National / Politics

How Japan's clout is rising in age of U.S.-China tensions

by Takashi Yokota

Staff Writer

As the West’s concerns about China’s dominance on the global stage continue to grow, Japan is increasingly regarded as a balancing force in the region.

Perhaps reflecting this geopolitical shift, London-based think tank The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), known for hosting the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore, earlier this month announced the establishment of a “Japan Chair,” a senior position dedicated to researching Japanese defense and foreign policy issues.

IISS Director-General John Chipman recently sat down with The Japan Times to discuss Asia’s security situation as the U.S.-China trade war escalates and Japan increases it presence and importance on the geopolitical scene.

Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What are some of the takeaways from this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue?

Many were impressed by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong’s keynote speech, where he made a great effort to navigate the geopolitical landscape and explained the particular position of small states in the Asia-Pacific — particularly those who do not want to be put in a position of choosing between the United States and China.

I think it was interesting that he said that for China’s rising power to be effective, it needs to exert that power with restraint and legitimacy.

At the same time, he also pointed out the dangers of finding ourselves in two ecosystems: one led by the U.S. and the other led by China. It was in that context that he said it was important for the stability of the region that other powers were able to operate effectively.

So I think that set the right tone for the meeting. Also, although acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan listed a number of things that disturb the United States in the region, it helped he didn’t conduct a full-frontal attack on China.

Both the U.S. and China showed a degree of restraint. Would you say the escalating trade war is the reason for this?

I think a lot of defense ministers — even if it’s not their mandate — did worry about the U.S.-China trade dispute extending for a long period of time. I don’t think anyone felt that trade frictions would materially spill over in geopolitical terms and increase the possibility of conflict.

But what the Shangri-La Dialogue did offer was the opportunity for a lot of quiet diplomacy to take place.

In particular, the trilateral defense meeting between the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan was important.

I felt in watching the informal exchanges between the defense ministers, that a lot of the positive features of Asian diplomacy were in evidence. Once the personal contact became more evident, there was a warming up of relations between the defense ministers that was quite striking.

Would you say the Shangri-La Dialogue provided a forum to help build confidence among nations?

I think so. There is a lot of work to do, in practical confidence-building measures. For example in the South China Sea, there were numerous references to the efforts to finalize a code of conduct between China and ASEAN.

By all assessments, though, we are far away from seeing such an agreed to code that is balanced. There is still an effort on the Chinese side to ensure that there is zero external influence on the way this code of conduct will be carried out in practice.

And a couple of the claimant states who have decent relations with the United States don’t want to sign an agreement that makes it impossible for the Americans to have a presence in the South China Sea. So I think the gap has widened.

However, it was good that there was a 20-minute bilateral meeting between Shanahan and China’s defense minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe. Both sides expressed a desire to have better military-to-military contacts.

My impression was that the U.S. military felt that there had been an appreciable decline in provocative encounters at sea and more professional communication between the Chinese and the American navies.

So that has diminished the risks of potentially dangerous incidents happening at sea.

That seems to be one of the major differences compared to last year.

Yes, I think that’s right.

Twelve months ago, at least the U.S. perception was that the Chinese were deploying near American naval vessels in a way that was not just too close for comfort, but too close for safety. That has now changed.

What would you attribute the change to?

I would imagine that the cause — of course this is only speculation — is that the Chinese saw there were risks that an accident could occur, and that they could send the political messages they wanted to without maintaining such a close proximity to U.S. ships.

The fact that the Chinese sent their defense minister, and that he was confident in asking an array of questions, meant that it sort of settled the mood of the Shangri-La Dialogue a bit. I think that the Chinese side saw that by deploying such a high level official, they were able to get their message across more effectively, which in turn meant that everyone else didn’t have to shout so loud to be heard as well.

How did the idea for the IISS Japan Chair come about?

We’ve been working on establishing the Japan Chair for a few years. Our efforts accelerated after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave the keynote address in 2014 at the Shangri-La Dialogue. One of the purposes of having the Japan Chair in London is to help give Europeans a better understanding of the Japanese perspective, not only on regional affairs, but global affairs as well.

A second goal would be that while the Japan Chair will of course focus on Japanese strategy and security policies, we also want to regularly share IISS expertise with Japan on other themes and regions that may be of interest to that nation’s government, private sector and experts.

The creation of the Japan Chair was funded by the Japanese government. How do you ensure research independence?

We are very assertive about our independence. To be transparent, we have a memorandum of understanding with the government of Japan that gives IISS full independence in deciding such things as who will head the Japan Chair, the content of the program, the nature of the analysis, the methodology in which it will be collected and presented and the choices we make about our publications.

The trustees of the IISS would not allow us to take money from any government that in any way that constrained our intellectual freedom of action.

The point I’ve always made in discussions with all governments is that if you don’t trust us to present objective facts and independent assessments, then you shouldn’t provide us with your funds. But if you do trust us, then you have to trust our independence.

Did Japan’s changing role on the global stage have an impact on the decision to establish the Japan Chair?

As Foreign Minister Taro Kono said, when he goes to Europe, he realizes that Russia and China are seen a bit differently there.

So it’s also important for Europeans to understand the way Japan looks at Russia and China — which is a bit different, given the economic and geopolitical realities and the territorial questions that continue to persist.

Also, ensuring that the European countries, with their four G7 members, are better informed about the Japanese perspective as a G7 nation was also important.

On the flip side, how would you describe the European perspective on Japan?

Up until six months ago, Europe focused a large portion of its relationship effort on China. On its economic engagement with China, many European countries, including Germany, saw China as a lucrative export destination. The economic relationship with Japan, and the political one that went with it, might not have been so regularly discussed. Recently, though, the EU released a quite strong strategy paper on China that begins to recognize some of the challenges that the union has in dealing with the Asian giant, especially in the wake of the efforts Beijing has made in promoting the Belt and Road Initiative and the so-called “16 plus one” talks with EU countries that some in Brussels viewed as a possible attempt to split the Europeans up.

In that broader context, I would remind people Japan is a big economic player that broadly shares the political values of European Union countries.

Now, how do we show the Japanese perspective? What we intend to do is to present fact-based analysis of Japanese security policies and make evidence-based assessments of what Japan is seeking to do in developing its strategic personality.

We are not intending to be a voice of the Japanese government. The Japanese government can do that for itself very well.

But what we want to do is to create more debate about Japan in Europe.

Japan used to be criticized for punching below its weight on the international stage. Now it’s being recognized as a player. How do you see the trajectory of Japan’s global role?

I would start from the proposition that Japan is still the third-biggest economy in the world. And people sometimes forget that, holding on to a fascination with China’s rise. And Japan, especially in the last few years, has maintained a steady state and enjoyed small, but well-managed growth.

I do think that Europeans will become more interested in Japan as concerns over China grow.

And this is not to incite competition.

There’s a growing appreciation that China — though it says it wants a multipolar world system — appears to be working toward a unipolar system in Asia.

And what the Europeans will see is Japan helping to guarantee the maintaining of a multipolar Asia.

I think that’s the correct way to think about the geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific and the Asia-Pacific. It’s not a question of stopping the rise of China or containing China — it’s about preserving a multipolar system in a multipolar Asia-Pacific region.

Europeans are becoming more conscious that multipolarity cannot just be a European thing; It also has to be an Asian thing too.

That’s where Japan really fits in and why we always have to remind people of the place that Japan has in that multipolar world.

It’s an argument that, in principle, shouldn’t be too difficult for the Chinese, because they like talking about multipolarity as well.