Japan, on the strategic front line, is trying to use a range of mechanisms, including economic levers, to maintain its security.
Japan’s Indo-Pacific policy development
As a trading island nation, Japan’s maritime focus did not disappear after the Second World War, it just demilitarized. Following the war, the country developed a world-leading commercial shipbuilding industry and fisheries sector. It largely had no cause to be directly concerned about maritime security as it was sheltered by the Pax Americana and was constitutionally constrained. However, in the last few decades, as a result of feeling increasingly hemmed in by China’s maritime expansion, Japan has rethought its place in the region, and in the process has contributed to reshaping global perceptions.
Japan is often credited with jump-starting the Indo-Pacific concept with the 2007 ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ speech given by then Prime Minister Abe to the Indian parliament in 2007. While there was a lag in Japanese institutional follow-up (Abe lost power soon after), the conceptualization gave an intellectual shape to an evolving strategic reality. After Abe’s return as prime minister in 2012, there began to be more of a structural focus in Tokyo on his vision of an FOIP, including in June 2020 establishing a team in the Ministry of Defence to look at Indo-Pacific affairs. This firmly established the vision as an approach that could survive changes of administrations, as have since occurred in Japan and the US. In their first call, both Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and then US President-elect Joe Biden reaffirmed their commitment for their countries to work together in the Indo-Pacific.
A core element of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is economic, in particular identifying and expanding cross-cutting sectors that allow Tokyo to displace China while creating regional security. Two of those sectors are energy and infrastructure.
The energy sector strategy is well developed, and combines multiple elements, incorporating: the Trump administration’s request for Japan to reduce the US–Japan trade imbalance; Tokyo’s assumption that liquefied natural gas (LNG) will become more important in the Indo-Pacific, especially as a lower-carbon alternative to coal; the concern that countries could become dependent on China for energy shipments and/or control of critical energy infrastructure; and the desire to keep sea lanes free and open not only for Japan, but for the region.
A core element of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is economic, in particular identifying and expanding cross-cutting sectors that allow Tokyo to displace China while creating regional security.
These elements prompted a policy decision that Japan should focus on becoming a key LNG supply hub for the region. That would allow it to buy LNG from the US and diminish the trade imbalance, provide regional consumers with an alternative to China, support Japanese shipbuilding, and improve markets for Japanese LNG technology and technicians. It would also give all those involved a vested interest in keeping sea lanes open and, if the worst happened, it would give Tokyo the ability to recall the merchant fleet (with its LNG supply still onboard) to supplement Japan’s strategic reserve.
The policy was formalized during Trump’s November 2017 visit to Japan, when the two leaders launched the Japan–United States Strategic Energy Partnership (JUSEP), considered by Tokyo an important plank in the FOIP strategy. Since then, Japan and its private sector have spent around $10 billion and have committed to investing or financing $10 billion more in energy supply chains, mostly in the Indo-Pacific. The effect has already been seen. In 2016, Japan imported 11.14 billion cubic feet of LNG from the US; in 2019 it was 201 billion cubic feet.
A major part of JUSEP was Japan’s other focus area for the Indo-Pacific: infrastructure – an acknowledged national security issue, but one that Japan could be involved with ‘peacefully’. Japan has a good reputation for building high-quality regional infrastructure. The goal is to increase its sustainable, transparent and well-built competition to Chinese proposals, including in collaboration with partners. To build its Indo-Pacific presence, Japan is willing to finance seemingly riskier and larger projects, such as Indonesia’s Jawa 1 LNG-to-power project. This economic approach is innovative and potentially effective, however, there are still gaps in Japan’s hard power capabilities.
Roundtable and interview summary
Japan Self-Defense Forces
According to interviewees, Japanese political leaders have had an uneasy relationship with the Self-Defense Forces. The military is poorly paid, with little effective interoperability, either among its own branches or with its closest ally, the US. There was frustration on the part of some participants at the lack of political support for an effective self-defence force, one that could at least engage in complex humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. One participant said, ‘Japan can’t even war-game about Taiwan [a Japanese priority]. If Taiwan becomes an issue, it’s 95 per cent the US, but we don’t even know how to support it.’ An exception was the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, which worked well with the US Navy; however, it was said that such an exception only went to show that it could be done when the will was there.
One reason why many in Japanese defence ‘loved’ the Quad was that it provided external motivation and support for action to fix deficiencies in Japan’s military. That said, Tokyo’s bilateral relationships with the other ‘Quaddies’ were described as substantially different from each other. The relationship with Australia was said to be sound, though the relationships with the US and India were a greater focus for Tokyo.
Japan–US strategic relationship
Underlining the importance of Washington to Tokyo, one participant said, ‘the basic strategy of Japan is: the Japan–US relationship’. The relationship was considered deep and durable. There was general agreement that the US shift of focus to the Indo-Pacific would survive a change of administration in Washington, though the Trump administration was seen as the first to effectively confront China, giving Japan more room, and more impetus, to push back itself.
