Can Japan Maintain Strong Ties With Both ‘Unreliable US’ & ‘Belligerent China’ Amid Flaring US-China Tensions?

Is Japan bearing the brunt of flaring tensions between global superpowers, China and the US? Japan’s diplomatic relations have been majorly peaceful with both the rival nations, throughout the years. 

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, stands at a crossroads where US President Donald Trump stands as a military ally, whereas, Chinese President Xi Jinping is his most important trading partner.

According to William Pesek, an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author, this puts Japan in an impossible situation, not wanting to take sides in a brawl that has few possible good outcomes for the world’s third-biggest economy. “If Abe falls, Japan’s economy will go with him,” wrote Pesek.

“Certainly, Xi has stirred trouble with aggressive behaviour and provocations in the South China Sea. But Abe has had to spend the last few years mending fences with Asia’s superpower as Trump has shown himself unreliable,” observed Pesek.

As reported earlier by the Eurasian Times, US President Donald Trump has reiterated that his administration would soon “do something” about the situation.

Trump has threatened to revoke Hong Kong’s special economic status because of Beijing’s contentious security law which has drawn widespread protests in the semi-autonomous city. Pesek states that this latest front in Trump’s trade war is fast becoming a threat to Japan’s economic trajectory.

“Japan entered 2020 in poor shape. Then came the COVID-19 shock, which has Abe scrambling to support growth. So far, his government has announced about $2 trillion of fiscal spending, roughly 40% of gross domestic product. Second-quarter growth might contract about 22%, the worst drop since the 1950s,” he wrote.

With increasing political disturbances in Hong Kong, the city runs the risk of companies relocating to neighbouring nations which might disrupt its economy. “As Beijing meddles with Hong Kong’s press freedoms and legal system, Japan Inc. might consider relocating in ways that hurt corporate profits and infuriate China,” stated Pesek.

Shinzo Abe is facing troubles not just from the outside but also on the inside with political rivals taking advantage of the decreasing popularity due to inadequate COVID-19 response. Abe has also been involved in a scandal and has been accused of altering key documents leading to favouritism.

This scandal has led to low popularity ratings for Abe in Japan. “Approval for his cabinet fell 2.3 points to 39.4% in a recent Kyodo News survey. Political rivals smell blood in the water,” wrote Pesek.

According to the author, Abe cannot afford to lose the support of either of its allies. “Abe has to demonstrate to the Japanese public he is not nearly as feckless as the opinion polls now indicate,” says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“He has bounced back before, but now he seems to have lost his mojo and seems distracted by political manoeuvring rather than keeping his attention focused on urgent matters,” he added.

Pesek concluded that Japan cannot afford to fall out neither with China nor the US. “The China part is a difficult juggling feat on its own: supporting Hong Kong’s autonomy without drawing Xi’s ire.

Add Trump’s unpredictability to the mix and Abe faces a near-impossible task of keeping his footing. He must step very carefully. It is not like there is a net below should Tokyo stumble,” he wrote.