Japan’s position in GX summitry

Hugo Dobson

The Group of 8 (G8) matters to Japan. Simply by participating in the first summit meeting of the G6 (and subsequently G7) at Rambouillet in November 1975, Japan was accorded the status and recognition that other mechanisms of global governance, most notably the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), have continued to deny it as a late-starter in international society. The G8 helped to satisfy Japan’s sense of exclusion and the need to ‘catch-up’ with the early starters of Europe and North America.

Since then,Japanese behaviour within G8 summitry has been shaped not only by a range of concrete national interests to be pursued within this informal mechanism of global governance, but also by a number of expectations of appropriate behaviour. Three in particular stand out over the decades of G8 summitry:

a strong sense of internationalism, which dictates that having been accorded the status of membership Japan should behave as a responsible member of international society. This has been manifested in material support for a range of G8 initiatives,relatively high levels of compliance with G8 pledges, and in ensuring the summits have tangible outcomes, especially when Japan is hosting;
at the same time, as the only Asian country included in these summit meetings of contemporary great powers, Japan has sought to respond to a longstanding Asian identity by representing the region and its concerns at these meetings dominated by Europeans and North Americans. This self-appointed role led the Japanese government to solicit agenda items from its Asian neighbours to take to the summit and ensure that the summit does not ignore regional developments and interests; and finally
a bilateralist impulse whereby Japan would use both the actual summit meetings and the bilaterals that take place on its periphery tomanage relations with its US partner – touted for decades as ‘the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none’, in the words of former US Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield. Using the summit to ‘handle the hegemon’ has mattered to the Japanese, as seen in the complaints voiced when these bilateral meetings have been postponed or cancelled.
So, for over four decades, Japan’s participation and motivations in the G8 summit could be broadly understood in terms of these expectations, pressures and roles.

However, the elevation of the Group of 20 (G20)to the ‘premier forum for international economic cooperation’ and the perceived eclipse of the G8 have represented considerable challenges to Japan. Not only does an expanded membership dilute the status of belonging to a select group, Asian membership has now been expanded to include Australia, China, India, Indonesia and South Korea, alongside Japan. This latter development suggests that the role of Asia’s representative that has characterized Japan’s participation in the summit is now under threat. Japan’s response, almost inevitably considering the glacial speed with which change occurs in Japanese policymaking circles, has been to continue to display these former traits of its G8 summitry. However, this has been difficult to maintain as Japan confronts the reality of G20 summitry.

On the one hand, Japan still responds within the G20 to the expectation that it should behave as a responsible member of international society. This continued internationalism was seen in Prime Minister Aso Taro’s support and respect for anti-protectionist pledges made at the first G20 summit in Washington in 2008, as well as contributing to the reinvigoration of the IMF at London in 2009. However, Japan’s proactive internationalism in the G20 has been compromised as a result of a stark zero-sum game by which any efforts to work for the success of the G20 contributes to the increased marginalization of the G8, for which Japan still maintains a historic preference. Thus, Japan has had to create a raison d’etre for the G8’s continued existence that differentiates it from the G20. Rather than a slightly more plausibledivision of labour, its recent approachhas been to stress the shared democratic values that were at the heart of the original Rambouillet Declaration of the G6 in 1975 and serve as the closest thing to membership criteria the G8 can boast. These values neatly dovetail with the value-oriented diplomacy that Prime Minister Aso sought to place at the heart of his administration’s foreign policy. Despite the historic defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the landslide election of 30 August 2009 that catapulted the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to power, this approach was still clearly evident.

On the other hand, as mentioned above, Japan’s defining role in the G8 as Asia’s representative has been compromised chronically with the addition of five new Asian countries and no longer does Asia need Japan to represent it in the G20. In response, the Japanese government has still continued to pursue its former Asianist agenda by advocatingregional issues but at the same time has had to deal with its regional neighbours, in particular China. Japan can boast a recent tradition of seeking to engage China within the G8 process that was particularly in evidence when Japan hosted the 2000 Okinawa Summit. However, there were limitations to this participation and at no point did Japan suggest an expansion of the G8; rather, it sought to simply invite China with a status not dissimilar but probably beneath the EU’s role of permanent observer.

This level of engagement has continued recently as seen in Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo bringing the G8 and G5 together for the first time or Prime Minister Kan Naoto even suggesting that China could be invited to G8 meetings. However, to continue engagement of this nature has not been as easy in the G20 where all eyes are on China. So, Japan has even at times begun to compete with China (and equally South Korea) by questioning their commitment to G20 pledges. Thus, there seems to be a much more complicated and even contradictory range of positions emerging in Japan’s response to the expanded Asian representation within the G20. This fuzziness is representative of Japan’s view of China in other arenas and issue areas where there appears to be conflicting sense of engagement and competition.

Ultimately, what identity can Japan carve out for itself in the G20 now that its role as Asia’s representative has diminished? Japan’s historic preference has been for smaller groupings so it may well seek to bind together with like-minded partners under the broader G20 umbrella on specific issues. The US will undoubtedly continue to be centre-stage in Japan’s thinking and at the heart of any such groupings that Japan might seek to forge or participate in. However, this is unlikely to be undiluted adherence to traditional bilateralism, but rather the ‘bilateralism plus’ initiatives that Japan has sought over recent years, with Australia and India for example, in order to ensure that the alliance undergoes the ‘recalibration’, ‘redefinition’ and ‘renewal’ that is necessary to keep it relevant. Even within this changing context, the motivations behind engagement with the US are likely to remain the same as Japan seeks to foster interpersonal relations between the two incumbent leaders, educate and enlighten the US, bandwagoning or balancing where necessary, and shortcircuiting criticism through preemptive action.

So, Japan will be expected to cling on closely to the bilateral US relationshipboth generally and within GX summitry. Although its existence or emergence has been hotly denied by China and the US, the worst case scenario that Japan willseek to avoid is the G2 of Chinamerica. If unsuccessful, mightJapan attempt to cling even more closely to the US, or might this act as the trigger for Japan to focus on the ‘plus’ side of its bilateralism-plus initiatives? Might it lose interest in GX summitry and focus its attention on the formal mechanisms of global governance by concentrating its efforts on securing the long sought-after permanent seat on the UNSC? Recent evidence suggests that we are not at this stage yet. At the Cannes Summit of the G20, it appeared as if Prime Minister Noda might have broken the string of ducks of recent Japanese prime ministers by demonstrating a more coherent approach to the G20 and even scoring a number of minor victories.

However, this is for the future. At this point in time, all this activity suggests a number of things about Japan’s position in GX summitry. First of all, we usually assume that it is rising powers that are willing to jump through hoops and play ‘games’ in order to achieve great power status. The example of Japan demonstrates that great powers also make similar efforts to maintain their status. In this particular case, Japan has attempted to engage, compete and innovate in order to maintain both its relevance and the status quo. Secondly, it has appeared that little coherent coordination exists within Japanese policymaking circles on how to manage China with GX summitry. Finally, although no doubt unsurprising to veteran Japan watchers, it appears that little changes in Japan’s domestic politics. This is suggested by the continued use of shared values to justify the existence and continuation of the G8, despite the landslide victory and overwhelming mandate that the Japanese people handed to the DPJ. In other words, plus ca change…

More broadly speaking, Japan’s response to GX summitry can be regarded asone of many pertinent examples of the country’s relative decline that brings into relief its groping for ways in which to manage this decline. The irony may well be that the approaches adopted over recent years could ultimately serve to reinforce, rather than abate, this decline.


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