International Politics and Japanese Diplomacy as Seen from Eurasia: An Approach to “Geopolitical Economics” and “Global Governance” - Discuss Japan
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No.57, Diplomacy  Mar. 31, 2020

International Politics and Japanese Diplomacy as Seen from Eurasia: An Approach to “Geopolitical Economics” and “Global Governance”

Introduction: A Multipolarizing World and Flexible Thinking

Prof. Watanabe Hirotaka

I would like to examine the content of international politics in Eurasia and discuss how Japan should conduct its diplomacy in that context.

The structure of the international community has begun to change this century, even before the start of the coronavirus crisis. It differs from both the Cold War Era and the world ten years after the end of the Cold War. First, the world is headed toward “mulipolarization.” I consider the rise of China and the return of Russia as “multipolarization” or, more precisely, as a “unipolar–multipolar concurrent system” (“unipolar” signifies the military prominence of the United States). This is the worldview of “G2” (= United States–China bipolar) and “G0” that was frequently talked about some time ago. It can also be seen as a “power transition” or “power shift.”

This has been widely discussed in Japan as well. It is unclear whether China will become equal with the United States in various senses, but it is difficult to imagine that the overall predominance of the United States will disappear in time. However, there are signs everywhere that the international position of the United States is becoming relatively weaker. Not only in relation to great powers like China and Russia, but American influence has diminished with regard to North Korea, Iran, and other Middle East countries, at least before the coronavirus crisis. I ask myself, what will happen to those who deeply depend on the United States or China. How should one think about this as a Japanese?

Japan has not reached a firm conclusion in this discussion. Moreover, although we speak of a relatively diminished presence of the United States internationally under the Trump administration, it is uncertain to what extent that will contribute to changing the structure of the international community. It is true that we harbor a vague optimism in the back of our minds that American power nonetheless remains unchanging. Yet considering that the international relations of today are defined by an unprecedented degree of unpredictability, it is also certain that we have no choice but to think about Japanese diplomacy from a broader vantage point than before.

In that sense, I want to use this paper to concretely think about how the rise of China has changed power relationships in the world and Eurasia as well as the place of Japanese diplomacy.

1, The Options of Japanese Diplomacy and the Importance of Geopolitical Significance

Aiming for Diplomacy at a Higher Level

Extremely important in this context is that Japan should not aspire to conduct the diplomacy of a military power.

It goes without saying that the cornerstone of Japanese defense is to be found within the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. That is a fact from the short-term perspective of managing crises in areas surrounding Japan. In fact, as frequently pointed out, Japan is ninth in the world when it comes to military spending. Yet, that equipment is only auxiliary to the US military in the framework of the Japan–United States Alliance, restricting Japan to playing second fiddle. Of course, Japan is a non-nuclear power as well.

In that sense, if we can define a future leadership position for Japan in Asia and the world from a long-term perspective, that would be in the non-military sphere. As such, when thinking about the future of Japanese diplomacy, Japan is not expected to pursue diplomacy as a military power nor is that something the Japanese people wish to do. Avoiding this has literally been the goal of postwar Japanese diplomatic history. As such, if Japanese diplomacy is to carve out a presence in Asia and the world, it will be in the form of non-military influence. In other words, it has to be something that comes from Japan’s knowledge as a developed country. That should include technological power and culture. It is important to have flexible thinking accompanied by “discernment” that can earn the assent of neighboring countries and the world. This will absolutely require a diplomacy of values and discernment that accompanies soft power in the wide sense.

Of course, that is not easily realized. In reality, Japan possesses military power in the form of the Self-Defense Forces. Even if they are an auxiliary to the Japan–United States alliance, to what extent can this power be used for the sake of self-defense and the stability of the international community, things we may term international public goods? What scope can win acceptance? We cannot forego the conceptual and legal preparation for such real issues in the future. However, Japan is very trusted as one of the world’s safest countries with a strong comprehensive national power, never having to aim to become the kind of military power it was before the war. It is a country with “nation branding” that has a good image based on high credibility. At the very least, that is what Japan has sought to achieve in the postwar period.

It follows that the future of Japanese diplomacy continues on from there. How will Japan be able to take another step forward and explore ways to make international contributions at a higher level? That is the direction we should aim for. Rather than idealism, that is a path that will determine the success or failure of the future of Japanese diplomacy. How much can Japan contribute to problem-solving global governance for the sake of the stability and prosperity of the international order? How can we have a vision that is sufficiently long-term and far-reaching, and that allows us to respond flexibly? Will Japan strongly uphold such an awareness and let it show in its diplomacy? How can we make the world accept that? I believe this lies at the core of the discussion.

The Expanding Options of Japanese Diplomacy

Having said that, I want to reconsider what diplomatic options Japan has. How can Japan work to expand the range of its own diplomatic activities?

For our purposes, let us assume that the following are the options of Japanese diplomacy at present.


  1. Japan strengthens the Japan–United States alliance to counter the threat from China and North Korea.
    As a means to this, Japan also cooperates with Australia and India.
    (“Free and Open Indo-Pacific”)
  2. While maintaining the solidarity of the Japan–United States alliance, Japan simultaneously works to relax tensions with China.
  3. Japan aspires to conduct “mediation diplomacy” between the great powers and spheres of influence of the United States, China and Russia.
  4. Japan works to bring East Asia together and strengthen relations with Europe and other Eurasian countries as an indirect means to realizing policies 2 and 3.


A country’s foreign policy is no simple matter. No country pursues just one direction or option. Rather, the reality is that all countries implement different and contradictory diplomatic policies at the same time. It goes without saying that Japan is not pursuing just one of the four options.

The three basic principles of Japan’s foreign policy are diplomacy centered on the United Nations, collaboration with Free World nations, and adherence to its position as an Asian nation, but Japan’s choice becomes more complex when the United States antagonizes the United Nations Security Council since Japan considers the Japan–United States alliance its most important international relationship. Moreover, it will become key how Japan handles relations with the United States when thinking about bringing Asia together as well as what the United States wants.

In that sense, option 1 is an urgent and crucial policy for military security. Number 2 is tricky. Japan has adopted a stance of not compromising with China in the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, but economic and human interactions are constantly expanding. It is difficult to politically control the supply chains as well as the tourists coming and going between the two countries. As tensions between the United States and China rise, Japan will naturally become a target in China’s multi-faceted diplomacy, and this is not something Japan can reject. Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan, scheduled for 2020 (now postponed because of the coronavirus crisis), was seen as a new sign of easing tensions between Japan and China.

Taking into consideration the above conditions for diplomacy, the ideal shape of Japanese diplomacy will be “peaceful diplomacy” straddling options 3 and 4.

Never Stop Trying: New Realism

However, that is difficult. I should not be irresponsible and say things that will not take place. This is especially true with the Japanese mentality that tends to backfire by restricting you when you expand and try to do too much.

I suspect this is where the issue of the authentic internationalization of Japanese diplomacy itself lies. Comparing Japan and China, the Chinese are good at dreaming big with a risk of missing what is more immediate. The Japanese are the opposite as they consider it a virtue to meticulously and silently engage in the work before your eyes, but seldom talk about matters from a broad perspective. You could say that this indicates narrow-mindedness or an expression of a national trait of modest humility and valuing consideration for others. Historically, the Japanese also have an aspect of self-admonition, or not wanting to repeat the historical mistake of pursuing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a grand ideal in name but actually an attempt at expanding the rule of the Empire of Japan, which ended in the Second World War.

However, these Japanese sentiments are not diplomatic virtues. The world order has many sides depending on where you look, but each country also has a role. Japan was given its role to play when the peace orders of Asia, Eurasia and the world were envisioned. Expectations on Japan are likewise large. This was already pointed out in the 1970s when Japan became the country with the second biggest GNP in the free world. After the end of the Cold War, that role became even bigger. Yet it appears that the diplomatic sense of the Japanese has not changed as much.

Considering this, options 3 and 4 are important. It is not that Japan is unaware of this, but it is true that it is a heavy burden to bear straight off the bat. No, it is more that we have told ourselves that the burden is heavy. As such, any discussion about all of Eurasia does not really become much of a discussion. It is in no way realistic, but conceptual and idealistic.

There was no contents resembling Eurasian diplomacy in the National Diet addresses of the two foreign ministers Kono Taro and Motegi Toshimitsu in 2018 and January 2020. It is unclear what perception, views, and responses Japan has with regard to Europe, Central Asia and the rest of Eurasia. We have seen Japanese diplomatic approaches to individual countries like China and Russia in terms of sea power, but it is unclear what the future prospects for Eurasia are from a long-term perspective as well as how Japan and the Japan–United States alliance is reacting to that.

Is it unrealistic to discuss this from a standpoint of principles and idealism? Does that mean that it is realistic to start from “stop trying?” Conflict with reality arises only when you aim for the ideal, and you do not argue theories but what to do to overcome that. Is it not “true realism” to externally accumulate information and conditions from the field? In that sense, this discussion challenges the conventional line of argument about Japanese diplomacy whose goal has been “new realism.”

