In recent years Japan has found itself at a crossroads between its post-War ally, the United States, and rising neighbor, China. U.S. Editor and Chief Desk Editor of Nikkei Asia Ken Moriyasu examines the geopolitics, trade, and history that play a role in shaping Japan’s ties with both major powers.
Ken Moriyasu is the U.S. editor and chief desk editor of Nikkei Asia, the English-language arm of Japan’s top economic newspaper Nikkei. He has been with Nikkei for 27 years, serving as the Japanese newspaper’s correspondent in Washington, Cairo, Beijing and Dalian. As Middle East correspondent, he was the last journalist to interview Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2006. Born in the United States to Japanese parents and raised in the United Kingdom, Ken looks at the Indo-Pacific through the lens of having lived and worked in Asia, the United States and Europe.
Could you please give a brief context for contemporary U.S.-Japan relations? How has the relationship changed under a new American administration?
Ken Moriyasu: Thank you for having me. I think on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being really bad relations and 10 being really good relations, I would say the current U.S.-Japan relations are something like 25. It’s way off the charts and the relationship is very good. The relationship has been good since the days of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump. But that relationship was very much dependent on Abe’s personal relationship with Trump. I think the Biden administration has changed the dynamics of the relationship in a very positive way, in that it’s more based on values and this shared view of the world and the liberal international order, so it’s much easier for Japan to get on board.
The other side of that is that China has really stopped bothering to be loved by the world, so when it comes to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, it really doesn’t care what the world thinks, and that has made it much easier for Japan to stick with Washington.
But in the mid-to-long term, whether this honeymoon between the U.S. and Japan will last forever, and whether Japan’s strategy is correct in just teaming with America, I’m not quite sure. I think there’s a really interesting example here, Japan’s attitude and South Korea’s attitude towards the White House, the Biden White House, is very different. Japan has QUAD, Japan has embraced a free and open Indo-Pacific. South Korea, it doesn’t want anything to do with the QUAD. It only half-heartedly embraces the free and open Indo-Pacific, it doesn’t want to criticize China by name. You could say that that’s because South Korea sees the world heading into a bipolar world, where the U.S. and China are the two big superpowers. In a bipolar world, it makes sense for a middle power like South Korea to have good relations with both.
I think Japan thinks that we’re not heading into a bipolar world, we’re heading into a world where the U.S.-led international liberal order will be much bigger and more powerful than China’s pillar. So, whether that’s true I can’t say, but I think it’s important for Japan and South Korea to keep their options open and to be flexible because we really don’t know which way the world is going.
What are Japan’s key interests and concern when it comes to China? How do they compare with those of the Biden administration?
Moriyasu: Right. So Japan’s economy is very much intertwined with China. We have so many manufacturers and recently so much more retail doing business in China, and the reality is that China is the source of growth for so many Japanese companies, so it’s very difficult to decouple from China completely.
Japan would like to have a good security relationship with America but also have a good economic relationship with China. That looks to be very difficult to sustain going forward. I say that because if you look at the Pentagon and the things that they are worried about, I think they’re worried about the day one of the future potential war with China. They think that on day one China will attempt to take down the GPS and to block satellite communication between the GPS and American missiles, American ships, American planes, so as to cancel America’s military advancement. What they are really paranoid about, the Americans are, is that Chinese chips embedded into the system in American infrastructure could be planted with malware, and on day one all that China has to do is press the button and that would really take down the GPS.
Now if that’s the case, then the sanctions on Huawei, for instance, are not going to go away, and America will try to build a separate decoupled supply chain of high tech technology, and it would request that Japan and South Korea and all its allies move to the American version of the supply chain. Now that’s going to be really difficult for Japanese companies like Tokyo Electron and all these companies, Kurata, that make a bulk of their profit in China. So whether Japan decouples in the high tech world from China, it’s going to be a very difficult choice for Japan to make.
What is the Suga administration’s current stance on cross-strait relations and the potential for conflict between Mainland China and Taiwan?
Moriyasu: I think for Japan, if China does take over Taiwan militarily, if that happens on Wednesday, I think Japan thinks that they will come after the Senkaku Islands on Thursday and possibly come for the Okinawa Islands on Friday. That’s why the Taiwan issue is a Japanese defense issue.
But when it comes to Suga’s position on Taiwan, I think it’s a little different from Biden’s. In March, Japan and the U.S. held a two-plus-two meeting of defense and foreign ministers. In that statement they say they “underscore the importance of the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” In April, when Biden and Suga met at the White House, they added one more sentence to that, they “underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.”
On the surface, at first glance, it looks like they added more on Taiwan, so maybe Japan and the U.S. toughened their stance on Taiwan. It was indeed the first time since 1969 that the U.S. and Japanese leaders mentioned Taiwan in their joint statement, but if you look at the words that were added, it’s encouraging the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, which is not really tough, it’s very peaceful actually. I heard that Suga wanted to add this, to signal that the first priority is a peaceful resolution, so I think there may be a little bit of a difference between Suga and the Pentagon on this issue.
There was a really telling anecdote at Biden and Suga’s meeting at the White House. They met for many hours, but their very first meeting was just the one-on-one between Biden and Suga with just translators. They had a hamburger in front of them, and it was supposed to last for 40 minutes. But it ended in 20 minutes, and neither Suga or Biden touched their hamburger. What the people around Suga were suggesting to Suga was, “Make use of this one-on-one, this 40-minute one-on-one, to tell Biden that if something happens in the Taiwan Strait, I’m going to be with you.” That’s the kind of commitment that leaders make in a one-on-one setting.
But apparently, Suga didn’t do that. He talked about his childhood, the fact that his children are strawberry farmers, and Biden talked about his family. They looked at the photos in the room, and then that was 20 minutes. That tells you that Yoshihide Suga is no Shinzo Abe, so they have very different views on the Taiwan Strait, and Suga’s priority is a peaceful resolution of Taiwan issues.
