By Yoshihide Soeya*
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Japan have come to share strategic objectives in Asia and across the world. They have repeatedly stressed the importance of global cooperation, peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific, East Asian security and the defence of the Senkaku Islands, among other things.
The summit on 16 April between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has made the bilateral bond even more comprehensive. The two leaders launched a new Competitiveness and Resilience Partnership covering global challenges such as the COVID-19 response and climate change. The partnership also emphasises competitiveness and innovation, aiming to ‘generate economic growth guided by open and democratic principles’.
The two leaders recognise economic competitiveness as a critical element in their joint efforts to confront China. Economics and traditional security have thus become inseparable in US–Japan strategic cooperation. After all, the most conspicuous feature of the summit was the convergence of strategies for dealing with the challenges posed by China.
The joint leaders’ statement included a reference to ‘the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’. The Japanese side was reportedly reluctant to mention ‘Taiwan’, but their eventual agreement led to the first reference to the island in summit documents since US–China rapprochement and Japan–China diplomatic normalisation in the early 1970s.
Suga also committed to bolstering Japan’s ‘national defence capabilities to further strengthen the Alliance and regional security’. In recent years, US defence planners have raised concerns over China’s ‘anti-access/area denial’ (A2/AD) capabilities, particularly in a military contingency scenario involving Taiwan.
Having overcome the history of a ‘hundred years of national humiliation’, Chinese leaders dream of building a strong and united nation at the centre of an Asian order. China sees recovering the ‘lost territory’ of Taiwan as key to fulfilling this ambition. If this idea, somewhat reminiscent of traditional Sino-centrism, is the motive for Chinese assertiveness, it is unclear how long military deterrence will remain effective.
Japanese leaders often justify integrating their defence efforts with the US military in the name of deterrence. At the centre of their calculations is the defence of the Senkaku Islands, but for China these islands may be part of a broader Taiwan strategy. Japan’s goals should extend beyond the US commitment to defending the Senkakus, the main obsession of Japanese leaders which was reiterated once again at the summit.
Similar incompleteness can be seen in the Japanese approach to the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) concept. Upon Biden’s victory in the US presidential election, Japan sought his administration’s endorsement of the concept and began drawing the United States further into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with Australia and India. The Joint Leaders’ Statement said: ‘Together, we will continue to work … through the Quad, which has never been stronger, to build the free, open, accessible, diverse, and thriving Indo-Pacific we all seek’. The terms ‘free and open’ are intended to be core elements of Japan’s China strategy.
The statement also said: ‘We support ASEAN’s unity and centrality in the Indo-Pacific, as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’. At the press conference, Prime Minister Suga referred to ASEAN, Australia and India, in that order, as partners of Japan and the United States, without mentioning the Quad. In fact, ASEAN members are allergic to the notions ‘free and open’ because they divide rather than unite the grouping. The ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’, adopted in June 2019, instead emphasises ‘inclusiveness’ of the Indo-Pacific, which implies that China is not excluded.
There is a similar tendency in the diplomatic outlook of Australia and India. The Japanese government should realise that too much emphasis on ‘free and open’ and the over-presence of the United States and Japan in FOIP will weaken the solidarity of the Indo-Pacific nations. This means that the United States and Japan are left with the task of redefining and redesigning the Indo-Pacific strategy. This undertaking is most critical because of the possible danger of relying on the principle of deterrence to bolster Japan’s defence efforts and US–Japan joint military planning.
The United States and China appear to be treading a path that leads towards strategic clash, with the United States attempting to deter Chinese aggression. China seems determined to avenge its history of national humiliation. For the ‘squeezed middle’, their common objective should be to avoid a clash between the two superpowers. This should inform Japan’s efforts to consolidate effective cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
*About the author: Yoshihide Soeya is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Relations at the Faculty of Law, Keio University.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum