Japan: The third power
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - June 13, 2019 - 12:00am

Last week I wrote about the increasing possibility of China and the United States falling into the Thucydides Trap – a phrase which explains the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a currently dominant one. Competing can fall into the Trap also due to human emotions – pride, honor, nationalism.

In the United States, the one single issue that Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that containing and limiting the growth of Chinese power – economically and militarily – is the most important foreign policy and national security task facing the United States today. This view is shared not just by Western countries only but also by a number of Asian countries. The main driver for the formation of the Quad Alliance – Australia, Japan, India, United States – is to contain the increasingly aggressive actions of China.

 China increasingly believes that its destiny is to become a world power. This was best expressed by a prominent Chinese scholar Ye Zicheng: “If China does not become a world power, the rejuvenation  of the Chinese nation will be incomplete. Only when it becomes a world power can we say that the total rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has been achieved.”

The phrase “Zhongguo fuxing,” meaning national rejuvenation, has also been used by Xi Jinping. Another Chinese scholar Yan Xuetong has recently written that this phrase as used by Chinese leaders  means that “...it [China] becomes the dominant power in East Asia... China-US geopolitical competition will focus on East Asia rather than any other region.”

The current trade war between America and China is now being seen as only a part of a much larger struggle for supremacy in the Asia Pacific region. At the beginning, China was perceived to be seeking a conciliatory position. Recently, after the US started targeting Chinese companies like Huawei,  Beijing has begun hardening its position on the trade issues and is seeking to fan the flames of nationalism. Nationalism has always been a powerful instrument to forge national cohesion during times of crisis in China.

A protracted trade war is a high risk gamble for Beijing. There are already signs that the Chinese economy is slowing down. The imposition of additional tariffs could hit China’s export sector badly causing increased unemployment especially in the coastal cities. Last May, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang called on the provinces to create more jobs and to prevent the social instability that could follow increased unemployment among migrant workers.

The appeal to nationalism is, in fact, being perceived as preparing the Chinese people for an economic slowdown due to a protracted economic confrontation with Washington. Stratfor has concluded: “ Beijing’s tougher line on trade suggests it thinks it can absorb the economic. It also suggests it anticipates the United States might back down as US President Trump heads toward his 2020 electoral campaign while contending with multiple trade negotiations, such as talks with the European Union, a crisis in Venezuela and escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf. Further economic pain could, however, force Beijing to recalculate.”

JAPAN: Third Power

While most of the world view China and the USA as the two dominant powers in East Asia, some geopolitical observers are now arguing that Japan cannot be ignored as the potential third power in the Asia Pacific region. According to the Financial Times:  “Japan can only be ignored at its peril. It is still the third biggest economy in the world, a major generator of cultural power (unlike China) and a major military power that has just announced it will purchase more than 100 new Stealth fighters from the US. The two powers i.e. China and Japan, are fated to remain neighbors and that reality means that compromise through the creation of new regional structures is inevitable at least in the long term.”

The US and Japan are pushing a new strategy  called  a “ Free and Open Indo Pacific ( FOIP)”. At the moment, its meaning has not been sufficiently concretized. However, it is the declared foreign policy strategy for both the Trump and Abe governments in this part of the world.

FOIP’s core concepts has been declared to include freedom of navigation, the rule of law, freedom from coercion, respect for sovereignty, private enterprise, open markets, and the freedom and independence of all nations.

Japan’s foreign policy has been anchored on an alliance with the United States as a primary ally. There are now many forces  that may yet force Japan to develop its own independent foreign policy. Even if the current trade war is resolved, competition for dominance will continue between the United States and China. Japan will have to decide how to cope with a China that is bent on becoming the dominant power in East Asia which includes Japan. It is also very clear that China sees the FOIP as an attempt to limit its goal to become a world power.

Japan as an economic power is the only other country in East Asia that can compete with China. An increasingly aggressive China and an unpredictable American government may yet force Japan to accept the role as the third world power, at least in the Indo Pacific region.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on June 1, 22, 29 (1:30 pm-3pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration,  email writethingsph@gmail.com.

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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