China’s revisionist role in East Asia

Mason Richey & Michael Reiterer

As a major regional power and key US ally, Japan has a special role in influencing security and economic outcomes in the Indo-Pacific region. To begin with, Japan’s position relies on Tokyo’s alliance with Washington, which stations 50,000 soldiers on Japanese territory and provides the archipelago with extended nuclear deterrence. The United States is also Japan’s second-largest trade partner and a partner in democratic values. Japan’s ability to promote a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ depends on the growth and adaptation of this alliance, as well as on cooperation with other partners.
The biggest challenge in this regard is China’s revisionist role in East Asia — covering Taiwan, the South and East China Seas, technology competition, predatory economics and military modernisation. North Korea and Russia (especially given its strategic partnership with China) also pose security risks, while destabilisation from climate change looms on the horizon.
To meet these challenges, Japan must strengthen its US alliance in the short/medium term, which requires alliance management and investing more in defence capabilities, high-technology security, supply-chain resilience and cybersecurity. These investments should be made with an eye to military compatibility with the United States and regional economic statecraft. Tokyo must also consider other difficulties such as demographic decline and sustainable energy transition.
The natural extension of the US–Japan alliance is the re-establishment of US–Japan–South Korea trilateral cooperation. Washington, which operates a comprehensive alliance with Seoul, has prioritised developing trilateral ties as a basis for maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration organised a trilateral meeting on the margins of the June NATO Summit to which both South Korea and Japan were invited as ‘global partners’. This collaboration could address issues such as economic and technological security, supply-chain resilience, climate change, global health, non-proliferation, and maritime security and freedom of navigation. A more ambitious move could involve opportunities for tripartite ballistic missile defence cooperation and coordinated preparation for helping defend Taiwan.
Both Tokyo and Seoul, under South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, acknowledge the need to develop forward-looking bilateral ties to improve trilateral relations with Washington. Yet historical animosity and domestic political hurdles persist. Preparations for upper house elections in July limited the policy space available to the Fumio Kishida government to ease rapprochement with Seoul. Now bolstered by election victory, Kishida would be well served to extend an olive branch to Yoon. The groundwork was laid at the Madrid NATO summit, where Yoon and Kishida briefly spoke privately about improving relations post-election. South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin then made a follow-up trip to Japan, where he met with both his counterpart and Kishida.
Japan has also stressed cooperation with other partners outside the region, particularly in Europe. The European Union (EU) and several influential member states have developed Indo-Pacific strategy documents featuring Japan as a privileged partner. Japan and the EU also have an institutionalised Strategic Partnership.
On this basis, the 28th EU–Japan Summit held on 12 May 2022 emphasised joint efforts to strengthen the rule of law, bolster security and resolve conflicts by peaceful means, cooperate in digital technologies key to security, diversify supply-chains and collaborate in identifying infrastructure projects to jointly realise in part by utilizing the EU’s Global Gateway Strategy.
Japan is also accelerating its security and defence relationship with France and the United Kingdom, strengthening Tokyo’s national security position outside its alliance with the United States.
Increasing the military budget above the unofficial 1 per cent of GDP ceiling and revising the National Security Strategy are intended to ‘drastically strengthen Japan’s defence capabilities’, according to Japan’s Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi. As the ruling party has advocated, moving from the ability to intercept missiles to counterstrike capabilities would be another significant move for Japan. This could help turn Japan’s Indo-Pacific Vision into a Strategy.
Japan’s strongest and most ambitious attempt at Indo-Pacific leadership has come through its involvement in regional minilateral groupings. Japan came up with the concept of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, and in 2007 former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initiated the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the United States, India and Australia. Again under Abe, Japan was crucial in cooperating with the US in 2017 to revive the minilateral as the more robust Quad 2.0 that is on course to become an institutionalised provider of economic order-building (high-technology and supply-chain coordination) and public goods (COVID vaccines, maritime security and climate change support) in the Indo-Pacific.
Another regional minilateral in which Tokyo is a main player is the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, which includes Australia and India. Japan is taking the lead on the ‘Asia-Pacific Four’ (AP4) — Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia — by calling for coordination before and after the Madrid NATO summit, to which the AP4 were invited. The idea is to find actionable areas in which the AP4 and NATO can mutually contribute value-added (notably supporting Ukraine and pushing back against Chinese undermining of the rules-based order). Japan is also a founding member of the new informal minilateral ‘Partners in the Blue Pacific’, set to enhance support for Pacific Island nations in areas such as development assistance, resilience and regionalism.
On the security front, Japan’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific requires strengthening the US–Japan alliance, expanding ties with Europe, opening to regional minilateral collaboration and ensuring a strong position on Chinese revisionism. Tokyo should still pursue opportunities to work with Beijing whenever possible.
On the economic front, Japan’s free trade agreements, including multilateral trade and economic deals such as RCEP, the CPTPP and IPEF need piloting to maintain an open system under WTO rules. In this way, Tokyo can help shape the economic conditions that promote prosperity for developing countries, which will benefit both the region and Japan.