July 12, 2020

Japan Ushers in a “New Era” in China Relations: Avoids Joining the US in China-bashing

B Arjun

JOHN Bolton, former national security adviser (NSA), in the Trump administration, in his controversial book The Room Where It Happened, has alleged the US President Donald Trump demanded that Japan pay $8 billion per year for costs associated with hosting American troops in Okinawa – or risk their withdrawal.

Bolton’s memoir suggests that he met with his Japanese counterpart Shotaro Yachi, in July 2019 to explain “why Trump wanted $8 billion annually,” starting from next year, “compared to the roughly $2.5 billion Japan now paid.” Bolton’s figures may not be accurate because in 2019 Japan paid $1.8 billion to the US for hosting its troops.

The additional demand on Japan, according to Bolton, was a part of a negotiating strategy, which the POTUS had termed “cost plus 50 per cent” – the money that allies will have to pay for stationing US troops on their soil.

Trump’s high demands are based on his deal-making strategy where he feels that it is important to threaten Japan and South Korea to pay a higher fee or live with the prospect of facing regional security threats without US security assurances.  

Trump has called Bolton’s book “a compilation of lies.” However, the fact is November last year, Foreign Policy, an influential US foreign policy publication, reported that Trump administration asked “Tokyo to pay roughly four times as much per year to offset the costs of stationing more than 50,000 US troops there”. And the request to Japanese officials was conveyed by then NSA, John Bolton and Matt Pottinger, the National Security Council’s Asia director at the time. 

Similar demands to hike the troop-stationing fee have been placed on South Korea that hosts 28,500 US troops. The US-South Korean talks on the issue of increase have failed. “South Korea pays $925 million a year, about 50 per cent of the cost of 28,000 US troops. Trump administration has demanded a 500 per cent increase in Seoul's funding.”

The US demand for Japan and South Korea to shoulder more of the cost-sharing burden is another example of ‘transactional diplomacy’ that Trump has popularised in his four-year term. For Trump, diplomacy is all about making deals, something that he learnt in his previous avatar as a businessman. 

Earlier, the US had asked South Korea to pay the entire cost of placing the missile defence system on their soil. This is after Seoul had agreed to provide the land and maintenance.

This sheer imperial exploitation takes one back to the days of British raj when Royal Navy charged 100,000 sterling pounds annually from the Indian government for providing maritime security. The Indians continued to pay this huge amount till 1935 after which the British extracted money through the sale of ships and other naval equipment to the newly constituted Royal Indian Navy. 

If Seoul is negotiating the price of the missile defence system, last month Tokyo announced cancellation of plans to deploy a costly, land-based US missile defence system, which the US has been selling to the region, ostensibly to counter escalating threats from North Korea.

China has expressed its concerns about the United States deploying intermediate-range missiles in Japan and South Korea. It is well known that the deployment of missiles is primarily to increase pressure on China to capitulate and let US unilateralism reign supreme in global affairs; although Japan has cited safety factor as the prime reason for the cancellation of deployment of US Aegis missile defence system.

However, the fact is that Tokyo is ushering in a “new era” of China-Japan ties and is in no mood to disturb the applecart only to appease Trump. In addition, Japan also understands that bringing in US missile system will make the region more unstable and dangerous. There are fears that America’s unbridled anti-China rhetoric is adversely impacting the Asian region, which has seen its economies attain new heights due to the absence of war in the region.

Japan has sensibly avoided joining the Trump administration’s trade war against China. Tokyo has also ensured that the American propaganda onslaught directed against the Communist Party of China and President Xi Jinping doesn’t have an adverse impact on the China-Japan relations.

President Xi was scheduled to visit Japan in April this year but the trip was delayed due to the virus attack on the world. However, many newspapers are reporting that the Chinese president’s visit to Tokyo may be cancelled due to opposition by certain political outfits in Japan amidst the year long unrest in Hong Kong since and due to the implementation of national security law in Hong Kong. 

However, the fact remains that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has no plans to derail China-Japan relations, considered to be crucial for the post-Covid economic recovery in Japan. It is being said that the economic ties between China and Japan will get closer after the pandemic outbreak ebbs.

Japan understands how important Chinese factories and their huge markets are for its economic growth and prosperity. The total Japanese foreign direct investment in China stood at some $124 billion in the beginning of 2019 with about 23,000 Japanese companies now having operations in China.

President Xi’s visit to Tokyo is likely to be pushed to next year, especially because the G-7 summit is now rescheduled for September, and the Group of 20 Summit slated for November.

Abe is also waiting for the US election campaign season to get over, as both the presidential candidates and their respective political parties are relying on China-bashing as a convenient electoral tool.

By bringing in QUAD members to the G-7 Summit, Trump wants to show Beijing's isolation in the world. However, Trump’s move to bring Russia back to the G7 Summit has hit a roadblock. President Putin has refused to be a part of the group where it is being opposed by the UK, Canada and Germany.

President Trump’s impact on global affairs has reduced considerably after his poor handling of Covid-19 health crisis and his rather incoherent, undiplomatic diplomacy. Trump’s hurry to destroy all postwar institutions without any consideration for other members of the international community has also irked many global leaders. They are waiting for his exit and restoration of normalcy in the conduct of international affairs. Not many in the world are expecting Trump to win again and occupy the oval office in January 2021. 

One of the reasons for lack of trust in China-India relations is the US factor. It may not be a bad idea for India to study Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s foreign policy playbook that believes in the adroit balancing of its relations with China and USA. India needs to do more to allay Chinese fears that New Delhi’s strategic autonomy is at an all-time low.