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Japan Toughens on China as Beijing Issues Threats

Pro-engagement politicians are aging out of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (right) sits next to a monitor displaying a virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden (top left), Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison (bottom left), and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (bottom right), in Tokyo on March 12.
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (right) sits next to a monitor displaying a virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden (top left), Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison (bottom left), and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (bottom right), in Tokyo on March 12. Kyoshi Ota/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Japan is learning that a more activist foreign policy brings higher risks as China issues increasingly direct threats about teaming up with Washington. It is no coincidence that pressure from Beijing is coming just as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga prepares for his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden.

“China hopes that Japan, as an independent country, will look at China’s development in an objective and rational way instead of being misled by some countries holding biased view against China,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said to his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, in a phone call. He also made clear that China felt free to lecture Japan on its security alliance with the United States, a 61-year-old pact that both countries like to say is the closest in the world.

Japan is learning that a more activist foreign policy brings higher risks as China issues increasingly direct threats about teaming up with Washington. It is no coincidence that pressure from Beijing is coming just as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga prepares for his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden.

“China hopes that Japan, as an independent country, will look at China’s development in an objective and rational way instead of being misled by some countries holding biased view against China,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said to his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, in a phone call. He also made clear that China felt free to lecture Japan on its security alliance with the United States, a 61-year-old pact that both countries like to say is the closest in the world.

China has also made clear it is willing to back up its words with actions, sailing a naval strike group including its aircraft carrier through waters near Japan’s Okinawa (also home to a large U.S. military contingent).

This is an unusual position for Japan, which has historically taken a conciliatory approach in its relations with Beijing and sought to avoid the wrath of the Chinese government.

“Beijing knows that Japan is sensitive to Chinese pressure,” said James D.J. Brown, associate professor at Temple University in Tokyo. “Basically, China takes the view that a little bit of fear helps to keep Japan in line.”

But government officials and politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party seem to have come to the end of their patience as China expands bases in the strategically important South China Sea, ups its incursions around a set of islands controlled by Japan that it claims as its own, strips freedoms from Hong Kong residents, and aggressively defends its actions in the face of international uproar over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Domestic Japanese political issues are also coming into play with the more China-friendly ruling party’s old guard now losing strength to a younger and more aggressive group of lawmakers.

In some ways, the problems are of Japan’s own making, dating back to a more aggressive approach by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who declared the Japan would push for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in 2016.

Abe rolled out the idea at the Nairobi meeting of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development. “Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion and making it prosperous,” Abe told the group.

The concept was initially presented as a strategy to counter China. Later, Japan started to call it a vision and emphasized its developmental aspect. “Despite the change in the way the idea is presented, the objective of maintaining the balance of power in the region has not,” said Narushige Michishita, vice president at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

The concept would gain traction over the years. It was adopted in the U.S. National Security Strategy in December 2017 and today forms a part of a broad swathe of related programs. These range from the increasingly high-profile “Quad” meetings of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India to joint military maneuvers that will bring Britain’s aircraft carriers on a mission to the South China Sea this year, underscoring international opposition to China’s claim that the critically important sea route is its own territorial waters. France has also done its own sailings in the area.

“Obtaining support from Britain and France has very significant international political implications,” Michishita said.

The so-called “freedom of navigation” missions have been a core element of U.S. policy. Japan has meanwhile emphasized the less-confrontational assistance side of the equation, recently announcing a new deal to sell defense equipment to Indonesia, an agreement Suga said he hopes will be the “foundation of further security cooperation between the two countries.” Previously, Japan has provided patrol ships to Vietnam and surveillance aircraft to the Philippines, two other nations that border the South China Sea.

The strategy also marked a fundamental change for Japan under the more hawkish Abe. Since the end of World War II, it has generally carried out a low-key and non-combative foreign policy, even as its economic rise offered the chance for the financial equivalent of gunboat diplomacy.

