Japan and the United States as force unifiers

By Shihoko Goto
The Wilson Center, Director for Geoeconomics and Indo-Pacific Enterprise and Deputy Director, Asia Program
March 17, 2023
Threats to the rule of law. Confronting the consequences of climate change. Balancing economic growth with social needs. The list of systemic challenges to stability and prosperity worldwide is not only long, but it is hardly unique to Japan. A silver lining to the slew of emerging threats to the world order is the rise of an international consensus: the acceptance that no one country can promote or guarantee freedom and openness that have been critical for global growth since the end of World War II.

At the same time, there is growing expectation for Japan to lead that consensus into action. At the bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Joe Biden in January, the two leaders made clear that they were facing a common threat of potential international disorder that could upend the stability of the Indo-Pacific and beyond militarily as well as economically. The joint statement concluding the summit meeting not only reaffirmed the strong ties between the two countries, but also highlighted the threat posed by authoritarian regimes to global order that have further strengthened ties between Tokyo and Washington.
Aerial view of Hiroshima, Japan, including the Peace Dome
Hiroshima will be the host city for the 2023 G7 Summit
Confronting the threat posed by China has undoubtedly brought not only Japan and the United States closer together, but it has also become a force unifier to bring together countries including Australia, Canada, and Europe to confront the challenge together. Far from deescalating, strategic competition with China has only intensified in recent years. The end result has been a deepening of partnerships bilaterally as well as multilaterally within and beyond continents. One particularly notable multilateral development has been no less than having NATO invite Japan as well as South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand last summer to address the China challenge even in an alliance that is focused on North Atlantic security. Since then, both Japan and the United States have released their respective latest national security strategies that are expected to enhance further bilateral coordination on regional defense with an eye to China as well as North Korea. Indeed, the 2+2 security ministerial meeting reaffirmed not only their commitment to the bilateral security alliance that would be “move capable, integrated, and agile” and remain committed to staving off any challenges to the world’s status quo.

Yet China’s challenge is hardly limited to the security realm. Beijing’s coercive actions are particularly acute when it comes to the global economy, and China has not shied away from leveraging its dominance. Japan has been keenly aware of Chinese economic coercion earlier than most. Since Beijing imposed export restrictions on rare earths in 2010 in retaliation against Japan’s actions over the Senkaku islands, Tokyo has seen first-hand that Beijing has no qualms of weaponizing its economic position. Since the pandemic, the rest of the world including the United States and key allies have also come to recognize China’s power play, and the push to ensure supply chain resilience in critical sectors is certainly motivated in part to withstand future pressure. In fact, strength in numbers will undoubtedly be a strategy that will bring together not just Japan and the United States, but other major countries too as a means to push back against future Chinese economic coercion.

Protecting critical technologies from authoritarian regimes has also emerged high on amongst the issues that bind Japan and the United States even closer together. Granted, Washington’s focus has been to curtail the further development of advanced technologies in China especially in sensitive areas such as AI and quantum computing altogether, while Tokyo may want to pursue a more conciliatory approach in its relations with its single biggest trading partner. What is clear, though, is that both countries are eager to ensure that technological innovation is neither hindered nor abused in the future, and a rules-based international order would remain the foundation to create new opportunities and encourage risk-taking.

As Japan prepares to host the G7 summit meeting in May, the agenda for the world’s leading industrial nations will be long and wide-ranging. What is also clear is that not only will there be expectations for the G7 to propose solutions to looming global risks, but the group will also be expected to provide a moral compass and guidance on how to navigate a world fraught with tension as a result of strategic competition. In short, the raison d’etre and the value system that bind Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, the United States, and Japan together will be at stake. As the world’s largest and third-largest economies, expectations for Washington and Tokyo to provide not just a roadmap for growth, but to restore faith in maintaining the status quo will be high. As the two countries reaffirm their commitment to the rule of law and acknowledge the strength of global interdependence, Japan and the United States must continue to work together to ensure that like-minded partners and allies join them too moving forward.
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