Japan: Reluctant Asian Counterweight to China

With a power vacuum growing across the Asia Pacific as US President Donald Trump pulls away from the US’s post WWII role as guarantor of security in the region, can Japan replace the United States as the region’s principal counterbalance to China?

In the immediate future, troubles at home and in the North Pacific neighbourhood are likely to take up the major part of Japan’s energies and resources. However, as seen in last year’s deployment of the helicopter carrier JS Izumo, Japan’s biggest ship in the post-World War II era, and its sister ship, the JS Kaga this year to the South China Sea and the wider Indian Ocean region, Tokyo seems to be sending a message that it is a growing part of the Great Game in the Indo-Pacific.

Since Shinzo Abe returned to power for a second term as the Japanese prime minister in December 2012, he has initiated changes in Japan’s internal political landscape, which have in many ways impacted its external stance as well.

Those moves included, in December 2013, the establishment of a National Security Council (NSC) and later that month, approval by the newly-minted NSC of a National Security Strategy. Later, in September 2015, the Japanese Parliament voted to allow the Self Defense Forces (SDF) to fight overseas and come to the aid of allies even when Japan is not directly under threat.

Under Abe, Japan has also enunciated strategies including its “Proactive Contribution to Peace,” its “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” At the same time, Japan has strengthened its partnerships with countries like Australia and India and in November last year, along with India, US and Australia had resuscitated the so-called “Quad” or Quadrilateral Alliance.

In the economic realm, with the US departure from the omnibus 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japan took the lead in chaperoning the process of signing what amounts to a TPP sans US, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), in March. The CPTPP countries together account for more than 13 percent of the global economy.

Japan has also recently concluded a trade deal with the EU, showing its openness to multilateralism and a free-and-open trading system even as the winds of protectionism sweep out of Trump’s United States. The EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement was finalized in December last year and comes against the backdrop of the recent attack by Trump against the EU, in which he termed the EU a foe in economic affairs.

American Reluctance

The US under Trump seems to be growing increasingly averse to continue playing its more than 70-year-old lead role in the Asia-Pacific, now expanded to the Indo-Pacific as India begins to play a larger role. Trump in the meantime has turned to an “America First” strategy. The problems for the US have been exacerbated by the goings-on at home, especially in the light of the dismissal and/resignations of a series of top officials.

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, Trump surprised observers both in Asia and elsewhere by suggesting that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons for defensive purposes and that they should pay more towards the cost of US troops based in those countries.

However, before Tokyo could take over greater responsibilities on the international front, it is important to understand that it has its fair share of worries at home.

First, Abe faces elections for the Presidency of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) later this year. In case he wins the LDP elections (slated for September this year) he may well end up being the longest-serving Japanese Prime Minister ever and keep his date with history.

Second is the issue of amendment of the Japanese Constitution, an Abe preoccupation since he came to power. Although he has been premier since 2012, the issue has always taken a back seat due to a host of factors, both on the domestic and international fronts. Japan’s post-WWII constitution expressly forbids it from developing offensive capabilities. Some countries in Asia vociferously oppose the amendment.

Japan needs China’s help when it comes to the North Korean issue and hence it may not be wise for Abe to annoy Beijing. In fact, Abe may visit China in the later part of this year. In fact, 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

Third, Japan has also faced a series of natural calamities recently, whether it be the Osaka earthquake on June 18, followed by devastating and record-breaking floods in western Japan. After that, a severe heat wave has battered parts of Japan. Meanwhile, recovery efforts from the 2011 Fukushima disaster continue at a cost projected at more than ¥21.5 trillion (US$188 billion), an astonishing figure.

Fourth, the situation on the Korean peninsula hasn’t helped Japan much, as Trump has simply left Tokyo out of the fast-paced developments on the Korean peninsula. It is questionable in fact at the moment whether any nation has profited from the visit. The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met Trump in Singapore and has not agreed to any fixed timeline for denuclearization. He has also not given up the short-and-medium range missiles with which he had threatened Japan and two of which he had sent flying over Japan last year. Kim called the most recent visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “gangsterism” when Pompeo tried to press him on the timeline.

Fifth, under Abe, the Japanese economy has been doing well and unemployment is at a record low. There is no reason for Abe to rock the boat with international adventurism as far as the economy is concerned. In addition, with the Tokyo Olympics 2020 and Paralympics looming large (which will entail significant expenditure), it would be unwise to expend resources outside Japan.

So, although Japan under Abe is seeking an expanded role, it isn’t looking to replace the US, leaving Asia anxiously watching a China under Xi Jinping that continues to fill the vacuum.

Rupakjyoti Borah is with the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. His latest book is The Elephant and the Samurai: He can be reached at rupakj@gmail.com or via Twitter @rupakj