Recent moves in Japan reveal important US-led planning is taking place to prevent the country slipping still further in regional influence.
Attempts to contain allegations arising from a particularly interesting political scandal, however, have revealed a great deal about the significance of US-led regional foreign policy and the designated role of Japan.
Background to US imperialist concerns
Toward the end of 2018 the US National Defence Strategy Commission established by Congress, concluded the country had lost its traditional hegemonic position in the Pacific region. (1) It was noted 'that the US is no longer clearly superior to the threats it faces around the world and that it would struggle to win wars against China or Russia … US military superiority is no longer assured and the implications for American interests and American security are severe'. (2)
It noted that China had expanded its diplomatic position using 'soft power' by investing heavily in smaller countries around the Pacific Rim, including Micronesia and Melanesia, which both the US and Australia regarded as particularly sensitive for their own military purposes.
The Micronesian countries, including Guam, have had long involvement with the US. Guam has hosted sensitive US military installations for decades, and exists on an arc from Pine Gap in central Australia, with Diego Garcia, eastwards, with Guam, westwards. Both Diego Garcia and Guam have been developed as important military hubs for 'US interests' in recent years.
The Melanesian countries of the South Pacific have historically, been regarded as important for Canberra, with foreign policy designed to maintain close diplomatic relations and relatively compliant governments. A great deal of US-led regional diplomacy has also historically rested upon Australia as a southern hub for 'US interests' with Japan as a northern counterpart. It has, therefore, been common for both countries to have extensive aid programs across the wider region where stated development objectives are not necessarily the only agenda item: Australia has been quick to seize upon US-led opportunities to 'ramp up support' for the South Pacific through the Pacific Islands Forum for 'co-ordinating efforts to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic'; Japan, likewise, has extended its foreign policy reach toward the Indian Ocean 'enhancing strategic partnerships, including defence relationships', often with aid programs. (3)
Australian and Japanese economies in decline
In recent times, however, declining economic fortunes in both regional hubs have had far-reaching implications for the US. In future years Australia and Japan will probably not even make it into the G40, never mind their present inclusion in the G20. The recent stimulus packages, ostensibly to curtail the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, have therefore, been regarded by the US as important initiatives for boosting the economic standing of both Australia and Japan.
Japan, however, is a country in longer-term economic decline; in 1961 it recorded 12.04 per cent GDP growth rates, since the late 1960s the figures have continually reduced to the present time, where 0.79 per cent growth rates are now officially recognised. (4) Against the backcloth of declining economic activity, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently implemented two stimulus packages.
Last month, the second package was announced amid continued fears of a 'deep and prolonged recession'. (5) Early in April the administration launched a 'massive virus stimulus' amounting to $989 billion, equal to about twenty per cent of the country's whole economic output, together with the declaration of a State of Emergency. (6)
The size of the economic stimulus package has to be viewed in the context of US regional foreign policy which is desperate for Japan to maintain its current global standing; Japan hosts a total of 88 US military facilities serving the needs of all branches of the armed forces. (7) They are linked to other US facilities in South Korea (ROK) and Guam for regional deployments.
A recent political scandal in Japan, however, has created problems for the US and revealed some unpleasant forces within the corridors of power in Tokyo.
Three years ago, allegations were raised that the Finance Ministry had sold a parcel of land to right-wing education group Moritomo Gakuen at one-seventh its appraised value so as to build an elementary school, for which Mr Abe's wife Akie was to be honorary principal.
Moritomo Gakuen began as a kindergarten (preschool) operated by Yasunori Kagoike. Kagoike implemented a nationalist curriculum at the school which included daily recitations of the Imperial Rescript on Education, a practice employed at schools in the Empire of Japan from 1890 to 1945.
As the scandal unfolded, Abe resigned from her position as honorary principal in late February. Prior to her resignation, Moritomo Gakuen removed a message from Akie endorsing the school, praising its nationalistic moral education program.
It has been particularly interesting to note the extremely limited nature of the mainstream media coverage of the scandal, despite the significance of the problem for regional diplomacy. Coverage of the scandal has been contained, for obvious reasons; US-led regional diplomacy has come to rely upon political compliance from Japan.
