Japan has long been an anomaly: an economic powerhouse within a geostrategic pygmy. But China’s muscular ascent combined with the capriciousness of a Trump-led U.S. is causing Tokyo to slough off its diplomatic slumber and rethink its role in Asia. From proposing new security dialogues, to taking the lead in developing multilateral trade agreements, it is beginning to pick up some of the slack left by the U.S.’s “America First”-influenced withdrawal from leadership in Asia.
Japan is in a potentially explosive neighbourhood, and it no longer believes that a wholescale reliance on the U.S. for a defence umbrella is sufficient to secure its best interests. Foreign Minister Tarō Konō said in October: “We are in an era when Japan has to exert itself diplomatically by drawing a big strategic picture.”
Military normalisation is one prong of Japan’s new foreign policy, but even if a controversial revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, as proposed by newly re-elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes through, the archipelago’s armed forces will remain under strong, self-imposed constraints. The constitutional revision would merely recognise the legality of Japan’s long extant Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Offensive weapons and preemptive strikes would remain outlawed.
His nationalist leanings notwithstanding, even Mr. Abe realises that remilitarising alone will not provide Japan with an effective solution to its diplomatic dilemmas. What Tokyo needs to prevent the region from succumbing to a Pax Sinica is to use its strengths, its capital, its technological know-how and its democratic credentials to win friends and influence countries across the region and beyond. It needs to beat infrastructure sugar daddy China at its own game.
A large part of China’s rise has to do with its indispensability to global trade. But Japan is a trading heavyweight too, and is attempting to stake leadership on the regional platform with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). With the U.S.’s departure from trade negotiations, Japan has become the principal driving force keeping the deal alive. At November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, Japan got the 11 countries still involved to agree on the “core elements” of a deal. It wants to lead rule-making on trade in the Asia Pacific, rather than let China set the agenda with alternatives to TPP such as the Beijing-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
At the same time, Japan is stepping up aid and investment in Southeast Asia. A train line near Manila, a seaport in Cambodia, and assistance in the reconstruction of Marawi City in the Philippines are some examples. As the top source of development aid to Vietnam, it has helped construct a new airport terminal in Hanoi as well as the first subway line in Ho Chi Minh City.
Mr. Abe recently committed 1 trillion yen ($8.7 billion) to the Philippines over the next five years, with a continued focus on infrastructure development. Japanese investment in major Southeast Asian countries is estimated to have averaged $20 billion per year, from 2011 to 2016, more than double the average annual flows between 2006 and 2010.
Japanese sales pitches to countries in the region always have one eye on China, emphasising advantages in areas where Beijing is vulnerable such as safety, reliability and solutions that deliver benefits to local populations.
Looking to India
China’s $900 billion, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure building campaign across Eurasia is a gauntlet that Japan has picked up by turning to the only country in the region with the heft to match China, India.
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Pallavi Aiyar has reported from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. She is a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum