Missing Diplomacy toward Asia? --The Blind Spots of Japanese Foreign Policy Recognized through a Visit to Vietnam

Yoshihide Soeya
Professor, Keio University

The audiences brimmed with passion. The hundreds of pairs of eyes pierced into me. The students of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, were much more interested in Japan than I had imagined. While Professor Yasushi Watanabe presented the essence of soft power and public diplomacy in an easy-to-understand manner, I was tasked with a somewhat more solemn subject "The Rise of China and Japan's Responses: Implications for Regional Security."

In my lectures, I suggested that China's nationalism combines a sense of humiliation about its modern history and a sense of confidence in rising to a major power, and this is causing a rift in its relations with the rest of the world. Xi Jinping's regime, which strives to achieve "the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," has placed the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute as a part of its mid- to long-term strategy, and has no ears for Japan's claim of ownership based on international law. In essence, Japan and Vietnam face the similar challenges posed by the rise of China, and therefore we should analyze and respond to these challenges together.


At the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi


At the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City

China as a "neighbor" of Vietnam

Vietnam today is extremely sensitive about holding public discussions on China. I was told that the draft of my lecture had to be submitted to the Communist Party of Vietnam for checking. Fortunately, it was approved and did not require any modification. Generally speaking, the people of Vietnam harbor a dislike for China. Deep inside, however, the communist party fears China and makes every effort to maintain a stable relationship, despite frequent and blatant harassment. The intellectuals of Vietnam, and even the students, sense and understand the pressure from China on their leaders.

How, then, can Vietnam better deal with China? The students do not have an answer. In fact, it seems to me they have given up trying to find one. In every word they uttered, I felt a sort of agony, as if they were implying China was an annoying neighbor but not one their country could stand up to. The passion I felt during the lectures could be a mixture of the frustration at being trapped in a blind alley and perhaps a hope that Japan might light the way out.

Japan's foreign policy with ASEAN

All this led me to think about Japan's foreign policy at present. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after taking office for the second time, chose as his first country to visit, on January 16th this year, none other than Vietnam. From there he traveled to Thailand on the 17th, and planned to make a speech on diplomatic relations between Japan and ASEAN member countries in Jakarta on the 18th. However, the tour was cut short by the crisis that erupted in Algeria, in which Japanese nationals were taken hostage. Abe returned to Japan and never delivered his policy speech titled "The Bounty of the Open Seas: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy." The manuscript, dated January 18th, was later published on the websites of Prime Minister's Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is now treated as an official statement of the prime minister.

The statement declares that Japan's national interest lies in "keeping Asia's seas unequivocally open, free and peaceful." To achieve this, it says, Japan's first objective is to ally with the United States, and second to strengthen its ties with maritime Asia. Toward this second objective, Japan's relationship with ASEAN states is a vital linchpin, and Japan proposes five principles:

1. Protecting universal values
2. Ensuring that the seas are governed by laws and rules
3. Pursuing free and open economies
4. Bringing about intercultural ties among the peoples of Japan and the region
5. Promoting exchange among the younger generations who will carry each nation into the future

Sensitivity of Japanese diplomacy toward Asia

Looking back since the Second World War, Japan's foreign policy with Southeast Asia was about restraining itself from promoting values and stressing the importance of economic growth and social stability toward regional democratization. Japan took this position taking into account the complex history of Asia. And by focusing on economic assistance and cultural exchange, Japan built a certain feeling of empathy with Southeast Asian nations.

The passion of my audiences in Vietnam hints that Japan is not alone in perceiving the rise of China as a new geopolitical challenge. In other words, Japan is on an equal footing with other Asian nations that cannot sever their relations with China, and I see great opportunities here for Japan and ASEAN member countries to share their empathy, foster new partnerships as equals, and work out a joint mid-long term strategy.

Unfortunately, however, during my stay in Vietnam I became painfully aware that in its recent course of pursuing values-oriented diplomacy, Japan might have lost its sensitivity toward foreign relations in Asia. If Japan's foreign policy were plainly based on a sense of rivalry against China, what country, including Vietnam, would actively follow its efforts to unite the region? Yes, Japan should promote universal values. But unless it earns sympathy for those values from the nations of Southeast Asia, any efforts in foreign relations will be seen as a means to merely satisfy Japan's own ego.

vietnam_diplomacy01.jpgYoshihide Soeya
Yoshihide Soeya received a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Michigan in 1987. He served as an academic assistant at the Institute of International Relations, Sophia University, and as a researcher at the Research Institute for Peace and Security, and is currently a professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Law at Keio University, director of the Keio Institute of East Asian Studies, and director of its Center for Contemporary Korea Studies. He is an expert in international politics, diplomatic relations in the Asia-Pacific region and in East Asia, and Japan's external relations and diplomacy.
From 1993 to 1994, he was a visiting fellow at the East-West Center in the U.S. under the Japan Foundation's Abe Fellowship Program; from 2001 to 2004, a faculty fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry; and in 2006, a visiting professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. He is a member of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' advisory group for policy evaluation, a councilor of the International House of Japan, and an International Councilor of the Asia Society.
Recent publications include Gendai chugoku gaiko no rokujunen--Henka to jizoku (Sixty Years of Modern Chinese Diplomacy--Changes and Continuity; 2011), Nihon no sekaikoken to shibiru sosaeti (Japan's Contribution to the World and Civil Society; 2008), and Nihon no "midoru pawa" gaiko (Japan's "Middle-Power" Diplomacy; 2005).

From the editors
The Japan Foundation welcomed professors Dr. Yoshihide Soeya and Dr. Yasushi Watanabe as lecturers in the Japanese Studies traveling seminar "Japan's New International Relations: Japan-China-US Relations and Southeast Asia" held in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Dr. Watanabe has also contributed an essay titled "Rethinking Japan-U.S. Relations through a Visit to Vietnam."

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