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“Seiron” column: Strengthen democratic forces to counter China

By Vice Chairman Nishihara Masashi of the Research Institute for Peace and Security


Nishihara Masashi

International relations tilting in favor of Japan, the U.S. and Europe


During the first ten months of the Biden administration, from the viewpoint of international relations, the momentum has clearly been with the U.S. rather than China in the Western Pacific. To the existing Japan-U.S., U.S.-ROK, and U.S.-Philippines alliances, the Biden administration has added a strengthened Japan-U.S.-Australia-India “Quad” and the establishment of “AUKUS” among the Australia-UK-U.S.


In contrast, the only friendly countries in the Western Pacific region where China can expect to receive security assistance are Russia, Cambodia, Laos, and North Korea. The reliability of support from these countries is, however, not high.


Seven out of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have military cooperation agreements with the U.S. Those without such agreements are Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. The seven countries that have military ties with the U.S. also have political and economic ties with China, but they attach importance to their relationship with the U.S. in preparation for the worst-case scenario.


Among them, the Philippines maintains an alliance with the U.S. and hosts visiting U.S. military troops, which are not stationed in the country. Singapore, too, has provided its Changi Naval Base a port of call for U.S. aircraft carriers and is likely to deepen its relationship with AUKUS. In addition, the U.S. Navy is allowed to use the port of Da Nang in Vietnam. In this way, the U.S. is in a position to keep China’s hegemonic moves in the South China Sea in check.


Adding the U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan to this posture, the U.S. is clearly at an advantage over China in power in Asia.


The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was criticized both in the U.S. and elsewhere, but Washington made a wise decision to put the Afghan issue behind and focus on measures against China from a broader point of view.


A New EU-Japan anti-China partnership


Moreover, for Japan, cooperation with Europe, which is wary of China’s moves, is a new phase in the relationship between Japan and the European region. Japan, which has already been promoting military cooperation with France and the UK, received a visit from a German naval vessel in early November. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the German Navy conducted a joint drill.


One reason for the German ship’s visit to Japan was as an expression of the EU’s strong protest against China’s oppression of Uyghurs. In May this year, the European Parliament, the legislative body of the EU, decided to suspend the ratification of an investment agreement with China in protest against the suppression of Uyghurs. In July, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also expressed serious concern about China’s human rights violation directly to Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a teleconference.


Furthermore, the EU is a strong supporter of democracy in Taiwan. In May this year, Lithuania withdrew from the economic cooperation framework consisting of China and 17 central and eastern European countries, and subsequently allowed Taiwan to open a representative office (equivalent to an embassy) in Lithuania in November. The use of the word “Taiwan” as part of the office name is a new development. China fiercely opposed the move, but the U.S. expressed support for Lithuania.


Senate President Milos Vystrcil of the Czech Republic, which has had a good relationship with China, visited Taiwan last year and gave a speech at the Legislative Yuan, saying, “We are Taiwanese citizens (in the sense of believers in democracy).


In this way, China now has a bad reputation in Europe and is even losing to Taiwan in terms of influence. There is a growing tendency in central European countries to favor Taiwan and Japan, which defend democracy in East Asia.


Japan’s Increasing role and Taiwan


The reason why European naval vessels come to Japan for joint exercises with the Maritime Self-Defense Force is probably because European countries recognize that Japan is the key to the Western Pacific and that the Japan-U.S. alliance exists. Each of these European countries seems to be interested in having a voice in security in the Western Pacific region by strengthening their relationship with Japan.


Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo made frequent visits to Europe to raise Japan’s profile. His proactive diplomacy seems to be bearing fruit, and Japan has become an attractive partner for many European countries. In this sense, the role of the new government of Kishida Fumio is important.


Kishida has announced a policy of doubling defense spending. With defense spending at 2% of GDP, it would be in line with standards of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In addition, the Kishida administration is moving away from the traditional strictly defensive posture to enabling Japan to legally possess the capability to attack enemy bases for self-defense. This would allow Japan to respond to attacks by China and North Korea more proactively than in the past and pave the way for Japan to effectively play a regional security role.


At present, the U.S. is Japan’s only ally, but Tokyo should increase military cooperation with the UK, France, Germany and Australia to eventually have such cooperation play the role of a quasi-alliance in the future. That would contribute to keeping China in check.


Taiwan is at the center of the conflict between democracy versus authoritarianism in the Western Pacific region. 


Amidst recent tensions in the Taiwan Strait, China has strongly condemned and threatened Taiwan over its hosting U.S. troops for military training. Taiwan is enduring an intimidating deployment of army, navy, and air assets by China.


According to a Taiwanese public opinion poll, 58% of Taiwanese people said that they expect Japan’s military support in the event of a Taiwan contingency. Also, according to Japanese government officials, the Chinese military plans to occupy the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture during an invasion of Taiwan.


In preparation for various situations that could develop in the future, Japan should continue to strengthen its readiness in three areas: (1) its independent actions, (2) the activation of the Japan-US alliance, and (3) cooperation with major European countries.


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