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Foreign Policy

Is Japan Experiencing Buyer’s Remorse Over the US-China Pushback?

Jul 06, 2020

Where is Japan sitting on the confrontation between the US and China? Reports in early June suggested that Tokyo initially abstained from supporting a US-UK-Canada-Australia joint statement on China’s proposed security laws in Hong Kong. Yet, Japanese public opinion and US frustrations convinced Prime Minister Abe of the merits of spearheading a G-7 statement condemning the same legislation.

Given the potential slippery slope of raw US-China great power confrontation – for instance, with a military crescendo in Taiwan – and the downsides to Japan’s economic investments into regional supply chains, specialists have posited that “Japan clearly wants to avoid being entangled in the growing conflict between the US and China”. Bearing in mind Trump’s extortionist and protectionist instincts, a degree of diplomatic hedging is only natural.

In my view, however, Japan’s hedge against the United States is quite blunt. In fact, the Japanese government continues to see China with heightened suspicion and understands a strengthened US-Japan alliance as the key instrument to engage China. Japanese officials reason that a modicum of stability in Sino-Japanese relations rests on the US-China frictions.  According to this logic, Chinese policymakers would seek strategic latitude by mending relations with Japan.

In fact, Japanese advocacy under the Abe administration has been particularly effective in cajoling a US rethink of its China policy − a matter of deep frustration during the Obama years. One notable example of these efforts in recent years is Tokyo’s ability to share its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategic vision with the United States and other likeminded parties. In short, the Japanese government has been sanguine about the US-China confrontation, because it left sufficient space for Japanese initiatives and facilitated a rethink in Chinese policymakers’ attitude towards its neighbour.

The FOIP concept provides a tangible measure of Japan’s successes in sharing the narrative with allies and strategic partners – first and foremost with the United States of America. To be sure, inter-governmental differences in interpretation and geographic scope of FOIP remain, but there is a degree of division of labour. Under the FOIP rubric, Japan largely plays “good cop” by providing economic alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This was quite different from Washington’s more militarized and disruptive “bad cop” approach – one that also aims at the relocation of supply chains away from China, Still, to better confront the China challenge, the evolution from “policy coordination” to “shared policy vision” testifies to Japan’s appetite for growing interoperability with its American ally and other like-minded partners, even in areas beyond traditional security.

Notably, FOIP testifies to Japan’s expanding strategic horizons. Japanese policymakers under the security-conscious and China-wary Abe administration have understood the BRI’s Maritime Silk Road squarely in geopolitical terms. According to this reasoning, China-controlled harbours across the Indian and Pacific Oceans would − slowly but surely − assist the Chinese navy’s military deployment into the Indo-Pacific. On the Eastern front, Japan and like-minded parties are following China’s growing economic and physical presence in the Pacific Islands with apprehension. Interestingly, Japan’s connectivity push extends all the way to East Africa, where Japan intends to pursue a joint maritime capacity building project with the United Kingdom, and possibly with the European Union through the EU-Japan Strategy for Sustainable Connectivity and High-quality Infrastructure.

In fact, the Japanese government is aiming many of its international economic initiatives at China, and there are hints that it might up its game in the coming years. The Abe administration is acting on a clear distinction between win-win Sino-Japanese complementarities and techno-hegemonic risks associated with China’s rise. With regard to the former, the Japanese government would welcome and push for summit diplomacy with the Chinese leadership; a strategy that would also improve its national appeal among Chinese public opinion and enhance Japan’s market access to China. With 9.6 million Chinese tourists visiting Japan in 2019, keeping opinion positive is important to ensure that they keep travelling to the archipelago. It is also important for Japanese automakers, who prefer to take advantage of the rich Chinese automotive market by setting up shop there, including by building advanced electric car factories. Even the COVID-19 crisis is unlikely to substantially alter Japan’s enmeshment in the regional supply networks.

On the other hand, Tokyo is roughly on the same page with its American ally in recognizing the nature of the Chinese technological challenge. Tokyo is growingly aware of the “dual-use” risks of new technologies, especially under China’s “military-civil fusion” path to technological innovation. Moreover, Japanese government officials acknowledge the strong competitive elements behind China’s technological superiority in the Internet of Things, robot technology, Artificial Intelligence, quantum technology and the like. The Japanese government too is particularly concerned with China’s dominant position in the telecommunications industry, as evidenced by Huawei’s advances in 5G technology and its forays in submarine cables. As a consequence, Tokyo has been quietly lining up with Washington’s decision to embargo, weaken and offer alternatives to the Chinese ICT industry, for both security and economic reasons.

In sum, Japan is clearly not going to follow through more strident (and unlikely) calls for a US-China economic decoupling. This does not mean that Tokyo is properly hedging amidst US-China confrontation, however. Japan aims at benefitting from a degree of US-China confrontation, because it allows Tokyo to negotiate the terms of a timid China-Japan stabilization of relations from a position of strength. Moreover, Tokyo is roughly on the same page with the US, Indo-Pacific partners and (to a certain extent) European players when it comes to providing connectivity alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative, and when it comes to protect its own technological powerbase and avoid China’s dominant position in key technological sectors like 5G. All in all, absent major US-China tensions in Japan’s close proximity (such as Taiwan), Japan is still welcoming of the Trump administration’s China pushback.

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