By: Adritho Zaifar
Since Donald Trump took office in 2016, the US has been reluctant to play a very active role in maintaining harmony in global politics and security. Unlike Obama, Trump takes a more nationalist and protectionist approach when dealing with global affairs. He vowed to put ‘America First’ and leave matters of regional security to regional players. By this, he meant that he believed much of the spending related to the affairs of other countries to be bad, and he criticized his predecessors for spending too much of American taxpayer money to arm US allies. While this nationalist policy has kept many conservatives in the US happy, politicians and security experts throughout the world are worried that an American absence in the global political theater will lead to regional power struggles.
China’s Testing the Waters
In recent years, China has increased spending on its defense budget, making it one of the largest spenders in Asia. In 2016 alone, the Chinese government’s official defense figure was $146 billion, an increase of 11% from 2014 which was $131 billion. China has also updated its naval fleet and equipped its navy with an aircraft carrier. The carrier alone means that China will now be able to give necessary support to its military personnel all around Asia.
This buildup of the military has given Xi Jing Ping the confidence to engage in small-scale confrontations with other countries in the South China Sea. Chinese naval ships have not only been actively patrolling there, they have even made new claims on some parts of the area. Even though Japan and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Communities) countries are not giving up on protecting their respective waters without a fight, China will most likely continue their naval aggression in the area, especially with both Xi Jing Ping and the Communist Party in as strong a position as they are at present.
In contrast to the way the executive works in other democratic countries, like the United States, Xi Jing Ping’s power is relatively unchecked, and he does not rely on popular support to wield it. Consequently, he finds it easy to move the military as he pleases. And, amongst other things, it can be quite easily observed that it pleases him for the Chinese military to increase its overseas presence. The artificial island built by China in the South China Sea is clearly part of greater Chinese military ambitions in Asia. Indeed, the entire picture of strategic and military maneuvers are a part of Xi Jing Ping’s ambition to secure the future of stronger China in the global political theater.
Japan’s Abe, Building a Stronger Japan, and New Alliances
At the same time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to counter the threats of China’s military aggression and North Korea’s missile tests by restructuring the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF). Following statements made by Trump during the election, which threatened to pull the entirety of US forces from Japan, the Japanese feel that their country has become vulnerable like never before, especially in the face of this growing military aggression from nearby nations. Faced with such apparent dangers, Abe cannot take risks and rely solely on decisions regarding Japan’s national security that are made in Washington, DC. Japan must now depend on its small and relatively under-armed forces. However, a great deal of structural readjustment needs to be done to make it possible for the JSDF to effectively protect Japan from domestic and foreign threats. Therefore, Abe has tried to provide all the necessary financial support to modernize the JSDF. In order to do so, however, Abe needs to revise Article 9 of the Japanese constitution.
Article 9 was signed after Japan’s surrender to the Western Allies in World War II and it prohibits Japan from maintaining de-facto military force. The JSDF itself was actually created from a small battalion of police units intended to maintain the internal security of Japan. Decades after the signing of Article 9, the current size of JSDF is still relatively small and there is clearly a need to re-arm the force if it is to compete with the militaries of China and other developed countries. Abe is getting closer to meeting his objective – his win in the recent snap election gave Abe the necessary support to revise Article 9 within a certain timeframe.
Even in this mess, is has become apparent that Abe and Xi have something in common. Both leaders have remarkably strong political standings which have enabled them to hold office for extended periods of time. Despite several political scandals that surrounded Abe’s administration, he managed to place himself above his competitors in the recent election. One of the reasons that Abe has remained in office longer than his past predecessors comes down to his economic policies. Prior his time as Prime Minister, Japan was struggling to maintain its position as a global economic powerhouse. It had been hit hard by the global financial crisis of 2009 and by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The economy had been stagnant for several years and unemployment had soared. Shinzo Abe advocated a number of related economic policies which came to be known as Abenomics to deal with these issues.
Abenomics, as a term, describes the macroeconomic and fiscal policies that Abe used to bolster Japanese economic growth, reduce overall inflation, and lower the unemployment rate. The policies have proven to be successful in helping Japan recover from the crises previously mentioned. With his policies working, Abe has received much wider support and stronger backing in his ongoing push to reform Japan, including in the case of Article 9. Abe has also been very aggressive in his approach to foreign leaders. This has been part of his effort to build new alliances for Japan, with the sole purpose in mind of countering China’s political and military aggression. Since he took office, he has engaged in a massive number of diplomatic trips abroad to support this initiative.
Thanks to Abe, Japan has increased its presence on the global stage and has never failed to be present at various international conferences. Due to his active involvement in promoting Japan to the rest of the world, Abe can to some extent be seen as more of a salesman than a statesman. He never misses an opportunity to promote Japanese exports and advanced technical knowledge to other countries. Recently, he also made the bold move of pledging to $2.9 billion to support any developing countries that made efforts to introduce universal health coverage programs. This is one of the steps that Abe uses to lure developing countries closer to Japan, and such friendly relationships with Japan will definitely contribute to both the Japanese economy as well as its structure of security alliances.
In conclusion, with the US largely absent from the ongoing geopolitical situations in Asia, new kinds of players have begun to emerge in the region. If this remains unchecked, it could lead to an arms race in the region, which will involve China, Japan, and potentially North Korea. The trend toward this outcome will likely continue, as politics in the US remain preoccupied with domestic issues, and as Trump pursues his goal of putting America first while ignoring the rest of the world.
Adritho Zaifar is an academic researcher, consultant and ambassador who received his Bachelor of Arts (International Studies) from Monash University Malaysia. His research interests are in the area of Political Economy, Development Economics, International Relations, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics and The Politics and Economics of ASEAN & Japan.
Image: A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer leads the formation of U.S. Navy and Japanese ships during the ANNUALEX 21G naval exercises. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John M. Hageman)