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Japan: a master of soft balancing?

16 December, 2020

By Luke Austin – Research Assistant

Under Shinzo Abe, Japan considerably developed its hard power capabilities amid a storm of equally inspiring and ideologically charged buzzwords such as “positive pacifism”. Nevertheless, the constitutional change he sought with regards to Japan’s possession of self-defence forces has not been achieved. Japan’s place in the world order continues to puzzle many IR scholars. Mainstream schools of thought such as neorealists, liberals and constructivists largely agree that Japan has been restrained in its approach to China, mirroring a more cautious approach known as “hedging”. In September, however, former Minister of Defence Taro Kono publicly referred to China as a “security threat”. In doing so, Kono has effectively dismissed any doubts of how Tokyo really views Beijing and, in turn, more credibility is given to the idea that Tokyo has been actively “soft balancing” Beijing as opposed to merely hedging it.

Political scientist Robert A. Pape has been instrumental in developing the concept of soft balancing. Pape, drawing primarily upon recent examples of soft balancing by major powers against the United States, describes this as: “actions that do not directly challenge U.S. military preponderance but that use nonmilitary tools to delay, frustrate, and undermine aggressive unilateral U.S. military policies”. Pape then outlines the methods used by states to impede the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003: “international institutions, economic statecraft, and diplomatic arrangements”. Using Pape’s framework, it can be argued that Japan has employed this approach against China, and that this has been the case for longer than mainstream IR schools like to think.

International institutions: multilateral formats as a way to make friends

Japan’s desire to become a permanent member of the UNSC (United Nations Security Council) has been evident for a very long time. Japan’s admission could harm China’s prestige as the UNSC’s only East Asian permanent member. China is ready to exercise its veto powers to prevent such a development. This does not mean that Japan will miss any chances to actively contribute to the UN’s activities, as reflected in its extensive UNPKO (United Nation Peacekeeping Operations) involvement. China has also become such a prominent UNKPO participant that it has caused concerns over potentially crossing political and military boundaries and, in doing so, violating the sovereignty of other states. Japan’s training of UNPKO personnel in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states has been identified as a Japanese response to increased Chinese UNPKO-related activity. This, in essence, reflects a multi-institutional soft balancing tactic employed against China due to the involvement of multiple regional as well as international institutions, in this case through both the UN and ASEAN.

Japan’s use of international institutions to soft balance China does not end there. Fears have been expressed over the appearance of two Asian economic blocs: one dominated by the China-directed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and another dominated by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), in which Japan has held a leading position. With Japan contributing the most to the ADB’s operations, it is not surprising that the ADB can be considered another soft balancing tool at Japan’s disposal. It is difficult to interpret the demands made by Tokyo last year for the ADB to stop issuing loans to Beijing as anything but a snub, so the message is all too clear.

Economic statecraft: Japan as a wily ODA veteran

When it comes to foreign aid, Japan is no amateur. This is especially so when it comes to ODA (overseas development aid). This has been considered yet another instrument of Japan’s legendary soft power and did much to consolidate Japan’s status as an economic great power during the Cold War. Accordingly, Japan’s ODA disbursement almost quadrupled between 1980 and 2000. ODA has continued to act as an important tool for Japanese foreign policy in various regions, including Central Asia. As Central Asia is also considered a vital region for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), this could be interpreted as a Japanese attempt to economically soft balance growing Chinese influence in the region.

Japan has continued to soft balance China with other economic instruments. Many are concerned by the geopolitical effects of China’s BRI. Through cooperation with other states wary of China, Japan has formed important infrastructure development programmes of its own. This includes the AAGC (Asia-Africa Growth Corridor ) with India and the Trilateral Partnership  for Infrastructure Investment in the Indo-Pacific with the United States and Australia.

Diplomatic arrangements: a sophisticated art

To get an idea of the state of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, one only has to watch a video from 2014 during which Abe and Xi Jinping share a hilariously awkward handshake at a bilateral meeting, which ran alongside the wider Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing.

