At the dawn of 2018, anxiety and uncertainty seem to loom over the horizon. The most obvious risks come from North Korea, with its missile tests and threats to use nuclear warheads against the United States. President Trump’s threatening rhetoric against North Korea’s “Rocket Man,” Kim Jong-un, leads some people in Japan to jest that they are caught in a crossfire between two madmen. But the wider context is a regional rebalancing of power in which Japan plays a key role.
One of the most important events in 2017 was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 19th Congress of 18 October. Breaking with the precedents of Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping, General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping extended his mandate for a second five-year presidential term. The CCP also enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” as a guiding principle for the country. Xi has essentially consolidated more power for himself than any Chinese leader since Chairman Mao Zedong.
In his 3.5-hour speech at the Congress, Xi outlined his plans for China. Most of the speech was about strengthening the hold of the CCP, as well as laudable goals such as poverty reduction and environmental protection. What makes China’s neighbours nervous is his design to replace the United States as the predominant military power in the Western Pacific. It is a worrisome sign that the CCP has subsequently revived inflammatory anti-Western rhetoric at levels not seen in decades. In 2017, the CCP dubbed Christmas to be “Western spiritual opium,” banned party members from celebrating the holiday, and cancelled Christmas-related public events. In some places, mobs of people with red banners attacked entrepreneurs who decorated their stores with Christmas decorations.
Hu Jintao’s “peaceful rise” has been replaced with Xi’s promises to assert China’s predominance with a military “built to fight.” This is troublesome, not least because China has not renounced the threat of military force to achieve its goal of annexing Taiwan. China has also increased militarization of the East China and South China seas with construction of a man-made island and a unilateral declaration of an air defence identification zone over areas previously established by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. China disputes Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which were returned to Japan in the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement. A country that is rapidly improving its military capacities, fomenting nationalism at home, nurturing imagined grievances, and claiming territories not under its current jurisdiction is a menace that cannot be taken lightly.
Japanese voters reacted quickly to the risks posed by China and North Korea. Four days after the CCP Congress, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and coalition partner Komeito retained their seats in a snap election of the House of Representatives. Abe, who campaigned on the idea that a strong Japan bodes best for regional security, gained a fourth term as Prime Minister and the two-thirds supermajority that he needs to push his goal of normalizing Japan’s military. Abe plans to run for a new term as LDP President in 2018, and the LDP has changed its rules to make that possible. If he wins, he may become Japan’s longest-serving post-war prime minister. He supports holding a referendum this year to amend the Constitution.
In his first policy speech after the election, Abe evoked the danger posed by North Korea, saying, “It’s not an exaggeration to say our security environment is at its severest point ever since the end of the war.” Abe hopes to transform Japan’s Self-Defence Forces into a regular military in order to effectively counter security threats from North Korea and China. The Times of London already reported on 28 December that Japan is considering developing its first aircraft carriers since WWII. China has already protested despite the fact that it is developing four of its own aircraft carriers.
Abe has long promoted a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” to counter Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative of constructing transportation infrastructure to link China across Central Asia to Europe. Abe’s maritime-based initiative is likely to solidify Japanese links with India and Australia, but also with Eastern Africa. On 11 November, senior officials from Japan, India, Australia, and the US (the “Quad”) met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit to discuss military and security co-operation despite Chinese complaints. In a New Year’s interview with four leading Japanese journalists, Abe stressed the need to engage with China on trade while firmly addressing its military ambitions. He needs strong allies to make his international plan a success.
Canada has so far demurred from taking a public place in this power rebalancing. After Trump withdrew from the newly renamed “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) uniting Pacific Rim economies, Canada had an opportunity to take a leading role in this trade initiative that so far excludes China. At the last minute, Canadian diplomats failed to show up at the planned signing ceremony. Japanese pundits speculated that Trudeau may wish to first re-negotiate NAFTA, but feared he may be trying to appease China. Ironically, Trudeau’s subsequent attempts in China to kick-start a “progressive” bilateral free trade agreement also fell flat.
Canadians may be put off by the fact that the unpopular Trump administration has adopted Abe’s vocabulary of the “Indo-Pacific.” Some even imagine Xi as a more attractive partner than Trump. But, Canadians should keep in mind that the Trump presidency will be of shorter duration than the long-term restructuring happening in East Asia. Japan — like Canada — a mature economy and a liberal democracy, would surely welcome Canada as a committed ally. Our own security and prosperity are best guaranteed by a free and open Indo-Pacific. That means squarely facing the risks posed by both North Korea and China. By strengthening relations with Japan in trade and security, Canada can contribute to the maintenance of peace and democracy in the region in 2018 and beyond.