Recent decades have seen how the trend of infrastructure connectivity programs has evolved in developing regions, with each program being seen as either complementary or competing with another. A powerful state like China that has the technical capability and financial resources to pledge assistance has boldly presented a master plan, while smaller states participate individually in these economic connections offered by the big players, or come together as a regional bloc to make their own (i.e., ASEAN Connectivity, Asia-Africa Growth Corridor). ASEAN has a master plan for connectivity, for instance, that has long been cascaded to the national level, but as developing states, its member countries are challenged by the lack of financial capital, technology, and expertise to build infrastructure and thus need help from others, particularly fund-provider states and multinational banks.

Liu Rui Global Times

Illustration by Liu Rui, Global Times

Secondary powers, on the other hand, are caught in between. These key states behave in strategic ways along the balancing-bandwagoning spectrum, such that it creates significant impact on the international affairs, especially in times of power shift. From a political-security perspective, Japan for one lacks security independence from the United States, although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is recently pursuing a more active role in regional security. Economically speaking, Japan has robust trade relations with China. However, five years after the 2013 pronouncement of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Tokyo is still half-hearted and uncertain on how to engage the initiative. It is being argued that the country has an ambiguous economic policy towards China. Moreover, being the third largest economy, Japan has its own blueprint and has been partnering with ASEAN states even before the pouring of Chinese aid in recent years.

In what ways can Japan play a significant role in relation to the BRI? How can a secondary power like Japan integrate its own economy into the overlapping connectivity initiatives?

Japan initiative and the BRI

In the 1950s, Japan began sending development aid overseas. The Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency are known for their infrastructure assistance in Southeast Asia, with Tokyo still being the biggest aid provider in the region, according to BMD Research. The country moreover remains one of the first providers of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) during calamities, its assistance often carrying with it Western-endorsed values and norms. In 2016, Japan launched its own version of a development and security plan for Asia, stressing its signature ‘quality’ infrastructure.

The BRI of China commenced in 2013, but became full blown after Xi Jinping hosted the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in May 2017. Sending Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party Toshihiro Nikai instead of Prime Minister Abe to the BRF demonstrated that Japan is still in a contemplating stage—it is not part of the BRI but seems it does not also want to miss what is happening and be left behind. After the forum, Abe said in a speech that ‘Japan is ready to extend cooperation’ with the initiative on a case-to-case basis, emphasizing on the need for transparency and the promotion of stability in the region. As to the specifics, there is no official policy yet except to give the green light as well as coordination and financial support for Japanese entrepreneurs to do “business with China as part of the initiative”, just as the Japanese government allowed the private sector to explore markets decades ago. The government is now preparing to orient businesses but it remains unclear how deeply Japan will become involved. Being tentative, critical, and informal, Japan’s position seems to be a safe approach — while the government cannot fully convey an official policy, their limited participation is not being further delayed since the private sector can compensate for what the government cannot commit at the moment.

Aside from strengthening cooperation with partner countries in line with Tokyo’s infrastructure plan, Japan has also opened an important dialogue with Australia and India—two other secondary powers—and the United States. Ten years ago, Japan initiated an informal strategic talk dubbed as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, but it ceased with the withdrawal of Australia. Last year, the four states reconvened on the sidelines of ASEAN Summit in November 2017. The quartet is working to establish a joint regional infrastructure project as an alternative to the Chinese initiative.

Moreover, it is essential to consider that these two East Asian neighbors share  historical controversies and maritime disputes at present that cannot be disregarded when looking at China-Japan relations.

Roles to play

Analysts have identified certain roles Japan could play in the context of BRI: as a balancer, a critic, and a filler. Japan balances China by being where China is. For example, it is present in Djibouti where Beijing has established its first military base overseas. At the national level, Japan’s engagement with smaller states provides them an option, thus balancing China’s offer. For instance, in the case of the Philippines, decisions on what source of financing should be tapped for state projects depend on a number of factors: time spent for preparatory processes, technical capability, size of monetary offer, and terms of repayment. Even with several projects already having been proposed to China, thus far it is Japanese-funded projects that have been rolled out for implementation. Some of these projects were negotiated during the previous administration. Understandably, over the decades and to date, Tokyo remains the top loan provider to the Philippines.

Second, Japan has been a critic of BRI with respect to the lack of transparency of BRI projects; and has reportedly stated that it will join the initiative when China demonstrates that it adheres to rules and norms. As it keeps advocating for US-led international economic order—free, open, fair and high quality, the country appears to be pushing Beijing to become a responsible global leader. During their bilateral economic dialogue in April 2018, Tokyo urged Beijing to take actions toward intellectual property protection. It was reported that Chinese companies continued using licenses held by Japanese partners even after their joint ventures end. On the sidelines of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended BRI on the issues of transparency and debt. He said that China will follow global standards and market rules such as openness, extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.

While the first two roles are meant to counter or as an alternative to China, a filler is more of a cooperative joiner. It is normal for states to look for areas where they may be of use, in this case for Japan to try and make BRI more inclusive. The Japanese government may likewise focus on advocacies for human security, development and environmental protection aspects in relation to infrastructure cooperation. Some strengths of Japan that China could learn from and adopt are the use of earthquake-proof buildings, renewable energy, energy-conservation technology, and industrial development.

Keeping up with connectivity schemes

As a secondary power, Japan is trying to balance all of these roles while at the same time enhancing its bilateral cooperation with Southeast Asian neighbors and new strategic partners like India (with whom it has a $200 billion infrastructure plan). Australia and India are likewise looking up to Japan to play such roles. They too are contemplating on how push their own initiatives and whether or not they should participate in the BRI. While these influential states possess some capability and resources, none alone cannot match those of China for implementing more ambitious infrastructure projects; hence they try to collaborate to introduce their joint infrastructure plan.

Meanwhile, China should acknowledge its limitations and areas of inexperience, and welcome and learn from established economic and financial powers like Japan.

During this infrastructure connectivity boom, secondary powers have to be proactive and competitive to remain relevant. They do not have to choose a single approach which might only isolate them; rather they need to diversify their engagements with small states and other economic powers at all levels. They can provide competition while at the same time co-exist with other players through various arrangements.

Grace Guiang is a research analyst of Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress, and doubles as Coordinator for International Exchanges Division. She earned her masters degree in International Studies from the University of the Philippines. In 2018, she is a delegate to the Visiting Program for Young Sinologists in Guangzhou.