Commentary |
22 September 2020

How will Japan's new leader handle growing China-US tensions?

After years warning others to be wary of Beijing, Tokyo is now adopting a low profile. Originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Richard McGregor
Richard McGregor

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. He is author of "Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century."

A barely stifled yawn.

That has been the reaction from most commentators when it comes to the impact Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will have on Tokyo's China policy.

As with other economic and diplomatic issues, Japan's foreign policy experts have argued that the real impact of Shinzo Abe's resignation on the government's China policy will be more about continuity than change. But that conclusion raises an important question in itself. Not just as to whether continuity is tenable, but if it is, to what degree an extension of Japan's current policy framework will favor Beijing?

Few in China thought when Abe came to power in 2012 that he would have presided over such a substantial and substantive repair of bilateral ties. Many in Beijing considered Abe to be an ideologue indelibly stained in Chinese eyes by his antecedents. Notably, his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served in Japan's wartime cabinet before being rehabilitated as a deeply conservative, pro-U.S. alliance prime minister in the 1950s.

Abe arrived in office when bilateral relations were at rock bottom after a bitter clash with China over the status of the Senkaku Islands, which threatened to spill over into military conflict. It turned out that the timing of Abe's arrival in office was lucky. With the relationship in a hole in 2012, the only way was up. With that knowledge, Abe was able to hold a strong line on sovereignty and other issues while at the same time gradually rebuilding dialogue with Beijing.

Before the intervention of COVID-19, Xi Jinping was due to make a state visit to Tokyo in April. That would have been the highest-profile summit between the two countries in decades.

U.S. President Donald Trump, the great disrupter when it comes to foreign policy, has helped soothe Sino-Japanese tensions as well. As the Chinese scholar Wang Jisi of Peking University has observed, Japan's ties with China inevitably improve in tandem with a deterioration in Beijing's relations with Washington. One gets better as the other gets worse.

Trump attacked China most of all on trade, which gave Beijing every incentive to look to nations like Japan with which it had a valuable business relationship. Tokyo, which feared an unpredictable and vengeful Trump too, responded positively. China is Japan's largest trading partner, with bilateral business totaling nearly $300 billion in 2018. Both countries are at the heart of a regional supply chain that anchors the global economy, and the U.S. policy of decoupling has only limited appeal in Tokyo.

In the twilight of Abe's time as prime minister, Japan had thus reached a paradoxical position. After warning other countries for years to be wary of Beijing, Tokyo itself is now adopting a low profile over the dangers of China's rise. There is little on the public record to suggest that Suga, unlike Abe, has any distinctive vision for Japan's global outlook. A classic backroom player, he has few professional relationships with foreign leaders. Domestic politics is his forte.

The status quo, of a strong security alliance with the U.S. and a growing trade relationship with China, probably suits Suga fine. Hence, the struggle for local commentators to discern any difference between him and Abe over China policy. But what if the status quo is not sustainable?

A status quo relationship, after all, benefits China most. As Beijing gradually shifts the balance of power in its favor, there is little that Japan can do on its own. For starters, Beijing is not inclined to leave the issue of the Senkaku Islands to one side. Over the last year, it has increased the frequency of its patrols around the islands, with the aim of forcing Japan to acknowledge disputed sovereignty, and thus negotiate.

Equally, if Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidency, he is likely to step up pressure on Japan as a security ally in the era-defining contest between Washington and Beijing. Tokyo has welcomed the U.S. commitment to defend the Senkakus, but Washington will want loyalty from Tokyo in return.

Running in Suga's favor is Abe's successful regional diplomacy, which made Japan perhaps the most trusted partner of a range of Southeast Asian countries and India. Suga will want to maintain this posture, but he will be learning his diplomatic skills on the job.

An early challenge for Suga will be how and whether he revives the planned visit to Japan of Xi Jinping. Many in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party remain opposed to the trip after China's early mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

By the same token, Japan has long had a strong pan-Asian streak in its politics, which favors distancing the country from the U.S. in favor of closer ties to China and other Asian nations. At the very least, Suga will not dare invite Xi to Japan before he has had a chance to visit Washington and cement a relationship with whoever is in the White House after November.

Beyond that, the balancing act for Suga, and the leader who comes after him, will only get harder.