So far, so good. Whatever anxieties may have lurked in Japanese imaginations upon the launch of Joe Biden’s presidency, they should have dissipated in recent weeks. It would be hard to script a better start to the new U.S. administration and its relationship with Japan.
U.S. diplomacy has underscored the primacy of the Japan-U.S. alliance in Biden’s foreign policy, the alignment of views between the two countries on key regional issues and the administration’s readiness to follow through on candidate Biden’s promises of multilateralism and consultation.
Little noticed among the many highlights of the first three months is the U.S. embrace of a more expanded conception of security, one with greater attention to economic issues — a hitherto undervalued dimension of the competition for regional (and global) leadership. This new emphasis will not only pay immediate dividends, but it plays to Japan’s strengths and will allow this country to better contribute to regional security.
Smartly and properly done, Japan’s national economic statecraft will make economic issues — once a source of bitter contention in the alliance — become instead a source of strength.
Reporting from recent meetings has focused on the convergence of views between Tokyo and Washington on hard security issues — the U.S. readiness to defend Japan and challenges posed by China’s efforts to shape the regional order to better align with its preferences, even if that means rewriting the status quo. Rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait and questions about the role Japan would play in the event of a crisis have made discussion of that issue even more urgent.
In contrast, there has been little discussion of the economic issues that once dominated bilateral discussions. A U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released earlier this month agreed, noting that “the major trend in U.S.-Japan bilateral economic relations over the past two decades has largely been easing tension, in contrast with the contentious and frequent trade frictions at the fore of the bilateral relationship in the 1980s and early 1990s.”
The leaders’ statement released after this month’s summit between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Biden instead used the words “economy” and “trade” in the context of joint efforts to promote a regional and global order that were both “free and fair.”
In other words, the two governments’ discussion of economic issues is a path to mobilization and cooperation, not contestation (at least between themselves). Tokyo and Washington recognize that competition with China occurs on many levels, and while the U.S. has historically focused on hard security concerns, the economic and diplomatic skirmishes are as, if not more, important. Securing the maritime commons is essential but the allies and their partners must also deliver tangible improvements to lives around the region and that may ultimately do more to win support in the contest for leadership.
This logic was first evident in the “Quad” leaders’ virtual summit, held last month, that produced a vaccine partnership, along with working groups on climate and critical and emerging technologies. Those same issues popped up in the Joint Declaration from the Suga-Biden meeting. Their “Competitiveness and Resilience Partnership,” announced after the summit, will focus on a COVID-19 response, global health and health security, as well as, climate change, clean energy and green growth, and recovery competitiveness and innovation. The pattern is hard to miss.
These issues are part of national economic statecraft, or the use of economic tools for noneconomic means. Typically, this conversation focuses in ways that economic leverage is used to extract concessions from partners, such as through the imposition of sanctions or restricted access to raw materials and components. These are, however, two relatively minor (albeit eye-catching) applications. Genuine economic statecraft covers a wide range of measures: Some are designed to punish or coerce partners; others are intended to help make friends; and still others consist of defensive measures to insulate countries against those aggressive and offensive policies.
Constraints posed by its Constitution have obliged postwar Japanese governments to focus on alternative ways to promote national security. Crudely put, Article 9 forced Tokyo to think more creatively about how to create peace and prosperity.
In a recent analysis, Kristi Govella, a professor at the University of Hawaii, assessed Japan’s use of economic instruments to shape the international environment, concluding that those tools have been used in targeted ways to address traditional security concerns. We’re going to see more of that as the competition between China and the West intensifies.
The emphasis on vaccine diplomacy is the most immediate application of that logic. As governments move from disease surveillance to vaccination, a divide between haves and have nots has emerged. Earlier this month, World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus denounced the “shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines,” noting that “On average in high-income countries, almost one in four people have received a COVID-19 vaccine. In low-income countries, it’s one in more than 500.” Failure to vaccinate means death, sickness, poverty, isolation.
The Quad’s determination to manufacture and export 1 billion vaccine doses will change millions of lives in real time. In the vaccine diplomacy competition, this can make a real difference. Real progress in climate change policies will do the same but over a much longer period.
The Japan-U.S. Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership is another dimension of economic statecraft, one that seeks to ensure that our two countries remain at the frontier of innovation, science and technology. This is the great enabler. Success will mean that Japan and the U.S. can find solutions to pressing global challenges — from minimizing the impact of climate change to preparing the world for aging societies or the impact of artificial intelligence. It will determine leadership in extraterrestrial efforts — from Mars exploration to mining the moon — as well as projects to manipulate DNA and create vaccines.
This competition will be even more consequential than military ones and yet as Govella notes, the tools of economic statecraft are not so threatening, which reduces the danger that they will provoke a negative reaction from others.
And, most importantly, this competition suits Japan. In addition to the longstanding comprehensive security framework, the country has been honing its bureaucratic infrastructure to address these issues. While the COVID-19 outbreak has distracted some of those officials, the effort continues amid reports that a think tank will be set up to focus on economic security.
Of course, as noted in previous columns, all the preparation and insight is for naught without political buy-in — and the U.S. too must credit its ally for its work and contributions. So far, the indications are good for both.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.