Commentary / Japan

Japan's global leadership in the G-Zero world

by Stephen R. Nagy

On Monday, geopolitical risk firm Eurasia Group held its second G Zero Summit in Tokyo. Key themes revolved around the end of American hegemony, the geotechnical rivalry between the United States and China, the rise of populism and Japan’s emerging leadership role in forging a new rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and globally.

The G-Zero concept comes from the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, who penned a book in 2012 by the same name. In short, his argument is that the world no longer has a global leader as it did for most of the postwar period. For Bremmer, a leaderless world means more authoritarianism, the inability to deal with global challenges such as climate change and the erosion of the norms, values and institutions that have brought so much peace and prosperity in the postwar period.

Much of Bremmer’s prognostications have, unfortunately, become reality.

Today, the U.S. is eschewing multilateralism, is quitting the Paris climate accord and gave up (for now) the arguably most important geopolitical initiative in the post-Cold War period, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China and Russia have become disruptive geopolitical actors creating facts on the seas by building and then militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea and annexing territories in Eastern Europe.

China in particular is creating new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road initiative, and technologies that are fracturing our global economy and likely leading to the balkanization of the internet into a so-called splinternet.

How should and how can Japan navigate this emerging transformative and chaotic landscape?

First, it needs to be clear-eyed about the cornerstone of its peace and security, the Japan-U.S. alliance, but also the potential to cooperate with like-minded middle powers such as Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the European Union. “Like-minded countries” does not mean Western states; it should include South Korea, Vietnam, India and other countries.

Navigating the G-Zero world means Japan will need to use its decadeslong partnership with Washington to ensure that the U.S. remains engaged in the world and to curb unilateral behavior detrimental to Japan and other middle powers.

The immediate case in point here is the prosecution of a unilateral trade war with China while slapping tariffs on allies and partners. Collective action and a harmonized approach to reshaping China’s behavior would benefit Washington. Japan should continue to proactively lobby the U.S. along with other middle powers to use a multilateral approach to achieve that objective.

Second, Japan needs to prioritize leadership opportunities that can lessen the impact of a G-Zero world. Here, Japan’s track record under the Abe administration of leading multilateral agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan, and the Australia-Japan-U.S. Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership are critical examples of how Japan can inculcate stability and predictability into an unstable world.

Scanning the plethora of challenges that the region is facing, Japan’s constitutional limitations, deeply held pacifist norms and demographics mean it needs to concentrate its diplomatic leadership on multilateral trade, preventing the balkanization of the internet, developing shared 5G standards, promoting rules-based behavior in the humanitarian and development assistance, and climate change.

As mentioned above, Japan was indispensable in resurrecting the TPP after the U.S. withdrawal. Japan, along with other member should advocate for new members including South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan. Enlarging the 21st century trade agreement would help deal with many of the imbalances in the current trading system.

At the same time, they need to find a way to bring the U.S. back to the agreement. The CPTPP is transformative in its trading norms but it would be revolutionary if the U.S. joined, making it an economic counterweight to the Chinese economy. The focus on intellectual property rights, environmental and labor laws, and eliminating state-owned enterprises from the market ensures that market forces and rules-based competition, not state-led corporations with their infinite resources, are the drivers of growth and prosperity.

In the areas of technology, the internet and the digital economy, China’s current national development strategy — which includes the creation of a 5G network based on Chinese standards, a closed internet and the adoption of state security and national intelligence laws requiring data to be shared with the government upon request — is of deep concern for Japan and other liberal democratic states.

Japan, working with other middle powers, also has an important role in preventing the balkanization of the internet, the digital economy and technology as well. Given deep economic relations with China and both security and economic ties with the U.S., Japan needs to advocate for developing shared standards in the areas of technology.

Decoupling from China is not an option for Japan and other trading nations.

At the G-Zero Summit, Bremmer brought up the idea of a digital WTO (d-WTO) in which shared standards should be formulized through dialogue. Alongside this d-WTO or within it, Japan and its partners should spearhead an initiative to investigate and create a framework to develop globally shared ethics related to artificial intelligence and other transformative technologies.

This leadership needs to find ways to include China, not exclude it, as any global standard will need the Chinese to buy in.

The rationale is not complicated or based on a zero-sum mindset. AI and biotechnology are developing so fast we have neither the ethical nor regulatory frameworks to properly manage these transformative technologies so they are tools to bring people together rather than tools to create technology-based authoritarian regimes and a divided world.

As a trading nation, a rules-based maritime domain is also of paramount importance to Japan and other trading nations’ sustainable economic growth. Imbuing rules-based behavior in the maritime domain can keep sea lanes of communication open and not securitized.

Japan utilized the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision as part of its efforts to achieve this objective. Its leadership included convincing the Trump administration of the need for an Indo-Pacific vision but also canvassing countries to support Japan’s FOIP vision explicitly or align their own Indo-Pacific concepts to include rules-based maritime behavior.

With countries like South Korea, ASEAN states and EU member states having vested interests in ensuring peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, Japan should maximize its diplomatic capacities to bring in new partners directly or in frameworks that align with the domestic politics in each respective partner state.

Pivoting away from establishing a rules-based maritime order, Japan’s wealth, technological development and reputation should be used as a platform to multilateralize humanitarian and development assistance. South Korea, China and like-minded middle powers all have unilateral initiatives in the field of humanitarian and development assistance. Japan should articulate a vision in which states engaging in these activities pool their capacity and capabilities.

This pooling of resources will become even more significant and effective considering the increasing frequency of man-made and natural disaster crises.

Lastly, climate change is another area that Japan has huge potential to exert leadership with like-minded countries. Its experience overcoming the environmental challenges associated with its own high-speed development needs to be shared with China, Southeast Asia and South Asia. Efforts like the Kitakyushu Initiative, a city-to-city environmental cooperation initiative, need to be invested in and expanded so that environmental cooperation is promoted and depoliticized.

With Shinzo Abe now the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s history, he needs to continue to institutionalize his leadership achievements over his second tenure in office to ensure that Japan can continue playing a positive leadership role in the G-Zero era.

Multilateral trade, preventing the balkanization of the internet, developing shared 5G standards, promoting rules-based behavior in humanitarian and development assistance, and climate change should not be seen as the only areas where Japan can exert leadership. Rather, they should be understood as areas that reflect Japan’s capabilities, its values and its commitment to its postwar policy of being a key, ethical and responsible global stakeholder.

Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA)