As China flexes its muscles globally, the US-Japan alliance is the ideal starting point for the incoming Joe Biden administration to rebuild strategic, economic, technological and governing norms in order to check Beijing’s outsize ambitions, said analysts and ex-US officials on Monday.
While the US shares a growing interest with Europe, Canada, Southeast Asia and Australia in countering various parts of China’s blueprint for global expansion, none are as much of a natural fit across all these areas as Washington and Tokyo, they added.
Importantly, Japan has kept the torch lit as the Trump administration pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade grouping, picked fights with long-time allies and eschewed global cooperation under its “America first” policy, they added.
“When the US and Japan work together, we can shape the environment in which Chinese power increases,” said Joseph Nye, former US assistant secretary of defence and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“Our alliance [is] going well beyond security … in technology and in economic assistance, the infrastructure to counter the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], you’ll see that Japanese leadership is crucial.”
Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, now president of consulting firm Armitage International, and Nye spoke at a Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event in conjunction with a report the think tank published Monday on how to leverage alliances in the Pacific and beyond.
The CSIS report, “The US-Japan Alliance in 2020: An Equal Alliance with a Global Agenda”, comes as the incoming Biden administration appears poised to make coalitions, economic groupings and multilateral organisations central to its strategy in pushing back on a more assertive China.
But after four years of trans-Pacific name calling and bare-knuckle fighting over trade and security, it also dovetails with concern in some quarters that the new administration will be too accommodating toward Beijing in its bid to show results on climate change and fighting the pandemic.
“I do not believe that the Biden administration is going to be soft on China. Some of the people who are being mentioned for assistant secretary jobs in both the Pentagon and the State Department are among the hardest liners on China,” said Armitage.
“If the Biden administration had a desire to be soft on China, which I don’t believe they had, the attitude on Capitol Hill both the Democrats and Republicans has shifted remarkably on China, and there’s not much of a pro-China lobby left in Washington. So the short answer is no. I don’t think there’s anything to be worried about.”
While any alliance strategy has yet to be worked out by the Biden administration, a series of overlapping groupings would all seem to have Washington and Tokyo at their core, said Zack Cooper, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who was part of a study group that helped compile the report. Thus any effective Asian security alliance might involve the current four “Quad” countries of the US, Japan, India and Australia.
“There are probably not a lot of others willing to challenge China,” Cooper said in an interview. “If you look across the issues we have with China, the US and Japan in some cases are the only two countries that agree on all elements.”
Potential combinations in the three other areas, he added, could include: in economics, some version of the Group of Seven nations with greater Asian representation; in technology some version of the current Group of Twelve economically advanced nations, but likely including Finland given its potential importance in 5G networks; and in democracy and governance, a coalition that the Biden team creates.
But efforts to forge more united fronts in various areas will not be easy, analysts said. Asia already has too many overlapping groupings with poorly defined missions and these should ideally be honed and streamlined.
And while China has a clear vision of its objectives – including its desire to shape global standards outlined in its China Standards 2035 plan – getting other economies to cooperate and agree is a more daunting challenge.
In the US-Japan defence alliance, US military bases remain controversial with the Japanese public. Japan has not clearly defined its missile-defence objectives or how aggressive its response would be if US and Japanese forces are attacked. And cooperation between the two sides has many organisational, operational and hierarchical gaps, experts said.
“The US and Japan really have to move expeditiously to address some of the anachronisms in our command and control relationships,” said Michael Green, senior vice-president for Asia at CSIS and a former special assistant to the president for national security affairs. “And boy are we paying a price for that now.”
Experts predicted that the “Quad” group will become less important under Biden’s administration than it was under Trump’s in part because the outgoing administration has made it a priority arguably at the expense of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean.
As with many parts of the global alliance network, reinvigorating ties with Asean will take work after China broke apart the group consensus by hiving off Cambodia following a United Nations tribunal sided with the Philippines against China in South China Sea territorial claims.
“While the ‘Quad’ does form an important part of our engagement there, I think we will need to look to other networks as well,” said Kara Bue, an Armitage International founding partner. “We’re going to have to be very nimble and focused.”
The report, the fifth in a series looking at the US-Japan alliance going back to 2000, also recommends that Japan join the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network – involving the US, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – provided safeguards are made so parliamentarians do not leak information.
Japanese security experts said while many nations welcome a more globally engaged Washington under the incoming Biden administration, times have changed and the US should share the leadership job of forging coalitions and overseeing policy initiatives.
“Due to China’s unilateral revisionist actions, there is a growing and clear demand for security provision by the United States in Asia,” said Satoru Mori, global politics professor at Tokyo’s Hosei University, in an email. “The US used to undertake these two roles solely on its own, but it is now time for major US allies like Japan to take up these tasks.”
Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor at Tokyo-based Keio University and senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs added: “Effective alliance is the only way to counter, complicate and push back China’s aggressive behaviour.
“We will not be able to stop China’s rise nor should we even try. However, we should try to uphold rule-based liberal international order with utmost intensity with as many partners as possible.”
At the same time, experts said, it is important to strike a balance to avoid making Beijing feel threatened. This comes as European countries grow increasingly wary of China’s “divide-and-conquer” tactics in eastern and southern Europe, Australia and Canada feel the full weight of Beijing’s wrath and BRI countries grapple with economic dependence.
“There’s a huge opportunity for us here in the US, plus Japan, to work with Europe,” said Matthew Goodman, senior vice-president at CSIS for economics and former international economics director at the National Security Council.
“Not to try to isolate or contain China, of course, but to find a way to address some of those real concerns while still engaging with China.”