Tokyo needs to focus on its role as a middle power
Approach toward Asia and the promotion of middle power diplomacyOne of the most important goals of Japan’s policy toward Asia is to promote further prosperity in the region through international trade, investment, and technological advances while making economic activities more environmentally sustainable and ensuring that the benefits of economic development are distributed more equitably. To achieve this future vision, cooperation with countries that share values and similar political and economic institutions is crucial. Relations with the United States remain an important pillar of Japan’s foreign policy. However, using the rationale of strengthening the US-Japan alliance, Japan should not neglect countries that are not allies or partners of the United States. To mitigate great power competition and prevent it from escalating into great power wars, Japan should deepen cooperative relationships with middle powers in the Asian region, such as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and become a driving force of middle power cooperation. While defending fundamental human rights and democratic principles, Japan should recognize the diversity of political systems in Asia and be sensitive to the different historical trajectories and sociocultural traditions in each country. Japan should resist moves to divide Asia into a struggle between democracies and autocracies and avoid an overly ideological approach to foreign policy. Japan should also be cautious about defining the Asian region solely in terms of the “Indo-Pacific,” a concept that has recently been used frequently in international political discourse. While the concept of the Indo-Pacific has the advantage of emphasizing the importance of freedom of navigation and the security of long sea lanes vital to international trade, it has the drawback of viewing the Asian region primarily in maritime terms. The Indo-Pacific concept diminishes the importance of continental Asia and suggests an intention to counter or contain China. Rather than concentrating on a single geographical concept, Japan’s diplomacy should reflect a multifaceted view that also incorporates the perspectives of “AsiaPacific,” “East Asia” and “Eurasia.” Japan should reinvigorate its middle power diplomacy to build a more stable, peaceful and prosperous future for Asia. South Korea, which shares basic strategic interests and political values, is Japan’s most important partner in middle power diplomacy. Japan can also build on the meetings involving Japan, Australia, India, and the United States – the Quad meetings – and take the lead in promoting a “middle power coalition” of Japan, Australia, and India. Inviting other Asian middle powers, such as South Korea and the ASEAN nations, to the mix would lead to the formation of a region-wide middle power alignment. Japan should energetically engage China on the basis of partnerships with middle power countries in Asia and Europe to achieve stability in bilateral relations between Japan and China and cooperation on urgent transnational issues.
Regional economicsThe Asian region has achieved remarkable economic development since World War II. At the same time, economic liberalization and rapid globalization that have driven this development have brought to the surface problems such as widening economic disparities and environmental degradation. To mitigate such side effects and socio-political costs, Japan must place greater emphasis on sustainable development goals, which focus more on social and environmental protection. In addition, the negative impact of the Covid-19 global pandemic and the disruption of international supply chains due to the Russia-Ukraine war, as well as China’s “weaponization of trade” and economic coercion have become prominent as new challenges of economic security. Devising an effective response to these challenges is now an urgent priority for Japan and many Asian countries. Therefore, Japan’s regional economic diplomacy requires policies from three separate perspectives: economic liberalization, sustainable development and economic security. Japan has played an important role in the Asian region in areas such as financial governance, trade promotion and development assistance cooperation, including infrastructure development. Building on this past success, Japan should continue to play a leadership role in rule making and cooperation in each of these areas as a leading economic power in Asia and a global middle power. For example, Japan can make a meaningful contribution to implementing and expanding the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is widely regarded as a high-standard free trade agreement in terms of trade liberalization and order building. It can also help to devise an effective international debt restructuring program for Sri Lanka, which defaulted last year. In the area of infrastructure development, Japan should continue to promote and realize its proposal to standardize the international principles of “quality infrastructure investment.” Encouraging China to follow these principles would help steer China’s investment and support for infrastructure development toward sustainable economic development in the developing countries in Asia. In addition, while various frameworks for regional economic cooperation exist in Asia, Japan’s basic position should be “open regionalism” and the prevention of a fragmented Asia. From this perspective, Japan should promote cooperation under the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), as a founding member. But Japan should also consider joining the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), which was launched by small and medium-sized Asia-Pacific countries (Singapore, Chile, and New Zealand) and is expected to expand its membership in the future, as well as the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Regional securityIn order to maintain peace in Asia and to uphold Japan’s security, a certain level of deterrence is essential, but this raises the potential of a security dilemma. For deterrence to be effective, it is necessary not only to properly develop defense capabilities but also to provide some assurance to potential adversaries that their core interests will not be threatened. Also, in pursuing defense cooperation between Japan and the United States, Japan should not hesitate to actively and openly express its views on security issues to the United States. A healthy alliance is not one in which Japan simply submits to US policies and intentions, but rather one in which Japan confidently engages in strategic dialogue with the United States on a more equal footing. Regarding various Asian security issues, Japan should skillfully balance deterrence and diplomacy and pursue policies that contribute to reducing tensions and preventing crises.
