For well over a year, rising tensions between Japan and China have centered on their rival claims to a group of islands in the East China Sea known as the the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
Now, competition for resources and new markets is about to enter the diplomatic sphere, after Japan announced plans to expand its diplomatic presence overseas, apparently to counter growing Chinese influence.
Tokyo plans to open two new embassies this year and another six in 2014, pending budgetary approval from the government, according to the foreign ministry.
The move comes amid disquiet in Japan over China’s bold diplomatic and economic overtures to developing countries in Asia and Africa, and concern about the safety of Japanese nationals working abroad following January’s terrorist attack on a gas plant in Algeria.
Ten Japanese were killed in the attack, prompting the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to announce the creation of a US-style national security council and greater military protection for citizens embroiled in violence overseas.
Not all countries have full diplomatic missions in every other country in the world.
Japan will open two embassies later this year in South Sudan and Iceland, bringing its worldwide total to 136. That still leaves it lagging some distance behind China, which has embassies in 164 countries. Despite extending generous overseas development assistance (ODA) to Africa, Japan does not have embassies in about 20 countries on the continent.
According to local media, more embassy openings will follow next year in Turkmenistan, Namibia, Armenia, and Barbados. Those openings will be followed by ones in Bhutan and the Marshall Islands, where China does not have embassies.
Tokyo is thought to have taken a greater interest in Turkmenistan to seize a share of its natural gas supplies, some of which goes through China.
But the decision to bolster Japan’s diplomatic presence is nothing new, analysts say. The push into Africa and China, and the weaker emphasis on Europe, began three years ago under the then Democratic Party of Japan foreign minister, Seiji Maehara.
“Abe’s plan isn’t necessarily new,” says Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Meiji University in Tokyo. “Maehara also recognized that China was interested in the rising economies of Africa, and that Japan has too many embassies clustered in Europe.
“The question is, what kind of influence does Japan want to wield in Africa. That has yet to be decided.
“African countries would probably be happy with an increase in ODA, but there are limits to what Japan can provide. Instead of a rapid surge in aid, I expect to see an incremental rise in infrastructure and construction projects of the kind we have seen in Asia, and an extension of Japan’s ‘soft power’ in areas such as education.”
Other experts downplayed the China factor. “Put it this way, if China didn’t exist, Japan would still be going into Africa because it is the next economic frontier,” says Jun Okumura, a Japan specialist at the Eurasia group.
“Whatever you think about Abe, he realizes that it’s all about the economy, the economy and the economy.”
A diplomatic presence in Turkmenistan, for example, could vastly improve Japan’s access to much-needed energy sources and build diplomatic bridges with regional powers.
A natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Japan would inevitably involve new infrastructure in Russia, now the target of Japanese attempts to secure oil and gas and, eventually, to bolster the chances of a peaceful solution to the countries’ postwar dispute over ownership of the Northern Territories, known as the Kuril Islands in Russia.
Mr. Okumura says the decision to open an embassy on the Marshall Islands could be meant to send a message to China about its increasingly aggressive naval activity in the South China Sea and, possibly, the northern Pacific.
“Abe is mindful of the implications, of course, and some in China, particularly elements in the People’s Liberation Army, will use this to argue that Japan is making an anti-China play. Abe won’t necessarily be worried if this causes some concern in Beijing.
“These overtures have their implications for Japan-China relations, but only very tangentially.”