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Opinion: Japan and U.S. need to get serious about tech competition with China

Michael Green and Kurt Tong


Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He was the senior Asia official in the George W. Bush White House. Ambassador Kurt Tong is a former U.S. diplomat and a partner at The Asia Group, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.


Washington has defined China as its pacing threat, posing challenges to U.S. prestige and security across military, economic, diplomatic and technology dimensions.


Yet as the Biden administration girds for responsible competition with China, no partner is more indispensable, capable, or like-minded than Japan. With Prime Minister Fumio Kishida firmly in charge, now is the right time for the U.S. and Japan to accelerate their teamwork on bolstering national security.


Much of the discussion between Tokyo and Washington in the coming months will focus on military budgets and equipment and shared deterrent strategies. Japan has signaled an increased willingness to invest in its own defense and to focus on advanced over-the-horizon capabilities to act in concert with U.S. assets in fending off belligerent territorial threats from China and North Korea.


An equally important and urgent area of concern for Tokyo and Washington, however, is reinforcing our economic security by crafting policies to maintain secure and resilient supply chains, vibrant economies and a technological lead over China that allows for effective national defense.


Distinct from military planning and acquisition, the 21st-century tools of economic security include high-technology export controls, monitoring of investment to prevent technology leakage, bolstering cybersecurity, preventing intellectual property theft and keeping an eye on emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, advanced telecommunications and digital currencies, which can have a major impact on national security.


China also has a large and successful economy with which to attract foreign trade and investment, including from the U.S. and Japan.


Thus, in addition to deciding what not to share with China, democratic nations need to make conscious and well-informed decisions about what they will share with China, for it is not in anyone’s interest to entirely forego the economic benefits of commerce with China. Indeed, attempting to do so could lead to an enervating cold war, sapping global growth and prosperity.


The Biden Administration’s launching of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council was a key first step toward organizing the kind of teamwork that is required for economic security efforts in a trans-Atlantic context.


Japan has signaled that it is ready to work equally closely with Washington to help direct economic security efforts toward the Indo-Pacific, where such work is arguably even more important than in the trans-Atlantic sphere. Kishida has appointed a first-ever Minister of Economic Security to his cabinet and is preparing legislation to strengthen Japan’s legal authority on economic security.


With Kishida looking to visit Washington soon, U.S. and Japanese officials must act fast to organize a suitable system for joint planning on economic security.


During her recent visit to Tokyo, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai agreed to launch a U.S.-Japan Partnership on trade, right after Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Japan’s Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda outlined a Japan-U.S. Commercial and Industrial Partnership.


Gina Raimondo, far left, and Koichi Hagiuda, far right, meet in Tokyo on Nov. 15: Raimondo and Hagiuda outlined a Japan-U.S. Commercial and Industrial Partnership.   © Kyodo

Neither of the new U.S.-Japan programs appears to be squarely focused on near-term economic security challenges, nor are they clearly linked to other aspects of U.S.-Japan security cooperation with China. And neither program addresses Tokyo’s strong desire to work closely with Washington on top-priority economic security matters.


We believe a multiagency effort is needed to achieve the right results. One way to do this would be to set up quarterly sub-cabinet meetings run by the Departments of Commerce and State on the U.S. side, and by METI and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Japan side, with a greater emphasis on frequency than seniority.


A Commerce-State-METI-MOFA setup would possess the scope and experience, and networks inside and outside government to do a good job of orchestrating efforts on economic security. We would further recommend building a tightly focused set of working groups initially focused on several top priority issues: investment restrictions, export controls, semiconductor technologies, the integrity and resilience of priority supply chains, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.


To ensure effectiveness in this effort, it is essential to tap technical expertise and advice that resides in the private sector. In designing shared approaches to export controls, for example, it is very important to understand the subtleties of technologies under consideration, to avoid excessively tight restrictions that would block relatively harmless trade.


Only nongovernment personnel really understand which technologies of the future will have the greatest national security impact. Thus, each of the working groups mentioned above could arrange specific private sector adjuncts to pull in the expertise of business leaders and technologists.


The U.S.-Japan alliance faces truly difficult tests of regional and global leadership in the decades ahead, and China’s competitive challenge to our shared economic security is prominent among those concerns.

The White House would be wise to act quickly to capitalize on the strong current of interest in Tokyo to cooperate on economic security. The next few months present an important opportunity to organize the necessary effort.

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