Japan under new leadership: the geopolitical balancing act gets tougher – political

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow in the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The unexpected resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for health reasons has raised many questions about the legacy of Japan’s longest-reigning Prime Minister. One is: can its successor, Yoshihide Suga Abe’s geopolitical balancing act, continue – as tensions between China and the United States escalate.

The US and China are essential to the peace and prosperity of Japan. America is Japan’s security guarantor and its second largest trading partner, while China is its largest trading partner and neighbor. After Abe was re-elected as head of government in December 2012, he expertly handled Japan’s relations with both countries.

Abe went out of his way to favor US President Donald Trump, even when Trump claimed trade between the US and Japan was “not fair and open” and demanded that Japan contribute to the cost of US troops in the country. must quadruple. Abe nevertheless ruled out Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from setting up the Japanese 5G network without too much ado, thereby pleasing Trump.

At the same time, Abe also maintained relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and traveled to Beijing in October 2018 for the first Sino-Japanese summit in seven years. As US-China relations were in free-fall, Xi Abes accepted the peace offer and planned a state visit to Japan in April 2020, the first since 2008. The visit was postponed due to the corona pandemic.

Suga will become more difficult not to take sides in the US-China conflict. He will soon have to make a decision on Xi’s postponed state visit. The visit has met with strong resistance in Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party since the Chinese government in Hong Kong passed a draconian security law. A television-friendly state visit to Japan would be a great success for Xi, who is only too eager to prove that the Trump administration has failed to isolate China.

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China’s insistence on resisting the visit will get Suga into trouble. Fulfilling China’s wishes would cost him political capital in his own country, but canceling the visit would humiliate Xi and hurt Sino-Japanese relations. The only thing the new Prime Minister of Japan can do is postpone the visit for as long as possible, with all possible apologies.

The Sino-Japanese summit is a symbol. Two other conflicts between the US and China are more explosive for Japan. First, the US will ask Japan to tighten restrictions on key technologies it supplies to China. Japan invests more than $ 38 billion directly in China, with nearly 14,000 companies operating there. So it would be economically disastrous and diplomatically expensive to fully enforce US sanctions against China.

No one knows how Suga, who has been Abe’s cabinet secretary and close associate for the past eight years, can please the US on the technology issue without pissing off China, or vice versa.

When it comes to security issues, Suga will find it much more difficult to be neutral. As a member of the so-called “Quad”, an Indo-Pacific security group to which Australia, India and the US belong, Japan will have to respond to calls from the US to participate more frequently and on a larger scale in naval exercises to assess the territorial claims of the US. China in the South China Sea. .

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For example, last year a Japanese aircraft carrier took part in US-led naval exercises in waters claimed by China. This was not followed by a strong response from China as bilateral relations between the two countries improved. But the Middle Kingdom could attack Japan if the rapprochement initiated by Abe fell away and Suga works more closely with the US in the South China Sea dispute.

One thing that could completely destroy Sino-Japanese relations in the next five to seven years is the deployment of US medium-range missiles on Japanese soil. Pentagon strategists want to move powerful offensive weapons closer to mainland China; Japan would be ideal.

(Text has been adapted from English by Sandra Pontow. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

The missiles are still under development. But once America has produced sufficient quantities, it’s hard to imagine Japan won’t push for the missiles to be deployed. Should Japan agree, its relations with China could experience the worst crisis since the two countries resumed diplomatic relations in 1972.

Of course, neither Abe nor Suga are responsible for these difficulties. However, they once again illustrate the predicament of a country wedged between two dueling geopolitical giants – and the magnitude of the diplomatic challenge facing Japan’s new prime minister.

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