Common Values, Challenging Differences

Gerald Wright on the past, present, and future of the Japan-Canada relationship.
By: /
April 15, 2013
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What shared values are at the core of the Japanese-Canadian political and economic relationship? Could and should the relationship be stronger? Are there differences (political, economic, cultural) that stand in the way of stronger political and economic ties?

In the past Canada and Japan have worked together on issues such as human security and peacekeeping, demonstrating their joint interest in international organization and multilateral approaches to solving international conflicts, and their joint conviction that countries outside the circle of great powers have an important and distinctive contribution to make. Canada will always have a claim to some attention from Japan on account of its potential as a supplier of resources. Japanese technology should always attract Canadian interest. The most serious roadblock in the way of intensified cooperation, however, is neither economic nor cultural. It is the difference in the two countries' geopolitical situations. Japan confronts an existential problem in its near abroad. Canada does not. Unless Canada greatly enhances its security role in the Pacific, which is hard to imagine at the moment, the bilateral relationship is sure to appear under-nourished and under-nourishing.

Does Canada stand to benefit from Japan’s efforts to strengthen relationships with its Western allies, or are the U.S. and Europe likely to demand all of Japan's diplomatic attention?

Anything that entrenches Japan's participation in a broad range of international relationships should be welcomed by Canada. Prime Minister Abe's attention is going to be directed far beyond the U.S. and Europe. After all, when he took office he first visited Southeast Asia. He wants to strengthen Japan's relationship with India. Canada should not regard itself as being in a contest for Japan's attention. In some cases that attention is directed elsewhere on account of the need to mend fences.

Given how much leadership turnover Japan has seen recently, how closely should Canada scrutinize Abe’s leadership and policies? Will he be the one to bring stability to Japan? Should Canada commit to Shinzo Abe?

Canada should hedge its bet on any foreign leader, particularly when that leader embarks on a risky course like the one now being pursued by Shinzo Abe. He does have the advantage of coming in the wake of many failed premierships, including his own. His monetary and fiscal policies have been directed to the end of getting Japan back up off the mat and, at least until now, his actions have met with approval from within Japan and even from the head of the IMF! If, however, the economy does not soon show signs of responding to his measures and, in particular, if the target of 2 per cent growth in inflation appears unattainable, there could be a massive withdrawal of confidence in Shinzo Abe. One also has to wonder whether, even if he achieves better economic performance in the short term, he will ever tackle the fundamental problems that sap Japan's strength, including the future of nuclear power, immigration, structural reforms to the economy, the problem of an aging society, and climate change.

Does Canada figure prominently in Japan's current diplomatic calculus? Why or why not? What could change this?

Given the powerful countries with which Japan is trying to cement closer relations and those that pose security problems for Japan, it is hardly likely that Canada will soon bulk larger in Japan's diplomatic calculations. We should feel quite relaxed about this. Canadians need to do a lot more serious thinking about the way in which Pacific countries have to balance conflicting economic and security pulls and how this should condition the development of a regional architecture. We might then be able to cooperate closely with the Japanese in pressing for a regional order that contains rivalries currently threatening to erupt in conflict. Even then, however, Canada can be expected to try to reap economic gains without making a political and security investment beyond the resources of a country that is, after all, only partly a Pacific nation.

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