The G7 is a prime example of a diplomatic format within which Japan has soft balanced China. It is important to remember that China, unlike Japan, is not a member of the G7. Earlier this year, Abe insisted on Tokyo taking a leading role in drafting a G7 statement on the situation in Hong Kong, including the passing of new security legislation by Beijing. Abe’s remarks, of course, did not impress many in China.

Abe himself engaged in his fair share of surprising yet lucrative informal diplomatic approaches to world leaders with whom previous Prime Ministers would have been hesitant to form a rapport. This includes President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, with whom Abe attempted to strike a sort of friendship based on a shared interest in martial arts by attending judo tournaments together on several occasions in both Russia and Japan. Putin is reported to hold a black belt in karate and the esteemed Russian qualification of Master of Sports in judo. Despite the lack of success in securing a desirable resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute, this charm offensive has not gone unnoticed.

Prospects for the future: a “Sugan” grand strategy?

With a new Prime Minister at the helm, it is not possible to guarantee what Japanese foreign policy will look like. What we do know is that Japan is no stranger to soft balancing China. After all, Junichiro Koizumi took a similar approach from as far back as the early 2000s, especially with regards to fostering Indo-Japanese cooperation.

In light of Japan’s recent signing of the RECP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), there may be those who accuse Japan of engaging in what realist IR scholars refer to as “bandwagoning”. John J. Mearsheimer defines this as “when a state joins forces with a more powerful opponent, conceding that its formidable new partner will gain a disproportionate share of the spoils they conquer together”, allowing a weaker state to avoid a more severe beating at the hands of this powerful opponent. However, the prospects for Sino-Japanese cooperation in most spheres, be it political or economic, are inherently limited. After all, these relations have been tainted by Japan’s struggles in coming to terms with its wartime aggression against China. That is not to mention the ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, on which Suga will not deviate from Abe’s approach. Despite a number of initial symbolic gestures generating hope that Sino-Japanese relations might improve, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has actually led to an overall deterioration in these bilateral ties. In short, there is little optimism for meaningful development of Sino-Japanese bilateral ties or bandwagoning.

New economic soft balancing strategies could be devised through existing security structures that would traditionally be used for hard balancing strategies. The Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) between Japan, the U.S., India and Australia has been given as a prime example of such a structure. Indian veteran diplomat Gurjit Singh has recommended increased Indian manufacturing of defence-related technology and cyber cooperation with Japan. The AAGC has faced criticism for an apparent lack of material results. Securing the involvement of another prominent Indo-Pacific actor such as Australia, with whom Japan has already extensively cooperated as part of the Trilateral Partnership for Infrastructure Investment in the Indo-Pacific, could well provide the AAGC with the boost it apparently requires. India happens to be the largest recipient of Japanese bilateral ODA as of 2018: it may be wise for Suga to ensure that this level of ODA is maintained, if not increased, so as to help guarantee the support of an important ally.

Finally, in terms of diplomatic arrangements, there are several options. Although Suga may be at a disadvantage due to his lack of diplomatic experience or close personal ties with other heads of state which Abe enjoyed, he seems to be a fast learner. Suga’s first overseas visit as Prime Minister got off to a very promising start in Hanoi, where Suga met his Vietnamese counterpart, managing to secure agreements on the transfer of Japanese defence technology and equipment to Vietnam, as well as on the diversification of Japanese companies’ supply chains. Furthermore, Suga’s meeting on 17th November with Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison was successfully concluded with a bilateral security agreement. Furthermore, the G7 is still a force to be reckoned with and should not be underestimated in terms of its usefulness as a soft balancing tool for Japan. While it is not clear whether U.S. president-elect Joe Biden shares Donald Trump’s views on expansion of the G7, it would be in Suga’s interest to advocate such a move as this would improve Japan’s prospects for cooperation with other states soft balancing China, including India and Australia. It has also been suggested that Japan uses this format to address issues relating to the now-expired Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Japan could, in other words, use such a platform to criticise China, a nuclear power which has been reluctant to reveal the real scale of its nuclear stockpile. For this to succeed, however, Suga may have to develop something which he currently lacks – an ideology of his own.

Image: Shinzo Abe and other G7 Leaders at the 42nd G7 summit in Shima Kanko Hotel, Shimakan, Japan (Source: Government of Japan via CC BY-4.0)

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.