Author: Hitoshi Tanaka, JCIE
Intensifying US–China rivalry is forcing Japan to reconsider its strategy to secure peace and prosperity in the region. This offers Japan an opportunity to use its diplomatic, economic and security advantages to shape China into a constructive regional stakeholder. But the question is how best to manage US–China rivalry to prevent fatal instability in the region.
Japan has been expanding its security role since the end of the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US–Japan alliance was reaffirmed through the 1996 US–Japan Joint Security Declaration. To support US regional engagement, Japan established new legal frameworks and expanded the roles and missions of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Japan is also expanding its security cooperation with US allies and partners like Australia, India and ASEAN nations.
Japan and the United States have also deepened their cooperation in regional multilateral forums. For Japan, ASEAN+3 was insufficient to mitigate regional uncertainty as Japan and South Korea were the only economically advanced democracies in the grouping. Japan moved to expand participation to the ASEAN+6, and the current ASEAN+8 grouping that includes Australia, New Zealand, India, and the United States and Russia as well as China, Japan and South Korea.
Yet in just over three years, US President Donald Trump has damaged 25 years of progress on regional cooperation. The Trump administration has retreated from multilateralism, undermining the credibility of the United States as a leader. It even withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the United States championed as a pillar of its rebalance to Asia and a mechanism for building a rules-based order.
The Trump administration has also failed to articulate alternative strategies for regional cooperation, undermining US alliance relationships due to Trump’s misunderstanding of the US forward deployment strategy. He considers a US military presence to be a favour to host countries, whereas forward deployment enables the United States to maintain power-projection capabilities and protect its vital interests. Trump’s narrow-minded demands that allies make exorbitant increases in host-nation support payments — and his implicit threats to abandon alliances — are hurting alliance relationships and the long-term influence of the United States in the Asia Pacific.
This makes transforming China into a constructive regional stakeholder even trickier. China is becoming increasingly aggressive and uses government aid programs as a strategic tool, as with the Belt and Road Initiative and its ‘mask diplomacy’. Under President Xi Jinping, China seems to have abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s precept for China to hide its capabilities and bide its time. Xi seems to calculate that economic growth — though without political liberalisation — is essential to maintain the legitimacy of the CCP. He also seeks to prevent any domestic political dissent using coercive measures as well as authoritarian surveillance technology and social control systems.
But with the right strategy, there is an opportunity to forge cooperation with China. When China realises that continued economic advancement is impossible without further cultivating interdependence with the world, it may feel compelled to soften its external posture. The CCP will need to think carefully about whether it can survive the entrenchment of US–China confrontation. Fostering China’s recognition of its need to cooperate with advanced democracies for the sake of its stable economic advancement may be the only strategic pathway to shift China’s attitude and realise regional peace and stability.
But Japan needs a joint strategy with the United States to transform China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is one of the few world leaders who has maintained a good personal relationship with Trump. With Abe’s resignation, his successor must leverage this position, foster US understanding that intensifying rivalry with China risks the US economy and stability in the Asia Pacific, and lay out a strategic map for joint cooperation. This map should include three key elements.
First, Japan and the United States must demand that China respect transparency and the rule of law in Hong Kong, which has existed based on British common law under the ‘one country, two systems’ model. The erosion of transparency and the rule of law risks destroying Hong Kong’s free market system. If China applies the law in Hong Kong in artificial circumstances, international firms will be reticent to keep foreign capital there and use it as a gateway to doing business on the mainland.
Second, Chinese military provocations must be deterred. US–Japan security cooperation must be maintained and strengthened so that the alliance continues to be the central pillar underwriting regional stability. Meanwhile, the United States and Japan should continue to deepen multi-layered security cooperation with other partners, including Australia, India, ASEAN nations and South Korea.
Third, regular participation in regional dialogues by all is essential to return the United States to multilateralism and to positively engage with China. Regional forums are critical to maintain dialogue, prevent misunderstandings, bolster confidence building and deepen cooperation in shared areas of interest. It also cultivates a rules-based order underpinned by a mutually beneficial commitment to shared regional peace and prosperity. The United States and Japan should coordinate their dialogue with China on sensitive issues that multilateral forums might fail to adequately cover in more discreet bilateral and trilateral settings.
Debate in Japan over its approach on China is at a critical juncture. Discussion within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party about when to reschedule Xi’s state visit — postponed from April due to COVID-19 — and arguments by some that it should be cancelled due to the situation in Hong Kong, misses the bigger strategic picture. Now is the time for Japan to develop a new joint strategy with the United States to navigate the deepening uncertainty surrounding a post-COVID-19 regional order. This should focus on ameliorating US–China confrontational postures and recommitting the region to shared peace and prosperity.
Hitoshi Tanaka is Chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd., and a senior fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange. He has previously served as Japan’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs.
This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan’s Choices’, Vol. 12 No. 3.