Publication of working papers for the SPF project “Shaping the Pragmatic and Effective Strategy Toward China”
IINA (International Information Network Analysis) will upload the working papers written by U.S. and Japanese project members focusing on shaping a pragmatic and effective strategy toward China. We hope that this series will help IINA readers understand how experts from the U.S. and Japan see China and the U.S.-Japan joint efforts, which have the potential to determine the future world order.
President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio met virtually in January 2022 to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance and a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. From deterrence and alliance networking to economic cooperation and global health, their discussion revealed the depth and breadth of an alliance agenda designed to maintain regional stability and prosperity. The meeting also revealed an increased willingness to criticize China’s behavior as evidenced by a statement indicating the shared resolve of the two leaders to push back against Chinese coercion in the East and South China Seas. This illustrates the reality that the bilateral process for aligning their respective regional strategies requires coordination to manage strategic competition with China. Both countries seek to maintain a delicate balancing act between deterring Chinese aggression, countering China’s attempts to enhance its economic influence, and seeking avenues for cooperation with China where possible to prevent conflict. But China’s increased assertiveness in multiple realms naturally stimulates an instinct to push back and coordinate with regional allies and partners, and the current agenda for U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation reflects those prerogatives. The multifaceted nature of the China challenge also requires agility to both orchestrate responses to Chinese behavior and develop initiatives to shape the regional environment in favor of the existing rules-based order. The range of issues, coordination mechanisms, and partners featuring in the bilateral agenda suggests the U.S.-Japan alliance is up to the task.
The Biden and Kishida administrations have each introduced elements of competition and cooperation in their respective China strategies, though differing domestic political climates could impact efforts to neatly align their approaches. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of the Biden administration recognizes the challenges China’s increased assertiveness poses to the international system and emphasizes the importance of alliances in that context, while also noting that strategic competition should not necessarily preclude working with China when in U.S. national interests. But the pendulum in Washington’s China debate has swung heavily in favor of competition amid heightened concerns in Washington about China’s rapidly advancing military capabilities, the proliferation of legislation focused on economic security and enhancing U.S. economic competitiveness vis-à-vis China, and efforts to criticize China’s human rights record. The Biden administration has pursued diplomatic engagement with Beijing, but the Biden-Xi virtual meeting in November 2021 revealed a great degree of tension in U.S.-China relations and an emphasis on the need for “guardrails” to ensure that competition does not lead to conflict. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy seeks to balance deterrence and reassurance by indicating a willingness to compete with China while stressing that the objective of the United States “is not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.” This nuanced approach is arguably reassuring for Japan as a nation on the front lines of the China challenge.
Prime Minister Kishida has also expressed concern about China’s increased assertiveness and stressed the need to enhance deterrence by acquiring advanced defense capabilities and strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance. And while pledging to speak candidly with Beijing about Japan’s concerns, Kishida has also referenced the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations this year as an opportunity to pursue dialogue aimed at stabilizing Japan-China political and economic relations. The competitive elements of China strategy also manifest in Japan’s policy debate with discussions about producing a new national security strategy that could reference the potential to acquire counterstrike capability to strengthen deterrence; increased support for Taiwan and a burgeoning debate about Japan’s potential role in a Taiwan Strait contingency; and the introduction of economic security legislation to procure and protect sensitive technologies. The passage in February 2022 of a resolution in the Lower House of the Diet expressing concern about China’s human rights record without mentioning China by name simultaneously revealed an increased willingness to publicly address concerns about Chinese behavior and an instinct to do so in a nuanced manner so as not to provoke Beijing. (The decision by the Kishida government not to send cabinet officials to the Beijing Olympics but avoid references to a diplomatic boycott also exemplifies the sensitivity with which Japan is approaching human rights issues.)
Japan and the United States fundamentally share a desire to manage strategic competition with China by striking a balance between competition and cooperation. But in the face of increased Chinese assertiveness the emerging agenda for U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation understandably reflects the need to push back against Chinese coercion and coordinate efforts to shape regional narratives on economic integration and the rules and norms that should govern the evolution of the Indo-Pacific region.
Strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities and promoting interoperability between the U.S. military and Japan’s Self Defense Forces are critical to enhancing deterrence. The U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (or “2+2”) met virtually in January 2022 to continue aligning the respective defense strategies of the two countries. (As of this writing, the Biden administration was reportedly preparing to release a national security strategy and national defense strategy, while the Kishida government has launched internal deliberations that will culminate in a new national security strategy, national defense strategy, and five-year procurement expected to be released in tandem at the end of 2022.) Priorities for bilateral defense cooperation include more realistic training and exercises to advance readiness; a framework to facilitate joint research and development on emerging technologies; efforts to promote joint basing and enhance Japan’s force posture in the Nansei island chain (near the Senkaku islands); cross-domain operations including space and cyber; and progress on alliance roles, missions, and capabilities and bilateral planning for contingencies. The two governments also noted the importance of networking alliance cooperation with other partners such as Australia (Japan signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Australia in January 2022 to facilitate bilateral defense cooperation) and South Korea, though tensions in Japan-Korea relations have complicated efforts to strengthen the U.S. alliance network in Northeast Asia.
This is a robust agenda to be sure, but Japan and the United States face multiple challenges that will affect the pace at which alliance cooperation advances. Japan’s commitment to increased defense spending is welcome but it will be difficult to pursue investments in advanced defense capabilities absent a tangible strategy for economic growth. Japan will also have to establish procurement priorities to maximize the use of finite resources and minimize timelines for deployment to keep pace with China’s rapidly advancing capabilities, which could necessitate a more robust debate about the balance between indigenous development and defense equipment imports, or defense industrial cooperation to encourage joint development of new capabilities. Other issues such as the need for Japan to enhance information security could also affect efforts to enhance alliance interoperability. And despite repeated emphasis on the U.S.-Japan alliance and the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, the Biden administration has not announced substantial increases in force posture that would reassure Japan and other regional allies who might be concerned about the sustainability of U.S. forward presence as the Ukraine crisis intensifies. It is also worth noting Russia’s interest in China’s coercive tactics as evidenced by a joint naval exercise in October 2021 during which vessels from both countries traversed the Tsugaru Strait. Increased Russian assertiveness could require Japan to reinforce its northern flank in addition to developing capabilities aimed at defending the Nansei island chain. These and other challenges notwithstanding, the two governments have established momentum for defense cooperation and can be expected to unveil new initiatives in the near term that would send strong deterrence signals in the region.
The agenda for the U.S.-Japan alliance features coordination of priorities with like-minded countries that are also adopting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) framework to address regional challenges. Japan’s former prime minister Abe Shinzo introduced the FOIP concept back in 2016 based fundamentally on the rule of law, freedom from coercion, and open economies. The FOIP vision continues to feature in the diplomatic strategy of the Kishida government, and the United States, Australia, India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union, and others have introduced similar versions based on a shared commitment to preserving an open and rules-based regional order.
A prominent example of alliance networking under FOIP is the renewed emphasis on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) including Japan, the United States, Australia, and India. President Biden hosted an in-person meeting of the Quad leaders in September 2021 and Prime Minister Kishida is scheduled to host a second gathering in spring 2022 to review a series of regional initiatives ranging from Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy and infrastructure development to cooperation on critical and emerging technologies and climate change. Though not explicitly focused on security, the Quad countries participated in the Malabar exercise in 2021, which could serve as a mechanism to promote maritime security cooperation in the future. The Quad countries are careful not to explicitly reference China’s assertiveness as a motivator for their activities, though Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested the Quad could strengthen maritime security cooperation to “push back against aggression and coercion in the Indo-Pacific region.” The Quad countries also stress the importance of engaging ASEAN, which has introduced its own “outlook” for the Indo-Pacific. Largely isolated from the regional networking trend is South Korea, which introduced the New Southern Policy in 2017 focused on cooperation with India and ASEAN to support regional economic prosperity. Potential synergies between the New Southern Policy and FOIP should be explored to coordinate efforts aimed at shaping norms in the region.
