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What the evolving international order means for Japan

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In the first installment of a three-part series, executives at the Asia Pacific Initiative — Chairman Yoichi Funabashi, Research Director Yuichi Hosoya and Ken Jimbo, Executive Director for the Japan-U.S. Military Statesmen Forum — discuss how the international order involving the U.S. and China has evolved over the years and how it has affected the Japan-U.S. relationship.

YH: Roughly eight years have passed since then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama held talks in February 2013, their first meeting after Abe’s second stint as prime minister began.

Japan-U.S. relations and U.S.-China relations have changed greatly since then.

At the time of the meeting, while Abe’s historical revisionist stance had been criticized as an obstacle to peace in Asia, U.S.-China relations were relatively stable under the Obama administration.

However, after Donald Trump became U.S. president, tensions between the United States and China heightened, leading to deepening confrontations.

The two nations’ clashes have intensified even further in the past year, after then-deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger harshly criticized China’s control over freedom of speech under President Xi Jinping’s government, in a speech delivered online in Chinese on May 4 for a symposium held at the University of Virginia.

Looking from the perspective of geoeconomic structural changes, how should we interpret those changes? What is the true nature of those changes?

YF: There is a big difference between the Japan-U.S. relationship of eight years ago and that of now. Because of fierce criticism of Abe, the Obama administration gave Japan the cold shoulder in 2013. Compared with those times, Japan and the U.S. are currently maintaining a very good relationship.

The Biden administration has high expectations for Japan. For instance, even before being inaugurated, Biden made clear that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty would apply to the Senkaku Islands.

Biden also expressed support for the so-called Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in a recently-held online meeting of the “Quad” alliance of Japan, the U.S., Australia and India.

The U.S. is apparently trying to get closer to Japan. Amid that background, it was obvious that the meeting between Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga held on April 16 would be a success.

This indicates that Japan’s strategic value, including its potential value, has risen greatly in the eyes of the U.S. in the last eight years.

This is attributable to the fact that U.S.-China relations had been through tremendous qualitative changes.

One of the changes was in China’s behavior, which appears to be based on the notion that the U.S. is declining in power and there is not much it can do.

China believes the international order centered on the U.S. is in the middle of collapse. That is how the U.S. thinks of China and we can say that is what prompted the U.S. to change its China policies and raise Japan’s strategic value.

Then, on the other side of the same coin, there is China’s hegemonic — or Sinocentric — way of thinking that China is, and should be, at the center of the international order.

China has the sense that it is supported by the majority of the world, including the United Nations’ family of organizations and those involved in the Belt and Road Initiative, and claims that Western countries, such as the U.S., are in the minority.

This doesn’t mean China is attempting to completely break the international order led by the U.S. in the past. But Beijing is showing clearer signs that it wants to lead efforts to replace the logic of Western nations that have taken the lead in the international order — those which it calls the minority with vested interests — with the logic of the global majority.

I think that is also something that has changed greatly from before.

Geoeconomic competition

There is another change that has occurred in the past eight years that we should not forget about. Geoeconomics — the economy having power, or even becoming weaponized — is playing a greater role in the global political power game.

The Trump administration repeatedly imposed higher tariffs on China to counter its geoeconomic threats, and the Biden administration is believed to be basically maintaining the same stance against China.

While the “Quad” grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States seeks to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, it significantly has not sought to involve China. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

In other words, U.S. geoeconomic policies toward China have changed little, even after the Republican administration turned over power to the Democrats, indicating that something like a bipartisan agreement is being formed.

A recent U.S. survey showed that 67% of Americans have negative feelings toward China.

I think they are beginning to feel the threat of China — not a military threat like the possibility of a nuclear attack, but rather the threat of battles over techno-hegemony in the fourth industrial revolution, including artificial intelligence, biotechnology and quantum computers, as well as cyberattacks, military-civil fusion, social surveillance, massive government subsidizing of companies in strategic sectors and expansion of influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

One example that signified the U.S.........

© The Japan Times

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