Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Japanese government.
How would you characterise the post-COVID Indo-Pacific security ecosystem from a Japanese perspective?
One thing is for sure: pandemics accelerate and in many cases deteriorate already-existing tendencies. For this reason, I focus on the big trends. In the case of East Asia there are several such tendencies. One, China is on the rise. Two, the United States is becoming more and more inward-looking, if not isolationist. What’s happening now is quite similar to what we witnessed in the 1930s: you have a new rising regional power that considers the status quo as something to be adjusted, and therefore it can be changed even by force. With that in mind, the rising power challenges American hegemony in the Western Pacific by force. That is exactly what Japan did in the 1930s, but China is doing it on a scale 10 times bigger. In the case of Japan we attacked Pearl Harbor and we started a war. China is not that stupid. But nationalism is an opium. Once you start using it, you cannot stop it until you destroy yourself. That happened to Japan, and I am afraid that something similar could happen to China. These trends have been exacerbated and accelerated.
Nationalism is an opium. Once you start using it, you cannot stop it until you destroy yourself.
What would you expect to be the key pillars of post-Abe foreign policy? What will change? What will be the continuities?
Shinzo Abe is one of the few politicians in my country who really understands the global strategic environment and the imperative to maximise the national interests in the middle of such difficult circumstances. Fortunately, he stayed in power for almost eight years. If you have this time you can create a sort of a legacy which could last longer. Mr. Suga has no choice because he was part of the Abe foreign policy. I always say that foreign policy is also politics, and all politics is local. If you want to make a commitment in your foreign policy, the biggest opponent are not the foreigners but your fellow citizens inside your country who are opposed to new ideas. Therefore, in order to achieve a diplomatic goal, you need to convince the opponents inside your country. That is something Abe did and Mr. Suga did himself. That’s why I call Mr. Suga a part of the Abe foreign policy. He will just continue doing it. But Shinzo Abe was a Ferrari, a super car, and even if you drive a super car, if the streets are congested you cannot go anywhere. Mr. Suga is no Ferrari or Lamborghini, but if you find the right route and streets, you can go anywhere. Abe created a great environment for Japan to maximise its national interests. Abe’s legacy will stay.
The most worrying issue is the outcome of the US elections. This is a wild card. If Trump is re-elected we know how to deal with it. If Biden becomes president, probably his policy wouldn’t be dramatically different from the current administration. The main reason is that the geopolitical transformation in East Asia has been so drastic that it has really started a strategic rivalry between US and China. This is more than a trade war, it is a hegemonic rivalry. The Americans fear that one day China might challenge the U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific and even replace the US in East Asia. This is not something episodic, but a strategic and structural trend which the pandemic has accelerated.
A key component of Abe’s foreign policy legacy is the Quad. How does Japan see the future of the Quad? What is the next stage in the development of the Quad?
Too frequently we refer to China and the CCP. The Quad is not an alliance, the Quad is not NATO. It is a much looser sort of a forum because we don’t want to define it clearly. If you define it clearly then only a limited number of countries can participate. So we should make it open. India has finally joined. It took us 14 years. We started talking about the Quad in 2006. Foreign Minister Taro Aso told US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Hanoi in November 2006 that it was important for Japan, Australia, India, and the US to get together to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific, but at that time Ms. Rice did not respond positively. We may not see an expanded Quad in the foreseeable future. But what is more important is to keep the Quad united, to make it as loose as possible, so that more countries can join later in the future. The Quad is a good idea, but it is not NATO and shouldn’t be another NATO.
The Quad is not an alliance, the Quad is not NATO and shouldn’t be another NATO.
In June the implementation of the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system was canceled by Japan. At the same time there is currently a major debate in Japan about whether the SDF should develop counterattack capabilities, specifically acquiring attack missiles. What do these trends suggest about the national security policy, specifically about deterrence?