The Economic Agenda
Japan and the United States are also bolstering the economic pillar of the bilateral alliance to shore up their economic competitiveness and define the rules and norms for regional economic integration as China attempts to enhance its economic influence in the Indo-Pacific region. In April 2021 the two governments launched the Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership to invest in developing secure networks and advanced information and communications technology (ICT) such as 5G; promote digital connectivity and cybersecurity capacity building for regional partners; cooperate on sensitive supply chains including semiconductors and the protection of critical technologies; support collaboration in areas such as biotechnology and quantum information science and technology; advance Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy and support for public health security more broadly; and develop a partnership to combat climate change and promote clean energy and green growth. This was followed in November 2021 by the Japan-U.S. Commercial and Industrial Partnership (JUCIP) organized by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) to facilitate cooperation under CoRe and engage other like-minded partners on maintaining a free and open economic order in the Indo-Pacific region. The two governments also announced the U.S.-Japan Partnership on Trade at that time to discuss cooperation in regional trade-related fora, labor and environmental issues, and the importance of a “digital ecosystem.” And in January 2022 President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida agreed to establish a ministerial level U.S.-Japan Economic Policy Consultative Committee, the “Economic 2+2,” to further economic cooperation and strengthen the rules-based economic order in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Economic 2+2 may take stock of the above initiatives but would be most impactful as a mechanism to establish a framework for alliance economic strategy reflecting priorities such as the agenda in both capitals to enhance economic security and competitiveness vis-à-vis China, or ongoing efforts to support infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific region as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Biden administration has also announced plans to develop an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to define objectives for regional trade, standards for the digital economy, supply chain resiliency, clean energy, infrastructure, and other areas of interest. The desire to engage holistically on the process of regional economic integration is encouraging but also arguably unsatisfactory for Japan and other countries in the region that would rather see the United States commit to substantive negotiations under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). That is unlikely in the near term, but remaining on the sidelines prevents the United States from setting standards in critical areas such as digital trade. Meanwhile, Japan, which is at the center of regional dialogue on trade liberalization as a party to both the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and CPTPP, will have to determine the extent to which China, which is in RCEP and has expressed interest in joining CPTPP, can have a voice in shaping economic norms for the region. The U.S.-Japan Economic 2+2 will surely generate momentum for alliance cooperation on economic issues, but the capacity to shape the regional economic order will be limited absent a willingness on the part of the United States to embrace free trade agreements as a centerpiece of economic strategy.
An alliance strategy to manage strategic competition with China should also demonstrate a shared commitment to promoting the principles of democratic governance that support regional stability and prosperity. President Biden has expressed his commitment to this cause:
There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward. And there are those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting all the challenges of our changing world. I firmly believe that democracy holds the key to freedom, prosperity, peace, and dignity. We must now demonstrate—with a clarity that dispels any doubt—that democracy can still deliver for our people and for people around the world. We must prove that our model is not a relic of history; it’s the single best way to realize the promise of our future. And, if we work together with our democratic partners, with strength and confidence, we will meet every challenge and outpace every challenger.
He has an ally in Prime Minister Kishida, whose policy platform stresses the importance of protecting universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law under the FOIP framework in cooperation with the United States and other partners. The Biden administration has declared 2022 a “year of action” on democracy following a virtual summit President Biden hosted in December 2021 to develop initiatives focused on countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. An alliance strategy on democracy in the Indo-Pacific region should not focus on responding to Chinese rhetoric on governance, such as a joint statement issued after a summit meeting between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in February 2022 attempting to redefine the tenets of democracy. Rather, Japan and the United States should encourage regional democracies to share their experiences and develop mechanisms to advance accountable governance, and work with allies and partners to coordinate initiatives in areas such as women’s empowerment or legal and judicial reform to support the foundations of democracy in developing countries. Expressing confidence in the benefits of democratic governance and incorporating regional voices in the global dialogue on democracy will go a long way in shaping the normative foundations of future stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
Japan and the United States are aligning their respective strategies to ensure stability and prosperity and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. That process necessarily involves close coordination across a range of issue areas animating strategic competition with China. Both countries recognize the need to balance competition and cooperation with China and ideally shape Chinese behavior in favor of existing rules and norms that underwrite the international order. In the face of increased Chinese assertiveness, Japan and the United States are developing a comprehensive agenda to strengthen deterrence and alliance interoperability; expand a network of like-minded countries in the region; encourage economic cooperation to shape regional economic norms; and champion the foundations of democratic governance as a blueprint for future stability and prosperity. The two countries might not always be perfectly aligned in their approaches to achieving common strategic objectives but have established dialogue mechanisms that will position the U.S.-Japan alliance to address a range of regional challenges with agility and manage strategic competition with China over the long term.