The Platform


Two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups, two amphibious readiness groups, and Japanese warships conducted a combined drill in the Philippine Sea in mid-January. This was also the largest gathering of U.S. F-35 fighter planes to date, with 26 F-35s from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps combined.

Is Japan’s participation in U.S.-led drills in waters near China an indication that Japan has “completely orientated” toward the U.S. in the triangle relationship between China, the U.S., and Japan? No, it is not. Japan has adopted a symbolic position in the economy, habitually hedging in military security, and sporadic geostrategic speculation. Because of these options, there is still plenty of space for engagement between China and Japan.

Economically, the Japanese government intends to follow the lead of the United States. For a long time, Japan has maintained an attitude of “leaning on China for the economy and the United States for security,” but this attitude has shifted since the late Trump administration, particularly Japan’s vigilance against China’s economic encroachment. The Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Administration Act (FEFTA) of Japan, which was revised in 2019 and went into effect in 2020, requires the Japanese government to authorize any acquisition of 1% or more shares in a specified firm by a foreign investor.

This is substantially lower than the previous 10% barrier. That is, Japan has tightened screening procedures for foreign investors interested in participating in Japan’s economy. This strategy is clearly intended to prevent China from exerting economic influence over Japan, and the exact operation is also consistent with techniques used by other countries such as the United States.

Japanese companies, on the other hand, do not want to pick a side between China and the United States. Tadashi Yanai, the CEO of clothing retailer Uniqlo, has stated unequivocally that his company will remain neutral: “I want to be neutral between the United States and China, and the way the United States does it is forcing the company to be allegiance to it, I want to show that I’m not going to play that game.”

The capacity of Japanese enterprises to reach the global market is critical to Japan’s economy. Japan will suffer significantly if the door to Japanese enterprises is closed. As a result, even official acts have become increasingly symbolic in the eyes of the United States. For example, more than a year after FEFTA entered into effect, Rakuten announced that a Tencent affiliate would purchase a 3.65% stake in the firm.

In terms of military security, Japan’s principal objective at the moment is highly pragmatic and practical hedging. The Japanese government is particularly concerned about the possibility of an escalation of the Taiwan Strait crisis. If China carries out military reunification, Japan may be forced to give operational and logistical assistance to U.S. military forces stationed in Japan.

Japan is afraid that if both sides of the Taiwan Strait unify, the mainland would reclaim the South China Sea islands that it does not now control. Japan’s maritime routes may need to be dramatically adjusted, resulting in a significant rise in shipping costs. If future shipping is blocked, Japan’s import-dependent economy may suffer.

Japan’s preparations are focused on restricting Beijing’s activities as much as possible by verbal and behavioral restraints, rather than on how to fully participate in a conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan. As a result, the United States and Japan have yet to reach an agreement on the extent of any Japanese military involvement.

From a geostrategic viewpoint, Japan recognizes that the United States is a fair-weather friend.

Sino-U.S. ties are at an all-time low, and Sino-Japan relations are also at an all-time low. However, the current situation is not “one-sided” or “always” when the Japanese attitude and actions are examined. China’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will be an opportunity for China to re-engage with the region.

Although China still has a long way to go before completely complying with various CPTPP norms and regulations, the negotiation and engagement process may create an atmosphere conducive to the release of goodwill and the building of mutual trust.

Raihan Ronodipuro received a Master's degree in International Relations from the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University, China. He is a research analyst with an emphasis on Sino-Indonesian Relations and Asia-Pacific issues.