11 July 2024

With new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in power, Japan has become a heavy-weight player in shaping China-US relations. In his first major speech he reiterated not just that the US-Japan alliance remains at the heart of Japan’s security policy, but expressed readiness to improve ties with China.

Coming at this critical moment, his position on China is very significant. After all, Japan is now considered a gatekeeper of China-US ties. Whatever the new Japanese prime minister will do or plans to do will have ramifications for the world’s two most important powers, as well as the region. One visible sign is that China-Japan ties will be less tense if overall US-China ties are on the same wavelength.

Japan is currently the chair of the commission of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Last month, Beijing expressed its intention to join the CPTPP. China’s decision came as a majorsurprise, as it followed the recent announcement of the new tripartite alliance between the US, UK and Australia, known as AUKUS. Coming, as it did, Japan was caught off-guard, as the chair has to take part in the deliberations and no one expected it would come so soon. There was no problem when the UK applied for membership of the CPTPP early this year.

Japan’s attitude, as well as those of members of the CPTPP,will also hinge on whether the US eventually chooses to join the high-end free trade scheme, which it created back in 2013. So far, there has been no clear indication as to whether Washington will return to the new free trade pact. The 11 members would happily welcome both superpowers, as this would expand its marketplace, making it the world’s most powerful free trade bloc. After all, the Biden administration has rejuvenated the US faith in multilateralism, so re-joining the free trade pact could be a natural move.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives at the Parliament in Tokyo, Japan October 14, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

In addition, Japan is also a key member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad. Among Quad membership, which includes the US, India and Australia, Japan is in the best position to ameliorate ties with China. The Japan-China conflicts are not insurmountable. To show solidarity with its strongest ally, Japan has been vocal on similar issues taken up by the US.

What is more important is Japan’s own Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is inclusive by nature. Tokyo’s vision augurs well for the region. ASEAN welcomes Japan’s Indo-Pacific framework, as it is not aimed at China. Tension in East Asia could subside if both Tokyo and Beijing link up again and improve their ties. The new prime minister will face this challenge squarely.

Meanwhile, China can also do more to increase confidence in that neck of the woods. It is time for Beijing to reconsider the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and overcome the label of “Indo-Pacific”. With the new military alliance,AUKUS, as well as other military beefing up in Europe, it would be wise for China to support the AOIP and benefit from this inclusive regional architecture.

Indeed, both Japan and China can pair up and cooperate to operationalise some key areas of cooperation that would shore up trust all around. ASEAN has already held maritime exercises with both the US and China. Japan coming on board would improve the general atmosphere, which has been rather tense of late.

As the US and China have climbed down on the issue of Taiwan, both sides can now concentrate on trade negotiations and key bilateral challenges. Their cooperation in tackling the climate crisis and other serious transnational issues is important. The “extreme competition” between the No. 1 and No. 2 powers needs not result in an Armageddon. There is room for both of them to pursue their national interests.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn