When it comes to increasingly fraught U.S.-China relations, Japan is facing a “be careful what you wish for” moment.
Tokyo, which has long pushed the U.S. to take a tougher stance against an aggressive China, is now finding itself caught in the middle as the two superpowers duke it out in the economic and security spheres — and over the response to the coronavirus.
But regardless of the results of this fight, from which a clear winner is unlikely to emerge any time soon, if at all, Japan must thread the needle with both countries, something Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already proven successful at doing.
In his annual speech before the Diet in January, Abe emphasized that the two Asian powers “share large responsibilities for peace and prosperity in the region and the world” and vowed to build a “new era” of “mature Japan-China relations.”
The remarks came after years of growing tensions and bickering between Tokyo and Beijing, mainly about lingering historical issues and concerns over Chinese moves near disputed islands. Over the past year or so, the relationship has steadily improved.
Abe had been eager to use a planned April state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to cement a new, forward-looking relationship with the world’s second-largest economy.
But then a mysterious and deadly strain of coronavirus began to spread rapidly across the globe from the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Japan was forced to confront the virus after scores of passengers and crew members aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship tested positive for COVID-19. At roughly the same time, the government dispatched charter flights to repatriate Japanese citizens trapped in Wuhan. As it became clearer that the deadly contagion would continue to spread, Abe came under heavy pressure to immediately close Japan’s borders to Chinese visitors.
But with the threat of a devastating economic blow on the horizon — and with a once-in-a-decade state visit by a Chinese leader at stake — Abe appeared reluctant to take sweeping steps to ban visitors from China like the United States and Australia did, disregarding calls from both hard-line conservative lawmakers and opposition parties.
Although China suspended all group tours in late January, Japan continued to permit entry to individual tourists. Later, the government limited travel from two provinces declared to be virus hot spots. All visitors from China were ultimately banned in early April.
Abe denied that Xi’s planned state visit had clouded his judgment to quickly ban entry to Chinese visitors. In early March, Xi postponed his trip and it remains uncertain if it will happen this year — or at all, considering growing opposition over Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong.
Japan’s blind spot
With tourist numbers tanking and factory operations suspended, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed one of Japan’s blind spots: overdependence on China.
Before the pandemic engulfed the world and sapped international travel, visitors from China comprised almost 35 percent of all tourists to Japan. Close to 925,000 arrived in January alone, according to Japan National Tourism Organization data. The figure plummeted to just 10,400 in March and a mere 200 in April, after the travel ban went into effect.
While the nation’s foreign direct investment in China was about ¥7.67 trillion ($70 billion) in the first six months of 2019, the government in April earmarked in its supplementary budget roughly ¥243.5 billion to assist Japanese firms in relocating their operations out of China. The funds were to help either bring those operations back to Japan or relocate them elsewhere.
But finding an alternative to China is no simple task, said Amy King, a specialist in Sino-Japanese relations at Australian National University in Canberra.
“From what I’ve seen in Japan’s case, a lot of the actual firms are resisting some of the efforts to diversify away from China because there are simply not very good alternatives,” King said. “And it’s actually harder than ever right now to open up a new manufacturing plant in Bangladesh or Vietnam.”
Trump’s shift on China
Concerns about Beijing may also turn out to be less vexing — or at least more predictable — than dealing with the United States as the administration of President Donald Trump contends with the volatile situation there.
Trump, in a double-barreled challenge to his presidency, is facing down nationwide protests over systemic racism and police brutality while also battling scathing criticism over his administration’s handling of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 110,000 Americans.
Looking to deflect some of the anger over these events as his campaign hits full-stride ahead of the November presidential election, Trump has unleashed his administration to mount some of the strongest attacks by the U.S. against Communist Party-ruled China in recent memory. These attacks and measures have not been confined to mere rhetoric. From Hong Kong to the South China Sea to Beijing’s coronavirus response and its phase-one trade deal with the U.S., the White House has been ramping up pressure on the trade, security and diplomatic fronts.
Beijing, far from backing down, has also bolstered its own campaign against Washington, slamming its credibility as a “beacon of freedom” and looking to take advantage of the current turmoil.
Amid the strife, Abe has spoken obliquely of a larger global role for Japan and building a new international order while signaling that the country will cooperate with other nations that share the “universal values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law.”
While some experts have said these kinds of remarks are undoubtedly aimed at Beijing, they have also warned that they could come back to haunt Abe.
There’s “no doubt these comments are targeted at China,” said Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. “But I would say when it comes to China, I think Japan is in the middle of a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment.”
Tatsumi said that Japan has long been frustrated with the lack of urgency in Washington toward Chinese assertiveness, and had long hoped it would come out as “more explicitly critical of some of China’s problematic behavior.”
“But now that the Trump administration has been demonstrating in no uncertain terms its hard-line stance toward China, Japan is feeling anxious whether it can align itself with Washington all the way,” she said, adding that this dilemma was likely only to grow as the talk of “decoupling” with Chinese supply chains continues and the U.S. weighs on allies like Tokyo.
Abe’s ace in the hole
Sandwiched between two global superpowers at each other’s throats, Abe has seized on the tumult as a blessing in disguise allowing him to flex his muscles in one of his strongest suits: diplomacy.
Asked at a May 25 news conference which country he would side with amid the acrimony, the U.S. or China, Abe avoided a straight answer but instead offered a carefully worded assessment saying that Japan would maintain ties to both countries irrespective of the rising tensions.
Abe reiterated the importance of Japan’s alliance with the U.S. but also stressed the importance of further incorporating China into the global rule-making process.
Beyond his dealings with the fraught Sino-U.S. relationship, Abe also appears to be forging his own path.
Late last month, he spoke with European Council chief Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen via videoconference, a hopeful indication that diplomacy — hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic — was re-emerging in earnest. The talks effectively served to reassure mutual support of multilateralism and solidarity despite the growing U.S.-China animosity.
What remains unclear is what Tokyo is willing to do if Washington or Beijing take aim at the multilateral groupings Japan has painstakingly helped to cultivate.
“Already the Abe Cabinet has navigated around U.S. retrenchment, but it has also taken on Chinese ambitions via coalition-building within existing frameworks,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “What happens when either China or the U.S. breaks one of these frameworks remains to be seen.”
Regardless, she said, Tokyo has a long history of building such partnerships as it pursues its interests. “We should expect it to continue — or even become more necessary — even as the U.S. and China deepen their antagonism.”
In the meantime, Japan certainly has areas where it can step up to the plate, like in maritime security, public health, rule-making in investment, technology and data-sharing, Australian National University’s King said. Still, Japan cannot independently exercise its leadership: it must choose to work cooperatively with China — or compete with it.
“I absolutely do think Japan does have the capacity to play a more important role, but I guess the caveat is whatever role Japan plays in the region, it will need to choose how it relates to China and to the United States,” King said.
“In particular, the United States looks increasingly like it may pull out of (the) regional and global order to some extent altogether. … But China is very much active and trying to shape an order in the region, so whatever role Japan wants to play, it will need to negotiate with China to some extent,” she said.
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