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Foreign Policy

Could China Become Japan’s New Ally?

Jun 26, 2019
  • Charles Street

    Master’s degree candidate, Sciences Po and Peking University

Over 70 years ago, Japan surrendered to the United States and a hard-fought war between the two countries came to an end. Formerly sworn enemies, Japan had to accept American occupation including imposing major changes to its government such as a new constitution, which forbade Japan from having a military and thus made Japan dependent on the US for a large part of its defense. Ever since, the two countries have forged an alliance unparalleled in the international arena, which remains a crucial component of both countries’ foreign policies.

Today, although Japan has a substantial self-defense force which provides most of the country’s security needs, American military bases remain scattered around the Japanese archipelago. However, following the 2008 financial crisis, the US has been increasingly unable to maintain its military commitments to Asia. While the Obama administration attempted to reverse this trend while focusing their foreign policy on a “pivot towards Asia,” the most promising aspects of this policy have since been abandoned. The US had been in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement among 12 countries encompassing the Pacific rim, since 2010 and was slated to approve it shortly after the last presidential elections in 2016.

In spite of this longstanding commitment, the foundations of this relationship are increasingly showing signs of cracking. Could the weight of the Trump Administration’s aggressive re-negotiation of the terms of trade finally push Japan to find a new ally?

Upon taking power, the Trump Administration quickly decided to reverse course from the established precedent and abandoned the TPP, and the potential for closer US economic ties to Asia vanished in an instant. Ever since President Trump came to office, the US has focused its foreign policy on trade imbalances and fighting a trade war with China.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has attempted to curry the favor of the new administration in order to maintain the countries’ close ties and the critical US commitments to Japan’s defense. Despite continued overtures to their longtime ally, Japan is moving in a new direction with their foreign policy. In 2014, Abe’s government voted to reinterpret Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which forbids the country from having a military, to expand the scope of the self-defense forces.

After the US withdrew from TPP negotiations, Japan managed to salvage the deal with eleven other nations joining the now renamed CPTPP. Quickly after, Japan also inked a free trade agreement with the EU. As their longtime partner becomes unpredictable and increasingly unreliable, Japan can no longer rely on the status quo for its security and trade needs.

In tandem with the US’ gradual retreat from Asia, China has transformed into an economic superpower and, increasingly, a political one. As China has become wealthy, the once isolated nation has made inroads into the sphere of diplomacy with ambitious large-scale projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), improving China’s soft power abroad.

China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy nearly a decade ago and has become its biggest trading partner (closely followed by the US). As Japan’s economy grapples with a shrinking population, Japanese companies have looked to China for new opportunities for growth. This economic dependence became apparent in the aftermath of the 2012 Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute, where a Japanese government decision to nationalize the territory was met with large-scale anti-Japanese protests in China and a boycott of Japanese goods. For nearly a year following, imports of Japanese consumer goods such as electronics and automobiles dropped by nearly half.

This episode forced Japan to accept China’s newfound economic might. Smaller spats have erupted from time to time due to controversial moves by Japanese politicians, such as approving the publication of school textbooks minimizing war crimes committed by Japan in China during World War II. Despite the pitfalls of upsetting China, Japanese companies have continued to invest in China, and diplomatic ties between the two countries are finally beginning to warm after years of notorious rocky relations. Ahead of the next G20 summit, which is scheduled to take place in Osaka at the end of this month, efforts to improve relations between the two nations are ramping up.

In the lead-up to the anticipated meeting, Prime Minister Abe has evoked “a new era of Japan-China relations.” In light of these encouraging statements, how close is Japan willing to get to China? Following the historical parallel of the US and Japan shifting from enemies to partners, could China one day replace the US and Japan’s main ally?

Japan today finds itself dependent on these two superpowers: the US for its defense and China economically. Japan has no motive to abandon the US alliance any time soon, but also has strong incentives to improve ties with China.

If we look at the foreign policy decisions made by Japan over the past decade, we can observe a strategy to “hedge” the two superpowers and diversify its foreign and economic policies. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “quad”, is an attempt to unify Australia, India, Japan, and the US around common defense concerns and shared democratic values. Japan has engaged bi-laterally and multi-laterally with ASEAN countries to promote regional unity and has increased its investments in Southeast Asia. They have also signed strategic partnerships and conducted joint military exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines.

Collaboration in space exploration and economic ventures with India suggest the desire to cultivate a new partner that may become a counter-weight to China. Once referred to as an “economic giant and political dwarf”, Japan has thus far played its cards carefully to remain influential in Asia without being dominated by one single superpower.

As the US-Japan alliance weakens, China is starting to face similar demographic issues to Japan. In the face of diminished prospects for growth, how much sense does it make for Japan to keep up this balancing act? Certainly, significant obstacles to a rapprochement remain. Japanese fear of Chinese domination and Chinese resentment for Japan’s insufficient atonement for its wartime sins are serious trust issues that cannot be resolved overnight. But if the two countries can overcome their differences, perhaps they can work together to find solutions to their shared problems. With talk of a renewed focus on improving relations, could Japan have finally had this realization?

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