The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Shinzo Abe Snubs China on First Trip Abroad

In Asia’s Game of Thrones the winds of change are pushing Japan away from China to Southeast Asia.

When Shinzo Abe was first inaugurated as Prime Minister of Japan back in 2006, he quickly packed his bags and took off for Beijing. As Japan’s largest trading partner and a growing market for Japanese exports, China was seen as Tokyo’s most important foreign relationship.

How things have changed.

Abe, recently re-installed as Prime Minister, is preparing for his first trip abroad (along with a number of his top ministers)—and his destination is telling.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s choice of Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations for his first foreign visit was made … to promote so-called value diplomacy, which focuses on cooperation with countries sharing the same values, such as democracy and the rule of law.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso also proposed a concept of “the arc of freedom and prosperity,” which was aimed at putting value diplomacy into play, when he served as foreign minister under the first Abe Cabinet.

Based on this diplomatic idea, Abe reportedly plans to strengthen relationships with Southeast Asian countries and cooperate with these nations to establish a strategic partnership of mutual benefit aimed at coexistence and mutual prosperity as part of a strategy to deal with China.

Notice also that Abe and his top officials are not going to Washington on their first trips abroad. Apparently “scheduling difficulties” prevented Abe from visiting the US first, as he originally intended. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Japan’s new leaders are intent on strengthening ties to Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and other countries in the area, including Australia.

This is not a bad thing for the US. Washington wants to see a peaceful and balanced Asia-Pacific region. Japan and many other countries, like the Philippines and India, are increasingly nervous about China, so it makes sense for them to strengthen their relationships with each other. Washington, far from feeling snubbed by the new team in Tokyo, should be glad.

Published on January 15, 2013 7:01 pm