A great deal of US-led leverage in Japanese politics has relied upon Shinzo Abe and the length of his leadership role from 2006. He was previously known as a senior figure within the higher echelons of class and state power in Tokyo. Once in power as Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe took strong control of the foreign ministry and created a National Security Council, 'crafting Japan's security strategy'. (8) Despite having to take an opposition role during the period, those around Shinzo Abe have managed to maintain continuity of policy objectives to serve 'US interests' for nearly two decades. It has included the contentious re-interpretation of Clause 9 of their pacifist constitution foisted upon the country in the aftermath of the Second World War to enable Japan's armed forces to operate across the wider region as part of US-led military planning.
The US is renowned for extensive involvement inside the Japanese political system.
The political stability achieved with the Shinzo Abe administration enabled the US to implement its triangular diplomatic relationship with sophisticated military and electronic warfare facilities, strengthening the role of Japan and Australia with the Pentagon during the last decade.
Allegations that Shinzo Abe was responsible for connections with what has been regarded as 'crooked property deal', have therefore, shaken confidence in many quarters and led to questions about his leadership. (9) The allegations have also gained considerable credibility after a previous Prime Minister Junichuro Koizumi stated 'it was obvious that Mr Abe was involved in a crooked property deal involving ultranationalist supporters'. (10) The fact the allegations have involved the wife of Shinzo Abe and her role with an educational institution 'founded to inculcate children with the nationalistic patriotism and self-sacrifice that prevailed in pre-war Japan', has revealed the far-right agenda of the ruling administration. (11)
Most countries across the wider Indo-Pacific region find Japanese ultranationalism deeply abhorrent: the Japanese Imperial High Command was directly responsible for some of the most appalling human rights abuses ever known in human history in countries which they occupied during the Second World War.
The ruling Shinzo Abe administration has refused to be drawn on the matter; in 2015 a group of historians issued a statement alleging the then Shinzo Abe administration was 'pushing to put on a gloss on Japan's wartime history'. (12) The claims, nevertheless, fell upon deaf ears not only in Tokyo but elsewhere in the US and other major western allies.
Two factors have, therefore, arisen.
Firstly, while Shinzo Abe has continued to deny any involvement in the scandal, the trail of falsified documents to enable a cover-up has led to the very top of his administration. The scandal erupted again last week when a suicide note from the civil servant who falsified documents on the Finance Ministry’s controversial sale of state land to Moritomo Gakuen, Toshio Akagi, surfaced, 'speaking of the pressure that he was under'. (13) His widow had already begun legal proceedings to sue the government for damages for his death. To date, however, Shinzo Abe has refused to consider resigning, even after being challenged by his mentor, former PM Junichoro Koizumi.
Secondly, as if to deflect attention away from the scandal, Shinzo Abe was subsequently asked to lead a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby boosting Japan's diplomatic position in international forums. (14) It is particularly interesting to note the request for Shinzo Abe take the high-level diplomatic position came from two former Prime Ministers from the Five Eyes, Kevin Rudd from Australia and Gordon Brown from the UK, indicating the intelligence body wanted to use a softer power and influence, rather than the outright political buffoonery of the Trump administration to achieve the required objectives. (15)
Both factors would tend to reveal the continued importance of the Shinzo Abe administration for the US and their designated role for regional foreign policy and the defence and security of 'US interests'. Shinzo Abe is 'their man'; Japan has been pushed into a forefront position by Washington and the Pentagon for regional diplomatic hostilities toward China, which are edging toward real-war scenarios.
With forces such as this operating in conjunction with Australia, we need an independent foreign policy!
1. Study: U.S. no longer dominant power in the Pacific, Paul D. Shinkman, Information Clearing House, 22 August 2019.
3. Australia vows to beef up aid to Pacific allies, Australian, 9 April 2020; and, The normalisation of Japanese foreign policy in the Indian Ocean region, Future Directions International, 21 June 2018.
4. Japan GDP growth rate, 1961-2020, Macrotrends.
5. Japan's Abe gears up, Bloomberg, 19 March 2020.
6. Abe unveils 'massive virus stimulus', news.com.au., 6 April 2020; and, Abe unveils 'massive' coronavirus stimulus worth 20% of GDP, Japan Times, 6 April 2020.
7. Wikipedia: US Forces – Japan.
8. How Shinzo Abe is changing Japan's foreign policy apparatus, The Diplomat, 13 December 2018.
9. Abe lied over scandal and must quit: mentor, The Weekend Australian, 4-5 April 2020.
12. Academics blast efforts to revise war history, The Age (Melbourne), 11 February 2015.
13. Weekend Australian, op.cit., 4-5 April 2020.
14. Abe asked to lead world response, Australian, 9 April 2020.