Japan is more powerful than America

Japan under new leadership : The geopolitical balancing act is becoming more difficult

- Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at 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-ruling Prime Minister. One of them is: can his successor, Yoshihide Suga Abe's geopolitical balancing act, continue - now that tensions between China and the United States are escalating.

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

Abe went to great lengths to favor US President Donald Trump, even when Trump claimed that US-Japanese trade was "not fair and open" and demanded that Japan contribute to the cost of American troops in the country must quadruple. Abe nonetheless excluded the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from setting up the Japanese 5G network without much ado, doing Trump a favor.

At the same time, Abe also cultivated relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and traveled to Beijing in October 2018 for the first Sino-Japanese summit in seven years. With U.S.-China relations in free fall, Xi Abes took up the peace offer and planned a state visit to Japan in April 2020, which would have been the first since 2008. The visit was postponed due to the corona pandemic.

It will be more difficult for Suga not to take sides in the conflict between the US and China. Soon he will have to make a decision about Xi's postponed state visit. The visit has met with great resistance in Suga's Liberal Democratic Party since the Chinese government passed a draconian security law in Hong Kong. A television-friendly state visit to Japan would be a huge success for Xi, who is all too keen to prove that the Trump administration has failed to isolate China.

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China's urge to reschedule the visit will put Suga in a bind. Fulfilling China's wishes would cost him political capital at home, but canceling the visit would humiliate Xi and damage Sino-Japanese relations. The only thing Japan's new prime minister can do is postpone the visit for as long as possible, with all possible excuses.

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 is investing more than $ 38 billion directly in China, with almost 14,000 companies operating there. So it would be economically ruinous and diplomatically expensive to fully comply with US sanctions against China.

Nobody knows how Suga, who was Abe's cabinet secretary and closest associate for the past eight years, can please the US on the technology issue without angering 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 USA also belong, Japan will have to respond to US appeals to participate more often and on a larger scale in naval exercises in order to contest China's territorial claims in the South China Sea .

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Last year, for example, a Japanese aircraft carrier took part in the naval exercises under the leadership of the USA in waters claimed by China. This was not followed by a strong reaction from China as bilateral relations between the two countries were improving. But the Middle Kingdom could attack Japan if the rapprochement initiated by Abe fizzles out and Suga works more closely with the US in the dispute over the South China Sea.

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

(The text was translated from English by Sandra Pontow. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org)

The missiles are still under development. But once America has produced sufficient quantities, it is difficult to imagine that Japan will not push to allow 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 geopolitical giants who are dueling - and the extent of the diplomatic challenge facing Japan's new prime minister.

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