The U.S.-Japan Alliance Should Pivot to China’s Human Rights Issues

Washington and Tokyo need a sharp focus in a challenging era.

Protesters display “Free HK” slogans during a protest to mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, on Oct. 3, 2020.
Protesters display “Free HK” slogans during a protest to mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, on Oct. 3, 2020. Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

Just over a month into office, President Joe Biden and his team have repeatedly claimed that the United States is back on the world stage to defend and promote the liberal international order in the face of the challenge posed by China. Their assurances began in late January with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s public affirmation of the previous administration’s statements that Beijing is committing “genocide” against its own citizens. When a coup in Myanmar this month presented an early test of America’s renewed commitment to democracy, the Biden administration imposed direct sanctions on those military leaders responsible and threatened additional measures depending on the military junta’s future actions. The White House is sending an important message: the floundering legitimacy of U.S. democracy both at home and abroad will not deter the United States from attempting to be a global leader on human rights.

It is not yet clear, though, how Washington will integrate the human rights agenda into its broader geopolitical strategy toward China and work with allies to restrain Beijing’s troubling and growing abuses. Under the prior administration, Washington imposed a series of sanctions on individuals responsible for the atrocities in Xinjiang and the new national security law in Hong Kong. Yet key U.S. allies in the region, most notably Japan—the first and potentially most active proponent of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept—have been noticeably less vocal, even somewhat disengaged, on these issues. It is time for the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies, starting with Japan, to realign their priorities to ensure that a human rights agenda is afforded equal status in their respective approaches to China.

As China’s military, economic, and technological capabilities continue to expand, the extent of Beijing’s human rights abuses has grown proportionately––some might argue disproportionately––bearing global consequences. Police brutality, racial discrimination, and unjust imprisonment are realities in the United States, but the Chinese government’s abuses are on a far greater scale. In Xinjiang, the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained over a million members of mostly Muslim Turkic descent, especially the Uighurs, across more than 85 camps. In these camps, the Chinese government has subjected the Uighur population to coerced labor, forced sterilization, sexual abuse, and cultural and religious extermination. The government’s intensified domestic crackdown on free speech has also had international repercussions. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese officials, from the central government on down to local authorities, covered up the severity of the outbreak by silencing or imprisoning whistleblowers and dissidents, directly hindering the international response and contributing to the virus’s global spread. Beijing actively impeded the World Health Organization and other international efforts to investigate the pandemic’s origins, restricting access to critical raw data and in some cases engaging in retaliatory economic and political coercion. The Chinese government’s assault on civil liberties and political influence, both at home and overseas, will only accelerate as its surveillance technologies become more deeply integrated within the fabric of daily life.

Against the backdrop of a massive geopolitical shift underway in the Indo-Pacific and China’s growing challenge of liberal internationalism, Japan must now face an inconvenient reality: Increasingly, Washington is incapable of defending and promulgating values, such as democracy, free trade, and human rights, on its own. Rather, Japan and Asia’s other flourishing liberal democracies, such as South Korea, must assume a more proactive role in upholding and promoting the same values from which they have benefited significantly. A brewing pro-democracy movement among Asian youth, which spread like wildfire throughout Southeast Asia last summer and autumn, underscores the region’s growing solidarity with human rights and refutes the traditional perception that liberalism is a Western export that only carries wide appeal outside Asia. Building on the broadened appeal of these values, effective enforcement of human rights would require working more closely to hold Beijing accountable for its mistreatment of political and ethnic minorities and for walking back international agreements over Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Disappointingly, however, despite Japan’s central role in upholding the regional liberal order, Tokyo so far has hesitated to call out, let alone punish, the Chinese government for its transgressions.

Disappointingly, however, despite Japan’s central role in upholding the regional liberal order, Tokyo so far has hesitated to call out, let alone punish, the Chinese government for its transgressions. Indeed, as prime minister, Yoshihide Suga has refrained from sinking economic teeth into the “serious concerns” about Hong Kong that he previously expressed as recently as August. Public support in Japan for the Hong Kong protests gained traction last year, in part due to the plight of one of its revered and currently jailed leaders, Agnes Chow, who speaks Japanese and has regularly appeared before local media. Indeed, Japanese attitudes toward the Chinese regime have worsened over the last few years, underscoring the public’s sensitivity to Beijing’s human rights violations even as current leadership remains more circumspect. Still, Suga’s New Year’s policy address last month made no mention of Hong Kong, despite another major arrest of the city’s lawmakers days earlier. While the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia issued a joint statement condemning Beijing’s latest crackdown, Japan has remained largely silent.

Although sunlight is often claimed to be the best disinfectant, Japan and other like-minded U.S. partners must do more than name and shame the Chinese Communist Party to adequately ensure that its flagrant human rights violations do not go unchecked. One of the most promising tools for checking political repression seems to be targeted sanctions. Anecdotal evidence about the Magnitsky Act, ratified by the U.S. Congress in 2012, indicates that sanctioning individuals and companies from target regimes is particularly effective. The act allows the U.S. government to punish human rights violators by banning them from entering the United States, freezing their assets, and prohibiting them from doing business with U.S.-based firms. Although the legislation was first designed to target Russian officials, it has since been globalized and enforced against dozens of high-level human rights offenders around the world. Inspired by its apparent success as a deterrent, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union adopted similar laws starting in 2017.

