Senior Insights

© 2021 The Asia Group

Nobukatsu Kanehara

TAG Senior Advisor; Former Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary, Government of Japan

Specialty: Japan

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Insights from the Region: Nobukatsu Kanehara

December 23, 2020

TAG Senior Advisor Nobukatsu Kanehara, former Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary and Deputy Director-General of the National Security Secretariat for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, shares his take on the US-Japan relationship, challenges facing the new Japanese administration, and the country’s priorities for 2021.

1. How would you assess Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s first months in office?

Prime Minister Suga took office after serving former Prime Minister Abe for eight years as his Chief Cabinet Secretary, a powerful post responsible for coordinating all the Cabinet ministers. That experience gave Suga a strong springboard for the premiership. He is off to a good start, and his popularity is still reasonably high.

Suga’s agenda has a rather domestic focus. He is a true reformer, and not at all a typical result of Japan’s machine politics or the “boss politics” of local communities. Suga instead built his career as a statesman from the bottom up. He will devote his energy to promoting structural changes in Japanese society. His priorities are digitalization of the government, economic revitalization, and reform of the civilian telecommunications industry. At the same time, he has to cope with the COVID crisis for the moment. Japan’s death toll is still relatively low, below 3,000. Japan will continue to try to strike a balance between sustaining the economy and suppressing COVID.

Suga must call a general election before next September. Luckily for the prime minister and the ruling party, the opposition is in bad shape. Their mismanagement of economic policy after the Lehman shock left very bitter memories among the young generations. With this impact still being felt, Suga’s party will no doubt win the election. The key issue is how many seats he will lose. It depends upon both the economic situation and the COVID situation at the time of the election.

2. What do key stakeholders in the Government of Japan want from a Biden administration with regards to the U.S.-Japan relationship?

In terms of Japan’s national security, how to face and engage China is the most important strategic problem for Tokyo. China has changed its course, and President Xi seems to be turning away from the West.

The Biden administration will want to focus on climate change, the salvaging of the Iranian nuclear agreement and improving the situation in Afghanistan. To achieve these goals, Biden will need the help and cooperation of China. But China’s overall goal is to catch up with the United States and carve out its own sphere of influence in Asia. For China, climate change, the Iranian nuclear deal, and Afghanistan are not vital issues. They will engage the U.S. skillfully, but the Chinese officials will ask for U.S. concessions in exchange for their cooperation.

The most important strategic challenge for the United States is to rehabilitate its alliances and relationships, and to realign Western engagement with China. China is now 70 per cent the size of the U.S. economy, and it might catch up with United States. But tallying up the West, including the United States, Japan, Europe, India and ASEAN, those nations far surpass half of the world’s Gross National Product. The West can still engage China effectively, but only when the West is united. If the United States tries to engage China alone and unilaterally, the results will not be as desired, and its allies and friends will be in disarray. In that case, China can coerce the other weaker powers one-by-one, and U.S. leadership will be hurt.

3. Japan faces a challenging regional security environment, particularly vis-à-vis Chinese maritime incursions into Japanese territorial waters and North Korean missile activity. What will be some key defense priorities be for policymakers in 2021?

The situation around the Senkaku Islands is extremely tense. Every day, Chinese coast guard vessels (under the People’s Liberation Army Navy) are coming to the islands and they periodically enter Japan’s territorial waters. Japanese Coast Guard vessels push them back. In the rear, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are always ready to engage eye-to-eye. This situation will continue.

China claims that the Senkaku Islands are part of Taiwan – one of China’s core interests. If a military conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, Chinese forces may try to take over the Senkakus and possibly other islands in the Okinawa Island chain. This could be a tactical move to distract Japan from a Taiwan contingency. Because of China’s very rapid build-up of military capabilities, Chinese leaders might think that they could secure a snap victory before U.S. intervention. At the same time, the Chinese military is no longer something that U.S. forces could defeat with one stroke.

It is time to think about a Taiwan contingency more seriously with allies. The U.S. alliance system in the Pacific is not strong in comparison with NATO in Europe. With robust preparation, the West could deter China from adventurism. Without it, the contingency may happen and devastate the region, severely hurting U.S. leadership.

Engagement with North Korea is a difficult matter. Pyongyang declared and showed that it has nuclear weapons. If the United States starts tit-for-tat type negotiations with North Korea again, it will be tantamount to acknowledging their nuclear status. Hard sanctions should be our first step to take there.

China’s cooperation is necessary. But we should bear in mind that their geopolitical interests are different. China wants to make the Bohai Bay into a sanctuary for strategic depth vis-à-vis Beijing. North Korea is too close to Beijing and Bohai Bay, and China cannot lose it. The United States and Japan say all the time that if the North abandons nuclear development, they can help its economic development massively. But China might prefer tolerating North Korean nuclear weapons to losing influence over North Korea to the United States, Japan and South Korea. In that situation, there is no quick fix to the North Korean nuclear issue.

4. How will Japan balance these significant China-related security concerns with its important economic cooperation and trade engagement with China?

Japanese business circles are still making profits from their trade and investment with China, and Japanese direct investment to China is larger than U.S. investment. With this in mind, the Japanese business community has started to worry about great power competition.

There is no reason to stop trade totally with China, except for national security reasons. As far as national security is concerned, the West should collectively restrict its technology flow to China. China is a very different regime and is determined to become the most powerful military and industrial nation. The party controls the military, the industry, and the high-tech companies. The Pentagon’s USD 100 billion in annual funding for research and development is no longer so impressive, compared to China’s resources. And the West must be vigilant against cybertheft and the introduction of malware in its data-handling systems.

Looking forward, efforts on these security concerns must be coordinated by the United States in a systematic and transparent way so that allies and friends can follow along and contribute to the effort. Trump’s solo-drummer-type efforts have left these partners in disarray. This game with China will continue over the next two decades at least.

5. Prime Minister Suga chose Vietnam and Indonesia for his first trip overseas following his election, underscoring Japan’s deepening relations with Southeast Asia. What additional engagement and support for the region can we expect in 2021?

Prime Minister Suga stepped into Abe’s strategic shoes. Abe’s strategic framework was: 1) to support U.S. commitments to Japan and in the Indo-Pacific; 2) to maintain the strategic “Quad” framework of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India; 3) to leverage the Quad and other relationships to help create a prosperous free and open trade zone in Indo-Pacific and to engage the ASEAN nations; 4) to improve ties with Russia in order to deter the formation of a bloc between China and Russia, counter to the interests of the West in Asia; 5) to promote freedom and democracy and to protect and enhance the emerging liberal international order in Asia; and finally, 6) to engage China until its economy peaks in two or three decades.

Indonesia and Vietnam are good choices as partners for Suga to consolidate Abe’s efforts. Indonesia is the biggest nation in ASEAN, and Vietnam is the most capable militarily and the most vigilant vis-à-vis China. Looking forward, Suga will continue follow Abe’s strategy.

6. What is something that has brought you joy during this time?

I am now writing a textbook for my students at Doshisha University. This has been great fun for me.