When Shinzo Abe returned to office as the prime minister of Japan in December 2012, he spoke of his determination to keep Japan internationally engaged. In a speech he delivered during his trip to Washington in February 2013, Abe vowed that Japan will remain a "first-rate country," sustaining its position as a reliable US ally.
Abe established "chikyuugi-fukan-gaiko" (diplomacy taking a panoramic view of the world map) and "sekkyokuteki-heiwa-shugi"(proactive contribution to international peace) as the principles by which his government would develop its foreign and security policy. He has demonstrated his personal commitment to these principles, eagerly visiting foreign countries and participating in multinational conferences.
At first glance, Abe's efforts seem to be paying dividends. He managed to establish close personal relationships with a number of world leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was the first Japanese leader to deliver a keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a prestigious annual conference on security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. His diplomatic overtures have gone far beyond Asia, reaching Latin America and the Middle East.
However, when looking at the two most imminent international security crises that the world faces today, Japan has been hardly visible. In Ukraine, Japan has not been able to act decisively because it has been torn between the desire to maintain a functional relationship with Russia and the necessity it feels to align itself with the rest of the Group of Seven countries. As a result, Japan finds itself in an uncomfortable bind.
On one hand, it faces the prospect of Russian retaliation against the economic sanctions it has posed. On the other, its lukewarm response to Russia's aggressive behaviour toward Ukraine has raised questions about why Japan hesitates to reaffirm its commitment to the international norm of standing against any attempt to change the status quo by force or coercion.
In the Middle East, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) not only continues to deteriorate the security situation in the region but is also increasingly seen as a security threat potentially more serious than Al-Qaida, Japan has also been invisible. Japan has so far fallen back on its usual approach of providing financial aid for humanitarian assistance.
In each case, Japan has its own reasons for its cautious approach. In the case of Russia-Ukraine tension, Tokyo has continued to cling to the hope that Abe may be able to strike a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to resolve the northern territories issue, paving the way for the two countries to sign a peace treaty. In addition, some point out that Japan's increasing dependence on Russia for energy since its decision to suspend the operations of all of its nuclear power plants following the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant also makes it difficult for Tokyo to take measures vis-a-vis Russia that may be received as hostile.
In the Middle East, Japan faces even more complicated challenges. To begin with, Japan has very limited options, given the fluid security situation on the ground. To put it simply, as long as fighting continues between ISIS and its opponents in a vast area along the Iraqi-Syrian border, it is impossible for Japan to send the Self-Defence Force (SDF) to "put boots on the ground." In addition, with one Japanese citizen currently held hostage by ISIS, the Japanese government likely wants to refrain from taking any step that may jeopardize his life
However, even with these complicating factors, if Japan indeed has global interests, as Abe claims, Tokyo needs to think through how these urgent security crises may impact Japan's own security. In the case of Ukraine, Japan must think through the implication of its hesitance to align its position with the G-7 and Western Europe while it continues to seek international support for its own position vis-a-vis China in the East China Sea.
After all, what unfolded first in Crimea and continues in Eastern Ukraine is a "gray-zone" situation. Rather than holding onto a faint hope that the four islands in the northern territories may return, Japan has very good reason to be more openly supportive of European efforts to address their own "gray-zone" conflict to demonstrate Tokyo's universal commitment to the international norm of opposing efforts to change the status quo by force or coercion.
In the Middle East, Japan also needs to find ways to be proactive. The United States has already embarked on building an international coalition to respond to the threats posed by ISIS. As the struggle drags on, the rest of the world will likely be divided into two groups-those who are actively contributing to the international efforts to address the situation, and those who stand aside.
Japan's expansion of financial assistance is a good place to start, but it needs to explore options that allow Japan's "visible" participation in these efforts, which may or may not include sending SDF personnel. At a minimum, Tokyo needs to break its silence. It must articulate its condemnation of ISIS brutality and its resolve to stand with the international community to support Iraq in maintaining territorial integrity under an inclusive government.
In addition to these imminent security threats, how to combat the Ebola virus in Africa is also a serious problem that requires coordinated responses by the international community. US President Barack Obama has already declared war against the Ebola virus, even sending US troops to fight its further proliferation. This is another area where Japan has not been able to demonstrate any initiative, nor articulate its plan of engagement.
"Diplomacy taking a panoramic view of the world map" and "proactive contribution to international peace" are both critical pillars for Japan's engagement with the world today. Now is the time for Japan to demonstrate how it intends to translate its commitment to these principles into concrete policies.