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Opinion

Shinzo Abe is redefining Japan's China policy for a generation

In trade, technology and defense, prime minister mixes engagement and wariness

Shinzo Abe shakes hands with Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Osaka in June 2019: Japan continues to hedge the risk of China's unilateral attempt to change the regional order by force.   © Reuters

Japan's position in Asia has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. The most important logistics base for the U.S. then, Japan now finds itself at the forefront of the U.S.-China rivalry, with far less resources at its disposal than it used to have.

While Japan's military spending was more than twice China's at the end of the Cold War, Chinese military spending is now more than five times larger than Japan's. Even though Japan has the third largest economy in the world, China's economy is now two-and-a-half times larger than Japan's.

The U.S.-China rivalry has expanded from geopolitics to the contest for technological supremacy and the trade war. China has emerged as a serious competitor with the U.S. in emerging technology development, and China is now Japan's most important export market.

All of this explains how Japan's security and foreign policies have evolved in line with the changing distribution of wealth and power in Asia and why they must keep evolving.

The National Security Secretariat was established in 2013 in the prime minister's office. Its first-ever national security strategy emphasizes Japan's "proactive contribution to peace," enhancing the Japan-U.S. alliance and networking with partner states, especially Australia, India and ASEAN states.

It says that Japan engages China on the basis of their mutually beneficial strategic relationship to encourage China to play a responsible and constructive role for the region.

Building on the policy initiatives of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration released the new defense program guidelines in 2013. Revised in 2018, they emphasize building up a defensive posture in Japan's southwest. The government also revised its policies for the transfer of defense equipment and technology and established a new agency in 2015 for weapons procurement and development.

In 2015, parliament passed a set of national security laws to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense under certain, though limited, circumstances. Article nine of Japan's constitution, of course, "forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."

More recently, in light of U.S. measures to tighten security control over Chinese investment in U.S. businesses and put telecoms company Huawei and other Chinese companies on its entity list which restricts exports to them, the Japanese government decided to shut out Huawei from Japan's fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless network.

Judging by his state visits over the years, Abe has expanded the geopolitical arena for Japan's engagement from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific. The implications are clear: because China under President Xi Jinping is likely to create its own sphere to achieve the China Dream of restoring its former glory and becoming hegemonic in the region and beyond, Japan has to work together with the U.S., Australia, India and ASEAN countries to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open.

This explains why Abe took time to bring back Japan-China relations to an even keel. The relationship was frosty when he came to power, owing to the DPJ-led government's decision in 2012 to purchase the disputed Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu, from a private person.

The Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, pictured in September 2012.   © Kyodo

But when China held the first Belt and Road Initiative summit in Beijing in 2017, to promote its trillion-dollar infrastructure program, Abe sent his chief private secretary and his party's secretary-general. China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited Japan in May 2018; Abe visited China in the fall of 2018; and Xi is expected to visit Japan this year.

On the foreign economic policy front, Japan under Abe concluded a free-trade agreement with Australia and the 12-party Trans-Pacific Partnership, and after President Donald Trump opted out of the TPP, Australia and Japan tried to save it.

Japan has also concluded the Japan-E.U. Free Trade Agreement and more recently the Japan-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Although Japan decided not to join the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, Abe announced that Japan will join China to fund BRI projects if certain conditions are met.

All these policy initiatives indicate that Japan under Abe is responding to the changes in the balance of power and wealth by deepening and expanding the U.S.-Japan alliance, aligning itself with its partners to build a network for security cooperation and expanding its regional framework from the Asia Pacific to the Indo-Pacific.

Aware that China cannot be contained, Japan, with the U.S. and its allies and strategic partners, continues to hedge the risk of China's unilateral attempt to change the regional order by force while engaging China in multilateral norm- and rule-building. It is also promoting cooperation in areas of mutual and regional benefits, including infrastructural development.

There is now a broad consensus in Japan on foreign and national security policies, as demonstrated by the unanimous parliamentary approval of the revision of the foreign exchange law and the more than 80% public support for government tightening of sensitive technology exports.

Abe is expected to leave within two years, but the foreign and security polities now in place will stay for quite some time.

Takashi Shiraishi served as president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies 2011-2017.

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