On April 16, US President Joe Biden received Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House. This made Suga the first foreign head of state to make such a visit under Biden’s presidency. The post-summit joint statement said they “underscore the importance of cross-strait peace and stability and promote the peaceful resolution of cross-strait problems”. The last time a US president and Japanese prime minister mentioned Taiwan in a joint statement was in 1969, years before Washington and Tokyo normalized their diplomatic relations with Beijing. The statement also expressed common concerns about the human rights situation in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This is a welcome development as the political roles of the United States and Japan are playing a major shift in their seven-decade-old alliance.
In alliance politics, the relationships between allies are largely determined by the fear of abandonment and imprisonment, especially in relation to their main adversaries. Within the U.S.-Japan alliance, Tokyo has been more concerned about the United States’ abandonment over the past decade in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness in the East China Sea, while Washington feared that the Japanese-China dispute might entangle the United States in a more military-style Conflict. Allies’ concerns are not limited to military risks, but often extend to economic and even international norms.
With a strong emphasis on democracy and human rights, Biden, as a presidential candidate, proposed hosting a global summit on democracy in his first year as president, and noted on March 25 that he would “invite an alliance of democracies” “vis-à-vis the United States and they “would hold China accountable for complying with the rules. “After initially worrying that the Biden administration might take a conciliatory approach to China, Japanese policymakers now appear concerned about the cost of being dragged into the US confrontation and China. Japan is the only G7 member not to join recent sanctions against China for human rights abuses, and Japan’s “weak stance” has been criticized both domestically and internationally.
In contrast, it was Tokyo a decade ago that put an emphasis on universal values in its diplomacy and the need to counter Beijing, as the Sino-Japanese naval dispute escalated from around 2010. In a 2012 opinion piece titled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote, “Japan’s diplomacy must always be rooted in democracy,” and the future prosperity of Asia-Pacific regions should be based on universal values while advocating greater collaboration with Australia, India and the United States. Although Washington was already turning its attention to the region, many Japanese politicians at the time viewed the Obama administration as being too gentle on China.
This reversal of roles is natural, since the perception of threats is an important driving force for alliance politics. Washington and Tokyo, however, need to set an example of democratic solidarity that stays above fluctuating short-term geopolitical calculations. Democratic solidarity is important not only for universal values, but also for the long-term material interests of the allies.
Unlike in the early years of the Cold War, democracies are no longer a small minority in international society. In fact, 99 out of 166 countries for which the Polity5 project was coded were classified as democratic in 2018. Academic research has also shown that democratic allies are more reliable in military crises, less opportunistic to revoke alliance agreements, more likely to persist in military conflicts, and more likely to cooperate economically with one another. Indeed, given that the vast majority of countries the United States has alliance obligations to defend are democratic (52 out of 66 in 2018) and many of them face military threats from autocracies like China and Russia, it is good to work for democratic solidarity Realpolitik. Such a strategy is especially important after former President Donald Trump rejected the importance of alliances and democracy in US foreign policy.
In short, democratic solidarity brings numerous benefits unrelated to the exclusion and containment of China. The Chinese leaders have, of course, criticized the Biden government’s focus on democracy, arguing that the United States must give up “the Cold War mentality and zero-sum approach”. China’s State Department spokesman warned the Japanese that they “hope Japan can be prudent about actions and rhetoric, and not launch baseless attacks on China just because it is an ally of the US.” There is an inevitable tension between democratic solidarity and China’s commitment, but it is important that the United States and Japan show that they are committed to democracy is not a cover for containing China.
As a non-Western country with a long history of democracy and the former enemy of the United States, Japan has a special role in promoting the democratic solidarity represented by Biden. The alliance between the world’s first and third largest economies has strong material capabilities, but the United States and Japan should lead the world by the force of their example, as Biden suggested in his inaugural address for the leadership of the United States.
It is time for Japan to take costly actions to signal its commitment to universal values. This means holding up against China, its largest trading partner, and taking a more active role on other issues. Commenting on the suppression of democratic protests in Myanmar and geopolitical competition, the High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell, recently wrote that the EU “reaches out to all major stakeholders (ASEAN, China, Japan, India)” and “like” like-minded partners, especially the USA and Great Britain. “Japan’s pragmatic diplomacy has its own merits, but solidarity with“ like-minded ”democratic partners is becoming increasingly important. The joint declaration between the USA and Japan was therefore a step in the right direction.
In return, the United States must also demonstrate that its support for democracy is not just for geopolitical competition with China. Democracy-friendly diplomacy will at times alienate some countries and give Beijing a geopolitical advantage in the short term. However, the benefits of consistent democratic solidarity outweigh the costs. Tokyo and Washington must work together to demonstrate the multifaceted power of a democratic alliance.
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