Japan walks on a tightrope with its China policy

Author: Rumi Aoyama, Waseda University

Over the past decade, Japan has actively promoted cooperation among Quad countries under the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ framework to counter China’s rising influence. It has also played a leading role in promoting high-quality trade rules through concluding the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Japan–EU Economic Partnership Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Importantly, Japan has maintained a delicate balance to ensure security tensions do not hold back economic cooperation.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to the United States in April demonstrated the success of Japan’s balanced diplomacy. Both countries sent strong messages of common values and unified action, addressing ‘the importance of peace and stability’ across the Taiwan Strait. They also highlighted ‘serious concerns’ over human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and emphasised their resolve for the security and openness of 5G networks.

The joint statement also reflected Suga’s intention to promote a peaceful resolution and avoid provoking China blindly, in addition to a firm approach to contingency planning regarding the Taiwan Strait.

The success of Japan’s China policy so far depends largely on two factors: Japan’s prudence in not overly provoking China and China’s tolerance of Japan’s hedging policy. After Suga’s trip, stable relations with China may no longer be a given, as Japan will have to develop concrete policies later in 2021 regarding its commitment to the US economic and security strategy in Asia.

Japan’s economic security policies are already in motion. Tokyo has introduced regulations to phase out Huawei and ZTE products in equipment procurement by government agencies and implemented subsidies to shift manufacturing out of China. Japan and the United States agreed to invest US$4.5 billion in the joint development of 6G telecommunications, with the aim of commercialising it in the 2030s, as well as cooperate in the supply chain for semiconductors and other strategically important products. The Suga administration is also taking a leadership role in facilitating a supply chain between India, Australia and Japan that does not rely on China.

But security cooperation can be much more complicated. Based on Japan’s current security legislation, if an emergency occurs in the Taiwan Strait, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces can provide logistic support or exercise a limited right of collective self-defence before Japanese territory is invaded. Akira Amari, a key figure behind the second Abe administration in charge of economic and trade policy, called for readiness to cooperate with the United States in exercising its right to collective self-defence.

While the Japanese government is still considering possible scenarios, these discussions may spur further debate on the role of Japan as a ‘shield’ and the United States as a ‘spear’ in US–Japan security relations. The possibility of deploying land-based conventional intermediate-range missiles in Japan to complement the US Pacific Deterrence Initiative raises concerns about it being drawn more deeply into tensions between the United States and China.

Japan’s economy is increasingly dependent on China, which is now Japan’s largest export destination, replacing the United States. In fiscal year 2020, China accounted for 22.9 per cent of Japan’s total exports, exceeding 20 per cent for the first time. But with 74 per cent of respondents in a poll conducted by The Nikkei in favour of Japan’s intervention in the Taiwan Strait, the Japanese government is more likely to expand its role in deterring China.

China is now adopting a wait-and-see approach. On the one hand, China is sensitive about cooperation among Quad nations and harshly denounced it as an ‘Asian NATO’. For China, Japan’s commitment to Taiwan and the deployment of missiles are alarming and unacceptable. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned as much to Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi over the phone.

On the other hand, with the hope of driving a wedge between Japan and the United States, China is still refraining from launching a national propaganda campaign against Japan. Most importantly, Japan has a pivotal position in China’s strategy of confrontation with the United States. Just as the United States is pursuing a targeted decoupling strategy, China is determined to establish a self-centred supply chain in Asia and among Belt and Road Initiative…

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