Japan in the shadow of China

By Richard Javad Heydarian 21 February 2024, 12:00PM

On a trip to Japan last month, I was struck by the surreal combination of stubborn continuity and laboured change. Compared to all major Asian capitals, Tokyo seems broadly unaltered from when I first visited the great city in the early-2010s. Nevertheless, Japan is a country on the move.

There is, of course, the imprint of the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic), which ushered in a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure upgrade in Tokyo. But the winds of change run deeper than that. At least, this is the impression I got during conversations with senior Japanese officials from key departments, namely the ministries of Economy, Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs and Defence – as well as with former senior officials and veteran journalists based in Tokyo* and earlier talks with the Office of the Prime Minister.

Confronting the twin challenges of sluggish growth and a demographic winter, coupled with profound geopolitical uncertainties, officials keenly sense the need for Japan’s own version of “Zeitenwende”  (epochal change). Accordingly, the Fumio Kishida administration has sought to build on the transformative (though controversial) legacy of the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sought to recast Japan’s post-war policy in accordance to 21st-century geopolitical challenges.

Specifically, Japan has launched a new era of “realism diplomacy”, under which the Northeast Asian nation is doubling its defence spending as a percentage of its GDP, developing increasingly offensive military capabilities, and co-developing next-generation fighter jets and weapons systems with likeminded powers, especially in Europe. Moreover, Japan has embraced a proactive defence diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific.

It recently launched a new Official Security Assistance (OSA) to help frontline states in Southeast Asia protect their sovereign rights in the South China Sea, while aiding critical infrastructure development and cybersecurity in South Pacific nations. And unbeknownst to many external observers, Japan is already a leading source of public infrastructure development in key Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Nevertheless, as one veteran journalist in Tokyo put it, “I’m not sure if the pace of change is commensurate to the depth of the challenges” the country faces. In particular, Japanese officials, both incumbent and former, have expressed profound strategic anxiety over three important and inter-related issues.

To begin with, the shadow of China looms large over the entire Japanese strategic elite, who are particularly concerned about supply chain resilience and the direction of next-generation technologies such as semiconductors, renewable energy, quantum communications, and biotechnology. In fact, Japan was among the first nations to classify strategic economic issues as a matter of national security.

Over the past decade, China has rapidly emerged as a rival, if not direct threat, in almost all of these critical sectors, forcing Japanese leaders to radically rethink their approach to industrial policy as well as tech cooperation with likeminded powers. China’s dominant position in the production of rare earths as well as domination of the entire supply chain, especially in emerging industries such as electric vehicle production, is a major source of concern. Several Japanese officials and experts openly warned of China’s potential “weaponisation” of its dominance in global supply chains, especially as geopolitical tensions with the West and Japan intensify.

And this brings us to the second major issue, namely Japan’s fears of a potential war over Taiwan. As one senior former Japanese cabinet official put it, “We cannot let China destroy Taiwan’s democracy.” Although leading experts doubt that Beijing will rely on kinetic action in the near future, the reality is that the status quo is also increasingly unsustainable.

Many in Japan and across the region expect China to tighten the screws on Taipei by, inter alia, expanding military operations in the Taiwan Straits as well as imposing more diplomatic and economic sanctions.

Accordingly, Tokyo is not only expanding security cooperation with the United States, but also with the Philippines, which is as geographically proximate to Taiwan as Japan. Thus, Japanese officials are betting on growing trilateral Japan-Philippine-US (JAPHUS) security cooperation to deter and, if all fails, jointly respond to any full-scale Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The third, and perhaps most dramatic, source of strategic anxiety for Japanese officials and experts is the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House in Washington. Many observers doubt whether Kishida has the necessary risk-appetite to actively reach out to (and schmooze with) Trump in the fashion taken by Abe.

If anything, there are fears that a second Trump administration could turn out to be even more aggressive and unhinged. With Trump openly warning of escalating trade wars and punishing or abandoning North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies to Russian aggression, the Japanese strategic elite is understandably anxious about the future of its alliance with America. One former senior official even admitted that discussions over nuclear weapons are no longer a taboo in Japan, underscoring Tokyo’s profound sense of uncertainty.

Overall, Japan’s leadership has recognised profound changes in the international environment. What’s unclear is whether Japan can weather the geopolitical storms over the horizon without fundamentally rethinking its post-war strategic orientation.

This article was first published on Lowy Institute’s blog site, The Interpreter. Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based columnist, academic, and author.

By Richard Javad Heydarian 21 February 2024, 12:00PM
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