Japan had to confront its own past to take on China

Singapore: There are 800 kilometres between Shanghai and Nagasaki, little more than the distance between Sydney and Melbourne. Between the Chinese metropolis and the Japanese port city are centuries of culture, trade and war driven by two of east Asia’s great powers and most populous nations.

It is why, as China has embarked on its decades-long rise from developing economy to superpower, Japan has adopted a cautious approach. It has maintained its post-World War II alliance with the United States as its greatest asset while pushing for closer economic ties with China. It recognises Beijing’s growing clout while attempting to integrate it into global diplomatic norms.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton, on screen, attend a video conference with Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi on Wednesday.Credit:AP

As Ryo Sahashi from the University of Tokyo’s International Relations Institute notes: “Japan’s values are rooted in inclusiveness and progressiveness.”

But its patience appears to be wearing thin.

On Wednesday, it signed a joint statement with Australia that backed Canberra’s campaign against Beijing’s trade strikes. The sanctions have flowed over $20 billion in local industry after national security, human rights and business investment disputes.

Japan did not stop there. For the first time in a joint statement with Australia, it singled out tensions driven by China in the Taiwan Strait and growing concerns over Beijing’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its erosion of democracy in Hong Kong.

The strength of a diplomatic communiqué lies in its historical and geographical context. Japan cannot move away from China, it is vulnerable to military conflict over disputed islands and its two-way trade is worth more than $420 billion, double the value of what Australia sells and buys from Beijing. It has a history of war crimes in China, but after decades of atonement, it no longer fears being accused of hypocrisy for its human rights stance on Xinjiang.

Importantly, it is the first major player in the Indo-Pacific outside the US to back Australia against China’s economic coercion. The concerns of the world’s third-largest economy are less likely to be swatted away by Beijing as momentum builds behind Australia’s diplomatic engagement with democracies in Europe and elsewhere.

“I think it signifies that Japan and Australia have become increasingly aligned on their concerns about China,” said Dr Lauren Richardson, an international relations lecturer and director of the Australian National University’s Japan Institute.

“Australia is obviously known as being more overtly critical of China. But I think Japan has tended, especially under former prime minister Abe, to be a bit reluctant to criticise China. ”

Japan, along with South Korea due to their cultural, geographic and economic proximity to China has taken the long view, slowly putting resources into diverting supply chains away from Beijing to minimise their economic dependence on China.

Diplomatically, they have deep government-to-government contacts, regular face-to-face meetings and have avoided the shock-therapy of Australia. It has bought them more time.

“That’s starting to change with Japan now,” said Richardson. “And I think that’s because Japan’s security environment is being increasingly threatened by China. Obviously, the Taiwan Strait is very close to Japan. And China’s stepping up its claims in the East China Sea, where Japan has a claim to the Senkaku Islands, as well as the South China Sea.”

The waters that surround Japan’s islands, Sahashi said, are more important than their military strategic value. “The sea area, including its exclusive economic zone, is the sixth-largest in the world and holds potentially vast underwater resources. Japan has the potential to become a resource-rich country.”

They are also the entry point to another key strategic battleground, south-east Asia.

The joint statement revealed that after underscoring the importance of a “strong and enduring” presence of the United States in the Indo-Pacific as their top priority, the centrality of the Association of South-East Asian Nations was next on the list.

China has spent the last week gathering support among the 10 ASEAN member countries through face-to-face meetings in Chongqing.

The group is looming as the key swing bloc between China and the Quad, which comprises the US, Japan, India and Australia. The Biden administration fumbled its initial virtual meeting with its leaders in May after a communications glitch meant Secretary of State Antony Blinken could not get through to the region’s foreign ministers. His plane was on its way to the Middle East.

“Japan has been willing to reduce uncertainty in regional security to facilitate the growth of so-called Quad cooperation and to send the message to China that it should focus on regional stability,” said Sahashi. “However, the success of such attempts are contingent on whether ASEAN responds to and cooperate with the scheme positively and whether China responds to the rising network of partnership by forming a hostile security network of its own.”

Japan is the largest aid contributor in the region and the bridge between the Quad and ASEAN if China is to be pressured over its actions within the rules-based order.

“What Japan does not want is for those countries to be beholden to China in any way,” said Richardson.

“Japan’s engagement in south-east Asia as a way to offset China’s influence and to enhance the capacities of those countries to defend their interests in the South China Sea.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison lands in Singapore on Thursday. His goals are said to be much the same.

Meanwhile Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton continue to meet with their counterparts around the world. In a joint statement released on Thursday, Australia and Germany said they would intensify their cooperation to support an open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific.

“Ministers also exchanged their views regarding matters related to Iran, North Korea, Russia and China,” the statement said. Notably, it was the first time China had been included among the group of rogue international actors.

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