Beijing, take note
If China’s long-term goal is to rule the world, it would be wise to bide its time while examining how the United States has been building alliances over the past decade.
Part of America’s work came to head last month as Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, toured European and North American capitals, announcing bonds of friendship and security deals aimed at curbing Chinese expansion.
Japan is Beijing’s predominant rival in Asia, and its commitment to raise defence spending – including for new strike capabilities — is one of the most significant strategic developments in the currently contested theatre of the Indo-Pacific.
Japan is also president of the Group of Seven leading democratic economies, a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council and an Asian pivot for organisations such as NATO and the European Union.
Bolstered by these coalitions, Tokyo is strengthening intelligence ties, building a new fighter aircraft with Britain and Italy, designing bigger warships and arming itself with American cruise missiles to use against China or North Korea should they choose to attack.
Backed in full by America, Japan is throwing off the shackles of its Second World War defeat, to signal its emergence as an Indo-Pacific military force intent on maintaining what Western democracies refer to as the ‘rules-based international order’.
The catalyst has been China’s clumsy attempt at power projection, ranging from violent intrusions across the Indian border to its diplomats shouting at politicians on small Pacific islands.
The US reaction, which has gathered pace with the Biden administration, has been a masterclass of international coalition building.
Despite defeats in Afghanistan, Vietnam and elsewhere, the US retains the number one global slot, raising questions as to how much China is willing to learn the complex skillset needed to run a superpower.
Symbolically, Kishida has chosen to host May’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, the city destroyed in America’s first nuclear strike in 1945.
The US occupied Japan for the next seven years, embedding the democratic institutions that govern the country today.
In the later years of war, it designed the ‘rules-based international order’ and the United Nations, which began work in October 1945, less than three months after the Hiroshima bombing. Simultaneously, in the immediate post-war era, the US protected Europe from the Soviet Union, while forming the NATO military alliance together with institutional forerunners to the European Union.
This US-sponsored network of values, economies and military competence continues to control how much of the world is run.
In its more than two decades as a rising power, Beijing has shown little inclination or ability to build similar networks. China’s Mandate of Heaven top-down style of government offers little chance for its officials to learn the importance of nuance, persuasion, negotiation and compromise in forging relationships.
The US ground-up mandate-of-the-people injects these elements into the American character from childhood.
One result last month was that, after long, detailed diplomacy, Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden issued a joint statement in Washington speaking of ‘unprecedented cooperation’ between the two countries.
They emphasised America’s ‘unwavering commitment’ to their mutual defence treaty ‘using its full range of capabilities, including nuclear’. It also covered the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.
So, yes, if needs be, America would go to war over barren rocks, and nuclear weapons are not off the table.
Earlier, in London, Kishida signed a new security pact with British prime minister Rishi Sunak, who stressed the importance of standing ‘shoulder to shoulder as we navigate the unprecedented global challenges of our time’.
Japan is expected to be looped into the recent submarine-building treaty between Australia, Britain and the US, and efforts are speeding up to strengthen the Quadrilateral Dialogue alliance involving Australia, Japan, the US and India.
With that, Washington is focusing on bringing India closer into the fold with persuasive incentives to wean it off its heavy reliance on Russian weaponry.
Beijing has very little to deploy against these increasingly sophisticated alliances. Hypersonic missiles and sabre-rattling over Taiwan will not do the business.
But, while Japan might be flexing new muscle, it is also offering substantive hands of friendship, of which China should take note.
As Prime Minister Kishida prepared his bonding tour with Western democracies, the Japanese conglomerate Panasonic announced plans for a new £373 million dollar investment in China.
The historical significance cannot be ignored.
In 1978, Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s modernisation, chose to visit a Panasonic factory to appeal for Japanese investment. In 2012, anti-Japanese rioters forced Panasonic factories in Suzhou and Qingdao to close.
Now, Panasonic is again bucking anti-China headwinds as a signal of long-term trust in its giant Asian neighbour.
China would be far wiser to use Japan to grow its wealth than ramping up a contest it is unlikely to win.
Japan’s emergence as a modern military presence, backed by the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations, may prove to be the wake-up call that brings China’s wolf warriors to their senses.