Japan’s National Diet could, and should, pass a Japanese equivalent to the Magnitsky Act. Japanese lawmakers belonging to the new multiparty Japan Parliamentary Alliance on China (JPAC) have flirted with imposing sanctions on Chinese officials since July 2020. On Jan. 27, JPAC organized a formal Diet caucus to broaden support for and aim to pass Magnitsky legislation during the current parliamentary session, which ends June 16. Simultaneously, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign affairs committee convened to elaborate for the first time on what to do about Xinjiang and, on Feb. 3, initiated a project task force on human rights diplomacy. Over the next months, the working group will prepare recommendations for addressing China’s rights violations in Xinjiang and the unfolding democratic crises in Hong Kong and Myanmar, for presentation at the G-7 summit this June. Fast-tracking legislation based on these conversations would resoundingly demonstrate, beyond the usual diplomatic niceties, Tokyo’s commitment to strengthening its alliance with Washington under Biden and put Japan in a clear leadership role on human rights in Asia and beyond.

In addition to passing Magnitsky legislation, the Suga government, with guidance from the recently established economic security division of its National Security Council, should investigate any possible Japanese commercial ties to Xinjiang. As hinted at during Blinken’s confirmation testimony, the U.S. government may implement private-sector restrictions on “importing products … made with forced labor from Xinjiang” and “exporting technologies and tools that could be used to further their regression.”

Coordinated action by the United States and Japan could engender positive spillover benefits for the alliance. Joint action on this issue would open new pathways to deeper regional cooperation while enhancing the credibility and legitimacy of their shared efforts to build a more secure and prosperous regional order. If Japan passed its own version of the Magnitsky Act, it would put the two nations further in lockstep on values and provide Tokyo with yet another link to its European allies, who are increasingly active partners on security issues in the Indo-Pacific.

Suga is rightly preoccupied with managing the COVID-19 outbreak in Japan and issues related to his government’s beleaguered preparations for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, which have faced harsh criticism on multiple fronts. But opening Japan to international accusations of indirectly supporting Beijing’s abhorrent practices in Xinjiang, and inviting skepticism about Japan’s respect for human rights in China and elsewhere, could induce even greater diplomatic headaches for Suga down the line if Tokyo is accused of falling out-of-step with the liberal agenda. Indeed, many in Japanese society already feel ashamed about how the country handles gender equality; it’s hard to imagine them dealing with criticism about being complicit in genocide.

Although the United States and Japan should work together to limit China’s human rights violations, they should also be cognizant of the limits of their power and not lose sight of the bounded role of human rights in the broader geopolitical context. While merging their respective policies on Chinese abuses that have far-reaching consequences, Washington and Tokyo would be better advised to adopt a more incremental and coordinated approach in promoting human rights in the region. Putting human rights squarely at the front of U.S. and Japanese policy toward China and forcing other regional partners such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to follow suit is only guaranteed to alienate them. Washington and Tokyo would be better advised to send consistent signals to leaders in Beijing in hopes that such a united approach will blunt China’s trajectory over time. Simultaneously, they should pursue a more careful and blended approach to other neighboring capitals that might object to or face obstacles in sustaining liberalism at home.

To be sure, the case of Myanmar demonstrates the potential benefits of having varied, if still coordinated, U.S.-Japan responses to regional human rights offenses. In part due to Japan’s decision not to join the international community in levying sanctions on Myanmar in the 1990s-2000s, Tokyo now enjoys unique negotiating leverage with the military junta. These diplomatic side channels are particularly useful for Washington to allow in today’s climate of strategic competition with China, since, if isolated, Myanmar would have no option but to fall back on Beijing’s support. While it is too early to predict what sway Japan’s actions might have over Myanmar, this case demonstrates the merits of leveraging Washington and Tokyo’s varied regional positions to influence key regional partners in the context of U.S.-China competition.

Historically, the issue of China’s human rights behavior was a divisive one in U.S.-Japan relations, as notably demonstrated by Tokyo’s hesitation in supporting the G-7 sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Yet, this time is different. Thirty years later, a new generation of Japanese politicians hardened by Beijing’s mounting assertiveness and less beholden to a Cold War-era discourse centered on Japan’s war guilt now commands the Diet. It is telling that, according to recent Pew Research Center data, Japan and South Korea were the only two countries in which people aged 30-49 held less favorable views of China than those aged 50 and older. Perhaps more importantly, Japanese leaders, like their U.S. counterparts, have long abandoned the wishful view propounded for decades that Beijing would inevitably liberalize. Though the U.S.-Japan alliance faces a multitude of challenges, Washington and Tokyo have an opportunity, out of this tenuous geopolitical moment, to drive their alliance in new directions. By developing a more ambitious and flexible toolkit for taking on an active role in the defense of liberal values, Tokyo will begin to catch up with other more advanced partners on this issue. It will also add momentum to the Biden administration’s vision for a renewed global architecture of free and open institutions.

Ayumi Teraoka is a doctoral candidate in security studies at Princeton University.

Elliot Silverberg has worked in strategic advisory, political risk consulting, journalism, the legal field, and think tanks across the United States and Japan. He is a U.S. government-sponsored National Security Education Program fellow, a Huffington fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.

Charles Crabtree is an assistant professor in the department of government at Dartmouth College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.