Here the real issue is how we define our defence policy. There is a very long debate about what we mean by ‘exclusively defence-oriented’ defence policy. Exclusively defensive defence policy means nothing. It is a tautology. It is a strange kind of debate which we have continued for the past 60-plus years. It is time to rethink it because our potential adversaries have more military capability than before, and that requires more deterrent capability on the part of the Japanese side. Therefore it is not a debate between whether or not we should be able to attack enemy bases. It is not that simple. What is more important is a discussion about the qualification of the exclusively defensive posture of our defence policy. My argument is very simple, because defence policy consists of two elements: deterrence and attack capabilities. So try to deter your potential adversary first (so enhance the deterrence power to discourage enemy attacks), and if the deterrence fails you should be able to attack. As far as Japan is concerned, under the current constitution, we should put more emphasis on the deterrence side rather than the attack element. It is time for us to adopt a ‘deterrence-oriented’ defence posture.
Is Washington’s plan to withdraw troops from Germany particularly worrying for Japan? Do you see any ripple effects for the broader US posture in the Indo-Pacific, or questions about US credibility?
The question is what are the stakes of the US presence in Europe and East Asia? There is of course the cultural angle – we are allies and share the same values. But the US is also a naval maritime power in the Indo-Pacific, where the economies are growing fastest. Therefore, the US might withdraw some troops from Europe to reinforce the deterrence posture in the Indo-Pacific area. But of course, this shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. You have more US Army troops in Europe while we have more US naval capabilities. In Asia what we need are the amphibious Marine units who can fight on the waters. It is a delicate balance, but the Europeans may have to keep in mind that the American priority has already shifted from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.
What does China’s most recent international behaviour (the border clash, the knock-out of Hong Kong freedoms, the bullying of Taiwan) expose about Beijing, its plans, ambitions and grand strategy? For sure this is no longer Deng Xiaoping’s China – “Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile” mind-set. Is this a sort of a wake-up moment?
The reasons behind the recent self-assertiveness are the following.
Firstly: China is now a major power. It is not weak anymore. It has enough military power to realise its military and political ambitions. Secondly: the element of nationalism as part of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. The legitimacy of the CCP consists of three pillars: China is one and united; their victory over Japan in the Patriotic War; and they finally found the third, which is the economic development in the late 1970s. This last element really divided the nation, because it widened the gap between the rich and poor. This is something that over time will destroy the legitimacy of the CCP. That’s why these days they have become excessively dependent on the nationalistic propaganda. The danger is that it is like opium, because once you start using it, you cannot stop it.
Thirdly: the imperial personality of Xi Jinping. He thinks that it is time for China to strike back. With these three elements combined, China cannot stop assuming an assertive posture in the foreseeable future.
Xi Jinping thinks that it is time for China to strike back. China cannot stop assuming an assertive posture in the foreseeable future.
When you visited Bucharest a few years back you warned about a power vacuum in the South China Sea that Beijing will take advantage of. What are/should be the lessons to be learned by the international community from the South China Sea?
It is too late. We missed the opportunity a few years ago before they started landfilling and creating artificial islands. Once they were there and deployed all the weapons systems it became too late. In wartime these are highly vulnerable, but in peacetime it means that China is dominant inside the first island chain. We are located on the first island chain. As the US Marines say, they are already in the area and they are not going to move away. They are there to stay and defend their positions. What we can do now is to prevent the Chinese Navy especially from going out of the first island chain. In order to do that they will need more powerful platforms, which will be basically very vulnerable as the American forces transform in the future.
Biden or Trump? Who is better for the US system of alliances?
Japan is an exception. Japan is the only nation among the allies of the United States which benefited most from the Trump Administration. Europeans suffered more than they gained. Of course, we suffered too because of the inherent unpredictability of the administration. A Biden presidency will be much more predictable. If Donald Trump is elected again maybe Shinzo Abe can play a role again. If I were Mr. Suga, I would nominate Abe as his special envoy.
Are you worried about intra-Democratic party ‘civil war’ between the Biden moderates and the radicalised progressive wing?
Yes, once Biden wins, another battle among the Democrats will resume. I hope this will not damage the foreign and defence policy of the Democratic party.