Japan has much to lose from a US-China bust-up

06.03.17 Publication:

East Asia has been
a paragon of peace for decades, but both North Korea and China seem determined
to remind the world – and especially their neighbour Japan – that this mustn’t
be taken for granted. On Monday morning, from a base just near its border with
China, North Korea launched a test of four ballistic missiles into the Sea of
Japan, three of which landed in Japanese waters. And last week Japan made its
largest scrambling of fighter jets in modern times to intercept and shadow a
fleet of 13 Chinese bombers, fighters and reconnaissance planes that flew
through the straits nearby the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

Shows of North
Korean and Chinese force of that sort make Japan’s government happy that Donald
Trump is proposing a big rise in US defence spending. Sceptical that China will
really lean hard on its highly dependent North Korean ally, Japan is also
quietly pleased that President Trump has used confrontational language about
China over both Taiwan and trade.

Accordingly, Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to curry favour with President Trump have made
Theresa May’s look positively restrained. Yet Japan should be careful what it
wishes for. It has much to lose from a US-China bust-up.

Not that Japan is
wrong to be worried about China’s long-term military build-up in East Asia.
Pursuing its goal of strategic dominance in what it considers its own waters in
the South China Sea and East China Sea, China’s tactics have consisted of
steadily putting new “facts on the ground” to establish its de facto control.

Around islands it
disputes with Japan, known as the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyutai in
Chinese, it has made more and more incursions by military and civilian ships
and submarines through Japanese waters, daring the Japanese to object. And in
the South China Sea, where islands and reefs are disputed among many littoral
states, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, it has been
building airstrips and other military facilities on shallow reefs. Tensions in
the region are high, but amid much head-scratching about what to do about it.

Enter Donald
Trump. His administration has yet to unveil anything like an Asian strategy,
but first his deliberately boat-rocking phone call with the Taiwanese president
in December, then remarks by his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, indicating
that Chinese territorial expansionism would not go “unchallenged”, and now the
proposed spike in defence spending all look designed to put China on warning.

In that context,
boosting defence spending, and especially technological research and
development, makes good sense. With China, the old Cold War measures of big
nuclear arsenals, intercontinental missiles and a huge navy cut little ice. At
least over the next few decades, China will be challenging for regional
dominance, not globally in the manner of the old Soviet Union.

Its key asset for
that purpose is the ability of its submarines to sink US aircraft carriers and
to detect US submarines, thus denying the US ready access to the area in time
of conflict. So investing in expanding the technological gap between US and
Chinese forces could be the most fruitful way to sow doubt in the Chinese
military’s mind about its ability to keep the US at bay.

That is a sound
long-term strategy, which no doubt the US Defence Secretary, General Mattis,
and the new National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, will be arguing
for. The trouble is that the Trump administration also has a more short-term
war strategy with China in its cross-hairs: a trade war.

That sort of war
worries Japan much more than the military sort. The noises coming from the
(still not fully confirmed) Trump trade team are of imposing high tariffs or
other border taxes and controls on Chinese exports to the US, and of finding
ways round, or plain ignoring, any World Trade Organisation rules or dispute
settlement procedures that might stand in the way.

You might think
that Japan should welcome such tactics against its regional rival. Indeed, many
in Tokyo think China would only be getting its just deserts. But on further
reflection, they are realizing how Japan could easily get hurt in the

It stands to get
hurt in three ways. First, China is its biggest trading partner, so if Chinese
demand slumps during a trade war, Japan’s own exports stand also to suffer.
Second, the country’s whole stance, in both security policy and trade, has been
based on the defence of international law and treaty-based obligations: if
Trump destroys the WTO, he will destroy Japan’s stance too, making it easier
for China to ignore other forms of international law, such as over Japanese
sovereignty in the Senkakus. Third, it is not at all clear that Japan itself
would be exempt from a Trump trade war, given that like China it runs a big
bilateral trade surplus with the US. 

For that reason,
Prime Minister Abe needs to realize that, like Theresa May, it is not in his
country’s interests simply to become chums with President Trump, let alone his
poodle. The task that both share is one of domesticating Trump and dissuading
him from pursuing policies that could cause huge collateral damage both for
Japan and the UK.