U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III meets with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi at Japan's Ministry of Defense, Tokyo. March 16, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III meets with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi at Japan's Ministry of Defense, Tokyo. March 16, 2021.

Hurdles Ahead for Japan’s Search for Allies

Political strife within Japanese domestic politics can destabilize the country and prevent Japan's role as a bridge-builder with the United States.
Political strife within Japanese domestic politics can destabilize the country and prevent Japan's role as a bridge-builder with the United States.

Political strife within Japanese domestic politics can destabilize the country and prevent Japan's role as a bridge-builder with the United States.

After playing a key role in ensuring regional stability for four years, Japan emerged not only as a reliable US ally in the Indo-Pacific, but also as a country that would play an important role in shaping the future of US relations with other countries. in the region, especially with China.

This is clearly the message heard in Tokyo, and Japan is keen to step onto the plate as it welcomes the return of the United States, demonstrating its willingness to prioritize working with allies and facing Chinese aggressors.

The challenge, however, will be to map a common stance with China on the economic front and to ensure that Japan remains politically stable within the country.

Much has been done about the importance of Japan being the first foreign country visited by both Foreign and Defense Ministers as recently appointed cabinet members of the Biden administration.

Undoubtedly, symbolism is important in public diplomacy, and the fact that both Anthony Blinken and Lloyd Austin chose Tokyo as their first stop on their Asian tour clarified Washington’s commitment to boosting relations with Japan as much as the Biden White House’s focus on the Indo-Pacific. .

Moreover, the fact that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will be the first foreign leader to visit President Biden at the White House in April will strengthen the understanding that Tokyo remains Washington’s most trusted ally in the Indo-Pacific.

What turns out is that Japan will not only remain an anchor of US presence in the region, but will also play an important role in defining diplomatic and security as well as economic relations in the forward-looking Indo-Pacific.

Japan’s leadership in shaping economic multilateralism in recent years has been particularly notable on the trade front; Tokyo has been an integral part of the RCEP agreement while advancing the completion of the CPTPP in the absence of the US. .

The United States will not be able to join the CPTPP and will not be a party to the RCEP anytime soon for local reasons. It will rely more on Tokyo to reflect Washington’s concerns and will definitely need Japan’s support to set the regional agenda on critical issues, including digital commerce.

This represents a remarkable evolution of Japan’s global trade norms from being slapped as a rule breaker to becoming a rule follower and now growing into a firmly prescriptive role.

China is now Japan's biggest trading partner … At the same time, the biggest security threat comes from China.

But it will be confronting the Chinese problem, where the US will not only need Japan’s cooperation but also guidance. Like all Asian countries, China is now Japan’s largest trading partner, not the United States.

At the same time, the biggest security threat comes from China. Increasing their presence around the Senkaku islands shook Tokyo since they revised the coast guard law in February that would allow Chinese ships to forcibly lift foreign ships if they are found to enter Chinese waters illegally.

There is also an increasingly rigid Chinese approach to what he describes as core interests, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as Xinjiang and Tibet.

Yet Japan has faced Chinese aggression over the years, particularly through regional disputes. His experience and strategy in balancing economic interests and security concerns against China will be of strategic importance for the United States.

While Prime Minister Suga’s visit to Washington in April will be a diplomatic blow for Tokyo and is undoubtedly an opportunity to demonstrate the strong partnership between Japan and the US, differences in approach to economic strategy against China are likely to occur.

Of course, the two sides will focus on collaborating on fundamental issues related to economic security, particularly to establish supply chains that are less dependent on China. Still, concerns are growing in Tokyo about potential conflicts over economic interests between the two sides, not least the differences in balancing competition and cooperation with China.

Tokyo’s efforts to separate economic interests from security issues with China will reverberate in countries in the Indo-Pacific as well as in Europe.

But as Japan tries to play a larger role as a regional stabilizer, it will face difficulties domestically. While Suga faces the prospect of a general election until September at the latest, and his popularity continues to decline, his top-ranked stance remains uncertain.

Political strife within the Japanese leadership and domestic politics can destabilize the country, which in turn may prevent Japan’s role as a bridge builder for the United States.