2,Broadening the Perspective to Eurasia: The Multi-layered Spheres of Influence of “Geopolitical Economics”

Different Ways of Reading Maps: The Heteronomy of Japanese Diplomacy from a Geopolitical Perspective

Let us now take another look at Japan’s position. Simply changing the way we read the map will give us “flexible thinking.”

Let us look at the map. This map is famously known as the “Upside Down Map” published by Toyama Prefecture. As Japan belonged to the Western Bloc that opposed the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, the Sea of Japan was significant as a watershed toward the continent. However, in this map, the Sea of Japan becomes more like an “inland sea” between the continent and Japan. It is more natural to view Eurasia and Japan as a single economic and logistic zone. We get to see a different geographic position for Japan that differs from that of the conventional Mercator projection map that places the Pacific Ocean in the middle along an east–west axis.

Moreover, Japan is a buffer-state located in-between land powers and sea powers. If you look toward Japan and the Pacific Ocean from the continent, it appears as something like a breakwater or fortress, but if you look from the Pacific Ocean instead, it instead appears like a breakwater or outpost emerging from the continent. That is, Japan is a double breakwater seen from both the continent and the Pacific Ocean.


Source: Created by Discuss Japan based on the “Upside Down Map” of Toyama Prefecture


With this map in mind, let us consider the geographic position of Japan in terms of political strategy. In other words, we should understand that the starting point of Japanese diplomacy is Japan’s geopolitical position.

The bottom line is that Japan is easily made unstable as it is placed between great powers. However, that can also be used to Japan’s advantage. Assistance from the United States in the Cold War era ensured rapid economic recovery and development in Japan, and that was only possible because Japan was important to the United States owing to its geographic position.

In other words, it is difficult for Japan to conduct independent diplomacy. Yet that also means that the geographic position can work as either a positive or a negative for Japanese diplomacy depending on the surrounding international environment. That is, Japanese diplomacy is greatly swayed by the relationship between the land powers (China and Russia, Eurasian powers) and the sea powers (the United States, the United Kingdom). This is because Japan’s existential value and diplomatic position is greatly determined by that relationship.

Seen from this power politics perspective, the Japanese islands becomes a strategic point for transportation and commerce as well as a center of stability and prosperity when that relationship is good. Yet just like in the history of Poland that was partitioned and extinguished by great powers, it is possible that compromise between the two sides can lead to a scramble for Japan. That is, Japan tends to become a dependent variable in the relations between great power actors. From the outset, Japan diplomacy has had a strong heteronomous character.

Yet in reality, Japan has done well. It has not become a portioned state like Poland, Germany and the Korean peninsula, and Japanese diplomacy has historically been about making more or less every effort to achieve stability and prosperity under the protection of a great power, something that has been done successfully. Japan before the Bakumatsu period (final years of the Edo period ending 1867) was part of the Sinosphere that relied on tribute trade with the land power China, but after the decline of China, Japanese diplomacy very much relied on the alliances with the sea powers of the United States and the United Kingdom, which took the lead in modernization. An exceptional and unfortunate time was the period from the early 1930s to the end of the Second World War. Japan successfully modernized with the help of the West and solidified a policy of mainland expansion, which went overboard and ended in a conflict with the Western powers.

That is, the stance of working together with the United Kingdom and the United States has been realism with a focus on national interest for Japanese diplomacy since the start of the modern era. The primary significance of the heteronomy is the cooperative relationships with the United Kingdom and the United States. That was because the potential continental power China was weak, and because China and Russia opposed the democratic camp as representatives of the communist world.

Yet global power relations have changed in the twenty-first century. This was because of the rise of China and the return of Russia. The world is headed toward multipolarity, which means that the international political balance is changing in Asia. If this power transition that I mentioned in the beginning continues, it may well upset the foundation of Japanese diplomacy that has been in place throughout the modern era. Japan is forced to take action in an Asian international system that is different from before. This is the reason we need a solid grasp of changes in the Eurasian situation more than ever. The significance of this power transition is exceedingly great for Japan.

“The meaning of Geopolitical Economics”: The Birth of the Northern Sea Route

Changes in Eurasia that are entirely new are the changes in the natural environment and the concomitant changes on the strategic maps. It is the birth of the Northern Sea Route as a consequence of global warming.

