But with Hayashi in charge in at the Gaimu-shō, things may not turn out as China might hope. Nowadays, criticism of China’s internally repressive and externally assertive behavior is much wider and sharper than they were even just a few years ago. Under current circumstances, there is no market for pro-China politicians in Japan. Hayashi is extraordinarily careful to manage his own image so as not to be seen as pro-China.
Just after his appointment as foreign minister, Hayashi resigned as chairman of a supra-partisan group of lawmakers promoting relations between Japan and China. He told reporters that he made the decision to avoid "unnecessary misunderstandings" while performing his duties as foreign minister, stressing that he would be “assertive when he should be to urge responsible action” by China.
The new minister revealed the government’s game plan soon after. On a telephone call with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on November 18, Hayashi expressed serious concern about the situation in the East China Sea with the Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands), as well as the issues of the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. He also stressed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. These points were exactly what Wang and Xi might not have wanted to hear from the Japanese side, particularly given the sensitive times as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympic Games in February 2022.
Role model for balancing the relationship with the US and China?
Given these recent developments, the fundamental question for Japanese diplomacy is how Japan, as an independent nation state, defines its own power and strategy. Japan is the third largest economy in the world since China surpassed it in 2010. Japan does not have a normal military and defense capability, having only so-called Self-Defense Forces (SDF) under its pacifist post-World War II Constitution, which does not allow the nation to resolve international disputes using military force. This is the clearest and most compelling reason why the Japan-US security treaty and alliance do matter for Japan’s survival and development.
With its relatively strong economy (albeit lacking in the dynamism it used to project) and weak military and US-dependent strategic posture, as well as its unique position in international relations, Japan is sometimes categorized as a middle power – certainly one of the most important ones not just in the region but globally. As the US-China strategic rivalry continues to unfold, middle powers have become more important, especially as they might become both collateral damage in the great-power competition and key players in mitigating the negative consequences of actions by both sides. They can play a bigger role in stabilizing the international order and keeping multilateralism working.
In Japan, there has been much debate over whether the country a middle power and, if so, what this means. In his book Japan’s Middle-Power Diplomacy, Keio University professor Soeya Yoshihide argues that Japan should adopt an autonomous grand strategy as a middle power. “Middle powers”, he wrote, are “those nations that are influential economically or in terms of certain strategic aspects, but that do not aspire to rival the major nations such as the US and China in terms of hard power capabilities”. Soeya recognized that the term "middle power" has provoked negative reactions from some quarters. He defended his characterization of Japan as a middle power to suggest a strategy that is realistic and appropriate for the country’s post-Cold War future.
In early 1970s, Nakasone Yasuhiro, who served as prime minister from 1982 to 1987, described Japan as a “non-nuclear middle power” nation, stressing that he wanted to avoid referring to the country as a major power – “not small, but middle in the world”. He added: “If we put it that way, we could be secure and project to Asian countries a favorable image.”
Although the government has never either officially cast Japan as a middle power nation or stated that it conducts middle-power diplomacy, the inescapable reality is that for the country to navigate the more complicated geopolitics today, it must seek to maximize its interests as it plies a path between the two major powers. Practically speaking, the question confronting Tokyo is how to strengthen the security and strategic alliance with the US and simultaneously develop economic and diplomatic ties with China in the context of the shifting dynamics in the region. This requires Tokyo to figure out how to position itself, balance policies and hedge risks relating to this trilateral relationship.
Japan, for example, cannot put at risk its economic and trade ties with China in the way that Australia has done recently, notably in raising questions about the origins of Covid-19. Tokyo would be at pains to avoid jeopardizing its economic and diplomatic ties with China in favor of its alliance with the US. But this requires delicate balancing and finesse, especially if Japan is to refrain from taking a hostile approach towards Beijing. Japan needs both powers. The only feasible way forward is to take the stance of a middle power, often in concert with other middle powers that are confronted with the same challenge.
The case of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games could be typical. US President Joe Biden recently said that Washington is considering a diplomatic boycott of the event. If the US rallies allies and partnerships to take such action, this could lead to a major blow for Beijing, likely to stir up resentment among Chinese people and a negative reaction by the government. Responding to Biden’s statement, Kishida was careful not to support the idea of a boycott so readily. “Japan will consider its stance on the Beijing Winter Olympics on its own terms,” he said.