Japan clings to 'middle path' amid domestic, regional challenges
Japan’s normally sedate political scene is witnessing unprecedented drama. On July 8, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency in Tokyo due to the raging pandemic and banned spectators from attending the Olympic Games starting on July 23. This reversed an earlier position that 10,000 domestic spectators would be allowed at the games.
The popular impression is that Japan has not handled the pandemic effectively: There has been a major increase in deaths this year, while only 13 percent of the population has been vaccinated so far. The government’s insistence on holding the Olympics and bringing in spectators has been viewed as prioritizing corporate interests over public health. The ban on spectators is a late response to popular concerns.
Japan is embroiled in another controversy as well. On July 5, Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, said in a public speech that an armed attack by China on Taiwan would be a “survival threatening” situation, and that Japan and the US “must defend Taiwan together.”
In response, a Chinese spokesman described Aso’s views as “extremely wrong and dangerous,” recalled Japan’s “innumerable crimes,” and noted that the country still seemed to be coveting Taiwan, a reference to Japan’s occupation of the island from 1895 to 1945.
The spokesman reminded Japan that China “is no longer what it was back then.”
Both these issues are testing the abilities of Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, who assumed the leadership from his high profile and popular predecessor, Shinzo Abe, only in September 2020, after having served as Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary for seven years. Suga’s rise had been backed by leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who wanted to maintain continuity in domestic and regional affairs.
The past nine months have presented Suga with serious challenges relating to the pandemic and China. On the latter, Abe is a hard act to follow: He was a hawk who called for greater defense spending, a more active military posture, close ties with US-led allies, and even a review of Japan’s ban on developing nuclear weapons capability.
But Abe also prioritized ties with China, building substantial trade, investment and joint venture relations. China accounts for 23 percent of Japan’s exports, while Japanese investments in China total $130 billion and more than 7,750 Japanese companies function from China. Japan also hosts more Chinese tourists, students and workers than any other country.
Abe’s approach has been described as the ‘middle path’ — the careful balancing of ties between the US and China.
While the Japanese overwhelmingly tend to have negative views of China, over two-thirds also see the importance of economic ties and insist that their leaders find a way to work with Beijing.
This strategy is now under pressure. China’s perceived assertiveness in the East and South China Sea, its tough posture toward Australia, and its handling of matters relating to Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Uighurs in Xinjiang, have alienated many Japanese. On Suga’s watch, Japan has been pushed deeper into the US embrace.
In March, at a “two-plus-two” dialogue between Japan and US defense and foreign ministers, negative references were made to “China’s behavior,” including its “unlawful maritime claims” in the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
Following this, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned his Japanese counterpart not to be misled by other countries and to ensure that bilateral relations “do not flip-flop, stagnate or backpedal.”
A month later, in April, Suga was US President Joe Biden’s first foreign guest at the White House. Their wide-ranging agreement to shape a partnership in the “New Era” called for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait — the first mention of Taiwan in a joint US-Japan statement since 1969.
The Chinese foreign office accused Japan of acting as the “strategic vassal” of the US, describing their alliance as “ganging up to form cliques and fan bloc confrontation.”
These developments have furthered polarization in Japan regarding China. A sizable number of Japan’s diplomats, officials in economic ministries, politicians and many in the business community tend to support close ties with Beijing, while the country’s nationalist and military hawks advocate a tough line. The deputy prime minister’s latest public outburst on Taiwan reflects this divide.
The split is reflected in popular opinion as well. While the Japanese overwhelmingly tend to have negative views of China, over two-thirds also see the importance of economic ties and insist that their leaders find a way to work with Beijing. This could be facilitated by the Japanese adage “soron sansei, kakuron hantai” — agree in principle, disagree on specifics — which emphasizes that the substance of Sino-Japanese ties should be judged not by words but by specific actions.
This suggests that, since the economic imperatives driving the relationship remain intact, the ascendancy of hawks in Japan could be a temporary phenomenon. In fact, some Japanese sense more opportunities for themselves in the Sino-US economic discord.
Suga’s personal fitness as prime minister will be tested in September this year when the LDP chooses a party leader to spearhead elections to the House of Representatives a month later. In the face of such challenges, Abe’s “middle path” is likely to hold.
– Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.