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BIPR | Japan Turns its Back. Humanitarian Crises in Myanmar and the Demise of the Adaptive State
Japan Turns its Back. Humanitarian Crises in Myanmar and the Demise of the Adaptive State

October 30, 2023 - 18:30

Lindsay Black, Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), The Netherlands

Event Recap

Japan Turns its Back. Humanitarian Crises in Myanmar and the Demise of the Adaptive State

hosted by Professor Mark Gilbert

Lindsay Black
Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), The Netherlands

Returning as Prime Minister in December 2012, Abe Shinzo declared that Japan was back. Complementing his Abenomics policy and proactive foreign affairs agenda, Abe's ‘value-based diplomacy' promised to place democratization, peace-building, and human security at the forefront of Japan's foreign policy. The fortuitous circumstances surrounding Abe's return to power, including weakened opposition and factions as well as the absence of a major international crisis, all signaled that Japan was well-placed to play a greater role in international affairs. Rather than a state that pursued its mercantilist interests as a free-rider, Japan had become an adaptive state, willing to act as ‘Asia's liberal leader'.

This paper draws on my forthcoming book: Disciplined Democracies: Human Insecurity in Japan-Myanmar relations, to examine how, as Myanmar transitioned to a ‘disciplined democracy' following general elections in 2010, so the Abe administration emphasized Japan's role as a bridge between Myanmar and international society. The Abe administration sought to support Myanmar's fledgling democracy through aid and investment. Abe also appointed Sasakawa Yohei to mediate in Myanmar's long-standing ethnic conflicts as a means of demonstrating Japan's contribution to the liberal international order.

The ‘value-based rhetoric' underpinning Japan's peace-building approach masked a broader economic rationale. Pacifying Myanmar's turbulent border regions was key to the Japanese government's regional ambitions, notably building key infrastructure to connect Myanmar's neighboring Mekong states with the Indian Ocean. When violence broke out in Rakhine state, leading to the exodus of the Rohingya to refugee camps in Bangladesh, the Abe administration opted to support rather than pressure the Myanmar government. Despite the February 2021 coup, the connections between the Japanese government and business elites with Myanmar's junta remain strong. As Myanmar descends into civil war, claims that Japan can act as ‘Asia's liberal leader' should be reassessed. For Japan to act as a adaptive state requires more than simply aligning the rhetoric of a ‘value-based diplomacy' with its foreign policy, but to confront the inherent contradictions within the rhetoric itself. Interrogating the discursive foundations of Japan's foreign policy reveals how Japan's foreign policy elites perceive Japan's role in the liberal international order.


Lindsay Black is Associate Professor of International Relations of East Asia at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) in the Netherlands.

He is primarily a specialist on Japanese politics and international relations. His most recent major publication is entitled Disciplining Democracies: Human Insecurity in Japan-Myanmar Relations (Bristol University Press, 2023). Black's first book examined the role of the Japanese Coast Guard, and he has published numerous articles and book chapters on international relations of East Asia.
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