East Asia Compass

US, China, and a Two-Pronged Japanese Foreign Policy

30 Apr, 2021    ·   5764

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra breaks down the complexities in Tokyo’s external relations

Japan continues to be the most important US ally in the Indo-Pacific. This is despite the dilution of its ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ into the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ over the past few years, and close cooperation with China in addressing the pandemic and its economic repercussions. In fact, recent US-Japan developments indicate that Tokyo is still poised spearhead Washington’s Indo-Pacific design aimed to deal with Beijing in the region. There are however complexities within Japanese foreign policy that could make this more difficult than it seems.

Japan’s primary importance in the US Indo-Pacific strategy was emphasised by the secretary-level visit to Tokyo for a 2+2 dialogue—this was the first trip made by the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense to the region. President Biden joined Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in a virtual Quad Summit, and the joint statement included the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. Most recently, and despite the pandemic, Suga made his first foreign visit as PM to the US in mid-April 2021. Both countries indicated their strong resolve to deal with the challenges posed by China.

The joint statement following the Biden-Suga summit was noteworthy because for the first time, there was an explicit identification of China as the “preeminent challenge” for the US-Japan alliance. It further stated that China’s activities were inconsistent with the international rules-based order. Human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang were mentioned, and the Taiwan issue was also raised after a long time. This was the first time since 1969 that the US and Japan identified Taiwan as a shared interest at their highest levels of government, and expressed an interest in maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

All these moves and pronouncements suggest that the US and Japan want to organise their bilateral relations through their common commitment to addressing the China challenge. Apart from seeking to balance China militarily, two initiatives were announced—the Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRE) Partnership and Climate Partnership—the first aimed at telecommunications leadership, and the second at decarbonisation and clean energy.  

Japan’s interactions with the US over the past few months are a clear signal that Japan is expected—and is ready—to be a bulwark against China. However, the reality of Tokyo’s foreign policy choices is much more complicated. Its substantial economic ties with Beijing creates an interdependence that can’t be ignored, notwithstanding an agreement-in-principle with the Biden administration’s approach to China.

Japan and the US are also not on the same page on South Korea; an important US ally that has exhibited reluctance to formally adopting the Indo-Pacific strategy. Following the 2018 South Korean court order to Japanese companies to compensate war-time forced Korean labour, Japan-South Korea bilateral relations have deteriorated substantially. In the most recent episode, Seoul displayed regret at the Japanese decision to release radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant  into the ocean.

Japan’s most challenging task would be dealing with its contradictory interests vis-à-vis China. On the one hand, in the security domain, it seeks to contain China’s overtures in the East China Sea. On the other, within the region, its economic linkages with China push it towards cooperation. In November 2020, Japan joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which also includes China, based on the realisation that multilateral economic cooperation with Beijing is essential for Tokyo’s interests. For the same reason, Suga noted the importance of a “frank dialogue with China” in his post-summit joint press conference. He has also sought stable relations with China via statements made on Twitter, observing that such stability is crucial not just for the bilateral relationship but for the region. An example of this balancing act was the March 2021 Japanese decision to stay out an initiative led by the US and other democracies to sanction China for human rights violations in Xinjiang.

This complexity within Japanese foreign policy is indeed stark. However, it is not unusual or unwise for Tokyo to seek balance: in trying to contain Beijing’s assertiveness in the security domain, and at the same time, cooperating with it economically through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. Both China and the US must provide latitude to Japan to pursue its two-pronged policy simultaneously. Equally, Japan must rethink its approach to South Korea, and transition to becoming a firm, principled, and constructive regional actor.


Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor at the Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.