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The Pandemic as a Geopolitical Game Changer in the Indo-Pacific: The View from Japan
Region: Asia
Location: Japan
Published July 30, 2021
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The coronavirus pandemic that struck in late 2019 has affected the world profoundly, and Japan is no exception. But the direct impact on Japan has been relatively small considering the number of cases of infections and deaths relative to the size of Japan’s population, particularly considering its elderly population and high density. For instance, among the G7 countries, Japan has had the fewest cases of infections (4,690 per million population as of May 2, 2021) compared to 32,276 in Canada, 40,620 in Germany, 64,804 in the United Kingdom, 66,828 in Italy, 86,283 in France, and 99,652 in the United States. Similarly, among the G7 countries, Japan has had by far the fewest number of deaths (81 per million population as of May 2, 2021) compared to 638 in Canada, 996 in Germany, 1,601 in France, 1,776 in the United States, 1,870 in the United Kingdom, and 2,004 in Italy.

This chapter argues that although the direct disruptions to Japan resulting from the pandemic have been less than to the other G7 countries, the effect of the pandemic on other nations with strong geopolitical importance to Japan—in particular, the United States and China—coupled with changes in Japan’s domestic political and economic environment have accelerated changes in geopolitical posture and direction that were already in progress in Japan. The fundamental geopolitical challenge facing Japan is how to ensure its military security, political independence, and economic prosperity in the face of a less reliable and less predictable United States and a more powerful and more assertive China. For Japan, the ideal resolution of this challenge is to maintain positive and constructive relations with both countries, while recognizing the reality that even as economic ties with China—whether in trade, investment, finance, tourism, or the exchange of people—are growing relative to ties with the United States, political and security ties (and the sharing of common values) with the United States remain the centerpiece of Japan’s foreign policy.

Given this context, it is only natural that Japan would seek to diversify and strengthen its relationships with other countries, regions, economic arrangements, and international organizations and institutions. This diversification, which could be seen since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, has gained momentum in recent years, and the pandemic has served only to accelerate it. The analysis proceeds through the examination of the following: 1) pandemic chronology; 2) Japan’s domestic politics; 3) relations with the United States; 4) relations with China; 5) Japan’s diversification strategy; and 6) conclusions.

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