Japan's road forward: Kabul, AUKUS, and Quad rebranding

From the US withdrawal in Afghanistan to the recent AUKUS announcement and the first ever face-to-face meeting of the world leaders in the Quad, Japan is dealing with a churning geopolitical situation in its own backyard. Kanagawa University assistant professor Corey Wallace takes a look at the analysis and thoughts out of Tokyo and the implications for the country.

Both the United States military’s Afghanistan withdrawal and the recent AUKUS agreement would have been viewed in Tokyo simultaneously as long-term strategic positives that also raised uncomfortable short-term questions about Japan’s strategic partners.

The chaotic and violent images out of Kabul touched upon existing anxieties in Japan that American strength and leadership influence is declining. It even gave succour to those doubting the reliability of the US to come to Japan’s defence or guarantee regional stability.

The way the Afghanistan government dissolved almost instantly on contact with the Taliban would have mortified many in Tokyo, given Japanese contributions to American Middle East policy over the last two decades.

A Taliban Humvee in Kabul August 2021, following the US withdrawal. Image: Wikimedia Commons

While Japan hasn’t fought on the front line, Tokyo contributed billions of dollars in assistance and undertook politically costly non-combat missions to the region—now all seemingly for naught.

The failure of allies in Afghanistan to coordinate also cascaded on to Tokyo and rudely exposed limitations in Japan’s military capacity and the dependence the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) has on the US. There were also worries about China taking the wrong message from all this, which would embolden it to further probe alliances and regional militaries depending on American support – such as Taiwan.

Afghanistan may also have dealt a blow to Biden’s domestic popularity, undermining his chances of holding on to slim majorities in both houses of Congress in 2022. This will concern Tokyo. Even before Covid-19 deepened polarization in American politics, many mainstream commentators in Japan supportive of stronger U.S. relations expressed concerns about instability in domestic politics hamstringing American commitments to Japan and the region.

The domestic impact of the Afghanistan pull-out, therefore, may jeopardize the implementation of allied-centred strategic realignment, just as many in Tokyo were looking forward to an enhanced American focus on East Asia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, three out of four candidates that ran for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency—and for the right to replace Suga Yoshihide as Japanese prime minister—committed to more substantive defense spending and made approving noises regarding Japan acquiring enhanced power projection capabilities that would enable the SDF to strike overseas targets. This included the eventual winner, and now prime minister, Kishida Fumio.

The AUKUS agreement to facilitate Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered propulsion for its submarines also raised concerns in Tokyo about relations between American allies. The secret negotiations resulting in Australia’s withdrawal from a $90 billion submarine contract with France not only agitated Paris but gave pause to Japanese analysts.

Tokyo ultimately wishes to see as many global powers as possible, including India, France, Germany, the EU, plus the US, UK and Australia, ‘enmeshed’ in East Asian geopolitics and collaborating to restrain China’s expanding influence.

However, the fallout from AUKUS raised the prospect of a Europe-Anglosphere divide that could undermine ‘Indo-Pacific’ balancing against China, potentially providing an opening for exploitation. Even though AUKUS countries emphasized collaboration between democracies, it was not unreasonable to ask why France and Japan—both democracies who had committed to providing submarine options to Australia—were left out from these discussions.

While nuclear propulsion was the centrepiece of the AUKUS agreement, it is also a starting point for deeper collaboration on cyber, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing capabilities, all areas identified by Japan’s defence analysts as urgently needing upgrades.

Therefore, the continued salience of the ‘Anglosphere’ as something ‘more than an alliance’ in shaping policy choices of AUKUS nations was hard for Japanese commentators to ignore and raised uncomfortable questions about the country’s own security policy, as well as its partners: is Japan’s lack of cultural capital a reason why it’s struggling to gain traction in its desire to enter Five Eyes? Could a lack of trust forged historically between ‘natural allies’ stand in the way of future technological and military collaboration between Japan and AUKUS countries—even as Japan remains at the frontline of China’s rising military pressure? Will AUKUS displace the Quad as one of Japan’s regional leadership initiatives, reflecting a move away from a more expansive ‘Indo-Pacific’ vision? Does providing treasured technology indicate Australia is now the only other country alongside the UK in having a ‘special relationship’ with the US?

Ultimately the long-term strategic direction indicated by both developments are seen favourably by Japanese strategists and these questions could be addressed through diplomacy by the AUKUS trio.

Tokyo has long waited for the US to make good on commitments to engage more in East Asia and compete with China by focusing diplomatic energy, fiscal and military resources, and strategic attention. If Japan and other regional allies fret about US reliability after Kabul, it will be because of unmet expectations after a decade of saying that Asia is important, rather than a direct result of abandoning Afghanistan.  

The medium-term gaze of strategists in Tokyo and other Asian capitals will fall on how the US reconfigures its regional posture and military capabilities to meet regional deterrence challenges.

The first ever face-to-face Quad meeting was held earlier this year.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan represents an opportunity for Tokyo and other allies - few see it as telegraphing imminent abandonment of allies in the face of PRC coercion.

Generally, Tokyo welcomed the AUKUS collaboration. The prospect of Australia playing an important role in the regional balance of power for decades to come is virtually assured not only due to the expectations that grow from the AUKUS technological linkages but because Australia’s nuclear-propelled submarines will give it's navy the ability to project power well beyond what is required for homeland defence.

Finally, Tokyo would have been reassured by the messaging from the first face-to-face Quad meeting of Japan, India, Australia, and the US. The meeting’s outcome suggested a rebranding of the Quad’s purpose, including a broad commitment by the four nations to provide international public goods, from vaccines to infrastructure.

The identified initiatives promise an enhanced role for Japan in providing these goods and will deepen non-military cooperation, in addition to the military dimensions previously emphasised within the Quad. Alongside a commitment to annual leaders’ meetings, this will offset some of the concerns coming from AUKUS in particular. In the words of Japan’s outgoing prime minister, the “Quad initiative [that] Japan has been promoting is now fully established”, and this particular meeting was a “very meaningful” development in support of Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

If there is one lesson for Japan to take away from these recent geopolitical churnings it is the need to recognize the importance of alliances backed by commitments to partners that are broader than those written into military treaties and anchored in a history of trusted interaction based on mutual compromise.

- Asia Media Centre