Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#396】Great Power Politics and Abe Diplomacy

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2016.09.07 (Wed)

September 5, 2016

     As only a little more than four months are left before the end of the Barack Obama administration, the United States is failing to exercise its international leadership in many cases. The inward-looking trend that has become all the more noticeable during the second term of the Obama administration may be taken over by the next administration, possibly making it difficult to expect U.S. support for Japan’s foreign and national security policies as a matter of course.

Unlikely TPP approval
     Symbolizing the Obama administration’s domestic and foreign policy deadlock is an indication that Congress is unlikely to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement before Obama leaves the presidency. In late August, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he has no intent to put the TPP implementation bill to a vote within this year. His Republican Party commands a majority in Congress.
     The TPP is strategically significant for Japan and the United States to take leadership in developing a future economic order in the Asia Pacific region instead of rising China. Nevertheless, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who has gained an edge on her rival in the presidential race, has publicly declared, “I’ll oppose [TPP] as President” in a manner to accommodate domestic workers concerned about the trade deal. She thus shows lack of determination to take leadership in Asia.
     In the military field, three former Self-Defense Force officers sounded an alarm bell on changes in the U.S. “Air-Sea Battle” scheme on the October issue of the monthly Seiron magazine. The U.S. had devised the scheme to counter China’s anti-access/area denial strategy for preventing U.S. forces from intervening in disputes around China. The scheme had originally specified attacks on mainland China but has been changed to indicate a setback. I hope the changes do not indicate that the American inward-looking trend has spilled over to the U.S. military on the front of national defense.

China-Russia-Iran axis
     When we look beyond Asia, we can notice the Obama diplomacy has plunged into gridlock.
     The Middle East is now run by the two authoritarian countries of Russia and Iran. The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, which had been on the brink of collapse amid a civil war, has recovered with support from Russia and Iran. The United States has given priority to a fight against the Islamic State radical group in Syria rather than the ouster of the Assad regime and is exploring tactical cooperation with Russia in the fight. Iraq, where the government is led by Shiite Muslims, has become an effective satellite state of Iran also dominated by Shiites.
     In Europe, two years after annexing Crimea of Ukraine, Russia is massing military forces along its border with Ukraine again, escalating tensions. In protest to the Crimea annexation, the Obama administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia along with the European Union. However, Obama has declined to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine, indicating a halfway approach on Russia.
     Russia and China plan to conduct a joint naval drill in the South China Sea in September, implying that Russia is sympathetic to China that has shrugged off a ruling by an international tribunal in July that denied China’s historical rights in the South China Sea.
     What are implications of vigorous movements by China, Russia and Iran in front of the inward-looking United States? Can Japan break into the great power politics and realize its national interests? Due risks accompany Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomacy to improve relations with Russia to make a breakthrough on the Northern Territories issue.

Yasushi Tomiyama is Senior Fellow and Planning Committee Member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.