Japan’s delicate geopolitical balancing act just got much tougher

Japan’s delicate geopolitical balancing act just got much tougher

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Japanese legislators applaud newly-elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. (Reuters)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unexpected announcement last month that he was resigning for health reasons has raised many questions about the legacy of the country’s longest-serving premier.
One of them is whether his successor, Yoshihide Suga, will be able to continue Abe’s geopolitical balancing act as tensions between Beijing and Washington continue to escalate dangerously.
The US and China are critical to Japan’s peace and prosperity. America is its security guarantor and second-largest trading partner, while China is its largest trading partner and a next-door neighbor. After Abe returned as prime minister in December 2012, he adroitly managed his nation’s relationships with both.
He went out of his way to befriend US President Donald Trump, even as Trump claimed that US-Japanese trade was “not fair and open” and demanded that Japan quadruple its contribution to the cost of keeping American troops in the country. He further pleased the Trump administration by quietly banning Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from participating in building Japan’s 5G network.
At the same time, Abe also cultivated ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and made a diplomatic ice-breaking trip to Beijing in October 2018 for the first Sino-Japanese summit in seven years. With US-China relations in free fall, Xi seized the olive branch and planned a state visit to Japan for April 2020. It would have been the first by a Chinese leader since 2008 but was postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
However, Suga will find it increasingly difficult to avoid taking sides in the intensifying US-China conflict. In the short term, he will have to make a decision regarding Xi’s postponed state visit. Opposition to it runs high within Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party, owing to the Chinese government’s recent imposition of a harsh national security law in Hong Kong. A made-for-TV state visit to Japan would be a huge win for Xi, who is eager to demonstrate that the Trump administration’s containment of China is failing.
Beijing’s pressure to reschedule the visit will put Suga in a bind. Acceding to China’s wishes would cost him political capital at home, but scrapping the visit would humiliate Xi and hurt Sino-Japanese ties. The only thing Japan’s new prime minister can do is try to find all the excuses he can and continue to postpone the visit for as long as possible.
In any case, tensions regarding a largely symbolic Sino-Japanese summit will pale in comparison with the likely impact on Japan of two looming US-China disputes in the coming years.
First, the US will call on Japan to tighten restrictions on key technologies that it supplies to China. But with more than $38 billion invested directly in the country and nearly 14,000 firms operating there, Japan will find it practically difficult, economically ruinous and diplomatically costly to comply in full with US sanctions.
No one knows how Suga, who was Abe’s Cabinet secretary and closest aide for the past eight years, will be able to please the US on the technology issue without angering China, or vice versa. He will certainly face a much harder task than his predecessor, unless Washington and Beijing somehow de-escalate their conflict.
Suga will also have a far tougher time sitting on the fence when it comes to security issues. As a member of the so-called Quad — an Indo-Pacific security grouping that also includes Australia, India and the US — Japan will face American calls to participate in joint naval exercises more often and on a larger scale, to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Last year, for example, a Japanese aircraft carrier joined US-led naval drills in waters claimed by China.
The Chinese did not react strongly to Japan’s participation, owing to the improving bilateral ties. But it could lash out if the rapprochement initiated by Abe fizzles out and Suga’s administration starts to collaborate with the US more overtly and energetically in disputes over the South China Sea.

No one knows how Suga, who was Abe’s Cabinet secretary and closest aide for the past eight years, will be able to please the US on the technology issue without angering China, or vice versa.

Minxin Pei

One thing that could completely wreck Sino-Japanese ties in the next five-to-seven years would be the deployment of medium-range US missiles on Japanese soil. Pentagon strategists are eager to position powerful offensive weapons closer to the Chinese mainland, and Japan is an ideal location.
The missiles are still in development, so there is no need yet for the US to ask Japan to host them. But once Washington has produced sufficient quantities, it is hard to imagine that it will not press for permission to deploy them. Were Japan to agree, its relationship with China could be faced with the worst crisis since the two countries restored diplomatic ties in 1972.
Of course, none of these troubles are Abe’s or Suga’s fault. But they illustrate, once again, the plight of a country squeezed between two dueling geopolitical giants — and the scale of the diplomatic challenge facing Japan’s new prime minister.

  • Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Copyright: Project Syndicate
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