Multilateralism Recalibrated: Japan’s Engagement in Institution Building

By Akiko Fukushima —

Source: Wikimedia user Rikujojieitai Boueisho, used under a creative commons license.

Officers of Japan and Poland confer as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force mission in the Golan Heights between the border of Israel and Syria. Source: Wikimedia user Rikujojieitai Boueisho, used under a creative commons license.

In the 1980s, the international community criticized Japan for free riding on the international order without paying its dues. But did Japan then undermine institution building in the 70 years after the end of World War II? No, on the contrary, Japan never opposed multilateral institutions either at the global level, such as the United Nations (UN), nor at the regional level in the Asia Pacific.

Reemerging from the ashes of the war, Japan did not engage in visible leadership in building multilateral institutions, nor did the international community expect it to take on such a role. Instead, Japan was expected to be on the receiving side of the international order that was created by the war’s victors.

However, Japan has been an active and consistent supporter of institutions over the past 70 years. On the global front, although Japan was not a party in establishing institutions, particularly in the early decades after the war, Japan still sought ways to contribute as a loyal member. On the regional front after the end of World War II, the Asia-Pacific region was infertile ground for institution building, as demonstrated by the failure of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.

Since the 1990s, however, the Asia-Pacific region has witnessed the growth of regional institutions with varying geographical footprints in East Asia and the broader Asia Pacific. With a sprawling “alphabet soup” or “noodle bowl” of institutions in the region, some appear to be in competition with one another, and in some areas there is too much overlap.

Layers of key institutional architecture in the Asia Pacific. Source: Michael J. Green et al., Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence, and Partnerships (Washington, DC: CSIS, 2016), 109.

Layers of key institutional architecture in the Asia Pacific. Source: Michael J. Green et al., Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence, and Partnerships (Washington, DC: CSIS, 2016), 109.

Given the recalibration in institutional architecture already underway in the region, how should Japan engage in institution building in cooperation with the United States and other like-minded countries? Its traditional reactive approach has allowed Japan to wait and see how the international order is shaped. However, in order to make a proactive contribution in shaping the international order, Japan now has to design a new approach to pay its dues.

In considering a way forward, one needs to consider the question of Japanese identity. Japan has oscillated between universalism and Pan-Asianism since the Meiji Restoration. Yet, as Inazo Nitobe, an under-secretary general of the League of Nations, once put it, Japan has long aspired to be “a bridge over the Pacific”— a bridge between East and West.

Standing in the 21st century, as reflected in its new National Security Strategy, Japan seeks both universalism and Pan-Asianism for its own national interests as well as for regional and international peace, stability, and prosperity. Japan seeks to balance both of these “DNAs” in its diplomacy.

Emerging powers in Asia, such as China, are not satisfied with institutions built when they were weak. When their requests for reform have not been heard, they do not hesitate to create gridlock in the existing institutions and to establish new institutions. Behind these moves are appetites to take a leading position and expand influence in the region. Yet at the same time, some of the initiatives taken by emerging countries meet Asian needs for infrastructure capital. Japan’s strategy should be tailored to fit to the changing geopolitical situation.

Japan has led initiatives in promoting institutions with varying footprints in the Asia-Pacific. In his second administration, Prime Minister Abe visited all ten ASEAN members within his first year in office and pledged some $19 billion in aid and loans. He also hosted the ten leaders of ASEAN at a December 2013 summit in Tokyo.

In promoting global and regional cooperation through institutions, Japan needs to join hands with its ally the United States and other like-minded countries. The venues for cooperation will not be limited to Asia or the Asia Pacific, but may span to Africa where we have common interests in peace, stability, and prosperity.

In addition to UN Security Council reform, there is also room for Japan-U.S. cooperation at the UN. One such example is peacekeeping operations (PKO). The two countries could work toward global peace and security together through building PKO capacity in Asia and Africa.

While Japan has been promoting the concept and practice of human security since 1998, the United States has reacted negatively, with some including James Jay Carafano and Jane Smith calling it a “muddled notion.” However, much of this ambiguity has been resolved by the adoption of UN resolution A/RES/66/290, which articulated a common definition of human security. Embracing the concept would allow Japan, the United States, and others to deepen cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peace building, and development assistance.

The challenges for Japan in engaging in recalibrated multilateralism are daunting. Seeking to be a navigator and responsible rider of multilateralism, Japan ought to weave ways to collaborate with its peers in both the West and the East to provide international and regional public goods.

Dr. Akiko Fukushima is a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University’s School of Global Studies and Collaboration. In 2016, she was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Dr. Fukushima’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign and economic policy.

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