By Sato Taketsugu
Japan faces a difficult situation on every front, including diplomacy, security, and the economy. The recent Japan-U.S. summit made this apparent once again.
Since the Ukraine crisis broke out, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has accelerated economic sanctions against Russia in coordination with the United States and Europe and worked hard to proactively act as a bridge [between Asia] and the West by visiting India and Southeast Asian countries, which are reluctant to criticize Russia and adopt sanctions. U.S. President Joe Biden gave Kishida high marks for his diplomacy.
That praise, however, is a sign of America’s declining influence in Asia.
The same can also be seen in the launch of the U.S.-led “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF),” which was positioned to be the highlight of the summit.
Even U.S. experts have pointed out that it is unclear what benefits the IPEF offers participating countries because the new initiative does not involve market opening. Pressured by the U.S. public’s demand that domestic industry be protected, the Biden administration is prioritizing “domestic circumstances” and so will not be able to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The IPEF is nothing more than a “desperate measure” intended to simply demonstrate the U.S. desires to be involved in Asia.
At the same time, China continues to build up its military, and Japan and the United States face the key issue of how to prevent that nation from committing like Russia the reckless act of “changing the status quo by force” as a nuclear power.
Japan needs to handle this in a realistic manner by strengthening its deterrence within certain limits.
Some in the United States used to be wary about Japan’s possession of enemy base attack capabilities, saying it would destabilize the Asian region. At the summit, however, the U.S. side welcomed Japan’s considering such capabilities. Top U.S. government officials have also said that it would be desirable for Japan’s defense spending to be “2% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP),” a percentage on a par with that of [members of] the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
However, Japan and the United States should not take advantage of the Ukraine crisis to railroad such defense policies through the Diet or move things forward using the “outside pressure” of the international situation.
Russia has a powerful military and yet it has been mired in a bitter struggle in its invasion of Ukraine. Why is that? According to U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, it is because “the unity (of Japan, the United States, European nations, and other democracies) has become a strategic strength,” as the level of solidarity has exceeded Russia’s expectations.
This principle can also be applied in deterring China. Unlike Europe, however, the current reality is that the foundations of “unity” in the Indo-Pacific region are shaky. India and Southeast Asia notably moved away from democracy and were split in their handling of the United Nations resolution condemning Russia.
How can such fragile cooperation be strengthened? It will be important both to stabilize supply chains for critical supplies and to create rules for the digital economy. At the same time, countries will be reluctant to join the IPEF if the U.S. intervenes in their economic activities or forces members to coordinate in tightening regulations for its sole advantage. If any divisions are revealed, China will benefit.
Japan will play an increasingly important role in spearheading regional “unity” while on occasion admonishing the United States.