China and Japan have a long history of trade and interaction, but also of conflict and war. How does this complicated past influence current political attitudes in both countries? How do you personally feel about the future of China-Japan relations, both short and long term?
Moriyasu: Right. History is a very interesting aspect of the U.S.-China relationship. Of course, the immediate history is a very sad history and it really tears up the relationship between the two countries, but if you go back a few centuries to the Tang dynasty and the Nara period of Japan, relations were very good. Japan sent 20 dignitaries to the Tang dynasty to learn about the culture and the science. Chang’an back then was the New York of today, the bustling, most advanced metropolis of the world, and Japan learned so much.
There’s an interesting anecdote. From Europe, people came to the Tang dynasty to receive silk, and they would take back the silk on the Silk Road to their respective capitals, but when Japan came to Chang’an, the emperor of the Tang dynasty would give the Japanese missions silk, the best silk in the world. But in the history books of the Tang, it says that, “The Japanese are a very strange people. Every time they receive the silk from the Emperor, they go to the market and they exchange it for books. And they will load the books on the ships and go back to Japan.” Whereas the road between the Tang dynasty and Europe was the Silk Road, the road between Tang dynasty and Japan was the Book Road. Whereas the Europeans focused on the materialistic wealth of China, Japan focused on the intellectual wealth of China and reestablished, recreated a capital just like Chang’an in Nara and Kyoto in a matter of years.
I think the relationship between Japan and China has been…was that of admiration and learning from the best. If China does become the world’s dominant superpower in 2028 or 2030, and it can become like the Tang dynasty, I think Japan will tilt towards China. But if the superpower China is an extension of what China is today, then that’s not going to happen.
We’ll see. History tells us that Japan has not hesitated to change its alliances. In the early of 20th century Japan had an alliance with England, then it switched 180 degrees to team with Nazi Germany. After the war, it tilted 180 degrees back to the U.S. and freedom and democracy, so it has a track record that suggests that if China becomes the dominant superpower, it will have no hesitation to switch to China, but we’ll see.
How would you characterize Japan as a regional and global power today? What are its current values, priorities, and ambitions in East Asia?
Moriyasu: Japan is the world’s third largest economy. It has a very powerful, especially maritime, self-defense force, so you could say that it’s a major country. But if you really think of the great power competition and the players taking part in that great power competition, I think they have to have a huge population, huge economy, huge military, and global ambitions. Japan doesn’t really fit those. It doesn’t have the population, it doesn’t have the global ambitions, so we’ll leave that to the U.S. and China. That probably makes Japan a middle power.
If you look at what’s happening in the Indo-Pacific, while there is a great power competition and all these countries—India, Australia, Japan—are siding with America, underneath the surface there is a movement of these middle powers joining hands. What’s interesting is that they’re joining hands first to form a united front against China, but also I think they’re preparing for the day when the next American president isn’t as committed to the Indo-Pacific and isn’t as caring of its allies and partners. If such a new American president does come into office, these middle powers will have a stable footing.
At the G7 in Cornwall, there was a very interesting anecdote regarding this. On June 13, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had a really warm, friendly breakfast by the beach for one hour. At the end of the bilateral, there was a 20-minute session where they were just one-on-one with interpreters.
Now, Scott Morrison was the first in-person visitor that Yoshihide Suga received last November, so they know each other. Suga calls Morrison “ScoMo,” so they’re friends. But then, I was wondering why they look so happy. I looked at the news the day before, Saturday, June 12th, and I noticed that Scott Morrison had tried to have a bilateral meeting with Biden and he was refused, and he had to settle for a trilateral with Boris Johnson. Apparently, reportedly, that was a signal from the White House that it wasn’t happy with Scott Morrison’s refusal to commit to zero emissions by 2050, so it didn’t want to reward Morrison with a bilateral.
Now, for Morrison and Australia, they have clearly shifted away from China. I think Australia’s move away from Beijing is the most significant geopolitical shift that has happened in the Indo-Pacific over the past two years. But if that Biden won’t even give one of his guys a bilateral, then of course Australia will be very worried and it will look to hedge its stance, and I think Scott Morrison’s friendship with Suga is a reflection of Australia’s desire to have stronger relations with Japan. Japan and Australia are forming sort of a quasi-alliance, and this middle power arrangement is going to be a very interesting topic to follow.
In April, Japan approved the plan to release nuclear wastewater into the ocean, which had provoked huge opposition in surrounding countries like South Korea and China. How will this impact the Japan, China, South Korea relationship, as well as U.S. alliances in East Asia?
Moriyasu: Right. This how to handle the water, the wastewater that comes out of the Fukushima nuclear plant, is a race against time. By 2022, in the fall of 2022, the capacity will reach maximum, so they have to find a way to get rid of these tanks which hold the polluted water. I read that there’s 1000 of these tanks already.
The decision to dispose this water diluted quite heavily to make it really thin and safe has been given the stamp of approval from the IAEA. But I think the way that Japan has not really explained to its neighbors or the people of Fukushima is a problem, and I think part of the problem is that while Japan’s relationship with America is getting stronger and stronger, it really hasn’t strengthened its relationship with its neighbors. If you look at Japan’s current relationship with all its neighbors, Russia, China, North Korea, and South Korea, they’re all bad. This is really not the best ideal position for Japan. I think if Japan had more trust with its neighbors, and stronger relations, there could have been a better way to go to China, go to South Korea. Explain that these waters are not dangerous, and there could have been a better way to do it. But I don’t think this is going to really hurt the relationships between China and Japan and South Korea. I think China is using it as one talking point against the United States and Japan as it strengthens its alliance.