Despite the fraught global environment — with U.S.-China animosity mounting alongside a bevy of regional security concerns — Japan appears to be viewing the situation as a glass half-full scenario, according to leading experts, as well as current and former officials.
That was the picture put forward Wednesday, when pundits and diplomats from Japan and across the globe gathered for the Eurasia Group’s inaugural G-Zero Summit in Tokyo — the name referring to Eurasia founder Ian Bremmer’s concept of a world lacking in global leadership.
With China and the Trump administration posing potential headaches for Tokyo, many said the country’s unique position and stable domestic politics could be an opportunity for it to break out of its diplomatic shell and play a larger leadership role in regional and global politics.
“After World War II, the U.S. has shouldered much of the responsibility” in establishing and maintaining the international rules-based order, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in the conference’s keynote speech. Yet Kono believes Washington can’t continue to go it alone and “has been getting a little tired … so someone else has to take up the responsibility.”
And for the foreign minister, that someone can be Japan, with the country increasingly willing to step up to confront global challenges, especially those related to its sometimes recalcitrant neighbor China.
“We are ready to get a little more responsibility. We have benefited so much from international trade and the international order, so I think Japan is ready to do that,” he said.
“I think we need to let China know there’s an international order. We have to live by this international order, and if you violate it, you have to pay the cost,” Kono added.
Ties between Tokyo and Beijing have improved in recent months, a thaw that will see Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit China next week, where he will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But a number of pressing issues remain bubbling under the surface, including China’s growing maritime assertiveness, especially near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu.
One of the most heated debates at the conference related to whether these differences between China and liberal democracies were intractable.
Former Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae said he is not sold on the idea that the world is headed for inevitable conflict with China.
“I don’t take either a very pessimistic or optimistic view as to whether there will be hegemonic conflict (between the U.S. and China) — I think after learning the costs of a confrontation there will be a new equilibrium reached,” said Sasae.
But Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of Tokyo-based think tank Asia Pacific Initiative, begged to differ.
“The ultimate danger we are now confronted with is China’s progress to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution including artificial intelligence,” said Funabashi, who previously worked as the editor-in-chief of one of Japan’s largest daily newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun.
He said the development is worrisome because it would allow China to more easily uphold its current anti-democratic system while serving as a model for other autocratic regimes bent on maintaining a monopoly on political power.
Funabashi noted that the Trump administration was shifting gears to confront China on what he said were egregious trade practices by Beijing, and that a recent hawkish policy speech delivered by Vice President Mike Pence could be a watershed moment in changing China’s behavior.
“Mike Pence’s speech could transpire to be the Iron Curtain speech of the 21st century,” Funabashi said.
On Oct. 4, Pence said in a speech in Washington: “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies. But they will fail.”
The vice president also vocalized a list of grievances against China including, “an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies that are handed out like candy to foreign investment.”
Still, Kono said he held out hope that the two Asian giants could find ways to work hand in hand, especially in the realm of economic cooperation.
“If (China and Japan) can work together, it would be good for both of us,” Kono said.
One avenue for cooperation, he said, was through Japan’s potential membership of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, though he stressed that would depend on Tokyo determining that the organization meets “international standards.”
Despite an overwhelming sense from conference participants that Washington’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region has eroded, a U.S. diplomat in attendance pushed back against such views.
“I think there is a tendency to portray this administration as perhaps withdrawing from the region and acting unilaterally, as a kind of go-it-alone cowboy,” said Joseph Young, who serves as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
“I was working in the Obama administration on the Japan desk and I see a lot of similarities and consistencies between the rebalance policy … and the Indo-Pacific policy now in the Trump administration,” said Young.
Whether the change is real or imagined, Tokyo’s top diplomat, as with other Japanese bureaucrats who spoke Wednesday, remained bullish about U.S.-Japan relations.
“The relationship between U.S. and Japan is not just the (prime minister) and the president being just good golf buddies,” said Kono.
“Not only are they good buddies, we have layers of personal relationships. … I think the base of this alliance is very strong and lasting.”