The following is an edited transcript of an interview which took place with Toshihiro Nakayama.
Yasuhide Nakayama raised concerns over Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific, calling Taiwan a red line. What challenges does China pose for Japan and how is Japan managing this dynamic?
If something were to happen to Taiwan, not many would disagree that there would be a fundamental change in the geopolitical outlook in East Asia. Japan does not see China’s rise in itself as a threat. I think the way China seeks to enhance its influence, as well as the way it has risen, poses serious concerns though. From the Japanese perspective, it seems like China is trying to undermine the free and open order that we cherish. That is a concern. Japan used to subscribe to convergence theory, the notion that China would eventually become a constructive member of the liberal order.
In the 1990s, policy dialogue in the Asia Pacific regarding Japanese-Chinese relations was optimistic, we often engaged in discussion about the potential for peace and cooperation. Today this sentiment seems hollow. We realized, sooner than other countries, in the late 2000s, that convergence theory was an inaccurate way of assessing China’s behaviour. In particular, the Senkaku incidents were transformative events for us. Ultimately, Japan cannot handle China’s rise alone, that we know. We need good partners. There is a strong consensus among allies that America must play a major role in the Asia Pacific. This was not always the sentiment, but it has become clear that our relationship with the U.S is of critical importance for Japan when it comes to facing China’s rise.
Would a China-centric order in the Indo-Pacific undermine the conditions that have made the region prosperous?
It is unclear whether China fully understands the role it is going to be playing twenty or thirty years from now, however, we have observed China’s actions. From this, we understand their vision for the future. Given China’s conduct in the South and East China Seas, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and domestically, it is not unrealistic to assume that a China-centric order would undermine the conditions that have made this region prosperous and dynamic. Japan is sending a message that a China-centric order is undesirable. Many countries have echoed our concerns, from South-East Asia to Australia. That does not mean that we will counter and confront though. Avoiding the escalation of tensions is an important element of Japan’s foreign policy. But Japan will not back off entirely. The liberal international order has been the basis of a prosperous Asia Pacific and Indo Pacific. This is something we must uphold together.
How did the Trump administration’s approach to China impact Japan and Japan-U.S relations? What are the implications of Biden’s presidency thus far and in the near term?
Prime Minister Abe was criticized in Japan for mingling too much with Trump. Other leaders of Western democracies like President Macron and Prime Minister Trudeau tried to establish rapport with Mr. Trump but did not back down when it came to important issues like upholding the liberal international order and democratic governance. Prime Minister Abe aligned with Trump without hesitation, which was criticized to a degree. I was not proud of this, but I thought it was the right thing to do. The U.S-Japan alliance is at the foundation of Japan’s national security policy, and we always assumed that the Trump era would not last forever. Japan is not a Trumpian nation. We need to align with and cooperate with the U.S regardless of who is elected as President. It is not our job to tell Americans who their President should be.
President Biden has a different outlook than Mr. Trump, but I think we have learned that the emerging American hardline towards China is bipartisan and consensus-based. If the liberal international order is to be upheld and if Japan is to address China, the U.S has to be a resident power in this region. Southeast Asia must be on board too. Australia is becoming a key player, as is Europe. Canada can be a valuable partner too. Our two nations share similar outlooks and values. We have to do this together, but U.S commitment at the center is required. Without America, this multilateral effort would not be credible or effective.
Are the partisanship and political polarization in U.S politics potentially destabilizing for multilateral alliances and partnerships necessary to tackle global challenges, such as the ones China poses?
U.S-Japan relations do not exist in a vacuum. The U.S-Japan alliance can only function when America is seen as a credible internationalist player. In the high days of the Cold War, there was a strong consensus to counter Soviet aggression and uphold the liberal order. There was a general understanding that this was the role the U.S had to accept to counter the international communist movement. We do not see that anymore, but it is understandable. The U.S is withdrawing from Afghanistan after roughly twenty years, without really understanding the results of [the] occupation or its impact. The Iraq War has been perceived as unsuccessful and Mr. Trump had been extremely critical of America’s intervention in the region.
The U.S is not adopting an anti-war foreign policy, but America is surely tired of this kind of international engagement. Several regional powers are rising, and I think the U.S wants to surrender some of its responsibilities. This seems to be one of the dominant trends in the American body politic. In that sense, Mr. Trump’s message of America First found resonance. Presidents following the Trump era, such as Mr. Biden, will need to contend with this sentiment. Regional powers are growing in prominence and the U.S will not rise to its former stature—it is not going to happen.