This “why can’t we be friends?” approach was in some respects rooted in the country’s past. Its own era of hegemony was kicked off in its surprise victory over the Russian navy in the 1904 to 1905 Russo-Japanese War, starting an expansionism that would eventually end in humiliation with its surrender in 1945. This was soon followed by the adoption of a constitution written by U.S. occupiers—but still enthusiastically backed by many Japanese—that renounces the use of military force except in self-defense.

There was—and is—a more practical aspect as well. Japan’s foreign policy can largely be summed up in the maxim that politics is bad for business. By staying out of contentious global issues (except to always call for peace), the government has helped maintain healthy business relations with as many countries as possible. Trade was not a weapon used to reach a broader goal; it was the goal.

This focus produced Japan’s careful dance with China that has worked until recently. Even as Abe pushed his Indo-Pacific strategy, it did not close the door on improving relations with China.

As recently as the pre-pandemic days of early 2020, Japan was hoping to host a state visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite increasing global outrage over the alleged use of Uyghur Muslims’ forced labor in the cotton-producing region of Xinjiang and increasing restrictions in Hong Kong. While not silent on these issues, Japan had been subdued in its criticism. In the end, the trip was postponed, ostensibly due to COVID-19.

Japan’s policy was also aided by the Trump administration. With a belligerent United States, China was trying to shore up support elsewhere, and anyone would look better than the mercurial then-U.S. President Donald Trump. Notably, Beijing signaled a more positive stance toward Japan by turning off the always-handy spigot of anti-Japanese sentiment it can martial when necessary, as seen in anti-Japanese violence in 2012.

Japan has been rewarded economically for this reticence. Exports to China have grown steadily over the past four years from $110 billion in 2016 to $141 billion in 2020 when the fast-recovering Chinese economy provided a lifeline amid the COVID-19 crisis elsewhere and is now the largest single market. After a preemptive warning in 2010 with a suspension of rare earth exports, China has avoided the kind of economic pressure it has used in relation to nations from Australia to Norway.

But the days of a soft relationship with China may be ending, with Japan’s historically close, if unofficial, ties with Taiwan coming to the forefront. Lawmakers representing the ruling party’s foreign affairs group are even proposing that Japan adopt its own version of the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that mandates the United States must help Taiwan in its defense. The group also suggested high-level meetings with Taiwanese politicians.

Such moves would represent a new front in Japan’s more visible diplomacy. “We want to bolster our diplomatic prowess through a two-pronged approach, using our human rights and Taiwan project teams,” lawmaker Masahisa Sato said in February.

Some analysts say Japan also needs to weigh how much it can rely on the United States in light of the shifting sands of the Trump presidency and now concerns of potential distractions elsewhere for the Biden administration. “All of this means Japan will need to maintain and perhaps even deepen its more independent and activist foreign policy,” said John West, executive director of the Asian Century Institute. This makes the upcoming Biden-Suga talks more important than the usual amiable U.S.-Japan summits.

Japan is learning that taking a more visible role in geopolitical affairs means you are going to get criticized. “We are gravely concerned about Japan’s recent negative actions concerning China,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in reaction to the Japan-Indonesia deal. For good measure, she took a Trumpian swipe at Japan’s generally docile press corps. “We also urge relevant Japanese media to uphold their social responsibility and professional ethics, stop fabricating disinformation, and refrain from inciting confrontation and creating tensions between regional countries,” she said. Fortunately, the Chinese government can provide free training.

If China backs up its rhetoric with economic sanctions, Japan will see the potential cost of abandoning its “economy first” foreign policy. It’s no coincidence this will put it in the same boat as Australia and India, both recent victims of China’s economic pressure.

Economics is never a one-sided game, however. China has said it wants to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement based on the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership that was meant to encircle China, only to be abandoned by Trump but rescued by Japan. To join, it will need to negotiate with each of the current members, including Japan and Australia. Those talks should be interesting, especially now that few harbor the rosy 2001 notion of a “westernizing China” when it gained entry into the World Trade Organization. Today, its goals and plans to get there are much clearer.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years. He previously worked at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

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