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Global Perspective: How should Japan conduct itself in era of US-China confrontation?

Former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter Mary Eisenhower, fourth from left in the front row; his great grandson Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, third from left in the front row; and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, fourth from right in the front row, are pictured with other officials from Japan and the United States during a reception to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, at the Iikura Guesthouse in Tokyo, on Jan. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

When a new century arrives, heads roll on the world stage. With the advent of the 20th century, the United States, Germany and Japan, countries that have made great strides since the previous century, tried to make inroads into Pax Britannica. Germany played a major role in the outbreak of World War I, and then teamed up with Japan to initiate World War II, only to be beaten back. It was the U.S. that brought closure to the major conflicts and led the postwar creation of a new world order, ushering in an "American century." The latter half of the 20th century thus saw a bipolar world during the Cold War, where the U.S., allied with Japan and Europe, whose reconstruction was supported by Washington, maintained a lead over the Soviet Union.

As the 21st century began, China made a great leap forward and became a new main protagonist in the international community. The rise of China, which is blessed with conditions to become a large-scale power, will leave an impact on world history far larger than that left by Germany or Japan. This case of a new superpower, China, challenging the reining superpower, the U.S., is a major event in human history.

The U.S.-China rivalry consists of three layers: the first one is over trade and the economy, the second one over state-of-the-art technology, and the third is a geopolitical face-off. In addition, differences over values and acceptable socio-political systems are a major mid- to long-term issue between the two countries, although they are not played up due in part to U.S. President Donald Trump's focus on short-term interests.

President Trump is presiding over the first layer of bilateral economic confrontation. He prefers to win a profitable deal by shaking his opponent with shocking big demands. But the scope of his negotiation with China is inherently limited because he needs to sell a "major victory" to American voters in a bid to win a second term in November presidential elections. He would not be able to get re-elected should he stick with strong demands and cause the contraction of the world economy, including that of the U.S. This is the case because one third of the constituency is considered to make judgement based on the president's economic performance, while the remaining two thirds are divided in half in two groups -- one against and the other for Trump no matter what.

Now an unforeseen factor has come out to the fore suddenly: the new coronavirus emerging from Wuhan in central China. Even before the deadly virus's spread, the Chinese economy showed signs of a slowdown, and it is certain to see more decline.

If the outbreak continues long enough to slow down the world economy and turn the long-thriving U.S. economy into a tailspin, a red light will flash on the president's re-election bid. As the past and current presidential elections have been fought with laser-thin margins, one cannot ignore the effect of accidental factors.

On the second layer of competition for technological supremacy, victories will play important roles in determining the economic and military superiority of the two countries.

As for the third layer of geopolitical confrontation, Harvard professor emeritus Graham Allison, who analyzed Washington's foreign policy toward the Kremlin during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in his 1971 book "Essence of Decision," published a book titled "Destined for War" in 2017. The joint study examined the rise and fall of major powers during the past 500 years, and found that when emerging powers challenged the hegemony of an existing major power on 15 occasions, 11 of them ended up in wars. In other words, only four cases succeeded to bring a peaceful resolution, and only two of them offer useful lessons for us.

The two cases are the shift of hegemony from the United Kingdom to the United States, and the peaceful settlement of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In the first case, the British government, based on proposals from the Navy, made compromises to its American counterpart based on the policy of avoiding war against Washington at all costs amid intensifying German and Russian challenges. In the second case, the fundamental factor leading to the avoidance of a nuclear war was the recognition by the U.S. and the Soviet Union that both sides face "mutual assured destruction," the prospect of annihilation by the use of nuclear weapons.

The substance of the matter remains the same with the current U.S.-China confrontation. Washington cannot start a war against North Korea, and it is difficult for America to wage a war against China. A full-scale war between the U.S. and China means the destruction of not only the two countries, but also Japan, which would be on the forefront of the fighting. Therefore, Japan's foreign policy should always evolve around steps to prevent a war between Washington and Beijing.

Once one realizes that only peaceful solutions are possible in the U.S-China confrontation, it becomes clear how Japan should proceed in conducting its foreign policy. Tokyo has firmly maintained Washington as its ally for some 70 years, and that relationship has not been shaken despite imprudent remarks by President Trump. Japanese ties with China have fluctuated substantially, but the administration of President Xi Jinping is now making a rare effort to keep the relationship in good shape. As the two major wheels of Japan's foreign policy -- the Japan-U.S. alliance and the Japan-China entente -- continue to roll, Tokyo is required to play a larger role.

Japan's role is not to denigrate China from the U.S. side, or leave the U.S. fold to join the rising Chinese camp. The country should guide the U.S. and China, the supposed future leaders, toward the reorganization of the postwar order, which has developed some open seams during the 70 years since the war's end.

You may think that Japan cannot do such substantial heavy lifting with declining economic might. But the postwar world order was not shaped by the U.S. or the Soviet Union alone. The system was made possible because the U.K., a declining power, played a role between the two superpowers.

Japan put together the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade and economic agreement with 10 other countries. Despite President Trump's departure from the grouping, Tokyo signed the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union and promoted the formation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free-trade agreement. Only Japan and the EU can talk to any country and persuade Washington and Beijing toward the reconstruction of the broken order in a rough world.

The United States is taken over by a desire to withdraw from reality without playing the postwar role of the world's policeman. China is behaving like a colonial power in the Chinese sphere of influence despite its overwhelming profits coming from international free trade. Having them think about rational ways of life is Japan's mission.

(By Makoto Iokibe, Chairman of the Asian Affairs Research Council)

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