No matter who wins in the US presidential election, the majority believe that the hegemony competition between the United States and China will continue. In such a complex strategic environment will Japan be able to minimize economic damage from the US-China conflict as much as possible, while managing concerns with China, including the Senkaku islands issue, by strategically promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)? This will be the most critical diplomatic challenge the Suga administration has to tackle, writes Taisuke Abiru, Senior Research Fellow, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
On September 16, 2020, the Abe long-term administration, which has the longest consecutive tenure in Japan’s constitutional history for 7years and 8 months, has finally come to an end, and Yoshihide Suga has become the successor prime minister. What will the new Suga administration’s foreign policy program look like?
Prime Minister Suga was involved in a series of diplomacy under the Abe administration as Chief Cabinet Secretary. In short, the foreign policy program of the new Suga administration will be to inherit and facilitate that of the Abe administration. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and the head of National Security Secretariat (NSS) Shigeru Kitamura have been reappointed from the Abe administration. Their stay suggests the continuation of Japan’s foreign policy and national security policy. The essence could be seen in Prime Minister Suga’s following statement at his first press conference after taking the office.
In the fields of diplomacy and security, as the environment surrounding Japan has become more severe, it is necessary to develop policies based on the functioning Japan-US alliance. We would like to strategically promote the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) to protect national interests and also build stable relations with neighboring countries including China and Russia.
Aiming for the total settlement of postwar diplomacy, we will do our utmost to resolve the abduction issue (with North Korea).
The Abe administration strengthened Japan-U.S. alliance by enacting security-related laws that allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense in a limited manner against the backdrop of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the growing military might of China and US’s declining presence in the region. It advocated the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative with the three pillars of (1) promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, free trade, etc., (2) pursuit of economic prosperity and (3) commitment for peace and stability and also promoted the quadrilateral security dialogue, or Quad with the US, Australia and India as core part of FOIP initiative.
Japan’s FOIP initiative and Quad’s security dialogue has been promoted with China in mind, which has been activating its maritime expansion into the East China Sea and the South China Sea while increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, including Southeast Asia, through its flagship geoeconomic project, the Best and Road Initiative (BRI).
Regarding Quad’s security dialogue in the Indo-Pacific, there are strong voices especially in the United States that it should be developed into a formal alliance organization in the future that could be called the Asian version of NATO. Recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has mentioned that possibility.
In addition, as will be mentioned later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who came to Japan to attend the Japan-U.S.-Australia-India Foreign Minister’s Meeting on September 6, said in an interview with Nikkei newspaper
, “If we institutionalize cooperation among the four countries, we can enter into the creation of a genuine security framework. We can discuss economic, rule of law, intellectual property and diplomatic relations in this framework. It will be broader than just military.”
The US Trump administration has started trade war with China as part of the battle for hegemony in high-tech fields including digital area.
Furthermore, the breakout of COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this US-China competition. Senior US government officials’ statements on Asian version of NATO should be understood against the backdrop of this trend.
However, it is worth noting that Prime Minister Suga has made clear his negative view on the creation of the Asian version of NATO. On September 12, at a public debate hosted by the Japan National Press Club with former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, the two rivals for the LDP presidential election, Suga commented on the Asian version of NATO as follows:
The situation in Europe, where NATO-type security alliances continue to work, and the current situation in Asia are very different. Especially, in the midst of the US-China conflict, the Asian version of NATO has no choice but to become an anti-China network. Compare to Europe, the countries in the Asian-Pacific region are still in the development stage, and their politics, economy and security are also very different. The creation of the Asian version of NATO may divide regional countries into enemies and allies.
Japan should aim to strategically promote the Free and Open Indo-Pacific based on the Japan-US alliance, which is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy. ASEAN countries cannot participate in the Asian version of NATO.
The alliance with the United States has been the basis of Japan’s diplomatic and security policy, while China has overtaken the United States to become Japan’s largest trading partner.