By Taketsugu Sato, senior staff writer
Japan’s policy sways between China and the U.S.
“Japan doesn’t have anything that can be called a diplomatic strategy. Come up with something.” In 2015, a senior administration official at the time instructed the national security secretariat, and as a result, the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” was born.
The new strategy was based on diplomatic principles that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had held.
In 2012 when he returned as prime minister, Abe focused on the “competition” with China.
In a thesis published by an international NPO the day after his comeback, the prime minister presented his view: “If Japan caves, the South China Sea will become a fortress.” He was critical of China and proposed a “strategic diamond” that would consist of Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India to deter China’s advancement.
However, since his 2018 visit to China, Abe’s China policy has shifted from “competition” to “cooperation.” A government official explained there were two reasons for the change. First, China became friendly to Japan in order to weaken Japan-U. S. ties as China’s own relationship with the U.S. deteriorated. Second, around that time, voices grew stronger within the Abe administration that viewed the economic relationship with China more important than security issues.
Meanwhile, the newly inaugurated Trump administration had adopted an extremely hostile attitude toward China. A senior U.S. official complained, “Japan was telling us that the Obama administration’s China policy was too lax. Now it is cozying up to China.”
Now, as the U.S. pursues severe China bashing, the renewed Abe administration policy has placed Japan in a position to give advice to China on behaving responsibly as a member of the global community.
For instance, in 2018, when Japan urged China to maintain transparency as a premise for third market cooperation with Japan, President Xi Jinping responded, “We will observe international rules and respect each country’s domestic laws.” A senior Foreign Ministry official said with pride: “Japan’s ‘sunshine policy’ has made China acknowledge international standards.”
The problem is how to harmonize Japan’s approach towards China, which is a mixture of competition and cooperation, and Japan’s emphasis on the Japan-U.S. Security Alliance. “The Japanese government doesn’t have a united front China policy,” says a government official. In the government, there are advocates of the economic relationship, led by the Economic Ministry, which promotes diplomacy through economic issues. And there are advocates of diplomacy and security, led by the Foreign Ministry, which stresses national security and international norms.
Japan emphasizes the Japan-U.S. Alliance in security issues, while taking a mixed approach of competition and cooperation towards China in the economic arena. In the era of the U.S.-China competition for hegemony, Japan must solve that complex equation and achieve a broad diplomatic vision instead of a quick fix. Otherwise, Japan might end up going back and forth between the U.S. and China without a true goal.
Ken Jimbo, a Keio University professor who is an expert on the U.S. and Chinese strategies, points out, “Japan must resolve intra-government conflicts and establish a national strategy for achieving a better security environment through smart economic engagement.” (Abridged)