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Editorial: Debate over Japan’s role in US-China tensions needed from PM candidates

  • September 12, 2020
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

How will Japan’s next administration steer the country’s diplomacy amid the turbulence presented by worsening relationships with its neighbors, heightened U.S.-China conflict and rocky international cooperation?


Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced in his campaign for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election that he would inherit outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic policies. Suga, the government’s top spokesperson, has for a long time closely observed Abe’s diplomacy while at his side.


But Abe’s diplomatic maneuvers have reached a dead end. He has been fruitless in his attempts to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with no conditions, and in negotiating with Russia to return two of the four islets in the disputed Northern Territories off Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Meanwhile, issues around Hong Kong and tensions in the South China Sea have created additional friction with China. Without rethinking its political strategies, Japan will surely be unable to open paths to solving these issues.


The urgent diplomatic issue that Japan’s next prime minister will face is likely to be the conflict between the U.S and China. In addition to their war over trade and tech hegemony, military tensions are heightening in the South China Sea.


The United States is Japan’s only ally, while China is its largest trade partner. It goes without saying that for Japan, both the U.S. and China are indispensable.


Serious discussion is needed about what roles Japan should play to skillfully manage the Japan-U.S. alliance while stabilizing the Japan-China relationship.


The Abe administration has tried to counter Beijing by strengthening ties with Washington. But in an age where we are witnessing the decline of U.S. dominance and the undeniable rise of China, improving ties with Washington alone is not enough.


The former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, another candidate in the ruling party’s presidential election, once served as defense minister. He has proposed building a military framework to protect Asia, with participation from China. While this will not be easy to accomplish, it can be considered as an idea for how Japan could break away from its U.S.-only commitment.


Ishiba also touched on the need to evaluate the construction process and cost of the relocation plan of a U.S. Marine base in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.


Meanwhile LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, a candidate with experience as foreign minister, has called for the promotion of nuclear disarmament as Washington races to expand its nuclear arms.


It’s likely both candidates are trying to showcase their differences to the Abe government, which has been stubborn about base issues in Okinawa and nuclear arms reduction.


Ignoring voices from within the country and just blindly following its ally the U.S. to curry favor will not benefit Japan’s national interests. It will only lessen the scope for cooperation with China.


Meanwhile, hardly any debate is being had among the candidates over Japan’s policies on China. They should provide their views on what to do about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s postponed state visit to Japan.


There are concerns that “me first” policies will spread around the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic. How do we return to multilateralism? We would like to see the candidates for Japan’s next prime minister debate such a question.

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