Tokyo is ramping up international partnerships and investments to offer an alternative to Beijing’s signature foreign-policy project
Japan, faced with the abrupt disengagement of an inward-looking United States under President Donald Trump, now finds itself playing the leading role in pushing back against China’s grand plans to extend its influence throughout Asia and into Europe.
To do so, Tokyo is increasingly joining up with other countries and especially India, launching a $200 billion infrastructure plan, and even boosting its military efforts in the broader Indian Ocean area in what is seen as a deliberate bid to counter Beijing’s growing heft. The effort even extends as far afield as Eastern and Central Europe, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a historic visit just last month.
Since World War II, Japan has played a largely secondary role to the United States in Asia, sheltering under the American security umbrella while focusing on business. But now that Washington has bailed out of the single biggest project meant to push back against China’s growing influence in Asia — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact — Japan has been forced in many ways to pick up the slack.
Abe appears to be embracing this role. Both times he has led Japan — from 2006 to 2007 and again since 2012 — he has sought to make Tokyo a bigger player on the regional stage, even against domestic opposition. In 2016, he launched his own version of a development and security plan for Asia, designed as an explicit alternative to China’s vision. That includes a deliberate focus on building “quality” infrastructure, a dig at the perceived flaws of Chinese-built projects.
Not everybody is convinced that Japan is playing a spoiler role against the Belt and Road, especially since Tokyo often makes ambiguous noises about “welcoming” Chinese investment that could benefit the region as a whole. Japan — if not India — even suggests periodically it could end up joining the Belt and Road at some point. Seen from Islamabad, the biggest beneficiary of the Belt and Road thanks to the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), not even Japan and India’s partnership represents a serious threat.
“India and Japan can collaborate, but the Belt and Road is too big to be countered by them, and that is why they are keeping open the option to join sooner or later,” said Ahmad Rashid Malik, the director of the China-Pakistan Study Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.