The Korea Herald


[Hwang’s China and the World] Japan’s China policy, between firmness and flexibility

By Choi He-suk

Published : July 4, 2022 - 10:49

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Professor Mie Oba from the Faculty of Law at Kanagawa University Professor Mie Oba from the Faculty of Law at Kanagawa University
Research Fellow Zhang Yong from the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Research Fellow Zhang Yong from the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)
Professor Madoka Fukuda from the Department of Global Politics at Hosei University Professor Madoka Fukuda from the Department of Global Politics at Hosei University

Since China overtook Japan in terms of economy in 2010, Japan‘s vigilance and checks against China have been visibly rising. Mostly, the two countries have a wide gap regarding issues surrounding the East China Sea, South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. The Russia-Ukraine war re-emphasizes the importance of traditional Japanese geopolitics. In addition, technological competition -- the core of supply chain and future hegemony -- intensifies Japan’s foreign and security policies and strengthens its alliance with the US. As seen in US President Joe Biden‘s attendance at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit in Japan in May, Japan is generally observed to continue playing its role as the first pillar of the US’s Asian alliance and to stand at the forefront in containing China. However, Japanese diplomacy will not be unconditionally tough. Though Japan first conceived and contributed to developing the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, it replaced the sensitive and misleading strategy’s name with “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” or FOIP, demonstrating flexibility.

Considering international relations, economy and security, China is never a country that Japan can be unconditionally hostile to. They cannot move away from each other, and have to cooperate. This week’s discussion invites two experts from Japan and one from China to help make sense of Japan and China’s complicated thoughts and realities. Here we have Research Fellow Zhang Yong from the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, professor Mie Oba from the Faculty of Law at Kanagawa University, and professor Madoka Fukuda from the Department of Global Politics at Hosei University.

Hwang: How do you see Japan’s diplomacy under the Kishida administration?

Jang: First of all, I can say that Japan is maintaining the previous Abe administration’s diplomatic route, even after Prime Minister Kishida came to power. From Japan’s point of view, the current international order is in a period of change in which the “rules-based international order” has undergone drastic changes and is facing serious challenges. Under this upheaval of international order, Japan continues to advocate stability, prosperity and values. It actively supports the establishment of peace under US control, strengthening the dollar as the key currency, maintaining a free trade system under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization, the ripple expansion of the liberal democratic governance model, and the revitalization of the market economy. These international principles and norms of the international community have become the most basic principles pursued by Japanese diplomacy. In other words, I would like to say once again that Japanese diplomacy values “rules-based international order.”

Hwang: Please elaborate on Japan’s diplomacy under rules-based international order.

Jang: I would say there are three particular reasons why Japan chose rules-based diplomacy. Rules-based diplomacy can avoid uncertainty in this period of changing international order and can compensate for weakening hard power. On top of that, Japan has the will and capability to expand its rules-based diplomacy. Specifically, Japan‘s rules-based diplomacy only partially mitigates uncertainty. It emphasizes partnership as diplomacy that can explicitly respond to crises, and seeks to decide parties’ behaviors through rules and clear provisions. In addition, Japan’s rules-based diplomacy is always related to consultations and discussions on multilateralism. By spreading rules under multilateralism, a “quasi-alignment” can be formed to deter common threats.

Hwang: What effort is Japan making for its rules-based diplomacy?

Jang: There can be two approaches that I can think of. The first is to expand rules-based diplomacy through internal supports, primarily to enlarge the perspective of multilateral free trade and market economic factors. The second is to limit exclusive rules and to diversify bilateral issues through the liberal democratic governance model and a hub-and-spoke structure. This is evident on multilateral platforms such as the Quad and FOIP. Japan continues its efforts to export and guide rules at the regional and global levels through these approaches.

Hwang: What does President Biden’s trip to East Asia mean to Japan?

