by UnHerd
Thursday, 25
February 2021
Seen Elsewhere
11:52

The new leader of the international liberal order

Over the last 20 years, Japan has established itself as a major geopolitical force
by UnHerd
‘The West’ is incomplete without the democracies of the East

If Indonesia is the most under-reported country in the world, then Japan is the most important country that we’ve stopped talking about. 

In the 1970s and 80s, Japan was still the future: a hi-tech super-competitor to the economies of the West. Americans in particular developed a paranoia about the place.

Of course, they should have realised that the real challenge was coming from a country with ten times the population and a communist government. The subsequent rise of China has pushed Japan out of our minds, but we shouldn’t forget that the Japanese economy is still the third biggest on the planet. Furthermore, a country that was once immobilised by its post-war pacifism is now a major geopolitical force.

A fascinating piece by Chang Che in Foreign Affairs argues that “over the last decade, and especially over the last four years, Japan has emerged as a quiet leader in the Indo-Pacific.”

Examples include the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — which the Trump administration had turned its back on:

But Japan salvaged the deal, convincing the remaining countries to go ahead with a version of the pact, rechristened the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The CPTPP established new rules on trade, intellectual property, and data governance…
- Chang Che, Foreign Affairs

The UK has applied to join the CPTPP — signalling that it could develop beyond a regional agreement and into a global force for promoting trade without sovereignty-destroying trade blocs. 

Another important initiative is Japan’s ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ — which rather like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) helps to fund infrastructure projects in partner nations. However, while some countries have come to regret their deals with Beijing, the Japanese programme prioritises “transparency, environmental sustainability, and accountability.”

It’s also encouraging to see Japanese companies take an increasingly firm line on not trading with Chinese companies who benefit from forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region.

Chang Che contrasts Japan’s liberal internationalism to America’s national populism over the last four years. However, it can be argued that Trump did the liberal international cause a favour. He made it clear to America’s allies that they must be ready to stand up for themselves. 

Even with the election of Joe Biden, we can’t rely on the US alone for our defence and certainly not to protect our economic interests. A new era of responsibility and cooperation is required among all the nations of free world. 

At the very least, we need to remember that what we call ‘the West’ is incomplete without the democracies of the East. 

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  • I have never been to China but I’ve been to Japan three times. I have seen how people behave in Japan and it seems like the kind of way I would expect people to behave in China. No-one steps out of line, processions of school children walk in exact lines and when one puts up an umbrella, they all put up umbrellas. People are very polite but, somehow, it didn’t feel real to me.
    Of course, we are all happier with the government system in Japan and we are not happy with the single party system in China. So it seems more comfortable to deal with Japan.
    Japan is much richer on a per capita basis and everything seems very civilised. I enjoyed the visits immensely (work) but each time I was glad to get out.

  • I have always found the Japanese to be lovely people personally and socially, but difficult to work with because they really do think very differently to us.
    That aside, this is a very interesting article.

  • Excellent, this needed saying; more generally, it is time for an update on the Western view of Japan as a whole. We have much to learn from it in so many ways – for example, in attitudes to wealth and money (see in particular Chapter 21 of The Power of Money)

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