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Seiron column: Take action as part of the “anti-China alliance”

By Matake Kamiya, National Defense Academy professor

 

Thoughts on the Suga-Biden summit

This Japan-U.S. summit meeting gave the impression that the Japan-U.S. alliance is turning into an “anti-China alliance.” This is a desirable change for Japan, albeit one that brings new issues.

 

The global community is said to have entered the era of U.S.-China confrontation. This statement is not exactly true, however. It is not just the U.S. that needs to face China’s provocations. Free and democratic states other than the U.S. are also increasingly concerned that the global order that was the foundation for peace and prosperity in Asia and the world is being shaken by China’s use of authoritarian power to pursue national interests. It is not only the U.S. that is faced with what U.S. President Joe Biden calls a “battle between democracy and autocracy.”

 

The issue is particularly acute for Japan. China’s authoritarian actions threaten the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands and the sea lane through the South China Sea, which is Japan’s lifeline. The Japan-U.S. alliance, redefined after the Cold War, was for a long period a stabilizing mechanism for the Asia-Pacific region, and was not directed at any certain country. A new response is necessary, however, against China’s challenges to the democratic global order—a phenomenon that has become noticeable in recent years.

 

The Japan-U.S. joint statement says that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Biden “shared their concerns over Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order,” confirmed that they “oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” and “reaffirmed [their] strong shared interest in a free and open South China Sea.” This was the first statement in 52 years to mention the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” The statement also mentions the application of Article V of the Japan-U.S. security treaty to the Senkaku Islands and concerns regarding human rights situations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

 

President Biden said in the joint press conference after the meeting that Japan and the U.S. will work together “to take on the challenges from China,” and to “prove that democracies can still compete and win in the 21st century.” It is not that the Japan-U.S. alliance was redefined once again, but that the direction of the “anti-China alliance” has become clearer.

 

Japan’s position grows in importance

The concern that the Biden administration’s China policy will be softer than that of the Trump administration has been completely dispelled. Strong collaboration with the U.S. to counter China will be a big boost for Japan to be able to “say clearly what needs to be said,” in the words of Suga. The Japan-U.S. alliance is not a relationship in which the U.S. assists Japan unilaterally. The U.S. considers Japan to be a reliable ally and asks Japan to take actions in concert with the U.S. on China policy. Responding to this request will be the biggest issue for Japan going forward.

 

It is good for Japan that the U.S. considers Japan to be a reliable ally. The fifth Armitage-Nye report, released in December 2020, called the Japan-U.S. alliance an “equal alliance,” for the first time since the first report came out in 2000. Not only does Japan need the U.S.’s power, but also the U.S. needs Japan’s power to face the challenges posed by China and North Korea.

 

It is no coincidence that Suga was the first foreign leader to have an in-person summit meeting with President Biden. The significance of Japan’s position in U.S. diplomacy is stronger than ever.

 

U.S. expectations for Japan, however, have also grown. Instead of just statements on the alliance’s importance from Japan, the U.S. expects concrete actions. The assessment of the summit depends on the extent to which Japan and the U.S. can collaborate on actions to respond to China’s use of force to change the status quo or threats and coercion against other countries.

 

Change should not be seen as “increased burden”

Collaboration between Japan and the U.S. is necessary in issues other than security in a narrow sense. In the competition with China for the world order, democracy must not lose in the economic and technology sectors.

 

This does not mean that Japan should only take a confrontational stance against China. We should cooperate wherever possible with the world’s second largest nation. The U.S. sent special envoy John Kerry to China at the same time as the Japan-U.S. summit meeting, and the U.S. and China issued a joint statement on climate change. I only want to state that we should not hesitate to speak out against China because of economic benefit and cooperation. While wishing for good relations with China, Japan must be prepared to cooperate with the U.S. to resolutely confront the actions of China, which is disrupting Japan’s national interests and the global order based on the rule of law.

 

Lastly, Japan should not interpret these changes as an “increased burden.” To maintain the global order based on the rule of law and realize a free and open Indo-Pacific, America’s power is essential for Japan. On the other hand, the U.S. needs Japan’s power to win in the competition against China. We must understand that both Japan and the U.S. can use each other in dealing with China.

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