American credibility is fragile. I think the Biden administration understands that. Some people have attempted to understand Biden’s middle-class foreign policy as a tool to bring back jobs to the U.S, but I disagree. The Biden administration thinks that to convince the American people that the U.S still needs to engage in international affairs and play a proactive role, internationalism must make sense to the ordinary American people. It is not about using foreign policy to create American jobs so much as convincing Americans that U.S internationalism is vital. As an ally, we have to articulate to Americans and the foreign policy establishment in the U.S that we are not asking them to accept all of the responsibility. We are willing to play a major role here as well.
If efforts to convince China to avoid challenging international rules and norms fail, what options do allies have to address China?
The expectation that China would join the community of nations in upholding international rules and norms has passed. Countries and regions are tilting more towards hedging. Japan has accepted more of a forward-leaning role in the national security sphere. Countries like the U.S, Australia, India, and Japan coming together to confirm our shared values and mission to uphold the international order is one way of sending a message to China. This is not strictly about power, but prosperity in the region, and the kind of order we prefer in the Indo-Pacific region. While we are not hesitant to articulate this message constantly, Japan has not addressed how it will act in case of some contingency in the Taiwan Straits.
There has been no national conversation regarding how we would act. An incident involving Taiwan would fundamentally transform the role that Japan has perceived itself to have in the post-war era and post-Cold War era. That is a conversation we need to have, but Japan is notorious for its slow decision-making. I’m concerned about this policy inertia and Japan’s ability to shift its national security and foreign policy to a new level. China will no doubt try to exploit these concerns within the Japanese domestic discussion.
In the Trump era, Japan was seen as a country without a Plan B. We have had to align with the U.S no matter who the President is. In a way, that is true, we don’t have a plan B. The Australians developed alternative plans during the Trump era, because they were so worried about U.S engagement in this region. We did not have the luxury of following suit, and our geographic proximity to China has had some influence here. Nonetheless, aligning with America is still our best option. The regional situation forces us to do more. This is an opportunity for Japan to accept more responsibilities and extend our scope beyond the narrow issues that we have been focusing on.
Some experts have called for an upgrade in the Canada-Japan relationship. How can we enhance our relationship to reflect the enormous changes in international affairs, particularly in the Indo-Pacific? Can and should we enhance our engagement in this region?
Prime Minister Trudeau and Prime Minister Suga met in the UK recently. There has been a constant dialogue between Japan and Canada on official, think tank, and policy levels. However, I don’t think our relationship has achieved its potential. It is good that there have been joint exercises like KAEDEX and KEEN SWORD with the U.S and Japan. The world our nations seek to mold is similar, but not identical. I think there is a big overlap though. Japan is facing a threat, trying to defend, and cherish what we have.
I think the basic position of Japan remains. We are a global civilian power that is very focused on development around the world, upholding democratic values, and free trade. That is why we signed onto CPTPP, even when the U.S backed away from it. The values, vision, and ambitions Canada and Japan have are similar in many ways. We have to enhance our capability to deal with the difficult challenges that we are facing in our region. Japan’s ambition, as a nation, is not to become a hegemonic power, but to become a global civilian power, which has a positive influence on global governance. In that respect, I think there is a lot for Canada and Japan to cooperate on. Canada has not specifically outlined an Indo-Pacific policy, but we can cooperate in other areas too. China’s rise poses a threat to the world order our two countries strive for and cherish. I hope that we can enhance our cooperation. Joint naval exercises would be a good start. They have become routine to a certain degree. These exercises send a message that we are together, which is a critical aspect of managing China in the region.
Toshihiro Nakayama is a Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy at the Faculty of Policy Management at Keio University. He is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. He was a Special Correspondent for the Washington Post at the Far Eastern Bureau (1993-94), Special Assistant at the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations in New York (1996-98), Senior Research Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs (2004-06), Associate Professor at Tsuda College (2006-10), and Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University (2010-14). He was also a CNAPS Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution (2005-06). He received his M.A.(1993) and Ph.D.(2001) from Aoyama Gakuin University. He has written two books and numerous articles on American politics, foreign policy and international relations. He appears regularly on Japanese media. Writes a monthly column for Japan News. Recipient of Nakasone Yasuhiro Award (Incentive Award) in 2014.