While the United States abandoned its allies and succumbed to illiberal populism under President Donald Trump, Japan remained a stalwart of the liberal, rules-based international order.
It deepened ties with its neighbours, expanded multilateral initiatives, and set the regional agenda on trade and digital governance, among other issues. Over the last decade, and especially over the last four years, Japan has emerged as a quiet leader in the Indo-Pacific.
Japan is also the member of QUAD. In an era of Chinese bellicosity, North Korean provocations, and a raging pandemic, Japan’s inconspicuous ascent to regional leadership has gone mostly unnoticed.
But as the administration of President Joe Biden seeks to repair frayed alliances, Japan has become the key to restoring American credibility in Asia.
Only by solidifying relations with its long time Asian ally and collaborating on multilateral efforts can the United States repair its damaged reputation in the Indo-Pacific.
President Joe Biden seeks to repair frayed alliances, Japan has become the key to restoring American credibility in Asia.
Shortly after taking office, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; but Japan salvaged the deal, convincing and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Japan has further raised its profile by lavishing countries in the region with economic assistance at levels competitive with China.
Between 2001 and 2011, Japanese development agencies funneled a total of $12.7 billion in aid to countries in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific—more than double the $5.9 billion China spent on aid in those years.
And while Chinese aid and investments have ramped up since then, Japan has kept pace: in 2015, Tokyo established the $110 billion Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, whose recipients include the Philippines ($8.8 billion), India ($15 billion), and Indonesia ($1.2 billion), all of which have territorial and maritime disputes with China.
For the past four years, Japan has steered the ship of liberal internationalism with skill.
In addition to economic leadership, Japan has assumed a role that was once the pride and prerogative of the United States: shaping international norms in opposition to those of an illiberal competitor.
In 2019, at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Abe made another significant contribution to emerging international norms — this time in the arena of digital governance.
In contrast to China’s vision of “cyber-sovereignty,” an Internet splintered along national boundaries, Mr Abe laid out a vision for a future where data moves freely and securely across borders.
With his concept of “Data Free Flow with Trust,” Abe accomplished something the Trump administration never bothered to attempt: the application of liberal values to new frontiers.
By the end of Trump’s presidency, the bearer of liberalism in Asia was not the United States but Japan.
Biden has promised to rejoin international bodies and agreements, recommit to allies and multilateralism, and renew American leadership, including in Asia.
But after four years of Trump and a disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic, many in Asia no longer view the United States as a defender of the liberal order or even a trustworthy partner.
Washington must ensure to reduce areas of friction with Tokyo. Swiftly and amicably renewing the agreement under which Japan hosts U.S.
troops would send a strong signal to other Asian countries, and to Beijing, that there is little daylight between Washington and United States by extension, to shape Asia’s economic norms and standards.
Finally, Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure program is already a competitive alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, both economically and ideologically.
Washington should supercharge it, aligning the work of its new development institution—the US International Development Finance Corporation — with Tokyo’s.
Reinforcing Japan’s value diplomacy and its network of partners will enable the United States to repair its credibility and win back trust in the region. Asia should be a lesson in humility for Washington.
The Indo-Pacific karaoke parlour is still open to Americans, but it is time to let Japan choose the song.
—The writer is contributing columnist, based in Islamabad.