How Soft is Japan’s Soft Power?

Sathish Govind

Japan’s striptease feat in the international arena and the delicate balance with the various superpowers have allowed it to leverage the external economic strength and the military might of the superpowers to its advantage.

Military tensions simmer over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan Xinhua

Japan’s striptease feat in the international arena and the delicate balance with the various superpowers have allowed it to leverage the external economic strength and the military might of the superpowers to its advantage.

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It has managed its relations with China very well. It recognises China’s economic might and it is proven to be an indispensable economic partner with Beijing. China was Japan’s second largest export partner after the US from 2011 until the end of the 2017 fiscal year in March 2018.

According to the Japanese Finance Ministry in April 2018, Japan’s export soared to $141 billion in FY2017, an 18.3 percent increase over FY2016.

While Japan’s economic deals with China seems good, there are simmering tensions on the military side with China, namely in the East China Sea over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This prompted Japan to increase its military capabilities, particularly its radar and missile systems.

However, China and Japan announced a new crisis communication hotline to avoid accidental clashes at air and sea in June 2018, and Japan’s Defence Ministry reported the number of times the military had to scramble jets in response to China air incursions.

In order to contain China’s military expansion and its growing ambition in the Indo-Pacific region, Japan joined hands with the US, India, and Australia to form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The QSD, also known as the Quad, is an informal strategic dialogue that is maintained by regular talks between member countries.

The diplomatic and military arrangement was widely viewed as a response to rising Chinese economic and military power, and the Chinese government responded to the Quadrilateral dialogue by issuing formal diplomatic protests to its members.

In addition, Japan also joined with Australia and US to create a scheme for investing in countries across Asia and the Pacific in an apparent attempt to counter China’s growing influence whose massive Belt and Road Initiative could involve as much as £760 billion of spending over the next decade.

Describing the scheme, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised a new era of engagement and pledged to “oppose” any country that attempted to dominate the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific regions.

In the same breath, Japan’s soft response to Russia is shaped by the territorial dispute including China’s rising economic and military power, and North Korean crisis.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Japan imposed sanctions on Russia, albeit reluctantly but its geopolitical dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region forced it to take a conciliatory approach to Russia. Japan hopes to resolve its territorial dispute with Russia that has lasted over 70 years. In 1945, the Soviet Union occupied a group of islands off the coast of Hokkaido and since then, Japan has unsuccessfully tried to reclaim them.

It is for this reason that when Russia annexed Crimea, Japan chose not to impose sanctions on Russia in order to avoid isolating Russia internationally and prevent the emergence of a strong Sino-Russia alliance.

It subsequently had to bow to international pressure to impose sanctions against Russia as a tool of deterrence for China, not Russia. Tokyo feared that annexation of Crimea and NATO’s unsatisfactory response could be a precedent for China. From Japan’s point of view, Russia’s action could embolden China to act more assertively in the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Finally, the presence of North Korea mitigated Japan’s sanctions. The North Korean nuclear crisis—Japan’s second security threat after China—is more urgent for Japan than Ukraine. With the involvement of Russia, Japan has hoped that Moscow could play a positive role in the peace talks.

Japan’s relation with the US is strong militarily but its economic relations are coming under some strain. Japan has been harping on the imbalance in Japan-US trade and threats of tariffs on Japan made automobiles have a chilling effect. Three days after taking office, Trump announced that US’ withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership and the trade war with China are issues that affect Japan.

After two years of dodging bilateral trade talks with the US, Japan finally agreed in September 2018 to take the Trump administration up on its preferred vehicle for trade relations.

While Japan has relented to the economic demands of the US, it needs the US to counter China’s military expansionary policies in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Japan’s delicate balance with the various superpowers may prove that its soft power in resolving international tensions may be far more superior than the hard power used by the others.

Sathish Govind
Contributing Writer, Capital Cambodia

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