Japan has waned in and out of prominence in East Asia for centuries, and in recent decades its chief competitor has emerged as a regional power. In its quest to confront an ever-expanding China, Tokyo is turning abroad in search of allies. Key to this is the recent revival of the Quartet, a strategic dialogue between the United States, Australia, Japan and India. Is it enough to confront their rising neighbor across the East China Sea? Is this the first step in creating an “Asian NATO”, and how will China respond?
On the board to discuss this issue:
OWEN SWIFT >> Australian Institute for Strategic Policy / Red Line
John Nelson Wright >> Chatham House / University of Cambridge
John Quinn >> Australian Institute for Strategic Policy
Japan was devastated by World War II. Defeat and occupation changed their imperial traditions, economic system, political apparatus, constitution, military status, and foreign policy. It also lost its first line of defense, the outer island ring that had protected it from sea incursions and gave it a large sea area. However, after 40 years, some believed that Japan was on its way to becoming the number one economic power in the world, surpassing even the United States. While this clearly did not materialize, the Japanese economic miracle was extraordinary, and required an enormous amount of direct participation and investment from the United States, which remains its main economic, diplomatic, and military partner to this day.
It is important to keep in mind that although there is a lot of concern about the deteriorating economic situation in Japan, it is fundamentally strong, and it is still the third largest economy in the world. Its strength should not be underestimated – many conversations about competition between China and the United States in Asia should really be about competition between China and Japan. The two countries are competing on a wide range of fronts including infrastructure investments across South and Southeast Asia, the development of communications systems, transportation infrastructure and commercial networks.
Although Japan has many fundamental weaknesses, Korea has long been a concern of Japanese strategists, and while both are under the US umbrella, and share interests in confronting North Korea and China, relations between the two countries are deeply turbulent. Additionally, Japan lacks the basic resources it needs to independently support its population and industry. In the twentieth century they solved this problem with large-scale military invasions and occupations, but today it is secured by huge trade networks and foreign investments. However, the inability to effectively feed its population, let alone provide the resources its industrial, commercial or military sector needs to operate in case of emergency or embargo is a huge security problem for Japan, and they are completely dependent on the world. Free trading. In addition, Japan is also dealing with a historically catastrophic demographic decline. With a birth rate of just 1.42 (well below the replacement rate of 2.1), this combined with Japan’s continued opposition to mass immigration, a dwindling workforce and rapidly growing retired population threaten the fundamentals of Japan’s social economy.
Despite this, the greatest perceived threat to Japan is of course China, whose rapid economic growth and military expansion feel an immediate threat to Japan, and which, by sheer proximity, feels China’s rise more deeply than almost any other country. With its historical lack of military forces due to Article 9 of its constitution, (which prohibits the use of force as a measure to resolve disputes), Japan is striving to counter the ever-increasing Chinese naval and air power with one hand tied behind its back. Protecting trade routes, securing Japan’s role in the region and confronting China are all common goals of the Quartet. But this gathering leaves much to be desired for Japan. It’s only formally a strategic dialogue, far from any kind of defense agreement and for good reason. While it has seen some increased military cooperation, its strength should not be overstated. Member states have different political systems, ideologies, traditions and regional goals which complicate any agreements. India in particular is quite separate from the others, as Australia has always been closely associated with the United States, and the modern concept of Japan has been at the behest of the United States. Any agreements, pacts or decisions will be complicated by India’s most divergent foreign policy objectives, and its reluctance to side or engage against China. In addition, all four states, especially Japan and Australia, are economically highly dependent on China, which accounts for a large proportion of their imports and exports, a factor that plays a large role in decision-making in Canberra and Tokyo. The battle between what is good for the country’s security and what is good for its economy will determine the Quartet’s continuing role in the region.
The ultimate question in East Asia right now for these four countries is how best to contain or manage an ever-growing China, and whether this problem requires a military, diplomatic, or economic solution. The Quartet appears to be a good place to start, but when pressure increases on countries that depend on Beijing, they may not be willing to stand their ground and bear the economic fallout that a conflict with China guarantees. Economic pressure on Australia and Japan caused this pool to collapse again in 2008, and China still has the potential to hit these economic vulnerabilities again in 2021.
It is not impossible that something like the Quartet would eventually have the ability to do something similar to the European Union, but realistically, the geopolitical gap between Japan and India is much wider than
The founders of the European Union are France and Belgium. If I were a betting man, I would suggest that this current form of relationship is a convenient one and may not last when the rubber meets the road. For the exhausted nations of China, though at least something in East Asia might be more comfortable than none at all, the gathering could at least begin to build stronger relations between the Quartet member states and Southeast Asian nations. Main.
I’m curious about the chapter’s views on the Quartet and Japan’s broader role. Can the Quartet be condensed to include a joint defense treaty? Should the Quartet be expanded to include countries like South Korea or the Philippines? Do you think the Quartet will come to help Taiwan in the event of a Chinese military invasion of the island? I’d love to get your ideas
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