Japan is becoming isolated in global affairs, fearing abandonment by the US, questioning what Japan stands for and engendering a sense of ontological insecurity. What are the inherent anxieties attendant upon Japan's leadership as they attempt to chart a new foreign policy course in uncertain times?
On 17 November 2016, Prime Minister Abe became the first world leader to meet with President-elect Donald Trump. By dashing off to New York to secure guarantees about the direction of Japan-US relations, Abe's scuttle diplomacy demonstrated a profound anxiety about Japan's place in the world; a sense of ontological insecurity. Would the US-Japan alliance remain the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy and regional security? How would the trade relationship unfold now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appeared dead-in-the-water? Could Japan continue to depend upon the US in its relations with China or on non-proliferation and North Korea? Would Japan increasingly have to go it alone in world affairs? Abe's meeting with Trump merely emphasized an on-going trend in Japan's foreign relations, namely that the country appears to be increasingly alone. By leaning so heavily towards the US, Prime Minister Abe has curtailed Japan's foreign policy options, leaving the country inflexible to the changing dynamics of regional and global affairs. The summer of 2017 had already witnessed Japan being wrong-footed by closer relations between China and the Philippines, despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that favored the latter and dismissed the expansive territorial claims of the former. With the anticipated demise of the TPP, President Xi Jinping is expected to seize the opportunity to advance the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). By excluding the US, the conclusion of the RCEP could leave Japan playing second fiddle to China in regional economic relations, exacerbating Japan's existing isolation from another emerging regional economic institution: the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB). Facing a raft of on-going social and economic problems, Japan's isolation only renews the sense of pessimism that Japan is in decline. Despite the uncertainties of Japan's current position, there may nevertheless be opportunities for Japanese foreign policymakers to grasp, such as a renewed imperative to reform the constitution. The question remains as to whether Japan's leaders will be flexible enough to chart a new foreign policy course and reestablish a sense of ontological security now that it has been cut adrift.