OPINION / ASIAN REVIEW
Will Japan fumble policy to behave like Australia in confronting China?
Published: May 17, 2021 05:59 PM
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met visiting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met visiting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo: AFP

In another anti-China move, Tokyo has recently officially identified China as responsible for cyberattacks on the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and other Japanese companies and research institutions in 2016 and 2017, according to Nikkei. 

It is rare move for Tokyo to go on the offensive to name Beijing as a culprit - despite the fact that it has made several provocations against China in the past few months. 

For example, in April, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden issued a joint statement that includes China as the main subject. The statement accused China of conducting "economic and other forms of coercion" in the Indo-Pacific region, even mentioning the Taiwan question. This is the first time since 1969 when American and Japanese top leaders did so in their joint statement. 

This year's Diplomatic Blue Book released by Japan's Foreign Ministry in late April used its harshest wording yet on China, labeling the country a "strong security concern" for the region and the world. Japan also threw itself in the mud by talking tough on China's internal affairs, including Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

All these remind people of what Canberra under Prime Minister Scott Morrison has done to China, prompting the question: Will Japan behave like Australia when it comes to dealing with China?

From banning Huawei to calling for an international probe into the origin of COVID-19, to the recent hype for war with China, the Morrison administration has been the most active agitator to confront China on behalf of Washington. This has been done with the excuse of a values-based alliance with the US - and the unwarranted national security threat they claim that is posed by China. 

China's countermeasures include indefinitely suspending a key economic dialogue with Australia. This is not only aimed at warning Australia, but also sounding an alarm bell to Western cliques, including Tokyo. 

Japan is hedging its bets with China relations. In terms of values and security, Japan stands close with Western allies, but it needs China for trade and regional cooperation. Even political relations between China and Japan have cooled down, negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that include both China and Japan went smoothly. Japan's Diet also approved Japan's participation in the free trade deal. 

From this perspective, there is little possibility that economic and trade ties between China and Japan will become as cool as their political ties - as we have observed with recent rocky China-Australia relations. 

China and Japan are neighbors, and the world's No.2 and No.3 economies with a high degree of interdependence and people-to-people exchanges. Compared with trade between China and Australia, economic exchanges between China and Japan are far more diverse.

Japan and Australia are both traditional US allies. But Japan is unlikely to become a vassal state of the US. Japan's China policy is largely decided by domestic groups. These include pro-China, anti-China, and right-wing forces. The US factor is just one variable in Japan's policymaking. 

Due to the rivalry among the various forces within Japan, Tokyo's China policy has shown some wiggle room. Suga said a stable relationship with China is important right after he became Japan's prime minister in September 2020. But his policy actually suggests otherwise. 

This general course of action has Japan's domestic politics to blame. Suga and his government are battling against the ravaging COVID-19 situation. He also saw lawmakers of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) resign due to bribery scandals. Public anger with vote-buying and bribery scandals, as well as the government's handling of the pandemic, and a tortuously slow vaccine rollout eventually led to a stunning setback for the LDP in three by-elections held in late April. Consequently, Suga has to act tough on China to win support.

Right now, political ties are at low ebb, while economic exchanges continue to flow between China and Japan. But bilateral relations are not as strained as those between Beijing and Canberra. The future course of China-Japan relations is not optimistic. Still, the degree to which Tokyo might take to confront Beijing depends on the trajectory of China-US relations and US-Japan relations - as well as Japan's domestic politics. 

The Japanese House of Representatives and the LDP elections are a few months away. China is likely to become a hot agenda in public discourse in Japan during this period of time. 

The author is an associate research fellow at the Center for Japanese Studies, Fudan University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn




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