The global position of the Eurasian continent is about to change drastically. Chinese ambitions for the Northern Sea Route, which is becoming navigable all year around due to global warming, have become obvious in recent times. This issue leads to shifts in geopolitical ideas in Eurasia. That is, the Eurasian continent is no longer closed to the north by the Arctic Ocean, but it is becoming a “new Eurasian island” surrounded by sea on all sides. To the Eurasian countries, the Arctic Ocean will no longer be a natural defensive hinterland covered in ice, but its coasts become strategic key points as seen in the placement of American and Russian military bases on Map 2 as well as important routes for trade and transportation.

That is, adding to the existing communication and transportation routes to the Pacific Ocean, the East China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean that surround Eurasia, the birth and development of the Northern Sea Route will surely necessitate the making of new maps of transportation routes in Eurasia. In addition to the existing geographic routes along an east–west axis, the development of routes along a north–south axis will amplify the new geopolitical significance of Eurasia. Will this be an “Open Eurasia”? That will depend on the efforts of the countries involved. To what degree will Japan be able to make use of its insights when that time comes?


Source: Created by author based on Grand Atlas 2017 – Courrier International, p.115


On top of all this, we will have to rethink the position of Central Asia and the Middle East as producers of natural gas and oil when there is an energy shift through the spread of shale gas and so forth. Trade, energy, and other economic elements have been part of the scope of geopolitics since the nineteenth century, but more recently, we refer to discussions about what was conventionally considered international economics as geopolitics. It might be because geopolitics is usually discussed in Japan in terms of international conflicts with a military strategic character, but you could say that major changes are happening in the environment of “geopolitical economics,” which brings together geopolitics and geo-economics.

3,Open Eurasia plus the Pacific Community

Acting as a Bridge to Eurasia: The Power Balance Approach

Amid all of this, Japanese diplomacy emphasizes the Japan–United States alliance on the one hand, but also finds it necessary to independently reconcile with China and Russia. In fact, since the establishment of the Trump administration, the American North Korean policy has changed. The United States and North Korea started negotiating directly. United States–China relations have moved from military tension to economic negotiation and a trade war. It is very possible that Japanese diplomacy will not last as it has done in the past.

Japan has a strong bond of solidarity with the United States and while Japan–United States relations are pivotal, we have now entered an age when Japan has to adjust and move forward relations with China and Russia more than ever before and through its own efforts. Japan has to maintain a balance between the Indo-Pacific countries and the Eurasian countries. I suspect we have to revise our heteronomous diplomacy of “complete devotion” to the United States and the United Kingdom. In terms of our relationship with the United States, we are exploring a direction toward relative “pro-American independence.”

Of course, we also need the idea of East Asia and Asia Community. This Japanese diplomatic stance is not idealism, but indispensable realism needed to improve Japan’s diplomatic position in the future international environment. The worst-case scenario for Japan is that an agreement is reached in negotiations between the American, Chinese and Russian powers without consulting Japan. That is because the result is literally heteronomous and subordinate diplomacy in-between great powers. What is desirable for Japan is to have a key role of adjusting great power relations and stabilizing the surrounding international environment in a space in-between the great powers.

Let us go back to the four options of Japanese diplomacy that we saw before. Of them, options 3 and 4 are not actively pursued. It is seen as difficult to advance them in reality.

The reason why it is seen as difficult to advance policy 3 is the existence of difficult issues that need to be resolved, such as the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands and the historical memory problem between Japan and China. When you think about the North Korea missile crisis and China’s rapid naval expansion, then there is a strong tendency to think of the Japan–United States alliance as the only way to raise the threshold of Japanese security.

Additionally, if Japan were to try out a new and different approach now, there is a risk that it would lead to apprehension and misunderstandings among neighboring countries. Considering the geopolitical position of Japan, Japanese diplomacy is heteronomous and the only options available are the conventional 1 and 2. The first conclusion is that this is the safest. However, it is not impossible that the United States and China will somehow compromise with each other. In that case, Japanese diplomacy becomes a completely dependent variable of relations between the two great powers. Japan’s diplomatic options were more clear and fixed as long as the opposition between the United States and China had a cold war structure, but we need to keep in mind that that may fall apart.

An Approach to Regional and Global Governance “Beyond Spheres of Influence”

There are several power-centered multilateral frameworks in Eurasia, divided into three spheres of influence: the EU, the Russia sphere (ex-USSR), and the China sphere (BRI). Each sphere is composed of a loose “multilateral (hub and spoke in reality)” regional network or connection led by (a) polar power(s). Is it not possible to integrate these into one big framework?

Inside the spheres of influence of the three multilateral frameworks, the intentions of the respective powers very much hold sway, but there is naturally a lot of dissatisfaction among small- and medium-sized states as well as satellites under the polar power’s influence. Thus, there should be room for a framework like the “Eurasian Community” or the “Eurasian Conference.” That will be the receptacle of an even more open and broad framework that goes beyond spheres of influence. There ought to be many shared issues, starting with global issues. It is a so-called regional global governance approach.

