Commentary / Japan

It's time for the middle powers to step in

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the level of dysfunction between the United States and China. Both were unwilling or unable to cooperate on the most pressing challenge to the world today, and this places middle powers such as Japan in an increasingly abstruse position of navigating an international environment in which the main pillars of stability are in disarray at best or imploding at worse.

On the U.S. side, we have seen the Trump administration flounder with the COVID-19 death toll surpassing 140,000, the politicization of the virus’s origin, and an absence of leadership to marshal the collective resources of friends and allies of the U.S. to combat the spread of the virus.

This absence of leadership is worsened by the erratic and irrational slights against allies, friends and international institutions such as the World Health Organization, which further weaken our collective capability to respond to the pandemic and security challenges associated with China’s re-emergence as a powerful and assertive country in the Indo-Pacific region.

As with the U.S., China’s faux mask diplomacy and predatory behavior amid the COVID-19 pandemic have not been examples of winning friends and influencing people. Today, China is seen by many as a revisionist power taking advantage of the confusion and chaos associated with the pandemic to press its claims along the Indian border and in the South China Sea, and impose a new National Security Law that arguably nullifies the "one country, two systems" model of government in Hong Kong.

The international order that has provided so much prosperity and relative peace in the postwar period is undergoing severe damage by U.S. intransigence and Chinese revisionism. Examples are plentiful but include the WHO’s decision-making being influenced by donors, the World Trade Organization not being able to deal with trade imbalances and the U.N. Security Council being dominated by obstructionists state more interested in creating a world safe for authoritarianism than dealing with coming challenges to mankind.

In short, the international order under which we have prospered is badly in need of life support to ensure that it does not collapse completely. If that does happen, we will not be able to deal with climate change, regional conflicts, the next pandemic, arms control, managed trade or other challenges.

Middle powers including Japan, Canada, Australia, South Korea and others need to come together to form a new institution akin to the Group of Seven to provide critical life support for the existing international order.

Ironically, in early June U.S. President Donald Trump suggested a Group of Seven expansion to include Australia, India and South Korea — as well as the return of Russia to the institution, making the proposal a non-starter.

Critics of the middle power concept argue any latitude that middle powers have is causally related to their relationship with the U.S. and as such, any institution that is explicit in not including the U.S. would be unsustainable. The same is not true of China as the G7 already excludes Beijing.

Nonetheless, middle powers need to grapple with the reality that neither the U.S. nor China are implementing foreign policies with the interests of middle powers in mind, and both are becoming increasingly erratic.

What can middle powers do in an international environment increasingly being shaped by U.S.-China strategic competition?

First, it is critical that middle powers collectively fill the vacuum that the Trump administration has left with its "America first" policy. That means championing multilateralism in trade, diplomacy and security.

Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has demonstrated leadership with its commitment to bring the Trans-Pacific Partnership to fruition as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership despite Trump's withdrawal of the U.S. from the agreement. Japan has also signed the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement and the Joint Communication on “Connecting Europe and Asia” (EU-Asia Connectivity scheme).

These agreements exclude both the U.S. and China, and when taking a granular look at the agreements their participants are largely middle powers who benefit from multilateral trade.

All three should be expanded and existing members need to actively court new members to build a critical mass of trading partners that makes them less susceptible to economic coercion from nonmember states. First in line should be the United Kingdom and South Korea because of the size of their economies and complementary nature of many of their institutions.

Second, a concert of middle powers working collectively is needed to apply diplomatic pressure on actors that actively seek to pressure states through all forms of coercion.

If the logic of “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys” remains actionable and effective to divide and conquer middle powers, countries like Japan, Canada and Australia will be susceptible to targeted coercion as we have seen in the past, including hostage diplomacy and punitive economic measures such as tariffs, including those on agricultural products, steel and aluminum.

Collective diplomatic pressure must be applied when one of the middle power members is being targeted. This should have happened immediately with the arrests by China of the Japanese scholar for suspected espionage in September 2019 and the two Canadians in December 2018.

Along the same line of thinking when China put tariffs on Australia after demands for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, middle powers should have collectively leveled equal tariffs on Chinese products. No collective action means no cost for egregious behavior.

Third, middle powers need to build more inter-operability with each other. Japan and Australia already have regular security cooperation. The upcoming Malabar exercises with India, Japan, the U.S. and potentially Australia are illustrative of regularized security cooperation.

These should be expanded to include the U.S., European Union members, Canada, South Korea and interested ASEAN members. Areas to focus on to build inter-operability include search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, anti-piracy, the prevention of illegal fishing and maritime awareness capability enhancement.

These activities largely fall under the umbrella of nontraditional security activities and may not draw the ire of China as they could be seen as not overtly targeted at China. At the same time, these kinds of joint security operations are critical to develop shared norms among participants, trust and experience to deal with security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

Through security cooperation, middle powers can collectively find ways to burden-share their security needs within the region. Collective action may also be effective at tethering the U.S. to the Indo-Pacific by showing that middle powers are willing and able to increase their security contributions to the region, a long-time and reasonable demand of the U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in his second presidential inaugural address on Jan. 21, 2013, said that “for we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

Times have changed with the re-emergence of China as the biggest economy in the Indo-Pacific region and with the U.S. under Trump. To respond to these changes and remain steadfast to the values and norms that middle powers have fostered in the postwar period, middle powers such as Japan, Canada, Australia and others will need pursue collective action through the formation of a Middle Power 10 (M10) institution or grouping.

Collective action through middle power diplomacy is not a panacea for the severe strain the international order is now experiencing. Notwithstanding, an M10 aggregation of Japan and other middle powers may be able to create a critical mass to deter coercion and buttress existing international institutions until a more multilateralist U.S. re-emerges to jointly recalibrate international institutions such that they represent the needs and power dynamics of the 21st century, not the 20th century.

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

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