JFIR Commentary

April 13, 2020




Japan’s Grand Strategy in the 21st Century

By KANEHARA Nobukatsu

1. International Order in Transition and the End of U.S.-led Uni-polarity

Today, the international order is undergoing a fundamental change. Having escaped any severe damage throughout the two World Wars, the United States has long enjoyed its status as global superpower since the end of the World War II. However, with the rapid rise of emerging countries including China, the international standing of the U.S. is no longer an absolutely outstanding one, and its uni-polar hegemonic grip of the world affairs has gradually been lost. Under the circumstances, the U.S. has turned its attention to the question of how to deal with the emerging new super-powers. Yet, only, the U.S., with its liberal ideological stance, has natural aversion to Machtpolitik type of opportunism conducive to an agreement over dividing spheres of influence with countries with conflicting political regimes.

2. “New era of Great-Power Competition” and Strategic Interests of the U.S.

Graham Allison said in a recent volume of Foreign Affairs magazine that the world is entering into “a new era of great-power competition.” Immediately after the World War II, when expectation for the advent of ‘American era’ was growing high within the U.S., George Kennan called for a persistent strategy to contain USSR with the recognition that Eastern Europe should better be relegated to the sphere of influence of USSR. The US-China relationship today is quite similar to US-USSR relationship then. As the US-China tension escalates, we need to make sure to what extent the US is seriously committed to defend its own sphere of influence. The strategic interest of the U.S. can be described as ‘The Three Eyes’: Middle East, Europe and Northeast Asia. The US can commit to two prioritized regions simultaneously but would be too busy to deal with the third one. The priority changes based on the surrounding circumstances. Asia today is becoming America’s top priority region. I understand that the islets of Japan, Korean Peninsula and Taiwan are subject to US’ security interest, but how far it is willing to commit its military forces to the islands in South China Sea is unclear. Japan needs to be ready to defend Senkaku Islands by itself in the first place.

3. International Order in Asia and the Role of Japan

International security is the world of kinetic vision: only things in motion can be captured. However powerful Japan may be, Japan would not be visible if it is not in motion. In reality, Japan holds the second biggest conventional military capability within the G7 members, after the United States. Even so, it is not possible for Japan to defend itself alone from the nuclear-bearing military powers like China or Russia. Japan should think thoroughly the relationship with the US again, while making effort to maintain the current liberal international order by strengthening the coordination also with the other like-minded countries like Australia and others.

Having said that, the US is fundamentally a country of European origin, and its understanding of and interest in Asia would not be unlimited. Japan, therefore, needs to lead the effort to bring the US committed in Asia for the sake of regional stability. The economic incentive is as important as that of security. So, Japan needs to promote making more direct investment to the US, as well as to make its own market more appealing. By doing so, there may be a need for Japanese society to be reformed for the better. For example, wider acceptance of foreign workers to deal with the steep decrease of domestic working population; or inventing a global business model by utilizing the platforms services provided by so-called GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) are some ideas to be taken into account.

4. Difference between Japan and China in Approach to Infrastructure-Building

In economic field, Japan has made some significant achievements in the area of mega Free Trade Agreements (FTA) in recent years, namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and Japan-European Union Economic Partnership Agreement (Japan-EU EPA). China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) takes different approach from Japan’s infrastructure export. The Chinese model is based upon bilateral agreements, by expanding the infrastructure and trade networks to the close or remote surrounding nations by setting itself in the center, which is similar with how Russia manages the pipeline networks. Meanwhile, Japan’s infrastructure export strategy aims to improve the connectivity with 360 degree directions to promote the regional economic integration, so that the market mechanism would be functioning smoothly. With this strategy, Japan is pushing the concept of ‘high-quality infrastructure,‘ and that is the difference from China’s BRI policy. And the BRI also has, aside from its commercial aspect, a strategic aspect: China’s behavior regarding the Hanbantota Port in Sri Lanka (99 years lease from July 2017 on to Chinese state-owned enterprise, China Merchants Port Holdings) and the Port of Duqm in Oman have raised concerns over China. Yet some developing countries still welcome China’s infrastructure investment.

How the West deals with rising China in the next two decades will have a decisive impact on how the world would be like in the future. It has been some time since Chinese economy has started to slow down, but it is still growing and will continue for a while. That the growth rate of China did not reach 7% last year does not mean it is not growing at all, and the growth generated by the industrialization will not stop until the urbanization completes, the de-population and demography turns to aging society.

5. High-Tech U.S.-China Rivalry

In recent years, while China is flexing its economic statecraft (the use of economic instruments in pursuit of national interests), the US has been considering its counteraction. The protection of sensitive technologies of US from China is a big issue in this connection. The aspect of modern war has drastically changed from the old ones, the keys now are quick detection of the enemy, and integration of intelligence, which require the research developments of cyberspace and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to be utilized. Drones and other unmanned weapons, or bioweapon that is genetically engineered for designated persons or people are expected to be used in the real field. The US government is very much alarmed by the progress and the scale of civil technologies, that could completely change the current security conditions. Consequently, they additionally designated 14 emerging technologies as subject to export control under Export Control Reform Act (ECRA), and some offices have policy that they do not employ a researcher who has a history of working for China, even if they are an American citizen. Meanwhile China, conversely, is trying hard to find foreign researchers to work with. In any case, Japan must consider seriously how to face the era of escalating US-China competition.

(This is the English translation of an outline of the lecture delivered by KANEHARA Nobukatsu, former Deputy Secretary General, National Security Secretariat of Japan/ Distinguished Research Fellow at JFIR at the 320th meeting of “Foreign Policy Luncheon” by JFIR held on February 19, 2020.)