The Trump administration has gone all-in against China, now qualified as the United States’ most pressing security threat. First of all, the US government has matched words with deeds by increasing freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, expanding the scope of its military signaling, and substantially increasing the defense budget. Secondly, Washington has engaged in a sustained economic offensive against Beijing: beyond the China tariffs, the US government has announced its willingness to provide financing alternatives to developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Thirdly, the executive office has changed the rhetoric against China and, in the process, Congress has followed through: the Congress-led 2019 National Defense Authorization Act and the more recent Asia Reassurance Initiative Act are prime examples of how Trump’s China muscle-flexing has trickled down. All of the above initiatives are part of Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Interestingly, it has been Japan that has cajoled the Trump administration into accepting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, but Tokyo’s foreign policy has traditionally been sympathetic to China and reactive to Washington’s assertive grand strategy.
Following the demise of the Japanese Empire and the end of World War II, Japan relinquished its role as a great power. Under the so-called “Yoshida line” Japan pursued a middle power diplomacy that pursued economic development and, for the remainder of the Cold War, deepened its ties with China along with US initiatives, with an eye on Soviet containment. Japanese policymakers consciously prioritized economic development and relinquished a higher political profile. During this period Japan did not pursue a strategy towards China. Instead, it engaged its neighbor by default. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the US expected Japan to increase its security profile in relationship and deepen the alliance in the face of North Korean missile tests and nuclear breakout and tense Cross-Straits relations. On the contrary, Japan feared entrapment in a potential US-China confrontation and preferred not alienating its neighbor. Japan’s moderate foreign policy line continued until the early 2000s, when the economic divide between Japan and China was still relatively big to allow a degree of Japanese complacency on its leadership role in Asia. In 2000 the Chinese economy was one quarter of the Japanese one and the economies of China, South Korea, Taiwan, ASEAN-5, Vietnam and India combined accounted for 70% of Japan’s GDP in the same year. These numbers, along with the US unmatched security projection in the region, allowed Japan to play good cop to America’s bad cop vis-à-vis China.
In my research I have demonstrated how the US and Japan swapped roles already in the mid-2000s. From the first administration, Abe’s foreign policy team has consistently pushed for a policy that balanced against a resurgent and potentially aggressive China, but also one that maximized Japan’s leverage at the Japan-China negotiation table. The same hand-picked Japanese strategists would push for a similar China strategy during the second Abe administration. They would prompt a return of the 2007 quadrilateral defense consultative dialogue between Japan, India, the United States and Australia and, as mentioned in an earlier instalment, they would rebrand the 2006-07 Arc of Freedom and Prosperity as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. In the aftermath of the post-2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu Island standoff, the most serious crisis in bilateral relations since 1972, the second Abe administration’s calls for a return to big stick diplomacy fell into deaf ears during most of the Obama administration, which was mostly concerned with domestic politics and the after-shocks of the worst financial crisis to hit the United States following the Great Depression. Moreover, according to presenters at a recent conference in Washington DC, Obama was really a “post-modern president” who was mostly concerned with transnational security issues, such as climate change, global pandemics, and nuclear non-proliferation. To be sure the Obama administration declared a “US Pivot to Asia”, but much of this initiative amounted to rhetorical statements amidst military budget cuts, and persistent involvement in fight against radical Islamic terrorism.
Trump’s advent ushered in a return to great power politics, with China as the main target. This was evident from its early Asia foreign policy manifesto: in open opposition to Obama’s approach, Trump would have brought “peace through strength.” Early reference to the joint Indo-Pacific strategy can be seen through the joint statement of the August 2017 US-Japan 2+2 Security Consultative Committee, suggesting Japan’s leadership (and, at last, strategic) role in the background. The December 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy followed through. Now that Abe’s new grand strategic vision is co-owned by the US, Australia, India and –potentially—other like-minded countries, Abe’s China policy rests on more solid grounds. In fact, Japanese policymakers have acted on the well-grounded conviction that China respects strength and they have welcomed the US return to playing its “bad cop” role. Interestingly, Obama’s former National Security Council advisor for China and Asia, Evan Medeiros, has acknowledged the effectiveness of Trump’s more competitive initiatives as a tool to tame China.
Thus, if Obama’s approach to foreign and security policy was post-modern, Trump’s foreign and security policy is essentially modern. The problem, however, is that Trump’s approach risks being 19th Century modern, in terms of both content and method. The Trump administration’s economic offensive towards China is a perfect example of the risks associated with the US unilateralism and protectionism. Firstly, the United States has gone beyond reasonable economic countermeasures –such as domestic financial screening mechanisms – to bully China into trade concessions through trade tariffs. This tactical economic offensive may well affect Japan. If the US-China trade and investment deal with Trump will be mostly about preferential trade concessions, this will hurt competing economies, such as Japan’s. If no deal will be reached, the Japanese economy will suffer because of its integration with China. Secondly, the US is pressuring allies with red lines over the rollout of expensive 5G networks, but the implications transcend the potential security risks associated with China. At the strategic level, the US is also targeting China’s economic catch-up and will soon further restrict high-tech exports to the mainland to slow down China’s advance. Products with a high percentage of Chinese components may well be embargoed by the US for the above strategic or tactical reasons and, in both cases, Japan’s prosperity will be negatively affected. Japan will have to tread carefully and reign in the most confrontational impulses of the Trump administration: for wanting of a bad cop, it might have gotten a mad cop.