Japan’s post-Covid regional dilemma

Japan’s post-Covid regional dilemma

Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Koichi Hagiuda bumps fists with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok on Jan 13 as they cement bilateral trade and ties. (Photo courtesy of Government House)

Among the major powers that are moving forward with an eye on the post-pandemic era, when Covid-19 will eventually become an endemic with flu-like manageability, Japan is second to none. The visit last week by its minister of economy, trade, and industry (METI), Koichi Hagiuda, made front-page news in Bangkok, following similarly notable media coverage in Jakarta and Singapore. But while it has played a critical role in Asean’s economic development and regional security, Japan’s Indo-Pacific geostrategic environment has become adverse with more downside risks.

Addressing these risks will require strategic planners in Tokyo to bite the bullet and emerge fully into the 21st century by coming to terms with what kind of great power they want Japan to be.

Japan offers more geostrategic weight than, say, Australia, which carries itself as a self-respecting, solid and straightforward middle power that is willing to put up an ongoing fight on tariffs and trade against China in order not to be bullied. This means Australia has been spending more on defence, bolstering its military hardware and capabilities, and aligning itself closer with the United States based on their bilateral alliance.

South Korea is another emerging middle power, less muscular than Australia but no less ambitious in projecting its soft power and positioning itself as a force to be reckoned with in the region, spearheading a “new southern policy” to leverage economic ties with Southeast Asia vis-à-vis structural security risks on the Korean Peninsula. Given North Korea’s nuclear threat, Seoul has no choice but to rely on the US treaty alliance and nuclear umbrella for deterrence and security.

Further afield, India is an upper middle power with nuclear weapons. It does not have the kind of resources and largesse to project soft power compared with Japan and South Korea, but its military reach and hardware are not to be trifled with. Indonesia, on the other hand, is an aspiring middle power that bases its status on its moral authority and power of persuasion. With a history deeply rooted in non-alignment, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country, the third-largest democracy in the world, and the lynchpin of Asean, practising moderate Islam within a secular state.

Thailand does not fit any of these moulds of middle powers, as its international reputation has been undermined by repeated military coups, dismal governance, and meagre growth prospects. But at its peak, perhaps in the late 1980s and early 2000s, there was the potential for Thailand to be a middle power of sorts, leveraging its unique geography and history combined with ambitious growth strategies and regional centrality. Now Thailand ranks more as an also-ran.

Japan ranks among none of these categories. It is more than a middle power but nowhere near being a superpower like the United States or China. If economic size and power were the only benchmarks, Japan would outrank and outstrip most other major powers, as it harbours the third-largest economy in the world. But the key measurement is the calculation of global power and its distribution of military might. This is a category that has hobbled Japan’s global standing since 1945.

That being said, Japan is gradually catching up. Its “defence agency” was upgraded into a fully fledged ministry of defence in 2006, although its armed forces are still referred to as “self-defence forces”. While its defence budget has been on the rise, Japan over the past few years has converted two helicopter destroyers into aircraft carriers capable of launching jump jets with vertical take-off capability. But while its strategic planners may have interpreted Article 9 of Japan’s constitution more loosely, the country’s renunciation of war as a sovereign right remains in place after 77 years.

Unlike other countries, Japan is constitutionally unable to settle international disputes by the threat or use of force. This means it has to rely on the US treaty alliance and nuclear protection much like South Korea but with a different set of geostrategic challenges. Japan, for example, has had to confront China’s aggressiveness in the East China Sea, while America’s reliability was called into question under the administration of former president Donald Trump.

Tokyo has addressed these dilemmas related to its power status by bolstering joint efforts with like-minded allies and partners, such as Australia. It has also taken part in the Quad, which originated from former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s vision and 2007 speech of the “confluence” of the Pacific and India oceans, with Australia, India, and the United States. There is even talk of Japan’s ability to go “nuclear” at short notice if push comes to shove, and without any viable alternatives.

But Japan’s secret weapon thus far is not its military. Its geoeconomic heft underpins what Japan does geopolitically. METI Minister Hagiuda’s choice of Asean countries on his regional tour — Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand — was telling. These are places — Southeast Asia’s maritime fulcrum, mainland hub, and island vortex of commerce and finance — where Japan has staked its economic future and plotted its trajectory with Asean for the next decades.

As China is unable and unwilling to reopen its borders while the United States and major European countries are increasingly able to live with the pandemic, the geostrategic environment will likely heat up. China may be forced to rely on its huge internal market, stoking nationalist sentiment at home and possibly lashing out at others outside. The United States may react in kind given its own domestic stress and strain.

While it has Asean as a ready bunch of allies and partners to maintain peace and stability in the region, Japan may soon have no choice but to chart its own geostrategic path. In the post-pandemic “new normal”, Tokyo’s desperate need to normalise the way it defends its national interests and security maintenance will become imperative.

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