Japan’s growing ties with India
India was considered as ‘very important’ to Japan. The perception at the roundtable was that this view was reciprocated, with one participant saying that India’s first ‘2+2’ dialogue was with the US, but its second was with Japan. Also, there are religious and historical linkages. However, in part due to India’s bureaucracy, working with India was described as ‘tough’.
India was considered as ‘very important’ to Japan. The perception was that this view was reciprocated, with one participant saying that India’s first ‘2+2’ dialogue was with the US, but its second was with Japan.
At the roundtable, there was a strong desire to grow the strategic and economic relationship, which already included regular joint and trilateral military exercises and, separately, engagement via the Quad. Additionally, there was increased interest in regional infrastructure development cooperation, some with potential strategic undertones. Participants saw that as a model to expand upon.
Economics as strategy: digital
Participants noted that a strong element of Japanese strategic calculations in the Indo-Pacific involved economic levers. Three elements of that economic strategy were highlighted: energy, infrastructure (both addressed above) and digital.
The digital environment summarized some of the other challenges that Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is attempting to address. The concern expressed was that China, and to a degree Russia, were distorting the economics around products such as 5G for commercial and strategic gain, and that Beijing was trying to set new rules and norms. Interviewees considered China a leader in cyber, electronic and space warfare; one said that ‘China could kill GPS right now if it wanted’.
Another interviewee noted, ‘If Japan and Western countries don’t work with ASEAN, China will provide ASEAN countries with telecoms, smart cities, surveillance. That’s a world we don’t want to see.’ Participants were hoping to collaborate with like-minded partners to develop transparent, rules-based digital growth, something seen as all the more important as countries were more willing to turn away from Chinese companies such as Huawei due to their perceived security risks. Participants considered Japan a leader in fibre optics but also said that it was critically weak in cybersecurity, and would need to work with partners to bolster those defences.
Japan’s Oceania focus
Geographically, along with ASEAN, participants repeatedly said that Oceania was a major priority for Japan. Within Oceania, Japan’s primary focus is Palau, followed by Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga (the three countries in Oceania with militaries). Japan is well-represented across the region, with eight embassies, and a new one opening in Vanuatu.
The major driver of Japan’s increased engagement with Oceania is China’s rapid advancement in the area. One interviewee said that Japan knew from its own history how strategic the area can become in case of conflict between Asia and America. Japan’s goal is to provide the countries of Oceania with financial, infrastructure and developmental options that enable enough national independence to forestall being inundated with Chinese loans and investment, and instead to help them to become supporters and beneficiaries of FOIP. At the roundtable, the perception was that Oceania needed reassurance that changing politics in other capitals, such as Washington or Canberra, would not leave them to fend for themselves in the face of a rapacious Beijing.
Japan’s goal is to provide the countries of Oceania with financial, infrastructure and developmental options that enable enough national independence to forestall being inundated with Chinese loans and investment.
To that end, Tokyo has engaged in large-scale (by Oceania standards) aid projects to build schools, airports, ports, solar power systems, desalination plants, and to help with disaster resilience and recovery, among others. It has been responsive to partners, as it showed when it funded the construction of the Pacific Climate Change Center in Samoa, addressing a regional priority perceived to be of less interest to Washington and Canberra.
There is also substantial defence cooperation, which is increasing. Before COVID-19 caused its postponement, a meeting was planned that would have included the defence ministers of Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga for the first time. In August 2019, Japan’s then foreign minister, Taro Kono, visited Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Fiji. Tokyo has also hosted the summit-level Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM) every three years since 1997 (PALM 9 will be in 2021), and in 2019 established a Committee for the Promotion of Cooperation with Pacific Island Countries consisting of more than a dozen ministries and agencies, under the Prime Minister’s Office. All participants said that Japan’s focus on the region would likely only increase.
As in other countries, there are domestic divisions in Japan. While the country’s defence and strategic communities are clearly concerned about Beijing, its businesses are heavily invested in China, muting some elements of strategic response. However, China’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis served as a shock to the system, spurring the Japanese government to announce funding for Japanese companies that wanted to shift their supply chains out of China, as well as engaging with the previously mentioned supply-chain resilience initiative with India and Australia. The long-term repercussions of a loss of trust in China as a sound economic investment could substantially affect Japan’s positioning, and could reduce uncertainty and hedging.
There are signs that, as in other countries, the concerns of the defence and strategic communities are gaining more weight. On the defence front, things are moving quickly. In August 2020, Japan held joint training exercises with the US military. In September 2020, Japan and India agreed a military logistics pact and to advance defence cooperation. Unless China suddenly stops its aggressive expansion, especially in the South and East China Seas, it is possible that Japan will increasingly line up with its allies and partners in a stronger, rounded stance against Beijing. However, it is also possible that domestic economic and political lobbies will successfully weaken any effective pushback on China. Much will depend on the direction taken by Washington, and how that affects Tokyo.