Japan’s growing concern with China

Japan’s ambassador to the United States, Kenichiro Sasae, told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Tuesday that Japan is getting increasingly concerned about China, and - more worrying still - has not yet found a way to handle the heightened levels of tension. The two countries dispute sovereignty over the islands that Japan calls the Senkakus and the Chinese refer to as the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, and their naval ships and air force jets patrol dangerously close to each other. More recently Beijing’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that extends over areas under Japanese and S Korean control has caused anxiety around the region for its potential to interfere with civilian air traffic, and has even been criticized by the US.

“China is clearly becoming more assertive and intensifying its territorial claims”, said the ambassador. Tokyo has proposed “high level dialogue and establishing hotlines” but so far nothing has worked. “Safe air travel is something all business people want - so why does China do these things?” What to do? “That is a very tough question - at this point we haven’t found an answer.

The new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has been in office for just one year now but has already shown he wants Japan to be more assertive internationally while revitalizing its economy at home, is in a strong position, according to the Ambassador. After years of political instability, “people are eager for change”. And he argued that the fact that Japan has just been awarded the 2020 Olympic games shows “the world is starting once again to recognize Japan’s strength.”

The ambassador also highlighted Japan’s relations with the US. Japan currently has $289 billion invested in the US, and Japanese firms account for 655,000 US jobs. Tokyo and Washington are, along with 10 other Pacific Rim nations, negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, which, if passed, would cover 40% of world GDP. “Japan’s closest ally is the US - we are closer to the US than any other nation on earth or any other country in our history - the US-Japan relationship is a defining relationship for my country,” he said.

When asked about Japan’s continued killing of whales, the ambassador said Japan was not the only country that captured whales, but was “the only target for criticism”. But on a personal level he said he loved whales - “there is no reason for us to kill these animals, but it’s history, it’s politics.”

The biggest question of all came at the end of the lunch - what was Japan’s long term future in the face of a declining and aging population, very restrictive immigration policies and the underutilization of women in the workforce? The ambassador said such issues would be embraced by Prime Minister Abe’s reform agenda, but gave few specifics beyond an increase in support for childcare. As with the China issue, there are some very tough questions about Japan’s future, but still not a lot of answers.