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Expert: Japan should join forces with U.S. to counter China

  • August 10, 2018
  • , Mainichi , p. 5
  • JMH Translation
  • ,

By Ken Jinbo, a professor at Keio University


The key to a “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy,” which Japan and the U.S. are jointly striving to achieve, lies in whether it can establish the pursuit of a free and open regional order and rule of law as a standard. But India and Australia, which Japan sees as partners, have different strategic visions. With China and India improving their bilateral ties, the four-nation collaboration among Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India is losing momentum. Japan is facing difficulty in sharing common trade strategies with the U.S. due to Washington’s “America first” approach. To counter China’s growing influence, Japan needs to step up its efforts to give concrete shape to the Indo-Pacific strategy.


The first Abe cabinet proposed an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” vision, which put emphasis on the values of democratization and other principles. But it was hard for countries in the region to embrace this idea, as they were reluctant to confront China on the political front. Meanwhile, the Indo-Pacific strategy is aimed at promoting economic connectivity in a more prudent fashion and helping the region build quality infrastructure, achieve sustainable growth, and conserve the environment to keep China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative in check.


China’s investment approach is rather loose, as the country spends huge amounts of money to meet the region’s developmental demand. It is rumored that it sets “debt traps.” When Sri Lanka failed to honor its debts to China, it ended up selling its stake in a port, for example. Which economic aid program is more suitable for supporting emerging economies’ sustainable growth? Japan is competing against China in establishing its “Indo-Pacific” initiative as a standard. That embodies the essence of the Indo-Pacific strategy.


But China is way ahead in terms of infrastructure projects. It spares no expense in the construction of roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure that will be of great use to it. In Southeast Asia, China’s e-commerce operators, such as Alibaba, are broadening their footprints. They are not only using information they have collected by doing business there to gauge consumer trends, but they may also be tapping into information that can influence political choice and may take advantage of social vulnerabilities there.


Japan, on the other hand, has been producing results in the field of national security by helping coastal nations build up their maritime surveillance capabilities. However, it has not been facilitating sufficient economic collaboration. In July, the U.S. announced the establishment of a 113-million-dollar fund (about 12.5 billion yen) to extend aid for infrastructure building, but the program is not substantial in terms of quality and quantity.


To begin with, Japan should help the U.S. establish a stable presence in the Indo-Pacific region. It can propose that Japan oversee the western part of the Pacific Ocean with Australia taking responsibility of areas covering the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca and India being in charge of the Indian Ocean and that they work closely with the U.S. in their assigned areas. It would be also effective for Japan and the U.S. to offer counterproposals to projects that run the risk of falling into China’s debt trap.


Japan also needs to coordinate with the U.S. on trade strategies. Japan is pursuing “rules-based free trade,” but it doesn’t seem to be on the same page as the Trump administration. It is also important for Japan to prevent India from getting too close to China by making use of its close ties with India.

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