Transnational challengesJapan has heretofore made considerable contributions through international organizations and bilateral aid to address transnational issues such as global warming, pandemics of infectious diseases, and refugees from conflict in unstable regions. Based on this track record, Japan should continue to demonstrate its leadership in this area as a responsible major Asian country and a leading global middle power. In addition, as an economically developed liberal democracy, Japan has an international responsibility to defend and promote universal human rights. In this regard, the concept of “human security,” which Japan has long advocated, is effective in dealing with these transnational challenges in Asia, where many countries tend to emphasize national sovereignty and a variety of political systems exist. Therefore, Japan needs to promote more inclusive and effective regional and international cooperation, while keeping this concept as a basic principle and acting as a bridge across the geopolitical and ideological divides that have become more pronounced in recent years. Specifically, Japan should work with other Asian countries to ensure that public health cooperation, such as Covid-19 vaccine provision, is not unnecessarily drawn into the intensifying Sino-American strategic competition.
Major recommendationsBased on the above ideas, here are our specific recommendations for Japanese policy toward Asia:
- In order to develop middle power diplomacy, lead the promotion of a “middle power coalition” of Japan, Australia, and India, which could drive the agenda-setting of the Quad (Japan, Australia, India, and the United States), and further strengthen functional cooperation with the Republic of Korea, ASEAN, and other middle power countries.
- In response to the South Korean government’s decision regarding the “conscripted labor issue,” make continuous efforts to improve relations with South Korea.
- Regarding debt restructuring measures for Sri Lanka, encourage China to participate continuously in the newly established “Creditor Committee for Sri Lanka” and cooperate by disclosing necessary information.
- Encourage the return of the United States to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and make diplomatic efforts toward the goal of simultaneous accession of China and Taiwan, which have formally applied for membership.
- Explore the appropriate timing with a view to joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
- With regard to rulemaking in the digital sector, consider applying for membership in the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), while promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
- Strengthen and deepen the doctrine of strictly defensive defense in the direction of enhancing deterrence by denial rather than focusing on counterstrike capabilities, which are less effective and have greater side effects.
- Encourage North Korea to conduct another investigation into the abduction victims and establish a liaison office in North Korea to carry out such an investigation, with the aim of resuming negotiations for the normalization of diplomatic relations with North Korea.
- Since a gradual, realistic, incremental, and reciprocal approach is needed to achieve the ultimate goal of denuclearization of North Korea, seek as a first step a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development programs.
- Based on paragraph 3 of the 1972 Japan-China Joint Statement, while opposing unilateral changes in the status quo from either side of the Taiwan Strait, clearly state that Japan does not support Taiwan’s independence.
- Acknowledge the reality of the existence of an issue between Japan and China regarding the Senkaku Islands and discuss with China ways to ease and resolve tensions over the islands.
- Urge the nuclear-weapon states to adopt a doctrine of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons and participate as an observer in the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
- Encourage inclusive transnational cooperation in the public health sector and work to reduce the negative impact of geopolitical tensions, ideological differences, and sovereignty conflicts on such cooperation.
- Cooperate with China to promote environmental technologies and develop low-carbon infrastructure in third-country markets to address the climate change crisis in Asia.
- Regarding human rights and human security, focus on improving the human rights situation at home while promoting a non-ideological, humanitarian approach that is practical in line with local realities in order to broaden support and cooperation among Asian countries
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