Opinion & Analysis

Japan’s response to China’s Pacific influence

Japan's evolving relationships with South Korea and India were among the key talking points at a roundtable the Foundation held this month examining Japan's foreign policy under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. However, it was Japan's response to the economic and military ascent of China and it's increasingly "bold" behaviour in the Pacific that dominated discussions. In this article, the Foundation's adviser research and engagement, Caleb Hoyle, provides an overview of the key points from an insightful and wide-ranging dialogue.
People sitting around a boardroom table taking notes

The roundtable featured experts from Japan and New Zealand

This month's roundtable brought together experts from New Zealand and Japan to delve into the challenges Japan faces in its strategic environment and its efforts to address them.

The behavior of three neighboring nations—China, North Korea, and Russia—and the cooperation between them were identified as sources of significant concern for Japan. Among these, China, often emphasised as Japan's most pressing strategic consideration, took center stage in the dialogue.

The discussion featured distinguished speakers, including Akiko Fukushima, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, and Ken Jimbo, a professor at Keio University’s Faculty of Policy Management, along with leading experts from across New Zealand.

China’s rising economic and military strength, alongside its growing assertiveness towards Taiwan, was identified by some participants as especially problematic for Japan. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had brought the issue into sharper focus and served as a sobering reminder of the human cost of conflict.    

A woman speaking at a boardroom table with four people in the shot listening

Visiting Professor Akiko Fukushima makes her point at the Roundtable in Wellington / image ANZF

The challenges that Japan faces have motivated the Kishida government to announce a series of measures aimed at strengthening the country’s defence capabilities. These included raising defence-related spending to ¥43 trillion (NZD 487 billion) over the next five years and developing the Japanese Self-Defence Force’s long-range strike capability.

The changes constituted a major deviation from Japan’s post-war defence policy and were aimed, at least in part, at helping Japan to attain the ability to deter and, if necessary, deny China operational success if it invaded Taiwan.

Other historic changes were also taking place. Discussants applauded the steps being taken by Japan to improve ties with South Korea, while also strengthening relations with other key international partners.

Special credit for the warming of Japan-South Korea relations was given to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and his pragmatic efforts to strengthen the relationship. Hopes for further reciprocation from Prime Minister Kishida were expressed.

The meeting between the leaders of Japan, South Korea and the United States in August of this year was mentioned as an important outcome of warming relations between the two East Asian neighbours and an important way to institutionalise trilateral cooperation.

The enhancement of relations between Japan and “like-minded” countries, one attendee noted, was a positive step for the countries involved and the Indo-Pacific more broadly.

Japan’s relationship with India was also touched upon. A number of participants highlighted that India’s importance to Japan’s maritime security and supply chains, along with its huge potential as a market for Japanese companies, made the relationship with India one of Japan’s most crucial.

Some discussants viewed this as prompting Japan to exercise considerable patience with India on issues on which they took significantly different approaches.

A recent example given was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an event to which Japan responded with condemnation, sanctions and by supplying Ukraine with non-lethal military aid; conversely, India has sought to maintain strong relations with Russia and avoid explicit criticism of its actions.

A man gesticulating as he speaks to a woman

Professor Alex Tan from the University of Canterbury was among attendees at the Roundtable / image ANZF 

Given the roundtable participants’ deep expertise on New Zealand foreign policy, it was no surprise that discussions were interlaced with mention of New Zealand. Echoing discussion of Japan’s geopolitical challenges, China’s increasingly “bold” behaviour, particularly in the Pacific, was cited as having altered New Zealand’s strategic environment and made the pursuit of its foreign policy objectives more complicated.

It was noted that the changing nature of New Zealand’s relationship with China has been reflected in its description of New Zealand-China relations as “mature”, language that reflected the need for frank and open discussion on areas of difference between the two countries.   

A further convergence in New Zealand and Japanese threat perceptions related to the South Pacific, where both countries have longstanding and close relations with the region’s island nations.

China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, where it has made claims on the Exclusive Economic Zones of neighbouring Southeast Asian countries and was militarising certain islands, offered an example of how it was using its power to rewrite maritime rules and boundaries. 

A statement of intent, signed by the Japanese and New Zealand defence ministers in June 2023, outlined plans to further develop the bilateral defence relationship and enhance their cooperation in the Pacific.

The quality of the roundtable discussion was reflective of the diverse expertise of the attendees. It also highlighted the importance of convening deeply informed groups of people to engage with one another in a format in which they can speak freely and at length.

The Foundation's Track II programme supports informal diplomacy with thinktanks in Asia on issues and challenges facing the region.

- Asia Media Centre