delegation to the games and a joint statement to hold military talks and further high-level dialogue [The Korea Herald].

While President Trump in a phone call with President Moon on Wednesday welcomed the resumption of the talks and voiced the possibility of a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang [Yonhap], Japan’s Prime Minister Abe appeared unimpressed and stressed his adherence to the policy of maximizing international pressure on North Korea’s de-nuclearization [The Diplomat].

5 January 2018

Japan: Draft for constitutional revision to be presented this year

Prime Minister Abe in his first press conference of 2018 announced on Thursday that he will instruct the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to submit draft revisions of the constitution to the Diet this year [Asahi Shimbun]. With a solid two-thirds majority of the LDP-led coalition in the Diet, challenges for Abe’s constitutional reform plans will more likely come from within the coalition than from the opposition [East Asia Forum].

5 January 2018

India and Japan: Teaming up to counter Chinese space exploration ambitions

The space agencies of the two countries are planning a joint mission to the moon amidst more and more aligned strategic interests in the face of China’s rise. The two countries’ decision to join forces is no doubt exacerbated by recent Chinese efforts in space exploration. The mission is to focus on the moon’s south pole which may hold crucial resources which one day could help sustain human life (Financial Times).

5 January 2018

Forces shaping Southeast Asian regional security and geopolitics

This week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi paid a visit to the Philippines, where she met with top officials including President Rodrigo Duterte. Though the agenda itself was more wide-ranging, her trip put the spotlight on the progress both sides are trying to make on some common security challenges [The Diplomat 1].

Li Jie Sheng, analyzes the United States National Security Strategy (NSS) and its repercussions for Southeast Asia. However, the NSS makes only little mentioning of US security relations to Southeast Asian countries. Taking into account the general direction in US foreign and security policy, Li describes the Trump administration’s agenda as aggressive, narrow-minded, and perhaps isolationist [The Diplomat 2].

Finally, Professor Yee-Kuang Heng of the Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo, examines Japan’s hard and soft power in Southeast Asia. It highlights Japanese military cooperation with the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam, while also exploring soft power projects throughout ASEAN [New Straits Times].

5 January 2018

Japan’s endless search for modernity

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan embarked on its unique journey to become a modern nation-state. Since then Japan has been struggling to find answers to questions such as the degree of instilling Western concepts of individualism into Japanese society, capitalist disruption of tradition, and the threat posed by hostile foreign countries. The search for the country’s identity is still ongoing 150 years later under Prime Minister Abe’s efforts for economic reforms, constitutional change, and assertive foreign policy [The Atlantic].