Chang: As imbalance is growing and an exclusive international order is dominant in terms of security, President Biden‘s trip to East Asia would have been a great help to implement Japan’s new rules-based diplomacy. I see the US’ summits with Korea and Japan as part of a process to meet the respective countries’ needs, while the US also had its own national interests in mind. In the end, the US, Korea and Japan have made the biggest pledge in terms of cooperation for their national interests. This is especially in the sense that Japan is trying to achieve its strategic aims with support from the US.

Hwang: What are the prospects for Korea-China-Japan cooperation?

Jang: Korea, China and Japan have achieved a lot through cooperation despite the heightened strategic competition between the US and China. I think that the current moment, when the conflict has intensified, can be rather a very historic period for bilateral and trilateral diplomacy between Korea, China and Japan. It can be a very strategic time to strengthen the foundation for cooperation. In this respect, Korea, China, and Japan should look back on history and develop new strategies while looking forward to the future, and build trust in various fields through cooperation between the private and public sectors in traditional and non-traditional security. On that basis, mutual respect is critically needed, and we will have to be wise by putting ourselves in others’ shoes.

Hwang: How is the economic relationship between China and Japan?

Fukuda: Currently, Japan’s dependence on China is quite high. According to the Japan External Trade Organization, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, decline in trade with China has been relatively small. China accounted for the largest share of all Japanese trade in 2020. Also, Japan’s tourism industry has been hit hard, as the number of Chinese tourists has decreased due to the pandemic. As witnessed, the need to maintain friendly relations with China from an economic point of view is very high. However, Japanese awareness of economic security is escalating. As shown in what happened with Japan’s attraction of a TSMC plant to Kumamoto Prefecture to increase domestic semiconductor production, it’s clear that Taiwan and Taiwanese companies have become more important as we are trying to reduce dependence on China since last year. Considering this context, it can be interpreted that the pro-China and pro-Taiwan parties are incompatible, regardless of politics and economics.

Hwang: What do you expect the Kishida government‘s policy toward China to be like in the future?

Fukuda: I think that the Kishida government aims to build “a constructive and stable relationship” with China and to maintain its position to continue talks regarding the situation in Ukraine and security issues in East Asia. In addition, when it comes to the Taiwan issue, there is no particular action that goes beyond expressing an interest in the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, which seems to be drawing a line from Abe’s remarks. However, we still have to take a cautious look at how the different values and potential security confrontations between China and Japan will bring a significant impact on future China-Japan relations, as the gaps have become apparent due to the situation in Ukraine.

Hwang: What is the Japanese government‘s stance on Ukraine?

Fukuda: As the Russian invasion of Ukraine broke out in February this year, the Kishida regime, along with the US and NATO countries, imposed economic sanctions on Russia and implemented support for Ukraine. China basically supports Russia and sees the US as creating a confrontation. In a similar vein, there is a growing sense of crisis in Japan over the Taiwan Strait due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During the recent Japan-China online foreign ministerial meeting, the Kishida government stepped up its call for China to make a responsible response. Beijing has expressed its wariness in the case where Japan‘s cooperation with the US violates China’s national interests, including on the Taiwan issue.

Hwang: Then what could be Japan‘s stance on Taiwan?

Fukuda: As the international political environment changes, the Abe administration was very active in seeking to improve relations with China during its second half, while its policy toward Taiwan was very restrained. Then, as the strategic competition between the US and China intensified, Japan’s position in China-Japan relations changed. After the inauguration of the Kishida administration, Japan‘s policy toward China shifted to take a more active policy stance on Taiwan. However, Japan’s active involvement in Taiwan is a problem that must be analyzed through changes in the international environment or structural factors, which means that there is a limit to seeing it as a difference between the regimes. However, I think that Japan will take a more active approach toward Taiwan when military tensions continue to rise in the Taiwan Strait like how it is going today. But still, when it comes to the stability of the Taiwan Strait, Japan has maintained its official stance to engage through the historical US-Japan alliance, so I would like to express a very cautious stance on this.

Hwang: What are your thoughts on various countries’ current Indo-Pacific strategies?

