By – Anudeep Gujjeti;
The formation of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security partnership has undoubtedly been a significant geopolitical development in the Indo-Pacific. This pact came in the backdrop of various nations shifting their focus to the Indo-Pacific and the formation of minilateral groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad). The AUKUS deal seeks to address the security concerns in the Indo-Pacific. This is evident from their joint statement, wherein it talked about this partnership as a historic opportunity for “the three nations” by recommitting themselves “to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity” in the Indo-Pacific region.
This is a significant development, not just in the Indo-Pacific but also among the comity of nations, considering the nature of the deal where the US and the UK are willing to share their nuclear expertise with Australia. In November 2021, the three-member countries also signed the naval nuclear propulsion information agreement to share sensitive information. This partnership has the potential to increase Australia’s commitment to peace and stability in the region and evolve as a net security provider in the region. There was no specific mention of China in the AUKUS statement, but it is understood that this pact intends to counter the growing threat of China and to limit its influence in disrupting the rules-based order in the region.
Both North Korea and China were quick to condemn the formation of this trilateral security pact, saying that this would disrupt the strategic stability in the region. China even went on to accuse that the member countries of the security pact are fuelling an “arms race in the region” and criticised them for being irresponsible. There were mixed responses to this framework from the regional stakeholders. Malaysia and Indonesia shared their reservations about the new nuclear deal in their backyard, which they think can fuel an arms race in the region. Whereas countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan welcomed this framework. While the debates are still on whether this pact would give rise to a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific, Australia has signed a military deal worth $1billion with a South Korean defence company.
Such action has the potential to spark opposition from China and North Korea. At the same time, Indonesia is in negotiations with France to procure Rafale fighter jets to boost its capabilities amid rising tensions with China. With all these developments, it is beyond doubt that the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a theatre of conflict of different dimensions ranging from ideologies, values, protecting national security and building capabilities. In this context, it is important to understand the role of Japan, a significant player in the region and an important stakeholder, in upholding stability and rules-based order in the region.
Implications for Japan
Unlike any other country in the region, Japan is facing a dual challenge. One is to contest the growing aggressiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific to maintain rules-based order, and second, to counter the threats emanating from countries such as North Korea and China to its sovereignty. North Korea’s continued missile tests pose a severe security risk for both South Korea and Japan equally, while China’s increasing adventurism into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone increases tensions across the strait. Any attempts to forcefully annex Taiwan will have spill-over effects and would disturb the stability in the region. Japan has genuine reasons to feel threatened because China would eventually concentrate on the territorial sovereignty of Japan by asserting its claim on the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in China). This fear is not misplaced considering the military adventurism of China elsewhere, be it India or Hong Kong or Taiwan and its disputes with the ASEAN nations. Former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe even commented that “military adventures are the way to economic suicide” to China’s leadership and a “Taiwan contingency is a contingency of Japan”, that requires US intervention. This drew strong criticism from China, and Beijing even held an emergency meeting with Japan’s ambassador to China.
In such a fragile strategic environment, Japan must change its course of diplomacy. First of all, Japan needs a strong political will to stand against the imminent threat posed by China. The Japanese political elite in the recent past has been maintaining a hard-line stance against China. This was evident even during the campaign for the Presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whereby all the four contestants, including Fumio Kishida, the present Japanese Prime Minister, have welcomed Taiwan’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Additionally, the G7’s support for Taiwan to join the World Trade Organisation reflects Japan’s efforts to work with other states to support Taiwan. It is still too early to judge Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s policy towards China, whose political outlook and vision is based on the principles of “Kochikai”, a faction of the Liberal Democratic Party of which he has been a leader and continues to be so till date. These are not only politically hawkish policies that irritate China but also to make a statement that any forceful occupation of Taiwan would mean an emergency for US-Japan alliance and would necessitate a military response.
Changing political stance would not mean anything unless it is matched with tangible changes in the strategic forces and on the geo-economic front. This is because Japan’s economic prosperity is linked to the stable, secure, free, rules-based and open Indo-Pacific and South China Sea and East China Sea. Any unilateral change in the status quo would mean an economic death trap for Japan. Japan exports around 22 per cent to China, excluding exports to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Exports to Greater China (which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong) will amount to 33.1 per cent of total Japanese exports. This is double what Japan exports to the US, and this scenario would become even worse if China’s application is accepted to join CPTPP.
Considering the tilt in the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and to avoid any type of trade calamities, Japan needs to diversify its export market, and its Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), in the wake of disruptions to the existing supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, is a step in the right direction. Still, it remains to be seen whether the countries involved (Japan, India and Australia) in the initiative can match the expectations. Even before SCRI came into picture the then Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe announced “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” on 21st May, 2015 on the occasion of the “21st International Conference on the Future of Asia,” which was later on revised as the “Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” (EPQI) at the G7 Ise-Shima Summit. EPQI intends to promote both “sustainable” and “quality” infrastructure in Asia to counter China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In spite of being one of the important foreign policy considerations of Japan, EPQI lacks the vision and financial prowess to match BRI in both scope and ambition.
To address EPQI’s limitations Japan can bank on another major initiative that has the potential to counter China’s economic clout is the US’ International Development Finance Corporation (DFC)-led Blue Dot network launched on the side-lines of the 35th ASEAN Summit in Thailand. The major drawback of this initiative is it does not finance infrastructure projects directly, unlike the China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative in developing countries. Instead, it is a standard-setting framework and raises doubts about whether this is a first-world solution for third-word problems. Apart from these, to promote Free and Open Indo-Pacific and secure Japan’s economic prosperity, Japan needs to streamline, with the help of India, the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and at the same time effectively implement Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement.
Another area where Japan needs to invest is modernising its military forces and apart from increasing its military spending Japans needs to actively get into bilateral and multilateral strategic agreements to build its capabilities. Being a member of the Quad is vital in many aspects although it started as an informal grouping of like-minded nations rather than a formal alliance. Though the Quad is not a security alliance, former Prime Minister Abe believed in the Quad’s power to ensure a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and support Japan’s heavily dependent economy on open sea lanes for its trade with the world. Other than forming a working group on COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, and supply-chain resilience, Japan and Australia pledged to promote security cooperation of the Quad to counter China’s assertiveness and maintained that strategic consultations with the other Quad partners are vital.
Similarly, an additional grouping with which Japan can further its cooperation is the AUKUS, as its scope as a security grouping is wider than that of the Quad considering its areas of cooperation. The AUKUS can be seen as a complementary grouping to the Quad and Five Eyes (FVEY), an intelligence-sharing alliance of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Japan, which is sometimes considered as the “Sixth Eye”, benefits immensely by deepening its cooperation with such a grouping, considering the geographical proximity of Japan to China and North Korea, and increasing it capabilities. In the same vein, signing of a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Australia will provide interoperability and cooperation between Australian Defence Force and the Japanese Self-Defence Force.
To conclude, it can be said that irrespective of all these, Japan needs to chart its own course of action in its neighbourhood without the support of outside players. This does not necessarily mean that it has to go alone in important geopolitical considerations, but be ready to act decisively in the event of a threat to its vital interests in the region.
Anudeep Gujjeti is a PhD candidate from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working on India and Japan relations in the Post-Cold War period. His research interests include Indian Foreign Policy, Japanese Foreign Policy, Indo-Japan relations, Soft Power, and Non-traditional security. He can be reached on Twitter @anudeepgujjeti.