By Professor Emeritus James Auer, Vanderbilt University
I believe that many Japanese and Americans regard North Korea’s nuclear arms and missiles as the most urgent and apparent threat. However, China is the more serious mid- and long-term concern, so Japan and the U.S. must execute a careful deterrence strategy.
While the origin of the term “Indo-Pacific” is unclear, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued for the importance of a strategic diamond consisting of Japan, India, Australia and the U.S. in 2007. Abe’s concept has gained increasing vitality after President Donald Trump and other leaders commented on it.
Japan and the U.S. are united in their demand for North Korea’s denuclearization. Both Abe and Trump understand the tragic consequences that would ensue if military action has to be taken against North Korea.
Abe also knows that Trump needs to take all necessary measures for North Korea’s denuclearization before it is able to develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs.
They are in agreement that unless China imposes stronger sanctions, North Korea will be able to survive. Even if China shrinks from implementing harsher sanctions for its own reasons, Japan and the U.S. must persuade China in an effective way to apply stronger pressure on the DPRK in exchange for averting a war with it.
Meanwhile, a more difficult question is how to deal with a China attempting to control the East and South China Seas and expand its hegemony to South Asia and the Indian Ocean. While Japan and the U.S. would like to restrain China’s illegal intrusions, they have yet to come up with a clear strategy.
As in the case of dealing with North Korea, the U.S. possesses much stronger military power than Japan in dealing with the People’s Liberation Army. Japan should express its views boldly and openly to persuade the U.S. to reinforce its naval power, while also committing to making greater efforts to enhance its own defense capabilities.
With Japan and the U.S. making military efforts, it will be possible to counter China’s propaganda that “it is a country with a great future that will surpass Japan and the U.S.” Such actions will also be welcome by the ASEAN states and India.
While President Barack Obama supported the TPP, he did not promote the TPP framework with the same level of enthusiasm as Abe, who is now making desperate efforts for the continuation of this framework after the U.S.’s withdrawal. If he succeeds, this will also serve to prod the U.S. (to participate) eventually.
I honestly do not think that Abe believes that a formal quadrilateral cooperation framework (consisting of Japan, the U.S, Australia, and India) or an Indo-Pacific alliance can be formed immediately. The four nations in this strategic diamond also need to have friendly relations with China. President Xi Jinping also needs to maintain order within China’s borders as he faces serious economic and demographic challenges.
I believe a strategy to develop a free and open Indo-Pacific will have the strong support of the governments and people of Japan, the U.S., Australia, India, and the ASEAN countries. Abe will emerge as the advocate of this strategy in 2018. (Abridged)