Manila – A century-and-a-half ago, Japan was jolted out of strategic complacency following the unwelcome visit of American Commodore Matthew Perry. Soon after, the Asian nation abandoned its 220 years of self-imposed isolation and embraced a traumatic but ultimately successful process of rapid modernization.
Nowadays, it’s instead China’s monstrous warships sailing through the East China Sea with growing impunity that have jolted Japan out of its decades-old strategic passivity. Notwithstanding, Japan’s postwar peace Constitution and the “lost decade” of economic stagnation, the nation is still blessed with the world’s third largest economy and Asia’s most advanced navy.
And here lies the immense significance of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s upcoming visit to the White House, the first visit by a foreign leader under the presidency of Joe Biden. The United States and Japan now have a unique opportunity to establish a formidable “G2” (Group of Two) to check China’s worst instincts and uphold a “free and open” order in the Indo-Pacific.
At the most fundamental level, a revitalized U.S.-Japan alliance should provide a viable alternative to China’s controversial Belt and Road initiative, while strengthening the ability of smaller regional states to defend their territorial integrity and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. As former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew once told his American interlocutors, “(G)ive the region options besides China.”
Despite all the New Cold War rhetoric swirling around, China is no Soviet Union. As the world’s leading trading nation — and likely the world’s largest economy in coming years — the Asian superpower is integral to the global economy in ways the economically isolated and stagnant Soviet Union never was.
Thus, there isn’t much room for applying George F. Kennan’s anti-Soviet containment strategy vis-a-vis China. A far more feasible and wiser alternative is what the late political scientist Gerald Segal termed as a strategy of “constrainment,” which draws on a cocktail of diplomatic, economic and military measures to counter China’s hegemonic ambitions.
Given the centrality of economic diplomacy to Chinese statecraft, it’s paramount for the Suga and Biden administrations to jointly develop a robust investment initiative in the Indo-Pacific. But, what should it look like?
If there is one thing we should have learned from the past decade is that neither the administration of Barack Obama’s strategic snobbery nor the administration of Donald Trump’s demonizing of Chinese investments really worked.
European countries joined the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), while as many as 100 countries, including Italy and New Zealand, have signed up to the Belt and Road initiative.
Upon closer examination, however, it’s crystal clear that there is no reason for strategic fatalism. The reality is that China is getting more bang out of mostly imaginary buck. Despite trillions of dollars in pledged investments, covering 2,600 projects in multiple continents, the Belt and Road initiative is still predominantly a publicity stunt rather than a true game-changer in the global infrastructure landscape.
By China’s own admission, up to 20% of Belt and Road initiative projects have been “seriously affected” by the pandemic. Many other projects, meanwhile, are either stuck in the planning stage, canceled due to regulatory and national security concerns, or hounded by allegations of corruption and debt diplomacy.
This is especially true in Southeast Asia, a new theater of great power competition in recent years. In Indonesia, the region’s largest nation, the much-vaunted Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway has been bedeviled by repeated delays, prompting Jakarta to seek alternative investors, namely Japan.
In nearby Malaysia, meanwhile, Chinese infrastructure projects have come under fire for bidding anomalies and scandalous overpricing. Worried about the fate of heavily indebted partners of China, no less than former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad accused Beijing of engaging in “new colonialism” through predatory investment practices.
Perhaps the most dramatic case is the Philippines, where Beijing-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to secure a single big-ticket infrastructure project from China, which promised up to $24 billion in investments back in 2016.
Even more interesting, Japan (at $367 billion) actually trounces China (at $255 billion) in pledged investments in Southeast Asia, where Beijing is still far behind its rivals in terms of actualized foreign direct investments.
Surely, public diplomacy matters. It’s essential for the United States and Japan to proactively promote their already significant investments across the Indo-Pacific, since China has seemingly been a better salesman in this regard.
But it’s not only about self-advertisement. Moving forward, the United States and Japan should create a new megainvestment initiative, which consolidates Tokyo’s pre-existing $110 billion connectivity fund as well as the Trump-era Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative.
Obviously, other major Indo-Pacific powers can and should chip in. Perturbed by Beijing’s growing influence, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) members as well as the European powers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom (E3) have a direct interest in the establishment of a viable alternative to China’s Belt and Road initiative.
The new free and open Indo-Pacific investment fund shouldn’t be about matching China’s investment pledges on a dollar-to-dollar basis per se. Instead, it should underscore the importance of high quality investments that uphold good governance and environmental sustainability standards as well as respect the national sovereignty of recipient nations.
Moreover, the two allies shouldn’t just focus on traditional, hard infrastructure — namely roads, ports and bridges — but also in cutting-edge technology, digital commerce, renewable energy, 5G telecommunications and human capital development, which are vital to long-term economic growth.
A joint U.S.-Japan investment initiative is also urgently needed, especially in light of China’s bargain hunting for strategic assets among heavily-distressed economies across the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Together with like-minded Indo-Pacific powers, the United States and Japan should enhance regulatory and oversight capacity of smaller nations, call out Beijing’s predatory investments and, if necessary, actively lobby against or submit counter-bids to Chinese investments in critical infrastructure of strategic nations in the Indo-Pacific, from Sri Lanka to the Philippines.
Any effective “constrainment” strategy will inevitably have to go beyond just economics. Washington and Tokyo should, among others, expand maritime security assistance to frontline states battling Chinese expansionism across Asian waters as well as provide emergency assistance and COVID-19 vaccines to counter Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy.
The good news is that in key regions such as Southeast Asia, there is immense good will toward both Japan and the Biden administration. In fact, Japan has consistently been rated as the region’s most favored external partner throughout the years, underscoring the promise and significance of the Suga administration’s proactive strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
As in the aftermath of World War II, when the United States and Japan jointly stood as the pillars of a liberal international order, once again the fate of Asia could be decided by what these two powers envision for the world’s most dynamic and contested region.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chair-holder in geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and author of, among others, “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.”
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