Japan’s Quiet Pushback Against China

27 April 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Japan’s understated strategy of pushing back against China’s technological and military plans appears to be accelerating. The question is, will Prime Minister Suga continue the Abe Administration’s expansion of its own military’s remit in doing so?

 

Background

The first foreign leader that US President Joe Biden met in the White House since taking office was Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Addressing the press after their meeting, Mr Biden emphasised the US’s ‘ironclad support for the US-Japanese alliance and for our shared security.’ He also noted the two countries’ commitment ‘to working together to take on the challenges from China, and on issues like the East China Sea, the South China Sea, as well as North Korea to ensure a future of a free and open Indo-Pacific.’ The message being sent to Beijing was blunt: Washington would work with Tokyo to counter Beijing for as long as the latter sought to become the regional hegemon and ignore international law.

That statement and its underlying distrust of China, a sentiment shared by the US and Japan, was no spur-of-the-moment decision; Japan has for several years now worked to balance China in the region and beyond. It was, if anything, the recognition of the US that Japan’s previous Prime Minister, Mr Shinzo Abe, had been correct in his assessment that China would not be changed by increased trade and economic ties. Mr Abe initiated several measures to curb China’s ambition of hegemony. Going by his remarks at the press briefing in Washington, it appears that Mr Suga will, if anything, not only continue those efforts but also expand upon them. The question to be asked is, to what extent?

 

Comment

Recognising that China is a near-peer economic and military rival, the US has sought to create a coalition of like-minded democracies that could, together, balance China’s global aspirations. Despite its growing ties to India, however, New Delhi remains the relative outsider in the Quad grouping, the first outcome of the US’s endeavours towards a regional democratic coalition. India’s own geopolitical ambitions and foreign policy are two of the major stumbling blocks towards even closer ties with the US. Consequently, even as the US seeks to draw India closer, it has enacted measures that have irked New Delhi, such as declaring India a currency manipulator and conducting a Freedom of Navigation Operation within its “excessive” Exclusive Economic Zone, noting in regard to that last that:

India requires prior consent for military exercises or [manoeuvres] in its exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, a claim inconsistent with international law. This freedom of navigation operation … upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims.

It is possible that the two countries will butt heads again over the issue of India’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system, an acquisition that will likely trigger US sanctions against India predicated on its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Australia and Japan, being treaty allies of the US, have stronger ties to the US. While both countries have or, in the case of Australia, had (see here and here, for example) strong commercial links to China, it is Japan that, because of its geographic location, has more reason to fear Beijing’s hegemonic aspirations. Japan has another factor to consider: its decision to renounce military force save in self-defence. Former Prime Minister Abe, therefore, set about re-interpreting Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution in order to allow the Japanese military to enact measures, based on the Meiji Restoration’s policy of fukoku kyohei (“rich country, strong army”), that would allow it to be more than a self-defence force. While illness shortened the time he required to change the national outlook on amending Article 9, he did enact hard measures (also here) designed to balance China. He persuaded Chile, for example, to accept Japan’s offer of an undersea trans-Pacific communications cable connection, thereby dealing China’s Huawei, which had also bid to undertake the project, a severe blow and hindered China’s plans to make Shanghai a connectivity landing point.

President Biden’s assertion during Mr Suga’s visit that the US and Japan would also increase their collaboration on supply chains in fields that include communications technology, semiconductors, artificial intelligence, genomics and quantum computing appears to have begun, with the two countries agreeing to invest US$4.5 billion (approx. $5.8 billion) in sixth generation communication networks in their bid to counter China’s efforts.

Japan is not solely collaborating with the US to balance China, however. Almost simultaneously with the European Union’s criticism of China (also here and here) for upsetting regional peace, Japan announced that its military would host its first war games with the US and France. Ground forces from all three countries will participate in the military exercise to be held in Japan’s south-west just as tensions with China are rising. The islands in Japan’s south-west are closest to Taiwan, which China has threatened with incursions into that island’s territory with fighter and bomber aircraft and naval ships in recent times. As Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi remarked using the now-standard mantra:

France shares the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. By strengthening co-operation between Japan, the United States and France, we’d like to further improve the tactics and skills of the Self-Defence Forces in defending remote island territories.

Japan’s war games can only be seen as a further hardening of the China policy adopted by Mr Abe.

To be clear, China is not helping its own cause. The lack of trust that it has brought about by its actions and notions of superiority have seen it lose infrastructure contracts across Europe, from France and the United Kingdom to Romania, which recently banned China and Huawei from participating in its 5G networks. It is more than likely that many countries that are already suspicious of China’s objectives will recognise the dangers that its new nuclear reactors pose in enlarging its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Prime Minister Suga is not only continuing Mr Abe’s hardline policy on China but expanding it. Just how far he will go in terms of expanding his country’s military remains to be seen. China’s General Secretary Xi will react but will come under increasing pressure as more countries oppose his policies.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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