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Japan’s Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative: A wise way to wage 'war'

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By Jelena Gledic

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed the launch of a Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative during his recent trip to Serbia, analysts and global media rushed to explain the importance of this southeastern European region as a stepping stone in Japan’s ambitions to achieve a leading position in Asia, and perhaps the world.

Specifically, what was proposed was facilitating dialogue through the appointment of an Ambassador in Charge of the Western Balkans at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, uncovering new cooperation projects through a JICA survey and encouraging regional cooperation through seminars. This move may be, as many media assessed, an attempt to curtail Beijing’s influence which is not likely to succeed, due to China’s vast economic resources and deeply rooted political ties with the formerly communist countries. However, regardless of the exact motives or possible outcomes, the strategic and diplomatic framework that led to the Belgrade visit offers important lessons for international relations and regional development.

The fact that Prime Minister Abe’s January 2018 European tour included Serbia, the only non-EU country visited, may have surprised those unaware of the extensive efforts made to lay the groundwork for successful cooperation between the two countries and between Japan and the Western Balkans region. Thorough preparation spanning several decades is the first lesson offered by this trip. While the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s may have halted relations, the visit can be seen as a key point in the revival of an initiative started more than 30 years ago. In 1987, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Belgrade, which was then the capital of Yugoslavia, and gave a lecture at the University of Belgrade titled “To Japan’s European Friends,” calling on the U.S. and USSR to continue efforts for nuclear disarmament.

Two decades later, after the region was stabilized, Osaka University and Belgrade’s Institute of International Politics and Economy led several projects exploring the socio-economic and political aspects of ties between Japan (and Northeast Asia) and Serbia (and Western Balkans). Supported by both countries’ line ministries, a number of conferences were organized and exhaustive analyses addressing the core issues were published. Some scholars focused on historical similarities, such as Prof Mamoru Sadakata’s assessment that both Yugoslavia and Japan nurtured closer relationships with far away foreign countries than their neighbors during the Cold War – the former with African and Asian countries in the Non-Aligned Movement, and the latter with the US. Others looked at ways to enhance cooperation in the future, such as Prof Blagoje Babic’s suggestions to overcome the economic asymmetry between the two countries by promoting Serbia’s ability to offer Japan access to the EU and Russia through its free trade agreements.

Based on this thorough preparation, the grounds to move forward were made clear, but a significant political obstacle needed to be overcome – Japan’s recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, greatly opposed by Belgrade. However, the two countries adopted an issue-based approach, which is the second lesson offered by this collaboration initiative. As the Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic stated, “the emphasis was on the development of economic relations,” while at the same time noting that they “have acquainted Mr Abe with Serbia's attitude towards Pristina and the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.” Putting aside the complex issue of a territorial dispute being addressed in relevant international organizations, the focus was placed on areas where the partnership can bring benefits to both sides. For Serbia, Japan can offer not only investments, but also the technology and skills needed to revitalize the economy. Perhaps equally importantly, cooperation with such a partner can be a signal to the EU that Serbia strives to fulfill the highest international standards and that it is dedicated to transparency and accountability, a common concern voiced by Brussels over deals made with other Asian countries. On the other hand, for Japan, Serbia is a country currently offering some of the best incentives for foreign direct investment and it has a highly-skilled workforce with average salaries far below the EU. Furthermore, it can be a strategic partner facilitating ties with the region and opening channels to many global markets.

Finally, a third lesson to be taken away is the way Japan tailored its approach in the proposed initiative. The Balkan countries have been split between empires, Cold War blocks, and now EU and non-EU status. While the existence of Yugoslavia – a federation uniting six states that are now independent – offered a period of relative stability in the region, the armed conflicts that led to its dissolution left a strong impact. Any analysis of potential investments or establishing cooperation with the region is usually followed with assessments of the risks for destabilization. The countries that are still on various points of the path towards EU membership are seen as especially volatile, as they deal with competing interests of multiple global actors, including Russia and the US. Here it is also important to look at the way China has been managing its presence in the region, putting efforts into the 16+1 cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. In dealing with Central and Eastern European countries as a group, it is likely that each state will struggle to provide the best possible conditions to attract projects and become Beijing’s key partner.

At the same time, especially with the exact route of the New Silk Road still undefined, this framework does not offer many incentives for furthering existing regional networks, such as the Western Balkans. Having this context in mind, announcing the said cooperation initiative and doing so in Serbia shows a clear and astute strategy that might tip the scales in Japan’s favor. Partnering with Belgrade is a clear signal to the region that socio-economic cooperation does not have to be held hostage to disagreements in the domain of foreign policy. Moreover, offering collaboration with seemingly no political strings attached is a refreshing change for the perpetually balancing countries. Finally, using the term “Western Balkans” by a country that has historically had little to no impact on the conflicts in the region might help improve the connotations associated with the term and at the same time regain its geographic meaning, in contrast to the way it is now most often used to denote non-EU Balkan countries.

If Tokyo’s Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative is purely an attempt to compete with Beijing on the global stage, it might prove to be an effective one, but perhaps in surprising ways. In an interview given in Belgrade, Prime Minister Abe stated that he does “not view diplomacy from the standpoint of two dots in a bilateral relationship,” echoing his known strategy to try and proactively improve relations by rather “taking a bird’s-eye view of the globe.” More than being the mark of a new battle between Japan and China, this visit can show a path for waging “wars” that can be productive rather than destructive. In a time of escalating threats and military proliferation, a focus on battles for greater success in the domains of economy or even soft power is more than welcome.

With extensive preparation shaping a tailored approach for issue-based cooperation, Japan’s strategy can be a model for nurturing bilateral and multilateral partnership with and within the Western Balkans region. Taking a long-term view and putting political differences aside with clear purpose might be the ultimate way to ensure sustainable stability.

Jelena Gledic is a specially appointed associate professor at Osaka University and a senior instructor at the University of Belgrade.

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