Mie Oba: From the 2010s to today, the strategic area we call the Indo-Pacific has become increasingly important, and many countries are announcing their strategies for the Indo-Pacific from their respective positions. And the countries at the center of this flow are Quad members. We have made further progress amid the pandemic. In addition to Quad, in September 2021 there was an announcement that a new trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States called Aukus would provide technology for building nuclear submarines to Australia. Then in 2019, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ version of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” or AOIP, was established. The UK, France, Germany, and the European Union are also ready to deepen their involvement in the region with their respective Indo-Pacific strategies and policies.

Hwang: What is the background and nature or character of countries’ Indo-Pacific strategies?

Oba: The establishment of this new strategic regional concept called the Indo-Pacific, and the direct impetus behind the various flows to strengthen ties in this strategic region, must be precisely attributed to growing concerns about China. The increasing need to respond to the growing uncertainty caused by fluctuation of international and regional order is the essential reason why countries around the world are attempting to seek and strengthen their Indo-Pacific strategies or their new links based on it.

Hwang: How much weight do values and norms have in countries’ Indo-Pacific strategies?

Oba: There certainly are confrontations between powers, but there also are conflicts between values. What the FOIP and Quad specifically emphasize are universal values, which are the democracy, rule of law and freedom of navigation and aviation. These are related to the core interests of desirable political systems, values, norms and national sovereignty. China, of course, strongly opposes the moves to increase pressure on China under these values. Moreover, due to influence from the Russia-Ukraine war, which has continued since February until today, the advanced countries and other countries around the world are taking strong measures such as economic sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, as China is attempting to defend Russia, advanced countries are raising their voices to criticize China. As well, some are pointing out the “friendliness” of China and Russia’s political systems. To sum up, the confrontation of values is drawing more attention than before.

Hwang: How would you evaluate the cohesion of Quad countries?

Oba: Above all, it is a fact that globalization of the economy must be dealt with when we discuss this. However, even on top of that, four Quad countries that have agreed to promote FOIP all have various perspectives, including their respective approaches toward their relations with China. There is a tendency to pursue a stable relationship and refrain from excessive provocations. For Australia, economic relations with China are important for the stability and prosperity of its own economy.

Hwang: I would like to ask you about other countries’ stances, besides Quad, toward the Indo-Pacific.

Oba: ASEAN‘s AOIP highlights inclusiveness, including not only the US, Japan, Australia and India, but also China and even Russia. It particularly draws a line distinguishing it from the US-led FOIP in terms of containing China. France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has quite a clear tendency that aims to contain China, but Germany‘s Indo-Pacific Strategy focuses on maintaining a balance by strengthening relations with other Asian countries as well as China, since it has been tightening its relations with China so far. The UK, which also participates in Aukus, shares a consensus on the way it faces China with the US and Australia to some extent. However, as it is geographically located far from the Indo-Pacific, we can say it is understandable for the country to take an ambiguous stance on China.

Hwang: What are the prospects for various countries’ Indo-Pacific strategies?

Oba: While respective countries’ policy directions and desired orders are not necessarily consistent, the Quad and other strategic alliances are striving to strengthen solidarity. The US will advocate for its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and I expect Japan, Korea, Australia, Singapore and Thailand will participate accordingly. Changes in the regional order caused by changes in the balance of power between the US and China led to the formation of a strategic region called the Indo-Pacific, where new cooperation is sought and strengthened. What kind of cooperation will be achieved through this process and cooperation between the countries will eventually affect the further shape of the Indo-Pacific regional order.

Hwang: The underlying competition between the US and China is unlikely to be resolved. What are your thoughts?

Fukuda: It is impossible for Japan to be equidistant between the US and China. It is clear that the US alliance will be more important, and Japan’s options will be limited, as the Biden administration is willing to confront China with its allies. In other words, Japan is expected to ultimately choose to increase its deterrence against China in line with the US and like-minded countries, and will emphasize the importance of “peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait” if necessary, and may further promote cooperation with Taiwan.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.