National / Politics | Outlook 2020

Japan faces a diplomatic balancing act in 2020 as it seeks to manage ties with the U.S. and China

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Last year was an extremely hectic one for Japanese diplomats. Hundreds of world leaders visited to attend a number of major events, including the Group of 20 Osaka summit in June, an all-Africa development conference in August and ceremonies related to the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito held throughout the year.

So will 2020 be more relaxing for Foreign Ministry officials and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Probably not.

Japan will face a slate of diplomatic issues this year, some of which are likely to prove more challenging than those faced in 2019, having the potential to alter the global balance of power and Japan’s security environment.

In the spring, Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to come to Japan, the first visit by a Chinese president in nine years. Xi is apparently seeking to strengthen bilateral relations and economic ties as Beijing engages in a fierce trade war with Washington.

In the summer, Tokyo will host the Olympics and Paralympics, posing daunting security and logistical challenges for Abe’s government as dozens of foreign VIPs and hundreds of thousands of overseas tourists fill the capital.

In November, the U.S. presidential election will be held, with the results having the potential to transform the global power balance. North Korea and Iran are likely to adjust their nuclear strategies as they monitor the U.S. political situation before and after the Nov. 3 vote.

“Whether the Trump administration will continue or not will change the world and diplomatic environment for Japan as well,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

As Trump chips away at an international order based on values such as human rights, democracy and free trade, the influence of authoritarian states such as Russia and China has been growing in recent years.

If Trump is re-elected, this trend is likely to continue for another four years, which would help the year 2020 turn out to be “a major turning point for the history of the world,” said Yasushi Watanabe, a professor at Keio University and a noted expert on American politics.

“In that sense, the U.S. presidential election this time is very important,” Watanabe said.

The U.S. vote will greatly affect Japan, too.

Over the past three years, Abe has built up a rapport with Trump and yet barely managed to keep the bilateral relationship intact.

But this year, Trump is expected to step up his campaign rhetoric and could upend the Japan-U.S. relationship. For example, a bilateral pact on Japan’s financial support for U.S. military forces in Japan expires this fiscal year, meaning the nations need to start negotiations to renew the deal. Trump may demand that Japan pay more, just as he did in talks with South Korea about the U.S. troops stationed there, said Ken Jimbo, a professor at Keio University and an expert on international security.

In fact, Washington had demanded a staggering $5 billion from South Korea — five times more than the previous year — which brought the nations’ negotiations to a halt even as their deal expired at the end of the year. The U.S. later withdrew the demand after receiving assurances that Seoul would purchase more American weapons, according to media reports.

“Trump has always criticized the ‘free-ride’ of its allies and has consistently tried to increase (financial) burdens of those countries,” Jimbo said.

“The Japan-U.S. alliance cannot be immune to this logic, either,” he said, adding that such a demand from Trump could spark anti-U.S. nationalistic sentiment in Japan.

Jimbo also said he believes that the top diplomatic priority for Japan in 2020 is figuring out how to navigate the “intensifying strategic competition” between and the U.S. and China.

That’s why Xi’s planned visit to Japan poses a serious challenge for Abe as he tries to keep the alliance with the United States intact while improving bilateral ties with China.

In fact, there are significant differences in how Tokyo and Washington approach Beijing.

As U.S. President Donald Trump chips away at an international order based on values such as human rights, democracy and free trade, the influence of authoritarian states such as Russia and China has been growing in recent years. | AFP-JIJI
As U.S. President Donald Trump chips away at an international order based on values such as human rights, democracy and free trade, the influence of authoritarian states such as Russia and China has been growing in recent years. | AFP-JIJI

Many U.S. leaders regard China as a strategic competitor, deeply fearing its growing economic and technological clout, which could soon displace the U.S. In contrast, Japanese leaders are trying to take advantage of China’s powerful, growing economy.

“Japan believes it cannot avoid competition with China in terms of national security. But as far as the economy is concerned, (Japanese leaders) believe they can develop a mutually beneficial relationship,” Jimbo said.

“In particular, the Japan Business Federation and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry believe so,” Jimbo said, referring to the country’s most influential business lobby, also known as Keidanren.

When Xi comes to Japan, Tokyo needs to offer some “gifts” that the Chinese leader can point to as progress back home, said Watanabe of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. But he added that Japan needs to engage in a subtle balancing act to avoid hurting Japan-U.S. relations.

“It is the relationship of China and the U.S. based on rivalry that will determine future currents of world politics,” Watanabe said. “Japan now needs to maintain a certain balance between the two parties.”

In Japan, some conservative lawmakers are concerned over what they say is Abe’s appeasement toward Beijing. They oppose Abe’s plan to give Xi the red-carpet treatment by receiving him as a state guest, the highest level for hosting a foreign leader, especially as Beijing has detained several Japanese businessmen and academics over accusations of espionage.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said it is only natural for Japan to treat Xi as a state guest because most countries have given him similar treatment.

The official added that Japan should pursue its own China policy, suggesting that it could stand apart from the approaches of the U.S. and European nations.

“A Japan-China summit meeting won’t be exactly like those of the U.S. and European countries,” the official said.

The official also said that Abe has “a comprehensive view” of the Sino-Japanese relationship and that he will carefully handle it in a way that doesn’t damage Tokyo’s ties with Washington.

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