The definition of global governance here is “Not just governments and inter-government organizations, but also non-governmental organizations, civil society, multinational corporations and other actors sharing ideas, means, values, norms and procedures about transnational issues through formal and informal channels.” That means many actors sharing issues and having a sense of community. Is this not something that Japan can contribute toward? For example, Japan has actively engaged in organization management relating to “human security” at the United Nations. Is it not possible to expand those insights to the Eurasian region? I intentionally use the term “Eurasia” because it signifies loose integration and network-building beyond the spheres of influence and beyond what is internal to each “sphere of influence.” I have in mind something like the informal “Friends of Human Security” that consists of willing states in the United Nations.

We can apply methods for and insights from multilateral cooperation at the United Nations to the level of spheres of influence in Eurasia. The aim is to explore approaches that combine Asian and European ways to thinking to facilitate governance especially in the areas of education, environment, humanitarian development and infrastructure development.

Perhaps it is possible to create a Eurasian Conference that functions like a shared public resource and forum for wide-ranging problem-solving. We have things like SCO and CICA of course, but the reality is that all of them are groups that envision Chinese and Russian spheres of influence, respectively.

A historical example is the “Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE)” that was a product of the détente of the Cold War era. It appeared that the activities of the CSCE quieted down in the late 1970s, but it had the result of laying the foundation for the end of the Cold War by presenting new concepts for multilateral frameworks and security (preventive diplomacy, etc.) in anticipation of the coming end of the Cold War. Would it not be possible to combine that with the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative.”

For example, the Japanese foreign affairs offices are actively engaging in “2+2” with the United Kingdom, France, Italy and other European countries for the globalization of security cooperation. We should expand on that and raise it to the level of “Eurasian Common Foreign and Security Policy.” Following the end of the Cold War, the EU set up law schools and business schools in China in an attempt to build a foundation for business customs and norms. It was soft power diplomacy. The EU’s interest in China mainly had to do with economic gains, but it was also a “normative approach” that sought to transform society at the core. Precisely that is Japan’s “mediating role.”

The creation of a site where Eurasian and Pacific countries can meet is something that warrants a proposal. It would be meaningful even if it is just for discussing common topics or having dialog. The continuance of “dialog” has become all the more important in today’s post-Cold War world. That is because as long as “dialog” continues, it remains the optimal way to avoid direct armed conflict.

“Perspicacious Diplomacy” as Soft Power: From a Clash of Civilizations to Building a Universal Community

It is also possible that Japan can pursue its own diplomatic brand through that process. That is the road to Japan’s autonomous diplomacy. I refer to this as “perspicacious diplomacy.” You could also call it soft power in the wide sense. It is a more conceptual and policy-oriented version of the “intellectual leadership” that was advocated during former Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo’s administration in Japan toward the end of the twentieth century.

Samuel P. Huntington described the post-Cold War world with the words “The Clash of Civilizations.” This was a book in which the United States, as the victor of the Cold War, perceived Islamic fundamentalists and others who believe in values and norms other than American democracy as potential enemies.

We have to overcome such clashes. It is a form of idealism, but Japan has the possibility to play that role. Japan was the first to modernize in Asia and, as a stable democracy, may be considered a country with the obligation and qualification to engage in normative formation for the realization of a “global community.” It matters to what extent the world sees Japan as competent to be a leading country in Asia as well as in the world. The establishment of the “human security” concept centering on Japan in this century is a fruit of Japan’s “national branding power” as a peace loving and stable country. It had meaning because it was proposed by Japan. That gave us a glimpse of the “face” of Japanese diplomacy. In other words, it was positive recognition of Japan’s soft power.

In that sense, Japan’s future Eurasia diplomacy should be to work for the realization of a “More Open Eurasian Community” standing on the foundation of common values and norms. It is necessary to cultivate common interests and awareness among Eurasian multilateral organizations. Japanese diplomacy needs an approach that can build a framework for that. That is a diplomacy that extends shared norms between spheres of influence through a geopolitical “Realpolitik,” as well as a “new realism” that is predicated on the reality we face and supported by universal ideals.

Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Discuss Japan. [March 2020]


  • international politics
  • Japanese diplomacy
  • mediation diplomacy
  • Eurasia
  • geopolitical economics
  • global governance
  • Upside Down Map
  • Northern Sea Route
  • Eurasian Conference
  • sphere of influence
  • discerning diplomacy
  • global community