Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.11.12

Suga in Vietnam: Talking about China without naming it

the japan times on october 20, 2020

National Security East Asia China

What a difference seven short years makes when it comes to Cabinet policies. After reading Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s major policy speech on Japan-ASEAN relations delivered yesterday in Hanoi, it felt like it came from a different age when comparing the speech to the one made on the same topic by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Singapore in July 2013.

Seven year ago, Abe, in his famously long and eloquent speech titled “Japan and ASEAN, Always in Tandem,” dedicated only one sentence to China’s maritime activities, saying “I am delighted that ASEAN and Japan have gone beyond their economic relations to forge a relationship that takes on responsibility for the security of the region, particularly freedom of navigation on the seas.”

In contrast, Suga was much more eloquent in talking about China without referring to it, saying “I strongly support the AOIP ( ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific) that “powerfully sets forth the rule of law, openness, freedom, transparency and inclusiveness as ASEAN’s principles for behavior.” For those who may not have read the speech, here is what Suga had to say about China.

“I firmly believe,” he continued, “that we can create a peaceful and prosperous future along with ASEAN with these fundamental values in common. Unfortunately, in this region, developments contrary to the rule of law and openness upheld by the ASEAN Outlook have been unfolding in the South China Sea. Japan is strongly opposed to any actions that escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

Suga was particularly forthcoming in saying that “Japan has consistently supported the preservation of the rule of law on the seas. I would like to reemphasize the importance for all parties concerning the South China Sea issues to work toward the peaceful resolution of disputes based on international law instead of resorting to force or coercion.” This is Japan’s most powerful message to ASEAN so far.

Reports from Hanoi were crystal clear. The Associated Press wrote that Suga “agreed with his Vietnamese counterpart to step up defense and security cooperation in the face of China’s expanding influence in the region” and “set a basic agreement allowing Japan to export defense equipment and technology to Vietnam. Japan has been pursuing such pacts in recent years to bolster ties with Southeast Asia.”

Although neither Prime Minister Suga nor Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc referred to China by name during their news conference, it was clear that it was the elephant in the room and that Vietnam is crucial to achieving Japan’s vision for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative. Who could have predicted seven years ago that Vietnam and Japan would one day echo each other this way? Things are changing indeed in South East Asia.

Talk about feeling like living in a different age, things seem to be changing in Tokyo as well. I was surprised at the results of surveys taken during a 90-minute webinar called “A world after the U.S. presidential election 2020,” which I participated in last weekend and was organized by the Weekly Diamond Magazine.

There were three questions raised in the session, with some two hundred participants having responded. Although the survey samples were not large, nor were they professionally done nation-wide opinion polls, the participants were well-educated entrepreneurs or businesspersons in Japan who are interested in international affairs. The results of the polls were striking.

Question one: How should Japan deal with China?

  1. Japan must tell China that the Japan-U.S. alliance is the priority: 41% agreed.
  2. Japan should try to maintain cordial relations with both China and the U.S.: 56% agreed.
  3. Japan must prioritize its relations with China: 3% agreed.

I told the audience that the result was misleading given the current hegemonic rivalry between the two major powers across the Pacific Ocean and that no countries can simultaneously maintain equally good relations with both the United States and China. If anyone thinks it is possible, it is a delusion.

As I always state in speeches, for Beijing, Japan and China’s relations are only a “dependent variable” in the more strategically important U.S.-China relationship. The relations hierarchy among Japan, the United States and China is by no means equal for all sides, especially for Japan.

Question two: How should Japan deal with South Korea from now on?

  1. Japan must try to improve relations: 29% agreed.
  2. Japan is fine with the status quo: 29% agreed.
  3. Japan should further lower the relations to the minimum: 41% agreed.
  4. Japan should break off diplomatic ties: 1% agreed.

Although these numbers may reflect the ambivalent sentiment of Japan’ general public vis-a-vis South Korea, it is sad, I told the audience, that seven out of ten respondents in the webinar were happy with Japan-South Korea ties as they are, or even at a lower level.

I told the participants that although we may not be able to keep South Korea in the U.S.-Japan-South Korea compact anymore, we might be able to prevent South Korea from moving too far to the other side. No matter what happens, Tokyo should maintain an open dialogue with Seoul. Otherwise, it could force the South Koreans into the opposite camp.

Question three: How should Japan respond if Taiwan is attacked by China?

  1. Japan watches calmly unless Japan is attacked: 28% agreed.
  2. Japan exercises its right to collective self-defense if the U.S. forces engage: 47% agreed.
  3. Japan does or can do nothing: 25% agreed.

I was pleasantly surprised that nearly half of the respondents favored exercising Japan’s right to collective self-defense if U.S. forces became engaged in military operations during a Taiwan contingency. With that said, I told the audience that facts are often stranger than the fiction in novels.

I reminded them of the proximity of the Yonaguni-jima Island, the westernmost tip of Japan, which is only 110 kilometers (65 miles) from Taiwan. China, therefore, may not be able to liberate Taiwan without violating Japan’s territorial waters and airspace or without coming into conflict with U.S. forces based in Japan.

Will Beijing still try to change the status quo in Taiwan or the South China Sea? Will the Japanese public support a response from the U.S. military? These are questions that should be asked.