Japan faces a rapidly changing Indo-Pacific strategic environment

Isa Khan

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When Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s last trip to Washington was announced as his tenure draws to a close, some in the Japanese media ridiculed it as a graduation trip, saying it was “just for making memories,” or asking, “why is he even going in the first place?”

Since the “Quad” summit was successfully held at the White House last week, however, such criticisms have subsided.

In retrospect, Tokyo has witnessed several significant political, economic and military developments over the past month following the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The strategic environment surrounding the Indo-Pacific region seems to have dramatically changed once again.

On Sept. 15, AUKUS, a new trilateral security partnership for the Indo-Pacific between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, was announced. On Sept. 16 and 22, China and Taiwan applied for Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) membership, respectively. And on Sept. 24, the United States hosted the first in-person Quad summit meeting in Washington.

Given such rapidly changing political and military dynamics in the region, even the harshest critics of Suga in Tokyo seem to realize the significance of AUKUS, the CPTPP and the Quad. Editorials in Japan’s major daily newspapers analyzed these developments rather positively.

An editorial from conservative Sankei Shimbun daily, for example, stated, “If China’s behavior does not change, the four countries should further strengthen their check and balance against China.” It also proposed a Quad defense ministers’ meeting and expressed the hope that Suga “will pass on the importance of the Quad to the next prime minister.”

The liberal Asahi Shimbun, on the other hand, was more critical. Its editorial stated: “While strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance and forging alliances with countries that share its values to rein in the rising power of China, Suga has failed to proactively engage in direct dialogue with China or improve relations with South Korea.”

Outside Japan, more questions have been raised about the recent developments.

Does AUKUS help Japan?​

Foreign observers wonder if AUKUS will help Japan to achieve its strategic goals. Some even asked if AUKUS is an awkward development for Japan, as it highlights the nation’s inability to fight alongside the United States. That argument might have had credence back in the 20th century.

In reality, AUKUS does help Japan and Tokyo sees it as a golden opportunity. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said that Japan “welcomes the announcement as an important step for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

As stated in the joint statement on AUKUS, the new security partnership is based on “common tradition as maritime democracies.” Japan, as such a maritime democracy in the region, has all the reason to work and, if necessary, fight under the current Constitution with like-minded allies and friends.

As Australia made a clear choice about China, some may ask if this put more pressure on Japan to make a similar choice. My answer is no. Although Japan as a close neighbor to China maintains economic and trade relations with that country, Tokyo has crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, when it comes to security issues with Beijing.

On AUKUS, an editorial for The Yomiuri, another major daily, asserted that “Japan, too, needs to consider how it can cooperate in areas such as intelligence.” The editorial also hoped that “the prime minister will make efforts to ensure a seamless transition of power so as not to give the impression that Japan is turning inward.”

China, Taiwan CPTPP entry​

If the CPTTP is the graduate school of trade agreements, China is still a high school student at best while Taiwan is a university graduate. Even though Japan treats China and Taiwan equally when it comes to their accession negotiations, the end results may not be the same.

In the case of China, Japan’s Cabinet ministers reportedly expressed cautious views with Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato saying, “We need to determine whether China is really prepared to meet the high level of demands.”

In contrast, Kato welcomed the Taiwanese application and said: “We will take into account the understanding of the Japanese people.”

While noting China’s opposition to Taiwan’s application for membership on the grounds of the “One China” policy, Kato continued that “the TPP agreement stipulates that a new member must be a country or an independent customs territory,” and Taiwan’s accession “is recognized as possible under the agreement.”

What Tokyo must do now is to encourage China to further open its markets and deregulate its economic system so that it can join the CPTTP while convincing the United States to come back to the trade agreement, which was originally supposed to force China to liberalize its economic and trade practices.

Should the Quad be expanded?​

Not in the foreseeable future, at least. South Korea may not wish to join the Quad at present and Vietnam is still a socialist country. Other ASEAN member states may prefer being neutral to taking sides in the deteriorating U.S.-China hegemonic competition.

Although the United Kingdom is a promising candidate in the future, Japan at this moment must exert its best efforts to maintain the present framework of the Quad, Japan, the U.S., Australia and especially India.

Most importantly, Tokyo must encourage Washington not to deviate from the concepts and principles of the Indo-Pacific vision no matter what happens in Europe or the Middle East.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.


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