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Editorial: Japan should seek balance in Indo-Pacific initiative with US, China

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made a joint statement to promote a "free and open Indo-Pacific" region on Nov. 13 following their meeting in Tokyo.

The promotion will include a 70-billion-dollar (7.98 trillion yen) investment in social infrastructure development and for other purposes in the region spanning India in the east and the United States in the west.

Such a massive outlay appears to be aimed at countering China's "One Belt, One Road" international economic roadmap. Driven by the public and private sectors in Japan and the U.S., the development assistance is designed to strengthen ties with Australia, India, and Southeast and South Asian countries.

But Japan's position to promote the Indo-Pacific initiative is becoming precarious.

Tokyo is trying to improve ties with Beijing. In his summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a transition "from competition to cooperation," and showed a supportive stance toward the One Belt, One Road initiative.

In the Nov. 13 press statement, the premier said that he and Pence "shared the recognition that close coordination is necessary to carry out constructive dialogue with China."

In contrast, the U.S. is stepping up pressure on China over trade issues. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has slapped high tariffs on many imports from China, triggering retaliatory measures from Beijing. The situation has reached a state dire enough that it's been called a trade war.

Vice President Pence emphasized in his Nov. 13 statement, "Authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific. And I know this vision is shared by the United States and Japan." Pence seemed to be suggesting that Japan is already part of the Trump administration's policy toward China.

Japan and the U.S. are allies, and it makes sense for them to cooperate in formulating a China policy. But intensifying a confrontational approach alongside the U.S. toward the One Belt, One Road initiative will damage Japan-China ties.

Tokyo needs to strike an acceptable balance between Japan, the U.S. and China, and prevent Japan-U.S. and Japan-China ties from becoming mutually incompatible.

Pence said in an October address that China is "applying this power ... to exert influence and interfere in the domestic policy and politics of this country (the U.S.)," adding, "As we rebuild our military, we will continue to assert American interests across the Indo-Pacific."

But if the United States stresses the military aspect of the Indo-Pacific initiative, it will only cause concern among regional countries that want to stay clear of the hegemonic tug of war between Washington and Beijing.

Japan needs to maintain a realistic approach to promote economic cooperation with China while making sure to prevent the U.S. from going too far in its hard-line stance against China.

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